Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Civil War Herbs at the Pharmacy

By Kyle Wichtendahl, 2-12-13

 [Since 2012 I have been responsible for the garden at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum on Antietam National Battlefield. The Pry House garden began as a 19th century style medicinal and kitchen garden, including medicinal plants, herbs, and vegetables. As close as possible, these plants mirrored those available to the Pry Family in the 1860s, meaning heirloom varieties. Since then, the garden has transformed to focus exclusively on medicinal plants, becoming an exhibit of the flora that was employed by military and civilian caregivers in the Civil War Era.
     I am strictly an amateur, with no real experience in growing a garden. The purpose of this blog is to document my experiences as I learn by doing. It is anything but authoritative and I welcome any comments and advice for a greenhorn. Please be kind!]

Over the weekend I was at the pharmacy getting a prescription filled, and I killed some time by perusing the vitamins and supplements aisle. This may come as no surprise to some readers, but I was truly taken aback by how many popular herbal medicines from the Civil War era are still being sold as medicines at the pharmacy. I have written in earlier posts that Echinacea and Yarrow are still common herbal remedies for cold and flu and that horehound is a common treatment for sore throats. Clearly though, the modern usage of traditional herbal medicine extends far beyond those few examples. I will try to add a few more with this post.

Valerian is an herb native to Europe and the Near East, but has been introduced to the United States. Since ancient times, it has been used to promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, and treat insomnia. Valerian has continued in that through the 19th century up to today.

You can go to your local pharmacy or supplements store and buy Valerian root capsules, which are still used for stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness.

Black Cohosh was another very popular herbal medicine during the 19th century. Like most medicinal plants, it was used for a wide variety of complaints including menopausal symptoms, bronchitis, fevers, and even snakebites.

I was very surprised to learn that Black Cohosh is still sold as a popular treatment for menopause symptoms, especially hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings.

Saw Palmetto, which is native to the American South, was used during the 19th century to treat prostate inflammations, as well as head colds and migraines.

Saw Palmetto is still available at the pharmacy today because many believe that it can promote prostate health as well as kidney and urinary tract function.

Evening Primrose was often a popular in the 19th century as a decorative plant as well as a medicine. Different practitioners applied primrose both internally and externally to combat a host of unrelated ailments including heart problems, skin conditions, respiratory issues, blood disorders, communicable diseases, stomach cramps, and menstrual complaints.

Primrose is still promoted today as a natural supplement to help alleviate the common discomforts of the menstrual cycle, particularly cramping and pain.

None of these supplements are tested or endorsed by the FDA, so they are not called medicines. They cannot legally be sold as a diagnosing, treating, curing, or preventing any disease without the rigorous examination and testing of the FDA. While none of these supplements will do you any harm, there's no guarantee they actually will do you any good either.

I am not currently growing any of these plants in the Pry Garden, but I hope to introduce all of them this year, except the saw palmetto, which won't likely prosper in the cold weather this far north.

These are just four more examples, but many more are still out there. Perhaps I will do a followup post soon to show some more examples of 19th century herbal medicine still in current practice.



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