Ozark remedies for winter ailments

Winter is my second favorite season, behind fall. As I get older, spring edges closer to replacing winter as season number two, but I still enjoy winter.

I’m not saying I particularly like driving in deep snow, and I never like ice, I just appreciate the clear “freshness” of winter. The flies and ticks and weeds die off and it’s like the world gets a clean slate.

Snow can make a beautiful landscape, of course, and there is something very “Ozarks” in seeing a red cardinal on a snow-dusted cedar branch, especially if there is also a strong scent of woodsmoke in the air. It’s a scene that could just as well be clipped from the 1800s, and for a second you’re transported there in mind and soul. 

However, with winter often comes sickness. The hill folk of the Ozarks knew how to deal with a lot of common ailments, with treatments passed down from one generation to the next, and finally recorded for posterity by folklorists such as Vance Randolph, from whom I like to share.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as I’ve heard, and that’s why Ozarkers liked to tie a big red onion to their bedposts at night to ward off colds. Now, there just might be something to that, as I’ve also heard in modern times not to save a raw onion after you cut it, as they absorb bacteria.

Some people, and I admit I have done it, still leave out a peeled raw onion, sliced in half, to “soak up the germs” during cold season, or particularly when someone in the house is already sick. I don’t know if it really helps or not. Maybe.

Totally unrelated, a thin onion skin is supposed to mean the coming winter will be mild. So, when you’re peeling that onion to soak up the bad germs in the air, pay attention to the skin.

Another preventative measure is to immediately spit whenever you see a woolly worm or a caterpillar. It is supposed to keep the chills away. You probably already know the winter weather prediction related to the woolly worm.

Dirty socks sewn under the collar will also help ward off colds and flus. I kind of like that one, though I’ve never tried it. Perhaps I should. My wife says no.

Carry around a piece of a hog trough in your pocket and, when hopefully no one is looking, rub it over your face and throat every day to keep the mumps at bay.

For measles, the treatment isn’t quite as “pleasant”: A tea made of sheep manure and sugar. There is another tea remedy you can try, however, made from the green twigs of the spicebush (Benzoin aestivale). I believe I’d try the spicebush tea first.

Speaking of teas, there are quite a few that are supposed to be good for relieving cold and flu symptoms. For a sore throat and/or cough, try sumac berry tea, muillen flower tea, wild geranium tea, horehound tea, or pine needles soaked overnight and boiled down with sorghum. Personally, at our house we use an elderberry throat coat made from elderberry juice, lemon juice, and honey. Elderberries have other general health properties as well.
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For head colds try a tea made from basswood flowers. Red pepper tea with butter and sugar will clear the head as well, though I’m not sure if the remedy might not be worse than the ailment.

A tea made from the bark of the wild plum tree is a good treatment for bronchitis and asthma, as well as teas made from sumac leaves or berries. You can also try milkweed root tea, which some folks used to help treat consumption.

There are at least a couple of different poultices that can be used to treat pneumonia. One is concocted with chicken manure and lard. No? Ok. Another poultice is made from hopvine cones and leaves. Sound better?

Rheumatism can especially act up wintertime, and for that a buzzard feather worn in the hair, or otherwise on the person, is one treatment. You can also carry a potato in your pocket. Or a black walnut. Or a buckeye.

Good teas for rheumatism include those made from wahoo shrub bark, pokeroot, celery leaf, sulpher and sorghum molasses, yams, and polkberry. You can also just eat the polkberries themselves if preserved from the summer.

Now, you may be thinking “aren’t polkberries poisonous?” So I have always been told, and so they even may be. I’m not seriously recommending them. However, I once knew a man who ate them by the handful with seemingly no adverse effects. I wouldn’t have believed it except I saw him do it myself.

Then again, as a youth I also once accidentally killed a bunch of goldfish in a stock tank after I rinsed out a bucket that I had used to smash up polkberries for “warpaint.” I got into a lot of trouble over that one, as I was accused of almost poisoning our horses.

All of these Ozark hill remedies are real in the sense that they were once actually believed in. Some may actually be helpful. Others are probably nothing more than a placebo, if that.

A few may do more harm than good. I hope you realize I only share them here in fun.

As one Ozarker told Vance Randolph: “God Almighty never put us here without a remedy for every ailment. Out in the woods there’s plants that will cure all kinds of sickness, and all we got to do is hunt for ’em.”

By Wes Franklin

(Wes Franklin can be reached at 417-658-8443 or cato.uticensis46@gmail.com.)

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