I came down with a head cold or possibly a sinus infection a couple weeks ago, and have been “under the weather” for a few days. The sneezing and coughing and sniffling got me thinking about how people use traditional medicines to ward off or cure the common cold. My grandmother used to chop onions and put them in a bag around my mother’s neck (my mother didn’t care for it much). That was before you could go to the local store and find several shelves of bottles for coughs and colds, coughs and colds with fever, coughs only, sinus, etc. They come in blue, red and yellow liquids or if you prefer you can purchase tablets or capsules. I thought when I got back to work I would take a look through the Maine Folklife Center archives and see what other cold remedies might be available. I wasn’t disappointed.
In 1983 Roberta Chester interviewed Doris B. Johnson in North Orland, Maine:
Well, they used to steep thoroughwart and strain it, put molasses with it or honey, for cough medicine.
Mrs. Johnson also editorialized about the doctor:
And now, something that irks me greatly. An old person is sick, this lady upstairs had quite a cold and she had pains here and there, her granddaughter had to come and get her—had to come from Penobscot and get her, and take her down to the doctor. I say that doctor should have come to her. Oh, no, they are so busy they can’t. I’ve got a doctor that will come to me. Doctor Devolin. She’s a very find doctor. She comes to me. (NA 1699)
Now, I have to agree with Mrs. Johnson when you are sick enough to go to the doctor it is a pretty rough thing to have to drive to the doctor’s office, but that is the way of things today. But I digress--back to the thoroughwort. I thought it would be a good idea to consult the experts, so I went to the USDA web site to find out what they said about thoroughwart. It is likely Eupatorium perfoliatum, also known as common boneset. A native perennial wildflower with pretty white flowers that grows in damp places. The leaves have been used in Germany to treat dengue fever and also as a general immune system stimulant. However they caution that it is also emetic and laxative in large doses and potentially harmful to the liver.
I consulted another interview—Harriet Tilley interviewed Alice Coffin in 1974 in Bangor, Maine. Mrs. Coffin also mentioned thoroughwort mixed in molasses as a cough syrup and also in the making of candy, likening it to hoarhound. (Hoarhound drops are a candy/cough medicine made from a different plant Marrubium vulgare.)(NA 880).
So there you have it. I know there are many other traditional remedies for colds. I like chicken soup and hot tea myself. And lots of naps. I’m not having much luck with the blue, red and yellow stuff so far.