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Do home remedies of yesteryear still work today?

by Larry Chowning

Years ago Birdie Key, a “Medicine Woman,” lived near Canoe House Landing at the far western end of Middlesex County. A mid-wife and healer, she lived far back in the woods and used herbs, spices, bark and roots to heal those who were sick in her neighborhood.

She learned backwoods medicine from former slave women, who had passed down their knowledge of home remedies to cure a cold or help birth a baby. For Birdie, there was something in those woods that would heal almost anything.

At the end of the 19th century and turn of the 20th century, Canoe House Landing was a center of commerce in that area of the county. There was a thriving country store near the shore, and stacks of cordwood on the beach waiting for sailing ships to carry it to Baltimore or Norfolk.

Warm weather baptisms were held regularly in the shallow waters by pastors of St. Paul Baptist Church, which was just down the road, and the Medicine Woman lived nearby. 

In July 1987, a group of black men gathered at Canoe House Landing to reminisce on the landing that was once used for loading and off-loading lumber from sailing schooners. The Medicine Woman’s name came up.

The late Clemmon Brown shared the story of Birdie Key on that July day in 1987. “The Medicine Woman had died before I was born, but my father knew her and he told me this story,” he said. “A lot of the boys working the schooners came ashore one day itching real bad. They called it the seven-year itch, and they had red pimples on their face and body. When they asked at the store about some medicine, they were sent to Birdie Key. She went in the woods and stripped bark from several wild cherry trees and boiled it until it turned real dark. She would add bark and then more water until she had to fill a big wooden barrel, big enough for a man to lower his entire body into. She got all those boys together, stripped them down naked, and one by one lowered them down into the hot liquid. They squealed like wildcats. But, after that, they didn’t itch and their skin was clear and the prettiest around.”

The seven-year itch was bacterial in nature, causing highly irritating red pimples. It is easily treated today and is virtually forgotten. In the days of sailing schooners and the Medicine Woman, however, it was viewed so harshly that it was used as an appropriate imagined punishment for antisocial behavior. “He should be given the seven-year itch and not be allowed to scratch” was the old saying.

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Home Remedies
How about those old home remedies and wives’ tales? Is there really anything to them? Certainly sounds like there is something to wild cherry bark and the seven-year itch.

Home remedies are as old as mankind and some work and some don’t. Let’s start with hiccups. Some home remedies include holding your breath for as long as possible; drink water while on your back; get a Q-tip and tickle the back of your throat; have someone hold your ears while you drink water; just hold a deep breath; or have someone scare you. The one that makes the most sense is to just ignore the hiccups and they will eventually go away.

Some old cures for warts are hard to believe, such as: rub a penny on a wart and put the penny at a crossroads; touch the wart to a dead body; let an ant crawl around on the wart and then kill the ant; or put lemon or lime juice and sour milk on the wart.

One we use at my house is to coat the wart with fingernail polish and it will eventually go away.

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Cures for sore throats include gargling with vinegar, or gargling a concoction of a crushed aspirin and warm water. The most popular home remedy is gargling with warm saltwater—it works most of the time.

How about those home remedies for stings from a bee or a nettle? Old remedies include putting meat tenderizer on the sting; putting ice, or honey and ice, on the sting; covering the sting with baking soda: or covering a jellyfish sting with beach sand. Probably the best remedy is to stay away from bees and stinging nettles.

There are some home remedies that doctors attest to. A warm bowl of soup, particularly chicken noodle and onion soup, can help with decongestion; drinking hot green tea soothes a sore throat; orange juice and vitamin C boost the immune system; saline rinses are an effective way to reduce congestion symptoms; ingesting honey every day helps with allergies; and drinking cranberry juice helps heal urinary tract infections.

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Does the old saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” really work? Apples have been consumed since ancient times, especially by the Greeks and Romans who recognized the healing benefits of the fruit. An apple is jam-packed with nutrients and ingredients the body needs for healing. Doctors have determined that apple peelings have antioxidants and nutrients rich enough to inhibit the body’s aging process, help prevent cancer, and lower bad cholesterol.

There are others, however, that are more myth than fact, such as “feed a cold, starve a fever.” This saying probably goes back to the 1500s when the rationale may have been that eating food and drinking tonic helped the body generate warmth during a cold, while laying off calories helped temper the inner heat during a fever. Most medical folks consider it folklore without much substance.

Does a bar of soap at the foot of the bed sooth nighttime leg cramps? Most doctors say no but many people have found relief from just slipping an innocent bar of soap beneath the sheets. One theory is that soap has some unknown molecule that diffuses and is responsible for alleviating cramps.

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Home remedies that some doctors swear by are: honey is good for treating wounds and soothing a scratchy throat; salt mixed with warm water helps with sore throats; peppermint tea cures indigestion and stomach aches; meat tenderizer works on bee stings and bug bites; oatmeal soothes itchy and inflamed skin; and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) made into a paste relieves pain from a sting or bug bite.

According to legend, herbs also cure. Lavender oil, St. John’s Wort and fresh basil leaves all applied to a bee sting help relieve the pain; garlic cloves crushed and placed in a warm pail of water mixed with a little rubbing alcohol works for athlete’s foot; and although there’s no confirmation of it, I would bet that boiled wild cherry bark takes care of the seven-year itch.

It’s certainly healthy to use some home remedies, but when there’s a real problem, it’s probably best to see your family doctor, especially since the Medicine Woman is no longer around.

posted 02.20.2013

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