Spring is here. The Equinox has passed and we find ourselves back where it feels like we began in 2020. This last year has been an unprecedented challenge. It has also held beautiful joys and all the other complex stuff of life. Illness and disease have been on the forefront of everyone's (well almost everyone's) minds and now that we are standing here looking onwards to Beltane I stop an as myself, what else must be cleansed. I am not a fan of the idea that our bodies are dirty things that must be detoxed constantly and fad cleanses have never seemed safe or effective to me. But I do love choosing supportive, gentle care for my body systems that I can easily make myself. If you'd like to meet many of these plants in the wild, please join Corby and I for our 5 foraging classes this year!
My teachers have taught me that our body has many detoxifying processes, and gently supporting them is the best we can do to maintain balance. That doesn't mean though, that after a long Winter of feasting I am not ready to boost my digestion and give the old engine a tune up. That being said, people of the Appalachians have a long history of using tonics in Spring time to do just this. Taking a part of this Mountain tradition brings me bioregional joy! I'd love to tell you a bit about what tonics are and the history of their use in Appalachia after we figure out what the heck a tonic is.
*Take note: Some of the plants mentioned in this article are endangered or threatened and should not be harvested such as Ginseng, some are poisonous or have poisonous parts like Poke, and some plants and folk medicine methods are harmful and mentioned only as curiosities. Please practice mindfulness when exploring herbal medicine.
Historically, tonics were used to treat everything from digestive disorders to gout, sore eyes, skin problems, to liver ailments. A simple way to define “tonic” is a preventative medicinal substance taken to give a feeling of vigor or well-being. Most tonics were imbibed as beverages. They were usually made by making a strong tea or decoction (boiling the herbs, roots or barks rather than just steeping them) and sweetening to taste with sugar or honey. Spring greens could also have a tonic/purifying effect, such as Wild Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), Dandelions (Taraxacum officinalis), Dock (Rumex spp.), Poke (Phytolaca americana), Wild onion (Allium spp.), Ramps (Allium tricoccum), and Nettles (Urtica dioica). Even the juice of certain plants, like Cleavers (Gallium spp.), or Goosegrass as it is more commonly known in the South, was seen as a blood purifier. Water with slices of Burdock (Arctium lappa) root soaked in it was also used as a tonic.
Certain chemicals like turpentine and sulfur had many uses in Appalachian folk medicine, and were touted as fine tonics. Molasses and sulfur were arguably one of the most popular in the 18th century. Tonics were thought to move the slow Winter blood in Spring, and there were many traditional plant medicines taken and prepared, though in some cases might be used throughout the year. Spring was the most popular time to ingest and brew tonics, for in Appalachian folk medicine, it is believed the blood becomes thick and slow after a winter of salted and preserved foods. Aside from drinking brews, one could also eat their tonics.
There are a variety of Spring tonic food practices such as eating a mess of Poke, Branch lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia) and Watercress (Nasturtium officinale). Eating nourishing meals of plentiful early Spring greens is a great way to engage with the practice of tonics today. Things like Chickweed (Stellaria media), Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), and Dandelion greens make wonderful bases to tonic meals, or when macerated in vinegar, tonic salad dressings. Drinking water in which iron nails had been soaked and simply cooking in cast iron were two more culinary tonics. While cooking in cast iron is a lovely thing to do today, I would suggest against drinking nail water as some practices are best left as curiosities.
Bitter herbs also make up of the other class of Spring tonics, for the very fact they were strongly flavored was seen as evidence of their power. An example of a tonic from Kentucky was from White Pine bark (Pinus strobus), Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus), Sasparilla, Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Mayapple root (Podophyllum peltatum), Apple bark (Malus spp.), Poplar bark (Liriodendron tulipifera), Bear paw root (Dryopteris filix-mas), Peppermint (Mentha × piperita), and Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). A true mix of native and introduced plants with many highly bitter ingredients. Plants didn’t have to just have a strong bitter flavor, for some of the tastiest tonics brewed as teas or decoctions were Sassafras (Sassafras albidium), Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), Cherry bark (Prunus serotina), and Black or Sweet Birch (Betula lenta).
Tommie Bass, a legendary Alabama herbalist and salve maker, recommended Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) tea or White Clover (Trifolium repens) if you couldn’t find red as a tonic to build the blood. The most used tonic herbs he recommended were Yellow root (Xanthorhiza simplicissima), Dandelion, Gentian (Gentiana spp.), and Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), all strong bitters. Tommie Bass’s tonic has Angelico or Boar Hog root (Linguisticum canadensis), Yellow root, Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Wild Cherry bark, Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) and sometimes Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Dandelion.
Not all tonics were geared towards digestive health, however. Tommie Bass had a tonic to calm the nerves which contained Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), Sage (Salvia officinalis), Peppermint, Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.), and Peach leaves (Prunus persica). Many tonics involved water or vinegar as a menstruum, but whiskey was a oft used ingredient. Noted folklorist Doug Elliott writes that some mountaineers used alcohol tonics as a means of getting around temperance.
Like bitter roots, astringent barks were also commonly employed as tonics. Wild Cherry bark, Dogwood bark, and Sassafras roots were combined and boiled to be used to make a good tonic for the blood. Sassafras, long held to have a plethora of healing qualities from weight loss to syphilis, could also help better the flavor of a brew. Wild cherry was a highly esteemed tonic bark as a decoction or soaked in vinegar or whiskey. It was also mixed with the respectively astringent Oak (Quercus rubra), and Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) bark (or root bark) tea with enough whiskey in it to keep it from souring makes a good tonic. These varying mixtures of bitter, astringent and aromatic plant parts formed the backbone of the tonic tradition.
Homemade tonics were eventually displaced in most homes by commercial products like Scout's Indian Tonic, Hadacol, and Geritol, which some folk remember taking today. By the 1960’s-70’s however, the tradition of taking tonics seasonally had fallen out of general practice. Today, it seems an antiquarian fancy. However, there is still much value in tonics and the tradition of tonics have in our modern practice of folk medicine. Enjoying tonic Spring foods, or crafting herbal bitters for Winter meals are two lovely ways to experience this medicinal legacy for yourself through stimulating digestion. I use Wild Cherry bark bitters as an homage to the Cherry bark in whiskey tonic of history, and make Sassafras and Spicebush tea to 'build my blood' in Spring.
Many of the herbs mentioned here are good medicines and do their part in supporting overall well being through their actions as bitters, astringents, carminatives, digestives and more. The Appalachian tonic tradition is rooted in the complex history and unique ecology of this special place. With bitter or fragrant barks, leaves and roots in golden whiskey or tart vinegar, the diverse people of Appalachia took charge of their health and founds ways to bring themselves into balance. I invite you to step into the verdant Appalachian landscape and meet some of these abundant and healing plants of the tonic tradition.
Spicebush Tonic tea:
Take some trimmings of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) twigs. Boil 15 minutes on a low simmer. Add a splash of Organic Apple Cider Vinegar. Sip 1 to 3 cups throughout the day.
The Foxfire books series
Harry Middleton Hyatt
Frank C Brown North Carolina Folklore Collection
"Ozark Magic and Folklore." Vance Randolph.
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