I am trying to post regularly to this blog every Tuesday, but since yester day was Christmas, I am posting this a little late. In keeping with the holiday, I am detouring from the Pry Garden for this post to talk a little bit about some of the plants we have come to associate with traditional Christmas celebrations. Many of the familiar evergreens that we might use to deck the halls were also used as medicines during the 1800s.
American Holly, Ilex opaca
Holly has been associated with winter celebrations in Europe since pre-Christian times. It has served as symbol of Christian faith since early medieval times. This has carried over to the United States, where American Holly often stands in for more traditional European varieties.
In the 19th century, holly root was prescribed for a variety of ailments and complaints. It was a common treatment for coughs, colds, and the flu. It was also touted as a treatment for a variety of eye problems, including pain, inflammation, and staphyloma.
Father and Son Cut a Christmas Tree in the Winter Forest
by Franz Krüger, Germany, Early 19th century
Pine, spruce, and fir trees have been serving as Christmas trees in American homes since before the Civil War. The tradition of decorating evergreens for Christmas seems to have it's earliest origins in late medieval Germany and it was slowly introduced to America by German immigrants in the 1700s. Its adoption by Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert led to the Christmas tree's adoption by mainstream American society in the 1850s.
Evergreen trees that might have served as early American Christmas trees were also fundamental in the production of several medicines popular in the 1860s. Pine tar was used as a treatment for racking coughs and bronchitis, as well as dry, cracked, and irritated skin. Creosote, distilled from pine and other wood tar, was directly applied as an antiseptic to healing wounds, ulcers, psoriasis, and other skin irritations. It was administered internally to treat a host of complaints, especially respiratory problems like tuberculosis and pneumonia, as well as neuralgia, epilepsy, diabetes, and kidney dysfunction.
Balsam Fir, Abies balsamea
Turpentine, distilled from evergreen tree resins, likewise had a multitude of applications in Civil War medicine, some efficacious, some highly dubious. Turpentine might be applied topically to abrasions, wounds, inflammation, and irritations. Internally, it might be prescribed for ailments of the respiratory, pulmonary, digestive, renal, reproductive, and other bodily systems. Turpentine was also long held as an anthelmintic, a drug used to expel worms and other internal parasites.
Harvesting pine resin for turpentine, ca. 1912
The needles of pine and spruce trees can also be boiled into a tea that is very rich in Vitamin C, thus a treatment and preventative for scurvy.
European Mistletoe, Viscum album
Mistletoe is another green plant at the center of traditional American Christmas. It's association with Christmas and the notion that men and women should kiss when passing under it together both seem to derive from British customs. In Britain, mistletoe is the species Viscum album. In the United States, Viscum is not native and Phoradendron serotinum or flavescens, which appears very similar, generally stands in its place.
19th century use of mistletoe as a medicine is sporadic and conflicting. Prescriptions for its use range from the treatment of epilepsy, palsy, and vertigo to circulatory problems, rheumatism, complications in pregnancy, and snoring. There appears to be some evidence that mistletoe is effective in combating high blood pressure and also as a gentle sedative. Mistletoe is also touted as possessing anti-cancer properties, a claim that is not without controversy.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!