Herbal Cures and the Granny Women

Recently my seven year old niece, Cailin, was in my care and coughing her head off with the latest respiratory ‘thing.’  So I took some flannel (formerly an infant burb cloth) slathered it with Vicks Vapor Rub, folded the cloth so it wouldn’t stick to her shirt, and laid it on her chest.  This way her skin is protected  in case she’s sensitive to the rub–I broke out in an itchy rash last year.  Then I laid a warming pack filled with rice that can be reheated in the microwave and is cushioned by fleece against her shirt/chest and wrapped her in a blanket, periodically reheating the pack.  After this, I got out the Olbas oil and anointed her temples, added a few drops to a basin of steaming water for her to inhale.  Although complaints of ‘it smells funny’ and ‘stings my eyes’ — ‘close them,’ I answered, and other arguments arose, her coughing eased.  I’d done the same thing I reminded her last week for her cousin, my seven year old grandson, and it greatly lessened his cough.

I told her she’d come to the ‘Granny Woman’ who used herbs and old-fashioned remedies to cure.  Her eyes widened at that. To emphasize my point, I went into the sun space and picked a handful of the ‘Vicks’ plant, Plectranthus purpuratus, a pungent mentholated herb given to me years ago by an old mountain woman who swore by its powers.  Easily rerooted, I’ve kept it going and used it myself–just smelling the leaves opens your head–but Cailin was a little put off by the powerful aroma and glad I wasn’t making a concoction from this, or the mustard plaster I’d told her about.   Later on, though, my sister said how vastly impressed Cailin was, declaring I knew lots of stuff about how to make you better.   Even prattled away to the doctor about her amazing Aunt Beth who now probably thinks I’m a quack.

  Back to the Granny Women, historically, they were elderly women  from ‘back in the holler’ reputed for their healing and midwifery abilities.  The term is often associated with ‘Appalachia.’  However, I don’t know anyone who actually lives in Appalachia.  We refer to the specific mountains.  But I digress.  In a time and place when doctors were few or nonexistent and no one had the money to pay them anyway,  the Granny Women were relied on for the wisdom and practices  passed down to them by the hardy females who’d gone before them.    Sure, a dollop of superstition, and at times, a little white magic, was mixed in with their practical herbal remedies, but they did a lot of good.  In the Shenandoah Valley and surrounding mountains, these women were invaluable.   Some of my friends remember their family calling in the Granny Woman when they didn’t know what to do for an ailment or injury.  Officially, these women are no longer with us.  Unofficially, they are.  And many know far more than I.

An interesting article on Appalachian Healing Traditions.  For more on the real Vicks Plant click the above link.

*Cailin with kitty Pavel (a little sticky from something) image by daughter Elise

*Old mountain house in the Blue Ridge, image by my husband Dennis.

20 responses to “Herbal Cures and the Granny Women

  1. I’m love natural remedies.
    Thanks for sharing the vicks.
    I don’t think your a quack,you rock.


  2. Your photos are always so amazing and when I see them I want to start writing a story about what I see and how I feel about it. Your posts are always great. Thanks again for sharing your wide knowledge, Beth.


  3. I love natural remedies. When I was around four or five I would ride my tricycle with my eyes closed out the door of the machine shop on the farm. I ran head first into the 12×12 timber that was the door frame. My grandmother placed a knife in the freezer. When it was ice cold she placed it on the bump. The swelling went down and stayed down. She also used rubbing alcohol on my sun burned shoulders to great success.

    When I was in Navy Pharmacy Technician School we watched a movie made by a drug company that showed all sorts of native remedies from primitive cultures around the world. One tribe used Gelusil liquid to paint their bodies. The film was about how many pharmaceuticals come from trying to find out what the active ingredients are in the traditional cures.



  4. ah vick’s yes a childhood of that (still use it 60+ later!) and bread /onion poultices – steam – and burning powders – we always got better (would we even if we had nothing?!) the smell of oil of cloves still reminds me of the dentist (was used to releive toothache during the night
    lovely post to remind me of being a child – I’m from the Uk but I guess the mountain women are everywhere


  5. Hi Beth,
    Great blog. I don’t known about granny women, but I sincerely believe in some of the old fashioned remedies. My mother used to use the Vicks vapor rub on us when we had colds. Stunk to high heaven but it worked. Leg cramps are eased by putting a cork (from a bottle), in your bed. Used to help me with cramps when I was pregnant, many moons ago.




  6. Fascinating stuff Beth. I did try to find the Olbus around here (Williamsburg) and so far no luck. But per your advice I tried the Vicks on a cloth and it did help with the swelling. So I think I’m on the mend! Thanks for another thoughtful and useful post!


  7. I love my rice packs! I was raised with “Granny Women” remedies, and still use them today. People don’t know how to react to anything not manufactured or unless it comes from over the counter by someone in a white coat.
    Great post 🙂


  8. I’ve never heard of this remedy before, but I do know a teaspoon of honey works wonders. Don’t give it to a child under six months, but we tried this with my great grandson a week ago and was amazed how quickly his cough eased.


    • Honey is amazing, especially raw. YES, Be cautious when administering to infants. I thought it was under one but am not certain. For adults honey mixed with lemon and whiskey is a great cough remedy, can even be made into a hot toddy.


  9. I loved this post. It was very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    BTW- I love the couple twirling on your page. Where did you find them?


  10. Thanks Sarah. Eons ago on photobucket.


  11. Pingback: Fear of Witches in Colonial America and Today–Beth Trissel | One Writer's Way

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