17 January 2010

Blast from the (Bloomingwriter Past): Herbal medicine-A peek into Miss Babineau’s garden

Back in 2006, my dear friend and neighbour Ami McKay wrote an amazing, and bestselling, novel, The Birth House, which caught the public's imagination here in Canada, in the US, Britain, and other parts of the world. Set right here in Scotts Bay at the turn of the 20th century, it was translated into at least two other languages and bumped The DaVinci Code out of the #1 spot on the Globe & Mail's bestseller list. It was (and is still) an amazing, enthralling, riveting read, and I was thrilled to watch Ami's success. She's currently in the editing/revising phase for her second novel, for which we're all anxiously awaiting. (no pressure, Ami, really...).

In the summer of 2006, Ami asked if I'd take part in a blog tour that she was hosting. As the goofy garden writer who lives up the hill from her, I thought it would be a great idea to write a bit about the herbs and other plants that would have been used by the community midwife, who in The Birth House is named Marie Babineau. So here, for your Sunday morning reading pleasure, is that post, with the addition of a few photographs (back then we had no highspeed up here in Scotts Bay) The book is still very much available, and I still utterly recommend it: it is one of my favourite novels of all time.

The Acadians who came to what is today Nova Scotia in the years between 1604-1755 brought many of their own plants with them to develop their potager gardens for medicinal, food and other useful plants. These kitchen gardens were usually very precisely laid out in geometric shapes, but include attractive ornamental plants as well as utilitarian species. There are wonderful examples of Acadian potagers at Grand Pre National Historic Site , Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens , and at the Acadian Museum of Southwest Pubnico .

Being of good Acadian stock, Miss Babineau would have grown traditional vegetables including string beans and peas, onions, and root vegetables such as sunroot (Jerusalem artichoke), beets, turnips, carrots and radish. There would be raspberries, gooseberries and currants for drying and making into preserves, and a host of herbs for tending the community’s ailments—wormwood, lovage, sage, lavender, chamomile, catnip, calendula, angelica and dill…Some plants she would have foraged for in the woods and meadows and along the seashores and roadsides; blackberries, chokecherries, sumac, spruce gum, willow and more.

Here’s a panier-basket of plants, a few of them cultivated and but most gleaned from mother Nature’s bounty.

Angelica: Marian Zinck in the lovely book Wildflowers of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island (published by Formac, newly revised and updated in 2006) writes that chewing the root of angelica was formerly thought to ward off witches. More practically, angelica is often candied or made into a cordial.

Red Clover: a lovely plant for hay and to attract bees, it also makes a wonderful tea when the flowers are dried.

Bunchberry: (Cornus canadensis) Also called crackerberry, these attractive wild perennials produce orange-red berries, bland unless cooked.

Curled Dock (Rumex crispus): The root of this often weedy plant have been used to treat skin afflictions

Winterberry (Gaultheria procumbens): both the leaves and brilliant red berries of winterberry taste of wintergreen and are very tasty.

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum punctatum): Once thought to suppress urine output and relieve kidney and bladder problems when made into a tea. Also formerly used as an ointment to ‘dispel hard tumours, caked breasts, bruises, etc.’ Now known to be effective in treating depression and sleep disorders.

Dandelion: Never shun the humble dandelion, also called pissenlit or pissabeds, perhaps for their brilliant yellow colour or for their usefulness as a diuretic. The leaves are a good potherb, the roots roasted and ground are used as a coffee substitute, and of course the flowers make the heady and potent dandelion wine.

Wild roses (Rosa virginiana, R. carolina and others): The ripened fruit, or hips, of wild roses contain much vitamin C and are delicious in jellies, salads or teas.

Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia): the bark of this and other dogwoods was traditionally used by both French and First Nations peoples, mixed with tobacco for lessening that herb’s strength when smoked.

Hawthorns (Crataegus, various species): The small fruits of hawthorns, often referred to as wild medlars (including by Lescarbot at Port Royal in 1609) though sometimes not very flavourful, were known to be of use against scurvy, but also supposedly good to prevent the menses and other ‘fluxes of bloud’ as well as for bladder ailments.

Service Berry, Chuckly Pear (Amelanchier, especially A. canadensis): This large shrub or small tree produces juicy, pear-like fruits about the size of large blueberries, luscious in taste and formerly much used in making preserves, cordials and even a delightful liqueur not unlike cassis.

Mint (Mentha, various species): Mints have long been used in soothing teas as well as in flavouring cooking, bringing ease to a distressed stomach and relief to cough and cold, itching of the skin and various other malaises.

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara): Firstflower of spring, its bright yellow, dandelion-like blossoms appear before the thick shiny leaves, which are boiled to make very effective cough syrups and lozenges.

Labrador tea: (Ledum groenlandicum) Although the leaves are bitter, they are often used to make a soothing tea to releeve colds, coughs, and other ailments. Literature reports that a tincture of the plant was useful in relieving the sting of insects, as well as comforting those with rheumatism. Interestingly, the plant has also been used to dye material a brown colour!

Wild cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus, V. macrocarpon): One of the most useful wild fruit for preventing or treating scurvy, they were called Atoca by the first Nations peoples who introduced them to the French explorers and settlers.

Cattail: (Typha angustifolia, T. latifolia) An all-purpose and valuable plant, the pollen of which has been used as a flour substitute; the roots are edible, high in starch and sugars and useful in a syrup for fevers, as a poultice on sores and scalds. The fibre has been used in past years to make a type of burlap while the fluff of the flowerheads was often used as a kind of insulation.

Valerian: One of the herbs Miss B’s ancestors would have brought with them from France, and now widely naturalized, it is useful in promoting sleep and in calming nervous conditions. (Funny that Dr. Thomas didn’t use it in conjunction with his recommended vibrator treatments!) Note: The previous aside is an inside joke and you'll just have to read the book in order to appreciate the humour in it.

Willow (Salix species): Willows are the natural source of acetylsalicylic acid, the foundation of painkillers such as aspirin. Chewing the leaves or bark would relieve symptoms of arthritis and other painful conditions.

Glasswort, samphire greens: (Salicornia maritima) This succulent little plant grows on saltmarshes, and is quite edible, but the interesting thing about it is that when burned, its ashes can be used in the soapmaking process. Acadians on the French shore of New Brunswick refer to the plant as titis de souris, or mousetits! (illustration from Wikimedia Commons, as I don't have a good photo of this plant.)
Post written by jodi (bloomingwriter)


  1. That was very interesting Jodi. And I'm going to look up that book too. Your post reminds me of a book about growing herbs that I read a long time ago. The author lived in Nova Scotia and I was amazed at everything she grew there. I think that book may have even started me on growing herbs! Wish I could remember the name of it. Thanks for this fascinating post.

  2. Very meaty information this foggy, damp morning, Jodi. I shall be on the lookout for your friend's book - it sounds interesting!

  3. Dear Jodi, A fascinating account of your friend's book and the associated comprehensive medicinal plant list. I am reminded of many happy and informative times wandering around The Chelsea Physic Garden in London.

    I am sure you know that the Physic Garden was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries and now conserves over 50,000 plant species. The newly developed Pharmaceutical Garden holds plants which are known to have therapeutic compounds of proven value in current medical practice. It is well worth a visit.

    P.S. 'Nibbs' is my favourite.

  4. Jodi:

    I vividly remember when 'The Birth House' knocked DaVinci's Code off the number one position - such a relief! I have yet to read Ami's book, but this timely reminder has me searching the local library database.

    Its sheer astonishment as the number of remedies that exist within a garden border. Natural, wholesome ingredients as opposed to the concoctions most pharmaceutical firms are foisting at the all trusting public today.

    An enjoyable trip back in time!

  5. Wonderful and informative post! 'The Birth House' is one of my favorite books. :)

  6. My feed still isn't fixed on Blotanical but I'm working on it. Thanks for telling me. I've got to go to Apple to get it fixed. It works on Networked blogs so not sure what the issue is??

    I'm just about panicked about my potager. Just for all the reasons you mention above. Every plant carries an immense amount of importance. And who they are planted with is even more important.

    I'm buried in about 4 different books right now as I build the new website. Trying to build the new beds and build my site around those beds. Big year for me. I'm super excited. Gonna have lots of fresh veges, seasonings, oils, soaps, spices......

    I've not read that book but it looks like one that I would like to. Have a good week Jodi!
    Flowergardengirl~ Anna

  7. Jodi, I will definitely look for this novel. Do you know the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's book A Midwife's Tale, based on the diary of the late 18th/early 19th century Maine midwife, Martha Ballard? The book includes an appendix with a 6-page list of medicinal plants that Martha mentions using. It would be fun to compare her list with yours. -Jean

  8. What a delightful and informative post. I'm ordering The Birth House right away.

  9. Fascinating and interesting info. My father-in-law knew a lot about herbal medicines. I wish I had talked to him more about them when he was alive.

  10. Hi Jodi - this is REALLY intersting - I love all the info on herbs and natural remedies - I must admit I've not heard of the book but will take a look on Amazon! You might like Jekka McVicar's website for more info on herbs and a fantastic source of herb seeds if you can't get hold of them in Canada www.jekkasherbfarm.com/ Have a good week... Miranda

  11. A great post Jodi. The history of the use of plants in medicine and the thought of what discoveries there still might be in the future is a fascinating topic. I have not heard of the book but will be checking the library catalogue soon.

  12. Jodi girl !
    I LOVE herbs and what they can do for us .. I have a few books I absolutely love on them and actually, I think it is almost a therapy in itself just reading them .. especially right now !
    I will always remember this huge wild rose bush we had on our lawn when I was a little girl in Louisbourg .. that scent is one I will never forget : )and of course "May flowers" too !

  13. A huge fan of Canadian authors (like Ann-Marie Mac Donald for one), I will tuck this book on my must list, Jodi. Of French/Canadian heritage, my first attempted novel (1/3 completed) begins loosely following family from my Canadian roots from Montreal/Quebec to life here in MI (during the lumbering era) and my Native American roots, herbal medicine playing a huge part for one of my characters. Your rich life and myriad of colorful/creative friends excite me to continue on my journey (once I get Diary of a Ho-Hum Housewife kicked out the door). For your many inspirational posts, hugs in continued friendship.

  14. I will have to check out that book, sounds very interesting. Happy to discover that you're in Nova Scotia. We've never been, but it's been on our list of interesitng places we just want to visit for no particular reason at all. Hopefully sometime soon...

    Great info on the useful plants!

  15. Thank you
    I really enjoyed this post
    I'll get the book

  16. Jodi, what an interesting post. My grandmother knew a lot about the uses of herbs and wild plants. Each spring we were treated to a tonic made from them. I wish now that I had paid more attention to what she knew. Like Anna, I believe there are lots of dicoveries to be made in the area of herbs and wild plants.

    Thank you also for the book recommendation. I am always on the look out for a good read and this one sounds delightful.

  17. Very informative post, and for sure i will be looking the book up next weekend. thanks. Have you seen my orchid posts already, lol.

  18. As a consumer of many a magical potion gathered from native and cultivated plants I continue to be amazed by the knowledge our forebearers had.

    There was the "go-to " gardener in our rural area from whom you could get a natural remedy by describing what ailed you.

    While on vacation in the northern Wisconsin woods I happened upon a serviceberry tree full of juicy red berries which I proceeded to pick and eat. " Don't eat those they're poison " my young native companions cried. I guess their parents had warned them not to touch anything with red berries for fear it might be poison.

    Oh the humble dandelion and its many uses. We used to roast and grind its roots for a cleansing tonic every Spring. Koreans make a very tasty salad of its leaves.

    Thanks for this very interesting post, Jodi, it brings back a lot of memories from my youth.

  19. Great post, jodi, and a nice companion resource for The Birth House, which is also one of my all time favourite reads. I love Ami's voice, and can't wait for #2.

  20. Jodi this was such an interesting read. I once was seriously thinking about becoming a herbalist but became a horticulturist instead. I have loads of books on the subject but they sit on the bookcase getting dusty. What a great conversation piece when your walking around the garden with someone and being able to tell them these interesting facts about common plants in our gardens and hedgrows. :)

  21. Hi Jodi,

    You saved the day! I was needing another selection for book club and voila! you produce on your garden blog. An unexpected treat.


    Christine in Alaska

  22. I enjoyed this historical and medical tour...as a long-time herb-user myself, it's interesting to see this part of Nova Scotian history. As a fiddler I've been intrigued by NS, since you have held old Scottish fiddling traditions which were forgotten in Scotland; I wonder if the same is true for some of the European-import herbs? And it's fascinating to see how those got blended with the herbs of the new land.

  23. Hi Jodi, my gardening by letter package arrived and thank you for the card and gifts.The generosity and creativity of gardeners around the world is unbelievable! I enjoyed reading your blog also,I recognise quite a few of the herbs you mention too.

  24. Jodi, I enjoyed reading this post. I'm going to look out for Ami's book the next time I'm at the library. I love to read and I'm always looking for new books.

  25. Good reading, Jodi, thanks! Learning about herbs and the ways they have been used throughout the ages was one of the first obsessions that hit me when I became a more serious gardener. This book sounds very interesting!

  26. Fascinating stuff, Jodi. There's so much to learn!
    The book sounds like a great read. I'm going to check our library for it.
    I hope you're getting this same warming trend that we are. It's been a relief after all the cold, snowy days that went on and on and on....
    There's still no green in sight though.

  27. Wow! There's a lot to absorb here, Jodi. Great post. The book sounds intruiging. Love the list of plants with medicinal and healing properties. Fascinating that the age old treatments are still valid today.

  28. Wow! I bought the book for my Mum, who is a Midwife! She thought it was fabulous, I am yet to read it. I had no idea that the writer lives next door! Looking at the Herbal list, brings back many memories, another amazing read. thank you x
    the gardener

  29. I'm getting here late, but glad I didn't miss this post! I find the history of plants fascinating, especially all their different medicinal uses. Thanks for recommending this book--I will have to check it out!


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