The Medicine Of Our Ancestors

Do you know any of the herbal remedies that were used by your mother, grandmother, great grandparents and aunties? Can you remember an ‘Old Wives Tale’ or a silly remedy that your mom always made you take when you started to get a cough?

“Our foremothers worked hard and if they took the time to make a remedy again and again it is because it worked.”

With the current anti-biotic resistance to bacteria and anti-biotic resistance to very strong strains of staph infections, these old remedies become instantly relevant to what we need to support our health and wellness.

One of my students is a Medical Doctor in a Northern California hospital. She said that five years ago when there was a staph out-break they would isolate the infected patients in one area of the hospital. She said now they don’t even bother. The infections are so rampant, that it is very common for someone to be staying in the hospital for a routine knee, heart or gall bladder surgery and end up very sick from the infection they pick up in the hospital.

Currently patients have a 50% less chance of being effectively treated for a serious staph infection than they did in 1980.

Let’s just say, I think it’s a good idea to use our herbal wisdom to try to stay well and out of the hospital!

Even if you aren’t interested in studying herbal medicine or formally taking health classes, you can build a small repertoire of home remedies to help yourself and your loved ones stay healthy and ward off infections.

It may be as simple as putting a little effort into interviewing the elders in your life!

Ask any aunts, uncles, grandparents or friends of your parents if they remember any home remedies that your ancestors used. Very often they won’t remember right away, but if you put it out there that you are interested, usually at some point you will get a phone call.

I had been teaching herbal medicine for more than fifteen years before it dawned on one of my aunts that I might be interested in knowing that my great grandmother frequently made horehound cough drops for all the kids. Horehound cough drops take a fair amount of effort to make, so that story tells me that it was an effective remedy if she took the time to do it.

My other great grandmother, Lillie Belle McBride had six children and helped to take care of dozens of other neighbor kids and nieces and nephews. The story is that when one child let out a single cough, out came the onions and the whole house would smell of onions as she cooked them up. She would chop up several onions, put them in a little water and slow cook them into an onion syrup. Every child that walked through her door then had to drink the onion syrup; it helped to keep a cold from spreading through the pack of kids. She didn’t want to take care of a dozen sick kids so she relied on onions to keep everyone well!

Our foremothers worked hard and if they took the time to make a remedy again and again it is because it worked. Many of the remedies that our elders used are very old remedies that were passed down for many generations. These people didn’t go to school or read in books about their remedies. They used the remedies because they saw them applied in the household they grew up in and the empirical evidence of seeing it work made the remedy stick.

The problem is that a remedy that could have been successfully used within a family for hundreds of years can be lost in one generation.

A single generation of children not interested in the remedies of the household means that it is not passed on. That is the common story in the United States. The love affair with pharmaceuticals took the place of onion syrup and horehound cough drops.

If the home herbal remedies were dropped in your lineage, is there a thread that you can find to try and re-weave that fabric that once existed as central to the home environment?

A few years ago I had dinner at a friends’ house and their 92 year old grandmother was visiting from Idaho. At some point in the conversation the grandmother told a story about her mother being the town midwife in Eastern Europe in the late 1800’s. Well, most midwives at that time were also herbalists.

I asked her a few questions and she said, “Oh my mom knew all the herbs, people came to her for all kinds of things”. She proceeded to tell several miracle stories of how her mom saved lives with the weeds she picked. I listened with great joy to the story of her mothers’ remedies and how she used them. My friends had no idea that their great grandmother was an herbalist and a healer. I feel so blessed to have received that ancient healing knowledge from another time.

I had a student many years ago. She had a grandmother from Mexico that she hadn’t seen in more than ten years. I told her that she was lucky to have a living grandmother and to go and visit her. She took a trip to see her grandmother and told her that she was interested in using herbs for healing.

She had no idea that her grandmother knew about herbs. My student spent the next two weeks with her grandmother and great aunts harvesting wild herbs and learning how to make teas, herbal washes and syrups. Her grandmother was an herbalist and a healer and had learned the art from her mother.

You never know who the person is in your life that might be holding some ancient herbal wisdom. Start asking around. Ask your eldest family member or your oldest neighbor who they remember using herbal remedies…you may be surprised….

What home remedies have been used in your family traditions?

What healing remedies did your family rely upon before antibiotics and hospitals were available?

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Hello I’m Kami, Welcome to Living Awareness!

I believe every family needs to have someone on board with a working knowledge of natural remedies if you want to take care of your family’s health for real.

When I was growing up, natural remedies was not a mainstream concept like it is now, in fact, you are going to be surprised that I never even heard the word natural remedy until I moved out of the house!

In my early 20’s I met someone by chance that told me about holistic health and herbal medicine. I wondered why nobody had talked to me about it before and had a voracious appetite to learn everything I could.

Now, 30 years later I've helped thousands of people demystify the world of herbal medicine and become empowered in using herbal self-care in their home to prevent illness, take care of common ailments and protect their health naturally.

For 20 years I've had a clinical herbal practice connecting people with plants and their wellness. I've developed and taught herbal curriculum for UCSF School of Nursing and the Integral Health Master’s Degree Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Stick with me! You’ll learn awesome herbal self-care, get inspired to be more self-sufficient in your health care and nourish a deep love for the herbs and how to use them, knowing you are doing the very best you can to care for your wellness.

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9 Comments on "The Medicine Of Our Ancestors"

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My daddy was one of the victims of the polio epidemic of the last century. My grandma used ARNICA to help heal Daddy. As a young girl, I was very bruise-prone. I knew that arnica would help, even though I didn’t know WHAT arnica was. Somewhere along the line, from my childhood to my early adulthood, arnica seemed to have disappeared. Over the years, I really wanted the arnica for my bumps and bruises. Imagine my surprise when I found that *I* could make my own arnica preparations! I have done this and do this now for myself and my… Read more »

thank you for the above article and i fully believe in the tradition of healing that has been passed down from our elders. More and more I find my friends relating back to what their mothers called “old wives tales”
thanks so much for the information that you send and I look forward to your next article…namaste

My friend’s mother is El Salvadorian and we keeping meaning to get together so I can learn what she knows from home and from her mother and grandmother. This has motivated me to make the date with them. Also, I will say that two things I make regularly from your Cultivating The Herbal Medicine Woman From Within is chapstick and oxymel. I am never without a batch of oxymel. Even my son, who is now 8 1/2 (I was pregnant when I took your class) asks for it when he’s not feeling well. Still can’t get him to neti-pot, but… Read more »
Kami, one of the first “natural” remedies I learned as a child was using dried corn silk to treat bladder infections. After shucking the corn from it’s husks, gather the silks (the string or hair like membranes that grow between the kernels). Dehydrate these and store in tightly sealed glass containers. When a bladder infection shows itself, brew a tea of 1/2 cup silk and 4 cups water. Allow to cool. Then drink 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the liquid 3 times daily. Within a couple of days the infection will be on the ruin. After 5 or so days… Read more »
Sherry Udvare

Hello Kami, do you have o book related to this subject?

Deborah Schaffner

Kami, I do not know of any healers in my ancestry, but I know there has to be some back there. My family, on both sides were farmers from the old country. So I know they knew and practiced herbalism. I am thankful to have come across Plant Allies and am fascinated to learn and have the plants teach me! Thank you for being a voice, and helping bring plant healing awareness to so many people!


This is DEFINITELY not meant to be used but my grandmother rubbed kerosene over her aching joints. She lived to be 98 years old!

A friend of the family had a child who had warts all over her hand. She tied a string around her finger and kept it on for a week, then the patient was told to go throw it into the outhouse ! Another haha, but this one worked!!!