by Harry B. Chase, Jr.*
Have you ever feasted on fiddleheads in the spring? I like mine served hot with a chunk of fast melting butter on top.
Have you sampled the dry, sweet and tasty potato-like roots of the ground-nut, the exotic looking plant with crumpled brown and lavender flowers? How about the other Great Woods delicacies? Blueberries , sassafras or black birch tea, watercress, delicate syrup from half-decayed sugar maples. . . . I could name 146 trees and shrubs and 117 plants that the red man and colonials employed for food, drink, tonics, medicines, tobacco, insect repellants, paint, inks, poisons and dyes.
Our early physicians knew wild plants that possessed 31 specific medicinal properties and used them in treatment of 229 ailments, from delirium tremens to the common cold. Burdock root was used for boils, bugleweed for consumption, pennyroyal for a stimulant, Joe-Pyeweed for typhus fever, and 18 different plants were and still are employed in cough syrups.
Take the willow, for example. Aspirin was derived 70 years ago from a salicylate contained in willow bark. Hypocrites, the father of medicine, used a derivative of willow bark 2400 years ago to ease the pain of childbirth. Our great-grandfathers wrapped their aching joints with flannel soaked in willow extract.
And consider the poisons along with the cures. A chunk of water hemlock root the size of a walnut will kill a cow. This parsley-like plant, with its cousin, the poison hemlock, which kills by paralyzing the lungs, thrives in swamps around Mansfield and Foxboro.