A medicine that increases the strength, and gives vigor of action to the system. — Webster, 1882
I was so weak that I could hardly walk about and felt so depressed that I was worthless. Well I went to a drug store and got a spring tonic and on taking it three days I felt like a new man. – Letter from worker on Dakota Central branch, 1879.
It’s not quite spring as I write this, but I’ve been doing some spring cleaning, and I find that I’m just not into it. Maybe I need a spring tonic to jump-start myself into springtime?
In the manuscript for Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about Mrs. Wilder’s spring tonic:
Mother gathered barks and roots for another purpose that Almanzo did not like. Prickly ash and wild cherry bark, burdock and dandelion roots Mother boiled. In the liquor from the boiling she put sugar and boiled it down until it was almost a syrup. Then in this she put just enough Canada brandy to keep it from spoiling, poured it into bottles and set it away in the kitchen cupboard. Every morning, Almanzo and Royal, Eliza Jane and Alice had to take a spoonful of this spring medicine. It was bitter! Almost more bitter than anything one could imagine. But however Almanzo begged, no matter what faces he made afterward, he had to swallow a spoonful every morning before breakfast. Mother said it would cleanse his blood and keep him from being sick. Almanzo, like the house, must have a spring cleaning.
Once upon a time, winter diets consisted of grains and meat and whatever provisions had been preserved in the fall. In the spring, “first greens” were eagerly sought after. Laura mentions greens in The Long Winter (Chapter 31, “Waiting for the Train”):
“I’ve thought of greens,” Ma said. “But I can’t find any weeds in the yard that are big enough to pick yet.”
With the exception of the grass Carrie then wonders if they can eat, spring greens were a welcome addition to the table. Just as greens heralded new life from old earth, spring greens were recognized for their ability to get the body’s own juices flowing. Most spring tonic plants are slightly bitter and have traditionally been used to stimulate the liver and gall bladder to clean out the wastes accumulated during a sedentary winter of high fat consumption.
Mrs. Wilder’s spring tonic contained prickly ash and wild cherry bark, burdock and dandelion roots. Boiled in sugar, the syrup was preserved in brandy.
The first leaves of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) are slightly bitter and contain more iron than equal amounts of spinach. They contain vitamin A and trace minerals. According to sources, dandelions are diuretic, support digestion, reduce swelling and inflammation, and treat viruses, jaundice, edema, gout, eczema and acne. Brought to America from Europe, dandelions soon became a noxious weed found everywhere.
Burdock (Arctium lappa) is a biennial with stems that grow up to five feet, producing purple-red flower heads, and hooked bracts commonly known as burrs, and has a carrot-like root. All parts of the plant can be eaten when young; it grows bitter as it ages. Leaves are harvested in the spring before harvesting, and the root in the fall. Burdock is a traditional remedy for gout, fevers, and kidney stones. It is also used to treat rheumatism, and to purify the blood and aid in circulation.
Prickly ash (Zanthoxlym americanum) is a deciduous shrub, growing to ten feet with thorny gray branches. It prefers moist shade of the woodlands. The bark is harvested in the spring, and is said to alleviate rheumatism and toothaches when chewed. The bark is a strong expectorant and used to make cough syrup, stop hemorrhages, and treat tuberculosis and kidney problems. It was widely used in the 19th century as a circulatory stimulant, and it can increase cardiac function and elevate the blood pressure. Prickly ash should never be consumed by pregnant women!
Mrs. Wilder’s wild cherry was probably the black cherry (Prunus virginiana), also known as chokecherry. The bark is highly toxic in large doses and can cause difficulty in breathing, spasms, and twitching. Native to North America, the wild cherry is a deciduous tree, growing to 100 feet having elliptical to oblong leaves, spikes of white flowers, and purple-black fruits. The inner portion of the bark is a reddish color and has the odor of almonds. It is collected in late summer and early autumn. The bark, twigs, and roots have been used to treat diarrhea, lung congestion, coughs, and colds. It can prevent scurvy and ease labor pains. Tea made from the inner bark was used to treat sore throats, sores, burns, wounds, and conjunctivitis.
Brandy is a general term for distilled wine, usually 40 to 60 percent alcohol by volume. It can be made from grapes or other distilled fruit juice; Canada brandy was simply brandy that had been made in Canada.
I found an 1881 printed recipe for tonic, which contained several ounces of boiled roots preserved in a gallon of whiskey or brandy. A half wineglass full was to be taken three times daily. One can only imagine that medicines were taken for their alcohol content over any other ingredients they may have contained.
We know that Caroline Ingalls also collected bitter herbs and such for medicines (see Chapter 1 of Little House in the Big Woods), but did a temperate family such as the Ingallses also keep spirits on hand for medicinal purposes?
spring tonic (FB manuscript)