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The Green Line of herb women

March 21, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

March is Women's History Month - a perfect time to meet some of the women who have influenced the world of herbs.

In most ancient cultures, men hunted and women gathered. As they gathered, they learned about plants - which were safe to eat, which could be turned into brews that could heal. The stories of those women are lost in the fog of time, but the tradition lives on.

In more recent times, 16th century B.C. for instance, we discover that while they were not herb people by our current definition, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt and Ety, the pint-sized queen of Punt, battled for the supremacy of the frankincense and myrrh market. Both herbs were greatly valued throughout the ancient world for incense, medicine and luxurious baths. Hatshepsut (who had the temerity to call herself Pharaoh of Egypt) sent ships to Punt to steal seedlings of the precious plants. The seedlings thrived in Egypt and Ety's stranglehold on the incense trade was broken.

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In the last decade, the first written account of a woman healer of the 6th century in the Byzantine Empire was discovered. Metrodora, a physician, compiled a list of cures, aphrodisiacs and beauty tips that relied heavily on herbs. One prescription for a contraceptive called for pomegranate seed and peel, oak gall and wormwood.

Hildegarde of Bingen, the 12th century Benedictine nun, mystic, composer, able administrator, and author of the first German manuscript on medicinal plants, deserves a starring role in our herbal parade. She was also the author of the first materica medica (a list of medical uses) of European plants.

Skilled in the use of herbs, Hildegarde was far ahead of her time. Dealing with the nuns under her care, she chose to treat the whole person rather than the ailment. Her goal was to remove the cause of the illness rather than just suppress the symptoms. Today we call that holistic medicine. She believed that "viriditas" - literally "greenness and growing energy" - was "life from God transmitted into plants, animals and precious stones." She believed it was a healing source.

Today her writings, both herbal and spiritual, are being revived and applied to modern living. Sad to say, the lot of "yarb" women during the 15th to 18th centuries was less rewarding. Many of them lived alone, collecting herbs and concocting herbal cures. Churchmen objected to this sort of healing. The thinking was that the power to cure also implied the power to harm. The public was persuaded that the skill of healing was not a gift from God but a sign of the devil. Many of these women were persecuted as witches and subjected to dreadful torture and death. A little herbal knowledge was a dangerous thing.

Born in the first year of the 18th century, Elizabeth Blackwell - involved in a disastrous marriage - was faced with the daunting task of paying for her husband's release from debtor's prison. As with other well-brought-up young women at the time, Blackwell had probably been taught to draw. She took some of her sketches to Sir Hans Sloane at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. He conceived the idea of producing a herbarium - plates showing the various herbs in the garden with descriptions.

Blackwell's 500 drawings of plants and colored engravings were published as a two-volume collection (1787-89). Today, you can see some of her drawings in "The Herbal of Count Palatine," published by Barnes and Noble.

An American, Lydia Pinkham (1819-83) of Lynn, Mass., - also driven to support her family by a husband "who never had the knack for earning money" - turned to creating an herbal elixer. By the end of her lifetime, Pinkham's Vegetable Compound - a "baby in every bottle" - was a household name.

Originally, her tonic contained Jamaica dogwood, butterfly weed, black cohash, life root, licorice, yellow gentian and dandelion in an 18-percent ethyl alcohol solution. This heady brew was the favorite of many a teetotaling 19th century female. It is still being produced although the formulation is changed and the alcohol reduced to 13 1/2 percent.

This brings us to the dawn of the 20th century. The Long Green Line continues, but those herbal ladies will have to wait for another time.

Until then, I urge you to take to heart the words of the late Audrey H. O'Connor, a special herbal friend of mine from Ithaca, N.Y.: "Wisdom is not lost; it is passed along."

As you work with herbs in your garden, in your kitchen or in studying literature, think of these women who have nurtured and used the very plants you grow, use and know.

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