Thursday, March 8, 2018

Appalachian Spring Tonics

My mood always seems to perk up when the flowers start springing up and green begins to replace all of the dreary browns brought on by fall and winter. I enjoy all of the seasons but dislike when any of them extend their stay. It makes me want to say, "Winter, you are like a guest that has overstayed your welcome. Pack it up and move it out!" 

I've been reading about spring in Appalachia and how the mountain people would improve their health after a long winter. "Spring was the time to refresh the spirit and tone up the system with a tonic." (The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery)  

 Spring Tonic, 1936 - Norman Rockwell
Many Southern Appalachian folks believed that blood rises and falls along with the seasons, like the sap in a tree. Blood volume was said to be low in the winter and high in the summer. It was thought that blood lost its vitality due to a winter diet that was lower in vitamins and minerals.  

"In the spring the blood's invigorating properties were restored by taking a tonic, variously called a "blood builder," "blood restorer," "blood toner," or "spring tonic." The most popular tonic in Southern Appalachia was sulfur and molasses, which some thought was also good for cleaning the blood. Eating a "mess of poke" (poke plant leaves) and other wild greens (such as branch lettuce and watercress) in the spring was also practiced for blood restoration. Homemade tonics were displaced in some homes by commercial products like Scout's Indian Tonic, Hadacol, and Geritol. Cooking in iron utensils added iron to the diet. Another way of adding iron was to drink water that had been boiled in an iron pot or skillet, or a glass of water in which nails had been soaked." (Folk Medicine In Southern Appalachia) 

 Mountain people have used teas as a remedy for fatigue for many, many years. "They would gather the roots or barks in the proper season and dry them, and then they would store them for use as the need arose. ..Spicewood, sweet birch, and sassafras were common spring tonics. The spicy, distinct flavor of sassafras made it a particularly popular tea served hot or cold." (The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery)

I found a list of spring tonic/tea recipes in The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery. Do not gather and use ANY plants unless you are 100% certain that you can identify them. Choosing and ingesting the wrong plant can be deadly. It is best that an experienced person helps you identify them in person or you can purchase them from a trusted source. 

  • Sassafras Tea: In the spring, gather roots and tender twigs of sassafras. Pound the roots to a pulp if they are very big and wash them with the twigs. Boil them, strain and sweeten. (Spring tonic.)  
  • Spicewood Tea: The spice bush (Lindera benzoin) grows along branch banks. It is best to gather the twigs in early spring when the bark "slips," or peels off easily. Break the twigs, place them in a pot, cover with water, and boil until the water is dark. Strain and serve hot. Sweeten if desired, with honey or molasses. (Spring tonic.)
  • Mint or White Horsemint Tea: Gather mint leaves in the summer when the plant is young, just before or just after blooming. Boil the leaves in water, strain, and sweeten with honey. (Used both for enjoyment and as a spring cold remedy.) 
 Have any of you used these or other spring tonics? If you know of any others please leave me a comment. I would love to add to my list! 

*I'm having a giveaway sponsored by Foxfire over on the Appalachian Mountain Roots Facebook page to celebrate reaching 10,000 likes. You can scroll through the posts and follow the directions for your chance to win a 45th Anniversary book and CD!*



  1. Sassafras Root has some poisons in it. That is why you cannot purchase it legally. The safrole in sassafras root bark and oil can cause cancer and liver damage in large amounts. You can purchase sassafras juice, which has been processed to remove the toxic elements.

    1. This is why we weren't allowed to drink more than one cup.

  2. I wonder how many people in Appalachia still use tonics and folk medicine to help when they feel unwell? There are so many reasons that health care providers (especially those who are not from Appalachia) need to understand the way Appalachian people take care of their health. I believe if providers understood more of the history and culture of people in Appalachia, it would help to provide better care. Please visit my website and let me know what you think.