Aunt Bett, Aunt Elen and Headache Cures: Feverfew
Never will there be another Aunt Bett. She taught me, she entertained me, and she definitely tolerated me. But as is the case for most of us, I had more than one great aunt. Aunt Elen lived across the holler from me, and she could watch every move I made. If I climbed a tree and stayed up there for more than what she thought was a reasonable amount of time for a little girl to be in a tree, she came down the hill, crossed the creek, crossed the road, and told my mother. "Doris, she's up in that tree agin, and one day she's gonna fall out and bust herself wide open. Yore gonna have to keep yore eye on that one. You mark my word." Then she would turn around and go home.
Most of the time I would climb the tree just to see how fast she could come tell on me. Now Aunt Elen was always ailing. She ailed quite loudly and quite often. When I went to her house to see if I could pick up hickory nuts that fell from her tree, she would answer my knock with a moan and a rag tied around her head, smelling strongly of lavender. "Aunt Elen, I come to pick up some hick'ry nuts, please?"
"Lawd a mercy, chile, you don't need to knock on my door so loud. My head is killin' me, so don't you make no noise pickin' up them nuts. Lawd, I am sufferin'." Then every other minute she would come to the door and holler, "Ain't you done yet? My head is killin' me, go ask yore Aunt Bett she got anythin' that'd help." The noise I made picking up hickory nuts was nothing, but her hollering sure could wake the dead.
So I would take my half filled bag of hickory nuts down the hill, across the creek, across the road, and put the bag of nuts on my playhouse porch, then race down the road to find Aunt Bett. Notice already the difference in Aunt Bett and Aunt Elen. I knocked on Aunt Elen's door, but I ran head first straight into Aunt Bett's house, without a thought of knocking.
"Aunt Bett, Aunt Elen's got that rag tied round her head again, reckon she's got a headache bad. She says tell you she needs somthin' for it."
"Sit yourself down and rest a minnit, that woman's heads been hurtin' right near sixty years, she can wait another few minnits." So I sat down and had myself a glass of cold well water with Aunt Bett while she explained to me about treating Aunt Elen.
She told me that feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) was a valuable medicinal plant to have nearby. The only problem with it is that it doesn't store well, so it needed to be used fresh, and it was only fresh in the summertime. "So I sprinkle a little wild ginger in with the feverfew infusion, then when it gets to be winter and she has one a them headaches, I just give her a little drop o' wild ginger in some greenish water and she don't know th' diffrence."
Well, that made no sense to me, but then I didn't always understand the ways of adults in those days. How on earth could feverfew flavored with wild ginger cure a headache in the summertime, but wild ginger alone cured it in the winter? Aunt Bett said: "Don't reckon Elen would have a thing to talk about weren't for her headaches, now would she? She ain't gonna get outta this world alive without tellin' everbody she knows 'bout them headaches." I thought it was grown up talk, so I pretended to understand.
So Aunt Elen had her headaches and Aunt Bett had her cure, and I got caught in the middle. You see, they had not spoken to each other in many years, seems Aunt Bett caught Aunt Elen's husband with another woman and told Aunt Elen about it. Aunt Elen didn't like that one bit, but I didn't know about all that till many years later. I just knew that they did not speak to each other.
This is what Aunt Bett did: She made an decoction of lavender, which she grew in her garden just for the scent. Aunt Elen would add a spoonful to about a half cup of warm water and soak her head rag in it, then tie that wet rag around her head. It reminds me today of our sweatbands, but Aunt Elen swore it helped her headaches. Then in the summertime Aunt Bett made a tea from the fresh leaves of feverfew, sprinkled a little wild ginger in it for flavor and sent it on to Aunt Elen. When Aunt Bett ran out of fresh feverfew, she just made a tea out of whatever greenish plant she had handy, sprinkled a little wild ginger in, and Aunt Elen never knew the difference. Ahhhh, the ways and the wiles of adults. And nobody but me knew the difference. If you think that is confusing, just imagine how it seemed to a 10 year old.
Feverfew is a lovely plant. It looks a little like a daisy to me. Years ago it was valued because it was believed to be protection against the plague and the bite of rabid dogs. In other ancient cultures it was used to cure opium overdose, and in our earlier years it was used to treat alcohol deleriums. Herbalists today tell us that hot infusions of feverfew reduce fevers and congestion from colds and cold infusions acts as a tonic. Taken as a tea, it relieves mild depression and aids in sleeping. It also is said to ease the pain of sciatica and shingles. Externally a strong infusion is an antiseptic skin wash for insect stings and bites, and it can also be used as an insect repellant. 
As far as I am concerned, wild ginger makes good gingerbread, and lavender is wonderful in potpourri. I rarely have headaches, so I haven't tried feverfew.
Aunt Bett and Aunt Elen continued their silent war, with me right in the middle. I'd deliver that winter dose, liberally sprinkled with wild ginger, and Aunt Elen never knew the difference, and in summertime, I would help Aunt Bett make up the real tea from feverfew and wild ginger and carry it back to Aunt Elen, knowing all the time that her headache was all in her mind. I never told a soul about this, but now I wonder if anybody else knew. What I remember of Aunt Elen is the lavender smell of that rag tied around her head, even showing beneath her Sunday go to meetin' hat. She passed away long after Aunt Bett had left me, and I did not get to go to her memorial service. I still wonder if she was buried with that lavender scented rag tied around her head. I don't remember ever seeing her without it.
 Source: information from Dr. S. Urbach, U of L School of Medicine
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers for their lovely photos: Gabrielle for the first two, mgarr for the third and to wind for the lovely arrangement with feverfew.
All other information came from my memories and from Aunt Bett's writings about her herbal medicines.
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