Culver's Root and Cotton Mather
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 9, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
I am sure it would be nothing new to you if I told you that I was a very strange child. I didn't think I was strange, and I was pretty happy running around in my mountains. I was just never around other kids very often, so I didn't know what I was supposed to be. I don't remember learning to read, but I do remember when I was recuperating from polio when I was about four or five. I read every book I could get my hands on. The first ones were the Little Colonel books; they were about 3 inches square, and about a mile thick. They were books my grandmother found in her attic that had belonged to her children when they were little. One is also the book that became the Little Colonel movie that starred Shirley Temple. (Useless bits of information, I know, but they keep me entertained when I can't garden.)
Now the reading of those books at a very early age led to an avid period of reading biographies, particularly those that mentioned little girls and plants. By that time I was perhaps six or seven, and had never developed an interest in dolls, I always received books for gifts. Having a November birthday and Christmas following soon after, I read all winter. My summers began to fill up with my treks around the mountains with my great Aunt Bett, and my winters were spent deep in the pages of books. That's just the way it was.
I was going to be a pilot, a president, a cotton picker, an Eskimo, and I was going to find the twin that I knew absolutely that I had, but I was not going to have a thing to do with culver's root. Most early practitioners thought it to be a powerful remedy, a laxative and an emetic, and it was used for those purposes in the early 1700's. They believed it purged the system of all illnesses. I knew better, and I resolved that I would never need to be purged of anything. The American Indians, from whom my great Aunt Bett got her information, were the ones who discovered the plant's therapeutic properties and taught it to the colonists and early explorers. The Native Americans also used it ritually, too. For ceremonial purifications, some of them induced vomiting by drinking a tea made from the plant's dried root. They used it as a blood purifier, also thinking it cleansed the blood of any impurities.
Culver's root, Veronicastrum virginicum, grows in meadows, woodlands, and prairies. It is native to North America and grows wild from Manitoba to Vermont, and south to Florida and Texas. It is a perennial herb with slender stems growing up to 7 feet tall. When Aunt Bett introduced it to me, she was gathering the root from which she made an infusion. She had too much common sense to believe everything she had been taught by her Cherokee great grandmother, thank goodness, but she did have a use for the drops of root tea. She grew the plant in the back of one of her gardens, so we didn't have to go far to gather its roots. In the back of the garden that was closest to her house, she grew fennel and asparagas. I loved those plants, and they felt good to the touch, so lacy and soft. In the back of her field that was up the holler and nearer my house, she grew culver's root. I know from my school records that my mother also kept, (and which someday I will purge myself of), when I was entering third grade and not quite 8 years old, I was 42 inches tall. Think of the stem of a daisy, well, maybe a curly petaled daisy, that was me, skinny with curly hair that was bigger than the rest of me. Now you think of that 42 inches standing next to a 7-foot tall stalk of culver's root, and you will know about which I speak. It was intimidating, because I knew it had murdered Cotton Mather's little girl.
I was with Aunt Bett when she gathered the roots, but I only held the burlap sack open so she could drop them in. She made from those roots an infusion, but she only used a drop or two in a glass of water, because even then culver's root was a home remedy for the treatment of chronic indigestion and other disorders thought to be caused by a liver disfunction. So yes, she did use it, but never on me. Standing there holding that burlap sack, I got a good, close up look at the plant that frightened me. It was right pretty towering over my head. It had whorls of three or more narrow leaves circling the stem at its joints. At the top there were small white flowers during summer and they grew on stalks that were arranged in a cluster on the very top of the tall plant stem.
In the early 1700s, Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan leader, had a daughter. She was not very old when she contacted tuberculosis, and it was culver's root that Mather asked for, seeking a cure for his daughter. Actually, his request is the first recorded use of Culver's root. I have never known why the early practitioners agreed to his request, because it was known to be a powerful laxative and emetic. It certainly was too violent to be using for a lung ailment like tuberculosis, and the little girl died soon after. That story haunted me for a long time, and I think even now when I see culver's root, I will always think of that little girl.
If scientists ever investigate the plant, and to my knowledge they have not, I surely hope they refute any claims made for it. If they don't, I certainly will.
Every bit of information contained within this article is from my collection of family writings, and from a book report that I wrote on Cotton Mather's life when I was in third grade. It is only a story about culver's root, taken from the mind of the child that I was, but I still adhere to the last statement in my article. I do think Culver's root is a lovely plant.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Kniphofia, Golddog, Dacooolest, and Poppysue. My articles would be empty without the photos our photographers add to Plant Files.
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