What kinds of natural remedies do Amish use? The book Plain & Happy Living: Amish Recipes & Remedies by Emma “Jonas Em” Byler covers many of them. It includes chapters like “General Tonics”, “The Herbal Medicine Chest”, and “Poultices, Plasters and Salves”.
The more recent book Nature & The Environment in Amish Life also contains a chapter looking at herbal remedies and natural medicine use among the Amish. For today’s post I’ve pulled five remedies which the authors mention in that text as being used by Amish people. I’ve also included parts from Emma Byler’s book when relevant.
This post is not an endorsement of these remedies, though many seem to have strong support and regular users among the Amish (and certainly not only the Amish). The “Amish approach” to health and wellness is a complicated topic – for an overview, see this list of questions on Amish health and medicine.
In short, natural remedies and treatments are common throughout Amish society. They may be used as a first-line treatment, or after first trying – or in combination with – more conventional treatments.
How an Amish person approaches medical treatment and wellness can depend on things like the specific Amish group, community or family, and of course personal preference.
That noted, here are some different natural remedies used by Amish.
5 Natural Remedies Found Among The Amish
Quotes from Nature & The Environment in Amish Life, Chapter 7 “Bringing Nature Home: From Gardening to Herbal and Natural Medicines.”
1. Tea Made From Nettles & Alfalfa – “One former Amish woman from the Geauga settlement remembered that tea made from nettles and alfalfa was popular for morning sickness for pregnant women.” (p. 135; emphasis added)
In Plain & Happy Living, I can’t find direct mention of this tea, though there is another tea mentioned under the general heading “Pregnancy”:
Strawberry or red raspberry leaf tea may be used until about three weeks before birth only. We always used it up until six weeks before birth then stopped everything except what the doctor advised. The doctor’s medicines were always used along with herbal remedies during pregnancy. Black cohosh and blue cohosh teas are also good. (p. 123)
I had to look up cohosh. It’s a perennial flowering plant found in the US and Canada. Black cohosh has black roots which “are believed to have healing properties”.
2. Dandelion – “A Swartzentruber bishop told us, ‘The lowly dandelion has some very powerful attributes. I’ve seen people with a handful of wards, and one pound of dandelion leaf powder takes care of them. They drink it in a liquid mixture. I call it the ‘poor man’s medicine.”” (p. 135-6)
Dandelion is mentioned throughout Plain & Happy Living, with more entries than any other item in the book. It’s offered as a treatment for diabetes, dropsy, as a “blood purifier and cleanser”, and for liver problems, among other ailments.
She also has a bit on dandelion wine:
Each Spring, Dad would make up a batch of dandelion wine. This wine was only used for medicinal purposes, such as for hot toddies and so on. It was also one of Dad’s bases for his bitters. He would fill a bottle or jar with his own blend of roots, berries, some dandelion wine, and the tea mentioned below. Dad would drink a few small sips of this brew to perk up his heart when it was beating too slowly. (p. 96)
3. “Super tonic” – “One one occasion, we visited a home where the women were in the midst of making a year’s supply of “super tonic,” concocted of garlic, horseradish root, onions, and ginger, all cured in vinegar for six months and then strained. The woman of the house was effusive in telling us how a teaspoon per person, passed around the dinner table every night, had kept her family healthy through the winter.” (p. 136)
Going by the woman’s words, this seems like it’s meant as an immune system booster. I took a different concoction, but with some of the same ingredients, on falling ill with fever once at a friend’s place in Lancaster County.
I’m pretty sure they called that by the same name (something tells me the ingredient list for “super tonic” varies across families and communities). It was strong stuff and difficult to drink in more than a small quantity. It did give me what I could call a “kick of vitality”.
I don’t see anything by the name of “super tonic” in Plain & Happy Living. She does have the aforementioned chapter on “General Tonics”, but nothing in it that’s similar to the recipe above.
4. B & W Ointment – “Perhaps the most well known Amish folk remedy is B & W (Burn and Wound) Ointment, a treatment that incorporates burdock leaves. Burns are a particular thread to the Amish community because heating, lighting, and cooking often involve an open flame and flammable liquid fuels. As he describes in Comfort for the Burned and Wounded, John Keim discovered the healing qualities of burdock while standing, distraught, in a field shortly after his child was badly burned. He felt that the Lord intervened, and he had a vision that he could use burdock to heal his daughter. B&W Ointment, a mixture of honey, lanolin, olive oil, aloe vera gel, comfrey root, and other ingredients that is applied with a dressing of burdock leaves, is widely used and praised throughout the Amish community. Though it has not undergone clinical trials, several studies have affirmed its efficacy for first- and second-degree burns.” (p. 136)
As for burns, burdock leaves or John Keim’s ointment do not appear in Plain & Happy Living. But Emma Byler offers up several of her own treatments:
- Put 1/2 tsp. of powdered alum in a 2 oz. bottle of water. Wet the bandage with this and keep it wet.
- Powdered charcoal and cornmeal, made into a poultice, is also good. Cover wound completely and keep bandage wet.
- Apply a coat of honey to cover the wound. The idea is to seal off the air.
- Cover thickly with aloe vera gel or the ooze from a crushed aloe vera leaf. (p. 111)
5. Vinegar – “She [A Swartzentruber mother] also told us that “vinegar is good for just about anything.” (p. 136)
Surprisingly, vinegar is hardly mentioned in Plain & Happy Living. When it is, it’s mostly in the sections on cleaning. It is included as part of the “super tonic” above.
As mentioned, the list of natural remedies used by Amish is long. These are just a few, I imagine readers are familiar with many more.
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I think this book is very interesting.
TART CHERRY concentrate is my Amish friend’s go-to remedy for gout. Both my Nephew and I have used it for painful big toe and we both got relief. It comes in capsules and liquid and is readily available from vitamin sources. Aside from gout relief it helps with sleep due to it’s supplying melatonin.
My Steuben County Indiana Amish friend recommended tart cherry concentrate for relief of gout. I believe it relieved my big toe pain and a side effect is to promote sleep due to it’s melatonin content
Interesting, I had a friend who dealt with gout last year. I’ll pass it along. I also found this study which might be of interest: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4566454/
Tart Cherry Juice as a Treatment for Peripheral Neuropathy
Tart cherries have a long history as a treatment for gout and joint pain. While the exact mechanism of action is unknown, it is believed that acanthocyanin pigments and related bioflavonoids found in tart cherries and other red fruits scavenge free radicals, modulate cytokines, reduce DNA degradation, decrease capillary permeability, inhibit cyclooxygenase, and strengthen biological membranes. Many of these biochemical reactions would be expected to reduce inflammation, pain, and edema.
One of my favorite subjects
The ingredients in the super tonic sounds like it would cure anything. We almost never went to the doctor when I was growing up. Catnip tea was Mother’s favorite medicinal tea. Cod Liver Oil for whatever ailed us. UGH! Gross stuff. Upset stomach… toast made over the burner, held with a fork, cover the toast with scalding milk. Oh yeah, the toast was slathered with butter. I ripped my scalp open one time, after trying to run under a barb wire fence, it probably needed stitches, Mother put a slab of bacon on it. Have no idea what that was supposed to do. But it worked. Still have the scar. Pine Tar soap for eczema. Sweet Oil or Dad would blow smoke in our ears for earache. Vicks slathered on our chests for colds and congestion. B & W Ointment works wonders. A Horse and Buggy neighbor’s child put his hand flat on a cook stove and burned all the skin off of his hand. It was horrible. They never took him to a doctor. One of the ladies in their church family is kinda like a homeopathic practitioner. My husband took the mother and son to this lady a couple of times a week for a long time. Unbelievable. You would never know that he had this severe burn today. I became a believer and added a jar to my own medicine cabinet. Well, most people consider me elderly now. LOL Don’t like the sound of my name and elderly in the same sentence. But I must say, I still very, very seldom go to the doctor. There is almost always something homeopathic that works just as well as their drugs. For the time being, I’ll just stick to my Oregano Oil. Cures whatever ails you. I have much to be thankful for.
One of my favorite subjects
I had never heard of anyone else, besides myself, who had a parent who blew smoke in their ears to treat earache. A usual treatment in our home about 1952-3.
Very interesting .. thanks!
My father was a descendant from Amish Mennonite/Dutch & German, and Mother’s family was English/Swiss. I am ALL American! lol)
I don’t remember many homemade remedies, but maybe traditional meds we always kept on hand… such as Cloverine Salve, for cuts and burns…and A smelly linament, called Heil Ole’, that Mother purchased by the case from midwest (maybe? Chicago area?) from a supplier. This we used for any sore muscles… rubbing it in, but Not TOO much, or, it would blister our skin!
Dad always doctored our work, or riding horses’, sore feet,… buy having them stand in a bag of fresh cow manure! Can’t remember how long, maybe all day, or overnight? It did work, as I recall, and he said it “drew the infection & soreness” out!
Comments, anyone? Would love to have a bottle of good old Heil Ole’ now!! (Pronounced “Hile Oil”)
Joint pain from arthritis.
I have severe osteoarthritis in several joints, one of which is my left ankle, which is secondary to a compound fracture of the ankle joint as a teenager. I am now in my 70’s.
When my ankle is at its worse, I wrap it in a cabbage leaf, (remove the hard ridge). Actually use a leaf or two, so that the ankle is covered, and I usually wrap the cabbage with tape to hold it in place, and then put my stocking on. I usually leave the cabbage in place for 24 hours then remove it. It works wonders for me, and I only use it when the arthritis flairs up. Less than monthly.
On a couple occasions I had some itching after removing the cabbage, but is was short lived and tolerable.
I have also used it on my shoulder and lower back.
This sounds fascinating Dana, I wonder how it works.
5 Natural Remedies
University Hospital (Michigan Medicine) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor permits plain people to be treated with B&W Ointment and burdock leaves in the Trauma/Burn Unit of the hospital. (Application of the treatment is done by family members, friends, etc. of the patient, not by hospital staff.). I think this is a wonderful merging of natural and traditional medicine.
Great example Don, B & W has gotten some respect even in conventional settings like the one you mention. I would bet a place like Pomerene Hospital in Millersburg, OH would permit something similar.
Loving this page and the responses – I am very keen on natural remedies, and that super tonic sounds a beaut – would love it if you could get a recipe. I use a drink from India that has ginger, turmeric and cinnamon in it… I think the garlic would be very powerful in a tonic drink.
Onions are amazing too – my father was a scout master, and when a boy turned up for a camp in a very remote area, (in the late 50’s) they fed him onions three times a day, and in the week he was totally healed. Knowing Dad he likely applied some directly too!
Thanks for all you do
I will keep an eye out for some sort of recipe Maxine, and thank you. Maybe someone on this thread has something similar.
Fire Water is the Yankee version of Super Tonic I believe. Similar ingredients, and both serve the same purpose. There are many recipes published for fire water. It is a staple of herbalists worldwide.
I can say the super tonic I drank was non-alcoholic…Though this family keeps some beet wine around for occasional health purposes usage, I guess like Emma Byler’s father did with dandelion wine:)
Up north here, the Amish are using vinegars, fresh air, and the sun to disinfect the Cobid-19. Vinegar here is BIG – used for almost everything. They soak meat in it, add it to soups and gravies, drink it with baking soda, pour it straight on open wounds treating both humans and animals, rinse their hair with it, put it in the laundry, and bathe in it. Kitchen floors are washed with vinegar and it is used for window washing and the wiping of walls.
So going shopping recently, the women wore hand crafted scarfs over their faces, and once home sprayed them with vinegar, and hung them out on the line rain or shine! All produce were washed with vinegar. Hands were washed with vinegar and brown soap. Grocery carrying totes were sprayed too and line dried.
One English farmer, however, purchased several cases of cheap vodka, and disinfected most everything with it, as disinfectants are difficlut to obtain presently. He gave all his Amish neighbors jugs of vodka, and they are doing same.
I don’t think I’ve ever been in an Amish barn where there is not huge jars of vaseline, gallons of assorted vinegar, peroxide, and rubbing alcohol for use with their livestock.
Tea and coffee are also mainstays adding herbs and spices along with raw honey and lemon – potions for general wellness.
Long time theory, is at the end of the day, after summer work, many farmers believe in treating their horses to a bottle of dark beer in their feed [several times a week] promotes healthy sweating and general wellness.
Really interesting examples with the vinegar, Maureen. Sounds like that lines up with the Swartzentruber mother’s comment. I do wonder how effective 40% alcohol vodka is at disinfecting. I guess it would be better than plain water.
I don’t think I’ve heard that dark beer horse treatment before. I wonder how the horses like it or if they even notice:)
Beer and Vinegar and Vodka
Erik, regarding the horses and dark beer:
As per one of the many articles and I quote; “Giving horses beer as a traditional treatment for anhidrosis isn’t uncommon, with the thought that beer provides as a source of yeast and B vitamins. Anhidrosis is a condition that causes horses not to sweat properly, and some stop sweating all together. This can lead to overheating, which has dangerous consequences.” This traditional treatment is a long time “home” remedy and the beer is considered as a “food”. The horses either don’t taste it or love it, as it’s mixed in with their food.
The English farmer who purchased the cheap jugs of vodka, was recently told that rubbing alcohol [70% and higher] is best for disinfecting for the cobra-19 [over 70%], but there’s no rubbing alcohol to be found. So It was suggested the alternative would be vodka containing 60% alcohol content. So he gifted his neighbors vodka, and they are all using it full strength.
Soap and water is hailed as the corona virus disinfectant killer. According to the experts, there’s no evidence that vinegar or vodka are effective as disinfectants. Yet, there’s a lot of misinformation about this virus, so until we know for certain, people need to think and then do what they feel is right.
Dark beer tends to have a sweeter taste so I can see how that might appeal to a horse. Anhidrosis doesn’t sound like much fun.
So the vodka I’m familiar with given my Polish background is usually right around 40% alcohol. The stuff around 60% I’m not aware of as far as classic vodka goes though maybe there are some less common higher powered versions of it. I do know that some things like plum brandy can typically reach that level of alcohol content.
I have heard that water, soap, and hand sanitizer disinfectant of a certain percentage alcohol (had been hearing around 70%) are all effective against this coronavirus. However I had to stop using hand sanitizer about a week ago as it was causing what appeared to be eczema on my inner elbows and other joint areas (despite me using it only on my hands).
That has cleared up though, with ceasing the sanitizer and using a doctor-prescribed cream for just 2 or 3 days. I am almost certain over-use of the hand sanitizer is what caused it. So that’s something to consider for anyone else using a lot of it and seeing skin inflammation.
Erik, I am confused and incorrect about the vodka percent; my Polish/German husband attempted to educate me; spirits obviously are not my thing. The farmer purchased 60 proof vodka for cleaning and sanitizing.
A google search states, “Vodka, like most alcohol, is a natural disinfectant. The other great thing about vodka is that it dries fast meaning that it doesn’t need much in the way of wiping before touching the door knob or using the toilet seat. Look for vodka with the highest proof possible…at least 60% alcohol is best (or at least 120 proof].” Another site states it is not for hand sanitizing as it might burn and cause dryness.
The farm community is having trouble obtaining rubbng alcohol – one of their staples. So vodka is being used to sanitize surfaces.
As usual Erik, I learn something from every one of your posts; thank you. Nostrovia!
Vinegar is my go to remedy when my gallbladder flares up, usually after eating high fat content foods such as pork or mayonnaise. The pain is so intense at times that it wakes me up and I drink about a fourth of a cup of apple cider vinegar straight. The pain usually begins to ease in 15 minutes to one hour. I then take about a tablespoon in apple juice or water a few times a day until all is well. I don’t know how it works but it has never failed. Occasionally, I’ll order something in a restaurant and it will have a lot of mayonnaise so I take a little vinegar as a preventative measure. Great post!
Amazing how natural remedies can help. I wonder how they are discovered. I would guess it is either accident or trial and error. Maybe there is something in the acidic vinegar that neutralizes whatever is causing the pain.
A similar book I like is, “Home Remedies from Amish Country” by Abana Books, which we bought in Ohio a few years ago.
In regards to the Super Tonic, I once heard a respected natural healer, Dr. Richard Schulze, say about his own recipe like this, which also would alter to use as a salad dressing, that no self respecting germ would ever be caught near it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cpoUwzllPo
My thoughts are that since mankind has started doing ungodly things with genetically modified organisms (including with human embryonic cells) it alone may not be enough now in some cases.
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