25 Western MA Folk Remedies for Colds & Flu

Colds & Flu

Dar Williams, Singer/Songwriter, writes:

“The Pioneer Valley is positively folkloric when it comes to the cure for common ills. Go to a dinner party and describe the exact nature of your cough. You’ll hear an unparalleled range of spiritual and anatomical folk wisdom.

“Perhaps this is because our prehistoric lake bottom valley left us with rich soil and contemplative scenery, well suited for agricultural and metaphysical concerns alike. Perhaps it’s the New England legacy of self-reliance in the face of hardships that no technology can conquer. Or perhaps it’s all those women.

“All I know is, my friends have literally brought gnarled roots to my doorstep and made me chew on them. Echinacea from their own gardens and burdock from their own yards. They offer tinctures made from plants they wild-crafted and prepared themselves. They have shared countless inventive suggestions for internal and external applications of garlic.

“The valley is blessed this way, and A Cure For What Ails is a compilation of all our cultural richness, not to mention the kind of advice we desperately need when we’ve got a common cold or uncommon cramps. Sure it’s a little weird to live in a place where a five year old can ask for oscillococinum, but when a friend lays a warm, neighborly hand on my shoulder and says my lymph is draining sluggishly, I know I’m home. And when she then pushes down firmly to facilitate the drainage of toxins, I know I’m loved.”

Folks Remedies: Colds & Flu

“When coming home chilled to the bones and feeling sickness coming on. Take a medicinal shower. Turning up heat as high as you can take it, getting used to it, and then slowly cranking up heat, until the room is steamy and you forgot you were ever cold and steam is rising from your skin. Then bundling up. Make and sip a strong cup of fresh ginger tea sweetened with honey. That usually does the trick.” — Chris Marano

“Whenever I feel a cold coming on, I breathe deeply into my shoulder blades, imagining the relaxing of muscles and releasing of blood from all the eddies and knots that form with stress.”— Dar Williams, Singer songwriter

Peach pit tea is one of my favorite home remedies to strengthen the immune & lymph systems and to help to ward off colds and flu. It is totally safe and delicious, great for children too. So start to collect and dry the pits from all those locally grown juicy peaches you eat during the summer months. To prevent them from molding, wash the pit thoroughly in water before drying. — Here’s how you brew it. Pour 1 quart of water over 6 peach pits. Simmer for half to 1 hour. Strain out the pits & drink this naturally sweet tea. The pits can be reused 2-3 times before returning to the earth.”   — Submitted by Tony(a) Lemos with thanks to my friend and teacher, Kate Gilday, for this remedy. For many years Kate was a community herbalist in Wendell Ma, before moving to upstate N.Y.

“When I start to feel sick I just do the standard stuff, I take Echinacea tincture and vitamin C, drink lots of fluids and go to sleep. Sometimes I use a hot water steam to clear my sinuses. Or I make up a batch of red sauce with lots of garlic, an “Italian Chicken Soup.” — Jeff, Paradise Copies

“Illness coming on is always helped when we feel some love – maybe in the form of a massage from a friend, or simple reassurance from someone close to us that it is really okay to be out of commission for a little while, and that they will take time to make us a healthy meal and bring it to us with a smile and some healing tea. If there is a cold coming on, and that meal has cooked greens in it, the cold may very well u-turn. One thing that I always mention to people is yarrow tincture — it elevates the body temperature so that the body can efficiently do what it is already trying to do — remove waste from the body. Hemlock (from evergreen trees) tea is also warming, full of vitamin C, readily available and free. I also find that when a full blown cold takes me over, if I swerve into the skid (let myself feel deathly ill for a couple days — stay in bed, avoid commercial pharmaceuticals) that there is some lovely gem of transformation going on — some sadness that I’ve been holding onto that I have time to face and answer to in my life once I’m up and out of bed again. So, not resisting, and letting oneself enjoy being sick can be medicine in itself.” — Michelle Wilde, woman of the earth, dreamer, singer, and sacred artivist.

“When I feel myself having problems with regular nosebleeds or sore throats or something, that is the time I just check myself and figure out what is outta balance in my life – whether I am not getting enough sleep or whether I am too stressed out about work or having troubles. I try to address those problems before I do any external remedies.” — David Fisher, Conway, Natural Roots, CSA Farm

“My mother would put me under cozy warm covers and bring me hot chamomile tea. She would rub my feet, my back, hold me and she would ask with a special loving sparkle in her eyes ‘would you like any treats?'” — Leela Whitcomb-Hewitt, Child of the Valley

“In winter when I am sick (or not) my mom makes me hot chocolate. When I am sick I usually rest in bed and do quiet activities.” — Sam Robbins, Age 11

“In winter if I am sick my mom spends money on me to get me medicine. In winter if I am sick my mom gives me shelter.” — Mary Robbins, Age 9

“Whenever my son has a fever and I need it to go down, (I generally let it ride for a couple days to see if it will break on it’s own) but if he’s burning up or it’s low grade and stagnant for a while I give him either a 1/2 dropper of Elder flower tincture in warm water and have him sip it or I give him Elder flower tea 1 tsp./8oz. water. You can administer it by a teaspoon or dropper for younger children and babies. It works like a charm every time.” — Carrie Desmarais

“When I feel a sickness coming on I make soup with a lot of red peppers, a lot of garlic, a lot of ginger and hearty greens like kale, spinach, celery or chard, sometimes chicken, sometimes not. I eat the soup, I go to bed, I wake up to pee, eat more soup, drink water or echinacea tea, go back to sleep. Sleep as much as possible. Sleep some more, drink more, maybe an o.j. and the next day I am usually better.” — Brandon Davis, Pittsfield, MA

“One home remedy that has really worked for my husband when he feels like he’s coming down with a cold or flu is Elderberry syrup. The trick is to take a tablespoon of the syrup (which can be bought in the store under the brand name “sambu” or “sambucol”) as soon as you feel you’re coming down with a cold or flu and not wait until you are ill. Usually he takes about a tablespoon, every 4 hours. Every winter, he used to get many colds; now he might get 1 or 2, and those aren’t debilitating. I guess the old folks knew something when they brewed Elderberry wine and would drink it in the winter, since that probably worked in a similar manner to the syrup.” — Blanche Cybele Derby, Northampton, MA.  Author of the beautifully illustrated “My Wild Friends, Free Food From Field and Forest”

“Make your own Elderberry Cordial It’s simple. Really it is. Elder Trees are abundant in the valley. Gather ripe berries on a dry day. You’ll find them in late summer or early fall. Separate them from the stem. Loosely fill a quart jar with the berries. Fill the jar half way up with vodka. On the stove heat 1 1/2 cups of sugar with 2 cups of water, (I like to use local raw honey just adjust ratios appropriately.) Pour the mixture into the jar until full. For an extra zing add a few cloves and some grated ginger. Shake daily for one moon cycle, strain and bottle! Yum.  This is your basic cordial recipe you can use a variety of aromatic herbs and fruit, try Raspberries, Hawthorn Berries, Peaches, Anise Hyssop, Lemon Balm, Lemon Verbena, Clementines, Pomegranate or Sweet Cicely — your friends will love you!!” — Tony(a) Lemos, Ashfield, MA

“A Garlic Steam to decongest. Take 4-6 good sized cloves of fresh garlic, peeled and chopped very fine. Put garlic in a large bowl. Fill the bowl 3/4 full with freshly boiled water. Cover. Make a tent with a large towel over your head, shoulders and bowl. Remove the cover, close your eyes, Breathe deeply.” — Kathleen Duffy, nurse, medical herbalist, and owner of the Herbarium in Chicopee, MA.

“For an upper respiratory virus with sinus congestion, I drink lots of warm teas with honey and also do a facial steam with a few drops of Eucalyptus essential oil in a bowl of steaming water. I put a towel over my head and breath in the refreshing steam until it cools.” — Rachel Tartaglia, NP. Easthampton, MA

“To bring a fever away from the head when you don’t wish to suppress the immune system with aspirin: wet cotton socks, put on feet, put wool ones over the cotton ones. The wet pulls the fever down and the wool wicks the moisture.” — Eileen Latshang, Massage Therapist, Northampton, MA

“This works if you do it before the cold or flu is too entrenched: do enough aerobic exercise to work up a really good sweat, like 30-45 minutes worth. This actually brings on a temporary, self-induced fever which may be enough to kill the emerging germs. I find this to be even more effective if I have time to sit in a sauna afterwards.” — Grace Edwards

“In a pan of hot water place a tea bag (what ever you have at home mint tea, red zinger, mandarin orange spice) the steam smells really nice and it is clearing to head and sinus problems. It really helps. This is really a pleasant way to do a steaming of your head and sinus.” — Gaella Elwell

Garlic-Ginger Sesame Sauce
A wonderfully spicy sauce to use on cooked vegetables, grains, pasta & entrees. Especially decongestant for colds and scratchy throats.
10-13 cloves Organic Garlic
1/2 cup Sesame Butter or Tahini
1 inch piece Ginger Root, grated
4 tsp Dark Toasted Sesame Oil
1/4 cup Tamari or Shoyu Soy Sauce
Juice of 1 Organic Lemon (& grated peel)
Honey (to taste)
Water (to thin to gravy consistency)
Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender. (It will be thick) Dilute with water to gravy consistency. Add honey to taste, to mellow flavors.
Gail Ulrich 1951-2000, Herbalist

“For swollen glands I sometimes rub some castor oil on the offending area just before bed. This has helped with my throat, my tummy and my ears.” — Katryna Nields, Singer, Conway, MA

“Set a small bottle of ginger brandy with real ginger on the car’s defrost turned up high as you drive home. Once home drink it, get under the covers and sweat it out.” — John Ward, Performance Motors, Hadley, MA

“When I feel a cold coming on I take tons of Vitamin C then it does not last as long or feel as bad.” — Alison Odle, Autumn Inn, Northampton, MA

“A shot of ginger juice straight up for any cold or congestion, -it kills it right off. — Straight from the mouth of someone who use to work at a juice bar.” — Rachel Zingone, Sweeties, Northampton, MA

“When I feel a cold coming on, I fill my bath with the hottest water I can stand and pour in a cup or two of apple cider vinegar. I try to do this right before bed so that I can slip right under the covers all relaxed and detoxed. It soothes aches, warms me up and I think it leeches toxins out of my system too.” — Katryna Nields, Singer, Conway, MA

Beyond Prevention

Chris Marano, clinical/community herbalist, Clearpath Herbals, Wendell, MA writes:

“Our culture likes to declare war: War on Crime, War on Drugs, War on Poverty. Our view of health is no exception. In most cases, we perceive dis-ease to be caused by an invading adversary, and we call upon “heroes” (physicians) to locate the enemy inside us and remove it so that we can return to “normal.” In military terms, we would call this an aggressive offensive response. Preventive medicine, then, takes the role of the strong defense that blocks enemies from getting inside us and taking root. Still, it is a warlike mentality and part of our cultures paradigm, one based on fear and an Illusion of Separation.

“The paradigm of Separation runs like a deep current through all that we are and do. It is both the root of humanity’s self-created problems and its great achievements. Separation forms our culture and language, permeates our politics, spirituality, relationships with people, and the environment. It is how we define ourselves as human beings. But Separation is an illusion. It is what we have been taught and it has become the way we choose to view the world and ourselves.

“There is another way. Current scientific and ecological research corroborates what some spiritual traditions have been saying for a very long time: Everything is Connected. Everything is one dynamic, ever-changing whole. We are all part of a Universal Dance. What we do to others and the world, we do to ourselves. The first step to a more holistic healing model is a change of perception, one that sees everything as interconnected and interdependent.

“A better model for Holistic Health is not Prevention but Connection. We are not excluded from the Universal Dance. Each of us is a universe, a dance of atoms and molecules, of energies and elements, of the internal and the external. The dance is not a war, it is a partnership, even when we are sick. In the Connection model, we perceive everything together — ourselves and our unlikely dance partner(s) and we direct our attention to the interplay. What attracted this partner to us? What rhythm were we following or creating that led to a dance we call illness? What can we do to influence the rhythm to change?

“The disease as enemy model says: Once we kill the enemy, it is gone and we return to health.

“The disease as dance says: Once the rhythm changes, the dance (health) becomes harmonious again. What is the harmonious rhythm? It is a dance of balance, moderation, healthy habits, and, above all, awareness. The first step to consistent health is awareness of our bodies (anatomy and physiology), our sensations (pleasurable, painful, normal, unusual), our feelings, our thoughts, our actions. It is a lack of awareness of our own selves that creates our separation from ourselves, from others, from nature. Fortunately, there is great medicine in the world to help with this first step. Here are a few that are readily available:

  • Love
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Nature
  • Laughter
  • Ritual/Ceremony

As we become aware (mindful) of ourselves, our thoughts, words and actions, we change. We begin to see the connection between us and us, between others and us, between us and the world. It becomes one beautiful dance. Then, everything has everything to do with everything, all things become tools for health, and every moment becomes an opportunity for well-being. This is revolutionary healing.”

For more from this series, check out these posts from A Cure for What Ails

Tony(a) LemosTony(a) Lemos

Tony(a) is the director of Blazing Star Herbal School in Ashfield, MA, she also maintains an herbal medicine practice in Western Mass. She is a graduate of Natural Therapy at Raworth College in England and has apprenticed with many influential herbalist, including Susun Weed. She has taught at conferences and festivals all over New England, including Green Nations Gathering, Falcon Ridge Folk Fest and the Women’s Herbal Conference.

Photo credit: Sambucus nigra, (ccl) simonsterg

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