August 16, 2013

Goldenrod Folk Medicine

Nothing says "Happy late summer!" like a congested head and a scratchy throat. I unfortunately have a cold (blech!), but I know many people also suffer from pollen allergies at this time of year. There are lots of wildflowers blooming in the parks, meadows, and along the roadsides. So pretty, so irritating to the sinuses.

One wildflower that sometimes gets blamed for summer allergies is goldenrod. I can remember people complaining about goldenrod pollen when I was a kid, and I sometimes still hear that complaint. Well, apparently we are all wrong. According to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England, the allergies ascribed to goldenrod are actually caused primarily by ragweed.

Don't fear this goldenrod plant!
Perhaps the following will further help rehabilitate goldenrod's reputation: in 19th century New Hampshire, goldenrod actually was believed to prevent rheumatism. That's arthritis to us contemporary Americans.

If you look at the stem of a goldenrod plant you may see a small swollen lump or gall. This gall is caused when an insect (usually trypeta solidaginis, a type of fly) lays its eggs in the plant. After the egg hatches a small larva will live inside the gall until it matures, crawls out, and flies away.

In New Hampshire it was believed that carrying one of the galls in your pocket would prevent rheumatism. These so-called "rheumaty-buds" were only effective while the grub inside them was still alive. Once the grub died you would need to get another gall. (It seems kind of cruel to carry these grubs around just so they could die, but I don't think 19th century rural folk were too concerned with the pain and suffering of insects.) I'm guessing the galls were considered effective against rheumatism because they resemble the swollen joints arthritis sometimes causes, but I'm just speculating.

I've poked around a trying to find information about the life-cycle of trypeta solidaginis, but without too much luck. From the little I found it appears the galls can usually be found in the autumn. I would suggest examining, but not plucking, a gall. Let the trypeta solidaginis live its life!

And if you are suffering from rheumatism or arthritis, please see a doctor. 

I found this little tidbit about in Fanny Bergen's article "Some Bits of Plant-Lore" from The Journal of American Folklore, Jan. - Mar., 1892.

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