Please remember that Forage Friday is presented as trivia and not to be mistaken for medical advice.
The glow of an oil lamp illuminated the canvas tent as the surgeon entered inside. He casts a concerned look around the room. So many of his soldiers were suffering with the Remitting Fever. As a surgeon it didn’t matter to him if his patients were wearing a blue or gray coat. All that mattered was that these souls were in need of medicine. And a medicine that he did not have. He did the best he could to make them comfortable until the fever passed and went back outside to sit by the fire and pray for help. The thunder of hooves on the trail broke the constant drone of insects and frogs and soon a rider emerged from the bushes with a few amber bottles. The liquid inside was brown and bitter with the consistency of thin syrup. The surgeon administered the liquid as instructed by the accompanying letter and by morning his prayer had been answered.
During the Civil War malaria was known as the Remitting Fever and was a huge problem for both the Union and the Confederate troops in the South. The prescription for malaria was Quinine made from the bark of cinchona trees but it was expensive and in short supply. I’m not sure how it came to be but I strongly suspect that it was a suggestion from the Cherokee who had allied with the South. Traditionally, the Cherokee had used the bark of the Yellow Poplar to treat fever and according to the history it had been quite successful. Now to be honest I took some creative liberty in the little fiction story above but sometime between the Civil War and the 1800s a method of creating a viable alternative to the expensive Quinine. The complex process involved compounding the powdered inner bark of Black Willow, Dogwood and Yellow Poplar in an alcoholic extract. Further processing involved charcoal filters and a few other substances until the brown syrup like liquid was obtained. The Quinine substitute called for fifty pounds of the combined tree barks and if I read it correctly sixteen gallons of “proof wiskey”.
I doubt that the Cherokee used that level of complexity in their Yellow Poplar preparation. They most likely collected the inner bark from Yellow Poplar roots in the Spring when it peels easily and dried it in strips to use in a tea. In addition to using it for fever it cleared the body of parasites.
The inner bark and fresh leaves were applied as a poultice for Rheumatism and boils. And a salve made from the flower bulbs was used to treat burns and most likely other minor skin injuries.
Of course this is a Forage Friday post and as such I need to address the food value of Yellow Poplar. As I researched for the article the only mention in the way of food was something called “Cherokee Honey”. Prior to the 1800s there was no honeybees in North America. Everything was pollinated by the solitary bees like sweat bees along with other insects and hummingbirds. Without honeybees you don’t have honey. But that’s not to say that there’s no way to sweeten food. The other name for Yellow Poplar is Tulip Tree because of Tulip shaped flowers and as a kid I would either pick the flowers from low hanging limbs or climb a tree to reach them. In the very base of the flowers there’s a nectar that’s as sweet as the bark is bitter. The closest thing to it in the store is Agave nectar. And since we know that Native Americans made maple syrup it’s reasonable to presume that they applied that same skill to evaporate the nectar of the Yellow Poplar until they had syrup that was similar to honey. I don’t know for a fact that it had medicinal values like honey but the tree does produce antimicrobial compounds and the high sugar content would have helped to keep it for a little while. Sucking the raw nectar from a Yellow Poplar flower is like finding wild candy to begin with! I imagine that they may have even mixed it with either Native Honeysuckle or wild berries to get different flavors as well.
Native Americans also called Yellow Poplar the Canoe tree. The wood itself very buoyant and its really easy to carve. The innovation of plywood made Yellow Poplar a valuable resource for West Virginia. By peeling the wood in long sheets and crisscrossing the grain we’ve created a very strong building material. And it replenishes itself pretty fast too making Yellow Poplar a renewable resource.
That’s about all I have for tonight friends. Good night and be blessed throughout your days.
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