Spring Tonic

Spring Tonic

Excerpt from Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English:

Spring tonic noun A home medicine taken in early spring and purported to purge the system and thicken the blood. It most often consists of sulfur and molasses, sometimes with whiskey or an herb such as ginseng added. 1992 Cavender Folk Hematology 28 During the spring a “spring tonic” was necessary to “thin” the blood and, more importantly, to cleanse or “purify” the blood of the impurities or poison accumulated during the winter. In fact, cleansing the blood of waste materials serves to “thin” the blood as well since the waste material is the thickening agent. 1997 Andrews Mountain Vittles 4 Early spring here in the valley in ever’ cabin we young uns could always count on our grandmas and mother to line us up and give us a spoonful of their own special remedy…spring tonic.

We never used a spring tonic when I was a kid-nor do I as an adult. But I have heard folks talk about eating greens-especially polk salad in early spring to build their blood. I guess that’s a spring tonic of sorts.

If you’ve been a Blind Pig for a good long while, you probably remember Sylvia Lee telling us about her Grandmother’s spring tonic.

How about you-got any information about spring tonics to share?


*Source Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English.


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  • Reply
    Jane Poindexter
    March 24, 2018 at 12:58 am

    My Grand Mother made Spring Tonic out of yellow root ,But I don’t know what the plant is .

  • Reply
    March 22, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    I don’t remember Spring Tonics as such, but I do remember our Mom giving my next oldest sister, Pattie and I, Cod Liver Oil for a while when we were little, til our Dad saw her doing it one day, tasted it himself and said don’t give it to us anymore. I can’t remember what it tasted like, but I do remember we didn’t fuss about taking it so maybe the taste was ok. I remember her saying we liked it and it was good for us, but he still said – no more, so we had no more of that.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Susie Swanson
    March 20, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    We never did take a spring tonic either Tipper but like you we eat enough poke salad to cure what ailed us..

  • Reply
    jose Luis
    March 20, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    Hello Tipper
    It is truly amazing the parallels that exist between peoples and their members.
    Today’s topic is the tonic, almost magical drinks usually had their origin in families from a grandmother or older, that both the United States and Argentina, coming from different parts of Europe devastated by war or famine.
    Here in Argentina, for the changing seasons, in early spring, once took a drink bluish, “GIROLAMO Pagliano” which was a pseudo tonic to cleanse and improve the blood, while taking some heat felt and self suddenly seemed a steam locomotive.
    Children also should be purged, is used “Phillips Milk of Magnesia,” and when the child was growing was also reinforced with the “Scott’s Emulsion”, and if it was with that was with the horrible tablespoon “Liver Oil Cod “.
    The only difference was that there were mothers raise their voices with Eat it up!!!, And here would Traga eso yá!!!!
    Greetings from Argentina, José Luis.

  • Reply
    B. ruth
    March 20, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    I got to talking to the better half about Spring tonics!
    He said his parents gave them
    “Castor Oil” and if they gagged while trying to take it,the young’un had to lick the spoon.
    Poke Sallet was also their Spring Tonic.
    I got to thinking of other things we had to take if we seemed sluggish or tired or …you know what!
    Besides Castor Oil..It was used for everything even a bad mood!
    Castoria…Used for stomach ache!
    Black Strap Molassas…If sluggish or tired a lot…supposed to have iron to build up the blood.
    Cod Live Oil…Blood builder, etc.
    Carter’s Little Liver Pills…Mom and Dad took those for backache. The Guvemint made them take out the liver part of the logo when it was found they did no good for the liver…Of course Mom told Dad, “I told you so”!
    Geritol…for Iron poor blood. I don’t remember but them one dose, cause we were out of the other.
    Of course, the standby vegetable wild spring greens..Polk Sallet, Creasy Greens when she could get them, young spinach grown in a tub..
    Does anyone remember their Great Grandmother taking Aunt Lydia’s Vegetable Tonic? I remember seeing a bottle in my Grannies old, well it was new to them…Had one of those wooden boxes above the toilet with the pull string hanging down…Sure do wish I had that old bottle.
    I do have some old receipt booklets with the advertisements on them.
    I enjoyed reading everyones comments today, some of the tonics I remember the names, some we never took that I can remember.
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    March 20, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    We never took a Spring tonic, but when my four brothers and I were little, we were lined up every Winter night for a big spoonful of Father John’s Medicine. I only remembered it many years later, when I lived in CO, and that was before the internet (can you imagine? heh!) so trying to track it down to find out what it was, was futile. Turns out it was a very local product, manufactured in the city next to where my parents both grew up, in MA. I saw it in a drug store maybe 15 years ago and promptly bought a bottle (now plastic, unfortunately, not the mysterious dark brown glass bottle I remember so well) and while it smelled somewhat like what I recall, I haven’t been able to find out if the recipe is exactly the same as the original. The basic ingredient was cod liver oil, but it was well disguised with something that tasted of licorice, and maybe something else. I recently noticed that cod liver oil is making yet another big comeback as a health supplement.

  • Reply
    March 20, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Mama used to tell us about a pill she called “Callitab” that they had to take in spring. It was a potent laxative in outdoor toilet times & of course they hated it. Once Mama & Aunt Gladys (always BFF) begged to go out on the porch to swallow the pill. Mama took hers but Aunt Gladys left hers on the porch. Of course the parents found it & she had to take it.

  • Reply
    Mrs. K
    March 20, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Dandelion is my spring tonic, eat it in salads and make a good tincture from it for the rest of the year. I take cod liver oil most days too, all year.

  • Reply
    March 20, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    I don’t remember taking any Spring
    Tonic, but we did eat Polk Salat
    with scrambled eggs. (I still do!)
    And ramps are a delight with diced
    taters, but only add the ramps after the taters are browned.
    Maybe it was just near our Spring
    but we were always gnawing on the
    small limbs of Sassafras…Ken

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    March 20, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    Not sure about the spelling. I think maybe she spelled it polk.

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    March 20, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I’d like to have a jug of that spring tonic.
    I was already grown when mother said she pulled off the road to gather poke salat for my daddy. I was amazed. Glad she got back in the car safely. We didn’t live in a rural area. Believe she fixed it with eggs. She must have really loved my daddy.
    I’ll have to tell you the chitlin story someday. Actually there are 2 stories.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    I forgot SSS tonic. You took it if you might be anemic. I bet that is what Miss Cindy took. Geritol was for old people with “Iron-Poor Tired Blood” I think I could use some right about now!
    I never ate ramps as a child but I remember kids who did. They smelled so bad sometimes the teacher made them sit in the hall.
    Does anybody eat fried poke shoots? Sliced to look like okra or left whole. Rolled in cornmeal and fried like okra.

  • Reply
    B. ruth
    March 20, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Mom gave us Cod Liver Oil…ewwww
    You would think it was in a tablespoon by the way it filled your mouth. She had us stand there, (mainly me,’cause my sweet little pet brothers just cried too much, huh!) not move and put on our tongue, a few drops from the dropper… We had a small piece of orange, leftover tea or the worst water to wash it on down…”Hold your nose,” she would say!
    The worst thing I remember was when we seemed rundown to her was the dose of Castor Oil. I would start crying, begging for anything but the Castor Oil..I swore that I would never in my life give my children Castor Oil.
    “Do you know it is used to oil typewriters and airplane parts”, I would cry to Mother when I got older. Of course she had quit giving us “the dose” by that time.
    One of the happiest I ever saw Mom was when Dad came home one day with a brown paper bag of “creasy greens”. She was craving them and since moving further from Madison County, she hadn’t had her fill of them in a long time.
    Eating too many comfort foods in the winter that keep you warm, taters, meat, breads and cheeses tend to slow you down, with no “frash” greens or vegetables to keep you “peppy”. So I see, where the “tonic idear” comes from!
    The only thing I don’t like is the “running trots” to the “indoor outhouse” after a dose of Castor Oil…ewwwwww! Never again, my dear!
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…I love me some poke ‘sallet and sliced biled eggs stirred around in it…yummm! Need to check along the pasture fence they are surely coming up! About time for “Morels” and “Ramps” too!
    I need to send the husband up the holler and see if my transplanted Ramps ever come on…I hope so! These are cleaner since we hadn’t seen a black bear on our ridge in many a moon!

  • Reply
    March 20, 2013 at 11:15 am

    My spring tonic is the bursting of living that comes with all the trees, plants, flowers, and etc. Thanks for sharing this information; maybe that was what castor oil was used for at one time. Polk salad is another new term for me.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    March 20, 2013 at 11:14 am

    My favorite Spring Tonic is Ramps and Branch Lettuce (Bear Lettuce) chopped, salted lightly and kilt with hot Bacon Grease. Take a plate full with Cornbread and a glass of sweet milk. Another tonic we could count on was Polk Sallet accompanied by the same sides. My Dad was a strong advocate of Indian Rivir Tonic taken all winter long, it tasted like a rusty nail so it must have been an Iron supplement and many times I had to be held and forced to take my tablespoon full as it was terrible but at least I got to see my three sisters choke theirs down. I guess misery does love company. The tonic Ed referred to made up a part of many of the other tonics, they may not have helped but if you took a large enough dose you just thought you felt better.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 20, 2013 at 10:29 am

    I remember sulfur,it had a chalky consistency, was lime green, and had an unusual flavor…not unpleasant.
    I remember greens to cleanse the body in the spring. I like the greens, always have. My memory of creasy greens was in the fall not the spring. It grew in the corn fields after the corn was cut. The Deer Hunter always loved creasy greens
    When I was about 4 I had a tonic to take. It was orange in a big square edged brown bottle. The tonic was to get me to eat. I was thin and didn’t grow any for several years.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    March 20, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Tipper–Two edible “spring tonics” are ramps and poke sallet. Both, in addition to being mighty fine fare, have a pronounced tendency to clean out one’s innards.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Sam Ensley
    March 20, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Our spring tonic was a “broken dose” of Epsom salts. A broken dose was a double dose (two teaspoonfuls) of salts dissolved in a snuff glass of water. I remember drinking it as fast as I could because it was so bitter. After drinking it, you gad to play close to the porch because, as my grandmother said, it gave you a good “working out.”

  • Reply
    Kent Lockman
    March 20, 2013 at 9:41 am

    My 91-year-old mother copied the family spring “health tonic” for each of us kids to keep, but not to use! She was dosed with it as a child in the ’20s and thought it was disgusting! However three generations at least believed in the healing and restorative powers of the “Liver Cordial Receipt”. In fact, my mother’s grandmother (1871-1952) often told the story of her mother sending her the cordial through the mail when she lived in Oklahoma and had gotten sick with something the doctor didn’t know how to treat. The Liver Cordial cured her!
    Here is the recipe:
    2 oz pulverized rhubarb root
    3 oz solid extract of dandelion (or fluid extract)
    4 oz boneset leaves and flowers
    1/2 oz ground cloves
    1/2 oz best ginger
    3-4 lbs granulated sugar
    1 pint best alcohol
    Boil boneset in about 1 gal of water, boil the strength out good then strain it and put in the following: when the dandelion is dissolved, put in ginger, cloves, sugar, and rhubarb. Boil down to 1 gal. When cool, put in the alcohol. (Sometimes the ginger and cloves have to be put in the alcohol.)
    Adult dose is 1 tablespoon after each meal
    Mom said it was a muddy brown and nasty, but the family believed in it, so she and her siblings got dosed every spring. Thankfully, by the 1950’s when I was little, my grandma only encouraged mom to use it for her family. She didn’t dictate!
    Marianne Lockman, Indiana

  • Reply
    March 20, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Spring brought so many good things to Four Season Country. My mom, along with neighbors, would go scouting in the woods for wild greens which had strange names such as lambs quarter, dandelion, poke salad, creasy greens and something I cannot recall that had Tom in its name. We were taught to differentiate between creasy greens and another plant that was bitter. The poke salad was plentiful and grew along the strip mining roads. We picked only the tender leaves, and did not pick a lot even though it was plentiful. Since kids went along to help, I am surprised everybody survived these excursions. The evening meal would consist of these wild greens with big pone of cornbread.
    Sassafras tea was something else we drank, and it may have some blood thinning properties.
    Tipper, there you go again, making me do all this thinking and remembering much from the past. Now if I could just get that ole short term memory as sharp.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul`
    March 20, 2013 at 8:12 am

    I remember something nasty!

  • Reply
    Gina S
    March 20, 2013 at 7:51 am

    When Mama became a nurse she abandoned all of the folk remedies from her mother, but I think she may have given my cod liver oil a time or two. I do recall Mama vowing that she would never give me castor oil. It must have been a favorite of her mother. I missed spring tonic, but consider myself blessed to have done without the powers of castor oil.

  • Reply
    March 20, 2013 at 7:49 am

    I never tried a spring tonic but I relate to Sandy’s comment about loving to spend time with Grandpa. Not only was he Momma’s Daddy but, he was my hero! Man, the dormant memories her comment unlocked.
    Once Momma let me go to the garden with him and on the way back he stopped and said, “Boy, you wanna ride this mule?” I looked up at that mule and if he had been Babe the Blue Ox he couldn’t have looked any bigger: I was scared to death but wouldn’t tell Papa. He reached down, picked me up and set me on old Bill’s back and I was petrified (I was four years old) what would you expect? That’s one day I would like to live again! Thanks Tipper and Sandy!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 20, 2013 at 7:32 am

    The only tonic I remember taking was Geritol and Blair’s White Liniment. Mommy mixed a teaspoon of the liniment in a snuff glass of water. It actually tasted pretty good.
    I remember traipsing through the woods over on Licklog and coming across a contraption wherein the —– Boys made their special tonic. It was set up right beside a spring. Does that qualify it as a spring tonic?

  • Reply
    Tim Mc
    March 20, 2013 at 6:36 am

    It would probable do us all some good if we did take a spring tonic every so often.. Stress is known to thicken the blood, and most folks today are stressed with having to be at 2 places at once,, to work, family, you name it everyone you meet in Wal-mart has a look of stress on their face.. Well stress is known to thicken the blood, it’s the bodies own defense mechanism, when in battle it would help keep you from bleeding out, cancer cells love thick blood, because it allows the ability to attach itself to you, a tonic helps thin the blood to purify and thin the blood.. Old folks new what they were doing…This did not come from the Book of ” I thought so” a lot of the herbal books explain it in more detail..The folks in Europe use more herbal remedies than we do with great results, it’s just in the past few years being rediscovered what our ancestors knew all along… So hold your nose and take your tonic…

  • Reply
    March 20, 2013 at 5:13 am

    I don’t remember ever taking a spring tonic to cleanse our blood but I do remember carrying the sack every spring when I got to go with my Grandpa to gather greens. For some reason they seemed to grow near the creek bank. I know he told me what they all were and I remember a few of them but not many. I had no idea they were “good for us”. I just thought it was a chance to spend time with my Grandpa and with cornbread and onions they were better than candy. I loved sopping up the vinegar in the bottom of the bowl with the crust of my bread.

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