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The first week of our brand new year is already marching into the past, although the mild temperatures and blue skies seem more like the beginning of spring. It is such a change from last year at this time, when we endured a raging snow storm that reduced us to old time living. The power was off, rural roads were virtually impassable, and modern life came to a standstill. It was good for us though, when the pace of life became less hurried, and we had time to slow down and enjoy some old time board games with our children.

Although we know this mild weather is merely a respite from more seasonal weather (and sometimes we wonder with apprehension just what Old Man Winter does have up his frosty sleeve) we take advantage of these sunshiny days and enjoy them. It gives us an incentive to pore over the gardening catalogs that are now arriving, and long to get our hands in the dirt. One advantage to this warm weather is the fact that the ground has not yet froze, and sassafras roots can be dug now.

The ideal time to dig sassafras roots is during early spring, while the tree is dormant and the sap is down in the roots. We generally wait until the ground thaws in late February, but this is an unusual winter. A pot of deep red sassafras bubbling on the stove, and sending out a fragrance that perfumes the whole house, is an ideal spring tonic—and it tastes so good!

Winter is an ideal time to gather bark for medicinal uses. It is of highest value when gathered in the dormant season. The bark of the slippery elm, birch, wild cherry, and the inner bark of white pine can be gathered now. Slippery elm was a staple in our home when I was growing up, used for sore throats. I am pretty sure that my late mother-in-law used wild cherry bark in her cough syrup decoction. I know that she used yellowroot and honey, and it made a dark, bitter syrup that was quite effective in quelling a cough.

This is the time of year to gather the red berries of the sumac bush, used as an astringent and gargle. All around us is a vast drugstore of wild herbs and barks good for medicinal purposes. For laryngitis, an old time remedy is a gargle made of white oak bark. You peel the bark, boil the white inner lining, and gargle. Daddy used to peel great strips of sweet birch bark and bring it in to us children. Sweet and cold from winter weather, we would scrape the white lining with teaspoons. It was better than ice scream, and I’m not sure what ailment it cured, but we loved it!

Another plant that can be found in the winter is wild ginger, whose shiny green leaves stand out against the dull brown of others. My mother said they always called the plant coltsfoot (which it is not) because the heart-shaped leaves do resemble a colt’s foot. The southern variety, which grows in our area here, has evergreen leaves and a purple-brown flower which blooms in the spring.

I can’t resist pulling up a plant when I spy one; to chew on the roots which have a strong ginger-like taste. The root is sometimes used in wild food cookery. However, the plant has been used in folk medicine as a tonic, to increase perspiration and break a fever (to “break out” measles or chicken pox, etc.) to relieve gas pains, and as an appetite stimulant.

Mullein is another herb that can be gathered in the winter. In fact, these fuzzy leaves appear all year around. Daddy swore by it for chest ailments. It is excellent to treat chest colds, bronchitis and asthma, and to relieve inflammations. Laboratory tests have proven that extract of mullein shows strong anti-inflammatory activity. I have made the cough remedy listed in one of my herbal books using one ounce of dried leaves to a pint of milk, boiled for ten minutes, strained and sweetened with honey. Our daughter-in-law Sarah had a bad cough that kept hanging on, and I tried it on her. Or, I attempted to try it. She balked on me, and kept saying things like, “Keep away from me! Don’t come any closer! No-no-no!” I’ll have to admit it was nasty. I read later that it could be made with water in a similar fashion.’m afraid my family doesn’t have much faith in my home remedies!

The first week of our new year may be gone, slipped so rapidly through our fingers, yet the year stretches before us, new and untried. The old year, with its hopes and dreams, successes and failures, is already history. There is no need to dwell on our failures, except as a lesson learned, and go on from there. I am thankful for the beginning of a new year, as I am glad and thankful for the beginning of each new day. I have found that if you put the Lord first at the start of every day, there will not be any “wasted” days. The Lord will lead and guide us, if we will place ourselves in His hands and let him. Too many times I have been guilty of planning my days in advance and then telling God, “Now Lord, here are my plans. You do what You will with me.”

Here is a poem that sums that up pretty well.

Author Unknown
As children bring their broken toys
With tears, for us to mend,
I brought my broken dreams to God,
Because He was my Friend.
But then, instead of leaving Him
In peace, to work alone:
I hung around and tried to help
With ways that were my own.
At last I snatched them back and cried,
“How can You be so slow?”
“My child,” He said, “What could I do?
You never did let go!”

Our days are numbered. So many of mine are already gone that I want to be careful of how I use what is left. I have none to squander uselessly. The future may look depressing to many, yet I know the One who holds the world in His mighty hand. He is dispensing our days one at a time—to be lived as we choose. I choose to serve Him. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know the One who holds the future. And I know personally that God will keep the soul who trusts in Him.

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Alyce Faye Bragg

She writes the "News From the Hills" column. Born and raised in the country, and still lives on the same farm where she was raised. Has a sincere love for nature and the beauty of the hills. Began writing in 1981 & currently has three books published. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer