Sharing Baba's remedies

When he set out to research and document uses of plants by early Ukrainian settlers in western Canada, Michael Mucz had no idea just how much his project would blossom and bear fruit.

But Mucz’s resulting book—20 years in the making—is a lovingly detailed chronicle that wraps science, Ukrainian culture and western Canadian history into one quirky package and flexes the boundaries of traditional scientific research.

Mucz, a professor of biology at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus, wanted to write more than a typical academic reference book when he started his botanical project while on a sabbatical in 1992. His research soon led to a discovery of a rich cache of folk medicine that was as telling about humanity as it was about health.

Mucz’s newly released Baba’s Kitchen Medicines is a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of western Canada’s Ukrainian settlers, who used what was at hand to deal with just about every ailment, including frostbite, diaper rash, anxiety, kidney stones and infected limbs.

“Beyond the traditional prescriptions for healing remedies, I hope readers will recognize that these settlers had their backs against the wall, yet they didn’t quit,” said Mucz, who came to Canada after the Second World War with his parents, as displaced persons from Germany. “They made do with what they had, plus what their neighbours could share. People banded together to survive; they had to.”

That legacy of helping one another took the form of medicinal remedies outlined in Mucz’s book, with women largely serving as both family and community healers.

A hybrid mix of botany, history and anthropology, Mucz’s research is as much a story about hardship and endurance as it is a scientific record, he said.

“This kind of research has tremendous social value; living in the individualized society we have today, we have lost connection with our neighbours and community. Ethnic cohesion and co-operation is a continuing feature of any group that comes to Canada.”

Using a tape recorder and a notebook, Mucz personally conducted 200 interviews in Alberta’s Ukrainian east-central communities, visiting seniors in their own homes as well as in lodges and nursing homes. He painstakingly gathered one-on-one remembrances of healing remedies and treatments used on isolated homesteads and farms.

During the course of his two decades of research, Mucz witnessed many tears, smiles and some embarrassing moments as distant memories surfaced in his interview subjects. Their average age was 81, and many have since passed away, but Mucz felt glad that he kept a promise he had made to them: “What you share with me, I will share with others.” He compiled their stories so that they could be shared with their children, grandchildren and many other readers.

Drawn from the early 1900s, many of the folk remedies wouldn’t be considered for household use today, but do have logical roots in modern science, Mucz noted.

“Many of the home remedies made a lot of practical sense.” Plants possess varied natural ingredients that effectively promoted healing and there were other materials close at hand as well, Mucz noted. Urine, for example, was known to be effective for treating dry and chapped skin. “Today, one of the leading ingredients in topical hand creams to treat such a condition includes uric acid.” A cow-manure poultice was a radical but reliable treatment to speed healing of infected wounds, and store-bought goods like sulphur and salt also contributed to traditional healing treatments.

Ultimately, Mucz hopes his work will touch people “at the heart level” by paying tribute to the human ingenuity and toughness shown by the early settlers in western Canada.

“Maybe the simplicity of the documented healing treatments and remedies best reveals what we can do for ourselves in our own homes.”