Last fall I was deep into studying my Czech ancestry and was specifically interested in connecting with culinary and herbal traditions that may have been practiced by my late relatives. A fellow herbalist pointed me towards the work of Maria Treben, who was born in Zatec, Bohemia, the largest of the Czeck lands in what is now the Czech Republic.
Health Through God’s Pharmacy, Maria’s 1980 book, was a raging success and was ultimately translated into 27 languages.
I consume a good deal of content related to herbal healing but was particularly captivated by Maria’s book because it unapologetically explains her herbal knowledge without bothering to cite scientific research or studies.
It’s grandmotherly wisdom, take it or leave it.
There’s something powerful in this old world approach of writing down herb lore without explanation, trusting in the knowledge passed down through generations. I frequently tell my clients that while the medicinal actions of herbs are profound, more profound in my opinion are their mystical aspects, which provide healing and restoration that science can’t always explain.
Maria is known for popularizing an ancient bitter tonic formula, Swedish bitters, which can be used internally as well as topically for everything from stomach upset and flu to rheumatism and hearing loss. There are two preparations of Swedish bitters: A small version containing 11 herbs and a large version containing 22 herbs. Maria favored the small version as she could find no difference in efficacy between the two.
The original formula was created in the 16th century by Swiss physician, alchemist and astrologer Paracelsus during the German Renaissance. Although responsible for several medical breakthroughs, Paracelsus rejected much of traditional academia. He wrote, “The universities do not teach all things, so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers and such outlaws and take lessons from them. A doctor must be a traveler… Knowledge is experience.”
Swedish medics Claus Samst and Urban Hjarne rediscovered Paracelsus’ formula it in the 18th century. Samst authored a manuscript explaining 46 problems the formula could treat, and this manuscript is the basis for many of Maria’s claims regarding the healing abilities of Swedish bitters.
The recipe is intriguing as it contains several herbs that are rarely used in contemporary herbal medicine and which can be difficult to source, like carline thistle root and manna. I am currently testing out a version by Nature Works and look forward to making my own brew - with rye whiskey instead of grain alcohol - later this summer.
In addition to the bitters she made famous, Maria was partial to yarrow, nettle, dandelion, and lady’s mantle for promoting lasting health and wellness over time. From what I gathered in her book, Maria’s favorite herbal preparations were teas, infusions and poultices.
She reminded me that I don’t give poultices enough of my time and that I often rely too heavily on tinctures to do the job that a tea or infusion would be better suited to… In 2019 it’s easy to slip into the faulty mindset that more powerful medicine is better medicine.
Maria’s second book, Health from God’s Garden, is much like her first except that it’s organized by ailment and is easier to reference quickly. I can’t figure out who runs her website, though it functions as an online shop and sells a variety of the remedies she mentions in her books, including the dry herbs necessary to make Swedish bitters.