Naturalist blends history, acting, with passion for native plants

Salamonie Lake Interpretive Naturalist Laura Whiteleather, as Millie the pioneer granny doctor, forages for some plants to add to her basket of wild herbs used to treat illnesses and maladies such as poison ivy. Whiteleather has been giving her presentation for the past nine years.
Salamonie Lake Interpretive Naturalist Laura Whiteleather, as Millie the pioneer granny doctor, forages for some plants to add to her basket of wild herbs used to treat illnesses and maladies such as poison ivy. Whiteleather has been giving her presentation for the past nine years. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin

Originally published June 8, 2017.

The story goes, she rode along with her family from Pennsylvania, traveling in a canvas-covered wagon to the frontier known as Indiana – the “Land of the Indians.”

It was the early 1840s, and Millie was a pioneer woman in a rough, new, unforgiving country.

Although time has made her appear a bit older, in her long pioneer dress and frilly bonnet, Millie is only about 9 years old – a fictional character made up by Laura Whiteleather.

“Millie” was invented when Whiteleather, an interpretive naturalist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, needed a fun way to introduce school children to the medicinal uses of native Hoosier plants. In character, Whiteleather is transformed into what is called a “granny doctor” – a woman who knows how to use plants to treat all kinds of illnesses and ailments.

“She is based on some research I’ve done on granny doctors,” Whiteleather says. “She’s a fictional person, but a majority of the historical facts are correct … The plants that she used have been researched, and I’ve read about life in the 1840s to mid 1800s, and used the plants that were used at that time.”

Whiteleather is in her element as Millie, having had a lifelong interest in plants and their uses, passed down from her mother and grandmother.

“I love wildflowers, and had an interest in herbals and health concerns with herbals, so it kind of fell in naturally,” she explains. “Plus, as a little girl, I always wanted to be an actress, but I was so terribly shy that I never pursued that once I got out of elementary school, so I thought this would give me a chance to play act a character, which is fun.”

The fun in Whiteleather’s presentation is often the result of interaction between “Millie” and her audience. She has appeared as the granny doctor to groups of all ages, not only at her home base of the Interpretive Center at Salamonie Lake, but at parks in Wells County, home extension groups, Miami County Master Gardeners’ meetings and at the Andrews-Dallas Township Public Library.

Recently she gave her talk at the Senior luncheon held monthly at the Salamonie Lake Interpretive Center. The room was packed full of people eager to hear about Millie’s doctoring skills.

As Millie, Whiteleather transforms her audience back to the days when an illness’ medicine was as far away as the cabin’s back door.
“I’m very interested in the early 1800s and how people lived, and I love to read about it, so I apply a lot of what I’ve read to my character, to try and make her as authentic as possible,” she says. “This kind of lets some of that creativity out and allows me to use it.”

Some of Whiteleather’s favorite granny doctoring plants put peppermint up at the top of the list, used for multiple ailments  – upset stomach, headache, sore throat, bad breath and more. Millie’s family would have grown mint in their “kitchen garden” and used it for flavoring food and beverages as well.

Another important plant is the aromatic spicebush, which has a citrusy smell.

“It was used as a spring tonic,” Whiteleather explains. “The early pioneers believed that their blood got thick in the winter, and so in the spring, when they needed to go out and plant their garden, they needed something to pick them up and give them energy, so they would drink spicebush tea, believing that it would actually ‘thin’ their blood.”

Mullein, also called lungwort, is another popular herbal remedy, used to clear up chest and lung congestion from a cold or flu. Whiteleather explains that the herb was smoked to impart its properties directly to the lungs.

“It had to be smoked – and some of this is old wives’ tales – but smoking mullein in a brand-new clay pipe that was never used before,” she says. “That goes into some of the superstition and wives’ tales … but it works.”

Other favorite medicinal plants include:

• Willow – used for headaches, especially. Pioneers chewed the bark “until their ears rang” and then the headache would be gone, Whiteleather says, adding that willow has the same ingredient in it as aspirin.

• Elderberry – used to treat influenza. As gatherers picked the berries, they would say, “Mother Elder, may I?” before they would pick the berries from the bush.

• Boneset and ironweed – both used to alleviate symptoms of the “shaking ague” – also known as malaria. Boneset contains some quinine properties, which is used to cure the mosquito-borne disease.

• Plantain – applying chewed leaves to an insect bite will relieve the itch, Whiteleather says.

• Sycamore bark – made into a tea, the bark was used to relieve constipation. The sycamore’s seed balls were smeared with bear grease and lit, providing light inside the cabin.

• Jewelweed, also called touch-me-not – cooked to a red paste then cooled, the plant relieves the symptoms of poison ivy rash, Whiteleather says.

• Dandelion – vitamin-packed, leaves are tossed into spring salads and used to treat kidney ailments.

“A lot of these plants are in their own backyard,” she adds. “Most things that people call ‘weeds’ are actually very useful.”

She says she herself has used many of the plants she talks about in her educational presentations – and she adds that yes, they do work.

“I think part of the fun of Millie is just opening people’s eyes that there are so many plants out here that were put there for a purpose, and we just do not utilize them,” Whiteleather says. “It is fun to go out and research the plants, and to do the foraging. It gives me an excuse to get out into the woods and meadows and do the foraging part as well, and gather my plants.”

Whiteleather, who has been an interpreter for 12 years, says the most enjoyable part of her plants presentation is getting her audience to play along with her character.

“That makes it a lot easier and fun, too,” she says. “The first time that I did Millie was for an elementary school group, and it was really shocking how little these kids knew about the plants around them and where their food even comes from. But as I was portraying her, I sat there thinking, ‘Gee, this is my job and I’m getting paid to do this fun pioneer character, with bare feet and a pioneer dress on.’ I was just happy.”