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Bavarian Root Doctors and Herbal Lore

This article was written by Nancy Arrowsmith
posted under Herbalism

I was once a stranger in a strange land without a job. Beyond that, I was broke and in a problematic relationship. At one point, I found myself wandering through the streets of Munich, looking for a place to work, for a day job that would pay the rent. Schwabing, the publishing/film/artistic part of town, had few possibilities for a so-called unskilled employee, so I went further afield. At some point, I found myself standing outside of a quaint little shop near Munich’s main market, the Viktualienmarkt. In German, it was called “Kräuterhaus Helvetia, D’ Original Oberbayrische Kräuter- und Wurzelsepp,” which translates, with some geographical confusion, to “The Swiss Herb Shop, by the Original Upper Bavarian Herb and Root Doctor.”  I found this fascinating, since I was working on a new herb book after finishing A Field Guide to the Little People. It seemed that this might just be the possibility I was looking for—a chance to nab two birds with one stone: pay the rent and research at the same time. I had discovered that herbs were the “little people” of the plant world, and that there were innumerable references to them in the books of folk wisdom I had consulted for my first book. Eager to learn more, I had already filled out stacks of large index cards with information, but felt that my knowledge was too theoretical and not practical enough.

A few days later, I went to the herb store, and asked if they were looking for someone to work there. The owner, Wilhelm Lindig, was very kind and talked to me for a long time. At the end of our conversation I had a job, starting at 7:45 in the morning and ending at 6:15, five days a week, with half days on Saturday. Founded in 1887, the herb shop sold about five hundred loose herbs and spices, as well as countless herbal preparations. Herr Lindig had learned the trade from his father, who based a good portion of his knowledge on the teachings of the Swiss herbal priest Johann Künzle (hence the misleading name of “Swiss Herb Shop”). Wilhelm Lindig Senior had taken over the shop in 1923 and ran it during the very difficult war and post-war years. In those hard times (WWII), the only medications people had access to were herbs, because normal medications were not available or were prohibitively costly. So the two Lindigs would get on their bikes early in the morning and ride to the outskirts of town and the mountains to gather fresh herbs. In the afternoon the shop was opened, and the herbs were sold to customers, who returned, and told others of the wonderful herbs the Lindigs were selling. With time, the reputation of the store grew beyond its Bavarian customers, and people came from all parts of Germany to buy “Swiss” herbs from the Lindigs.

The Lindigs combined many of their herbs in the mixtures made famous by the Swiss herbal priest Johann Künzle. He was a learned man who taught himself herbal lore when he realized that his parishioners didn’t have access to medical aid. They were so grateful to him that they supported him in a referendum—the medical establishment had become upset with him for the equivalent of “practicing medicine without a license.” At the ripe age of 65, Künzle was forced to undergo an examination to prove his medical competence. He flummoxed the authorities by asking them if they would prefer him to take the exam in Latin, Greek, or German? Needless to say, he passed with flying colors. His booklet Chrut und Uchrut, full of pithy folk humor, was an instant bestseller, and sold over one million copies in Switzerland alone. President Woodrow Wilson was rumored to have been among his patients, and his reputation was heightened because he did not lose a single patient during the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. To give just one example of his style, he compared the stinging nettle in his main herbal to a bristly old man with a heart of gold, and insisted that God had given the plant its stinging hairs so that it could protect itself against greedy animals and humans.

The herb mixtures sold in the Munich shop were based on the mixtures of the Swiss herbal priest, but were then adapted to the symptoms of individual patients. It was the job of the three salesgirls working in the shop to hear the patient’s story and decide which mixture we would give them. As our expertise grew, we were able to add a little bit of chamomile here and some masterwort there, but the difficult cases were always referred to Herr Lindig. According to the patients, he would look them deep in the eye and know just what was bothering them. In fact, he admitted to me that he practiced iris diagnosis, looking at their irises while they were talking to him, which often gave him a better idea of what was bothering them than their rambling explanations.  He would then tell us, for example, to use the # 23 bronchial mixture, but to add a measure of plantain and give them an extra portion of red elder (Sambucus racemosa) berries to make a decoction. His patients seemed to thrive on his attention, and swore by his remedies.

As was customary in southern Germany, we closed the shop during the noon hours to be able to catch up with postal or special orders, and to get some lunch ourselves. One of the most entertaining parts of our day was the half hour before the shop reopened. Customers would line up on the street, often in the cold and snow, ignoring the discomfort but enjoying the social contact. Most of the older women would gossip, endlessly relating their symptoms, and tell the others about how the “Herr Doktor” was able to miraculously cure them. It was an ongoing gabfest, repeated every day without fail. We sometimes couldn’t keep from cracking up at their antics while we listened from inside the shop.

At the time I wasn’t truly fluent in German, but soon learned to appreciate the earthy Bavarian folk humor. Once, when an unusually prissy higher-class northern German woman was monopolizing Herr Lindig’s attentions for an inordinately long time, the other women further back in line mumbled Bavarian imprecations in such a way that they were only audible to trained Bavarian ears: “Such a Prussian sow, a nasty Japanese one…” Half of the store caught on to what she was saying, but the Prussian lady was completely oblivious to what was going on around her, which was probably for the best.

On a typical day, we each served about fifty customers, filling requests for kitchen herbs, herbal shampoos, tinctures, and salves, as well as endless quantities of medicinal teas. The store was almost always filled to overflowing, and we all tended to catch colds. The customers lined up on the street would push and shove to get into the warmth of the shop, leaving the front door open in the middle of winter.

Saturday was kind of a holiday, and we were always treated by the Lindigs to a feast of Bavarian Weisswurst made from finely minced veal and fresh bacon, together with a crunchy fresh roll or yeasty pretzel, mustard, and a bottle of foaming Weissbier from the market. There is a saying that these sausages should not hear the midday bells, or they will lose their flavor, and, traditionally, the sausages were heated in hot water on the wood stove in the back room shortly before noon. Because I was a vegetarian at that time, I always got a thick slice of fresh cheese instead of the sausages. A friend of mine once commented that this was one of the last truly traditional Bavarian stores in town.

The workrooms were much larger than the store itself, but were cold, since they were not heated. There was one herb packaging room, a small kitchen heated with a wood stove, and a long storage area ending in an inner courtyard. In the main store, the herbs were stored in wooden containers with loosely-fitting lids, and the hydroscopic herbs were kept in tightly-sealed glass containers. In the storage areas in the back, large burlap bags filled with herbs were stacked next to large cardboard bins. Mixtures were prepared next to the open back door by shoveling scoops of herbs into a large cement mixer, and letting it mix the herbs evenly. The rumbling noise of the mixer and the fine dust of the many herbs were always present in the storage rooms. When I rode in buses after work, there would invariably be someone who mentioned something about “that unusual smell, something like pepper,” and wondered from where it was coming. Actually, several people who worked at the herb shop ended up getting sick because their respiratory systems did not tolerate the extremely fine and potent herbal dust.

Unfortunately, the powers that be did not treat Herr Lindig as well as they treated the herbal priest Johann Künzle. When he was almost ready to retire, the German government passed a law to the effect that medicinal herbs could only be sold in a store owned by a licensed apothecary. There was no possibility for him to take an exam, so Herr Lindig teamed up for a while with an apothecary before selling the store. He had no children, and, to my deep regret, much of his knowledge went with him.

In the book Essential Herbal Wisdom, I have attempted to include as much of this traditional knowledge as possible, and to incorporate many of the tricks of the trade taught to me by the herbal master Wilhelm Lindig and others of his kind. I am truly and continuously in their debt for their excellent work, their generosity, and their unending devotion to all things herbal.


Nancy ArrowsmithNancy Arrowsmith
Nancy Arrowsmith (Arizona) is the founder and former editor-in-chief of Kraut & Rüben, Germany’s first organic gardening magazine. She also founded the international seed organization Arche Noah, with the mission to preserve endangered...  Read more

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