Epsom salts are an old time and probably over-rated remedy


Over the years Epsom salt has been recommended to treat so many ailments it is mind boggling. For generations this simple chemical composed of magnesium sulfur and oxygen has been used on humans, livestock and plants.

Some gardeners swear by it. Many folks who grow tomatoes, peppers and roses seem particularly enamored by it. Epsom salts are used for fertilizer, disease and pest control. Blossom end rot, a major tomato disease, is said to be controlled by Epsom salts as are slugs and snails.

Historically, this simple molecule of magnesium sulfate has been used by livestock farmers too. It is also used topically and internally to treat human ailments. I admit I use it sometimes, too. The question becomes, “how much is fact and how much is fiction?”

When it comes to plant nutrition, the answer is mixed. Magnesium and sulfur are both essential plant nutrients. However, they are not needed in the same quantities as the big three: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Magnesium is an important component of the chlorophyll molecule, so it stands to reason plants would benefit from it.

The problem is that unless magnesium and sulfur are insufficient in the soil, there is no advantage to adding more. Nutrients should be in balance.

As far as blossom end rot of tomatoes goes, there is little hard evidence that Epsom salts help control it. Calcium deficiency is more important for blossom end rot development, and higher magnesium often leads to less calcium uptake. Magnesium salts do little for slug and snail control, unless individual mollusks are contacted.

If too much is added to the soil, the soil could be temporarily poisoned. When residue remains on the leaves, too much water could be drawn from them and they would scorch. It’s important to calculate application rates of anything.

My father-in-law frequently used Epsom salts when doctoring cattle and sheep. He used it internally to treat constipation and grass tetany. Grass tetany results from insufficient magnesium. These are both appropriate and effective uses. Taking Epsom salts internally will help bowels move in people, too.

He also used Epsom salts topically on wounds to keep them from getting infected and to reduce swelling. Again, these are proven uses. However, soaking in water alone can be effective too, as can soaking in salt water.

I soak puncture wounds and splinters in hot Epsom salts. A hot bath with this compound often is recommended to reduce muscle aches. Hot soaking with magnesium sulfate is also a traditional remedy for athlete’s foot and toenail fungus. Cold Epson salt preparations are sometimes used to treat poison ivy and insect bites.

Many medical researchers feel that much of the relief of symptoms is psychosomatic. Patients think it will work, so it does. Maybe that’s why there are claims for so many different ailments.

While there is no hard evidence soaking in Epsom salts helps alleviate problems, there is also no indication of side-effects either. Furthermore, magnesium sulfate is cheap. Sometimes we pay big money for drugs or supplements and they don’t help either.

For some folks, this little box of Epsom salt can fix almost anything

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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3 Responses to Epsom salts are an old time and probably over-rated remedy

  1. tonytomeo says:

    It does seem to help with palms, particularly queen palms, that exhibit symptoms associated with micronutrient deficiency. Magnesium is something that they can somehow lack locally. I would guess that epsom salt provides a bit of soluble and available magnesium, but I am told that it just changes the pH to make other micronutrients available.

    • tedmanzer says:

      That could be right, because most sources of magnesium (like dolomitic limestone) raise pH. Magnesium sulfate tends to buffer the pH, keeping it lower. Most micronutrients are more available at lower pH, so your explanation sounds very plausible.

      • tonytomeo says:

        Oh, it is not my explanation. Others have done it, and recommended it. My solution to unhappy queens is to cut them down. They became too popular here since the 1990s. The Mexican fan palm that preceded it was worse, but it was at least able to take care of itself.

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