I wasn't surprised when my dad telephoned. I had thought about calling him before confirming the date of our son's surgery, but I got busy and forgot. So when Daddy called from Indiana to ask us to hold off a week on Ryan's oral surgery because "the sign wasn't right," my anxiety soared (I was already nervous about having our 6-year-old undergo general anesthesia).

I grew up in a tiny farming community in Indiana where people still cling to old-fashioned ways and respect the earth and its nourishing power. My parents were raised there, as were three of my grandparents. For as long as I can remember, Daddy has consulted the "Old Farmer's Almanac" to determine the best time to plant crops, have a tooth pulled or pinpoint the day an animal (or woman) would give birth.

Going by the sign -- for those who hold such beliefs -- means picking a day for a certain activity, such as surgery or planting, that is most ideal according to the zodiac. Every day of the month is dominated by one of the 12 zodiac signs. Each sign represents a certain part of the body. For example, if teeth are pulled on a day dominated by Aquarius, there should be less soreness and loss of blood. The signs also have specific elements, such as Aries, which is dry (good for painting); Gemini, which is barren (the time to destroy weeds), or fruitful Scorpio (the planting sign). The phases of the moon, as noted by my dad, are also critical: timber or hay cut in the old of the moon will dry better; crops like corn, which yield above the ground, should be planted when the moon is growing.

For many, such ideas are obsolete. For others, like me, who grew up with some of these beliefs, there are snippets of such tales you can't quite shrug off as pure nonsense even though you consider yourself an educated professional who puts tremendous faith in modern medicine.

"I suspect there are a large number of people who practice some sort of folk remedy," says John Parascandola, chief of the history of medicine division at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, "people who still are subtly influenced by things they grew up with." Family traditions die hard, especially in the case of inexpensive, "natural" treatments for minor ailments that have proven their merit over the years.

I remember my dad blowing cigar smoke in my brother's ear to stop an earache. My father says the only earache he ever had in his life was cured when his father put a drop of warm urine in his ear. Mother used to mix melted lard and turpentine, slather it over our chests and cover this homemade poultice with wool or flannel when one of us three kids had a bad chest cold.

My uncle insists corn silk tea will curtail frequent middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom. My maternal grandmother could (supposedly) rub away warts (my mother thinks she performed this miracle on me, but alas, neither of us remembers the moment). And, according to Mother, it was not uncommon for people to prick a wart until it bled, soak a piece of bread with the blood, then drop the bread over their shoulder to the chickens -- another procedure of banishment.

"And did it work?" I asked my mother.

"Yes!" she exclaimed, then added with a laugh, "Of course, it probably would have gone away anyway." My mother-in-law, who immigrated to the United States from Ireland when she was a child, remembers her aunt advising new immigrants to down a mixture of sulphur and molasses to "thin their blood" so they wouldn't be so hot in America's warmer climate.

One of the most intriguing traditions handed down by my family involves "measuring" a child who doesn't appear to be growing properly. My brother was measured by my paternal grandmother because my family worried that his frequent bouts with tonsilitis were stunting his growth. It took some doing to get details out of my mother (the "secret" of the procedure must be passed from female to male or vice versa, a common stipulation in folklore rituals, and she made Dad read me the instructions), but basically the ritual involves measuring the child's foot and body with thin string, reciting a short prayer and finally burying the string, all in a particular manner, the details of which I promised not to reveal.

This same grandmother also passed on an infected hangnail remedy my family has used over the years: to draw out the soreness, you immerse the finger in wood ashes soaked in hot water. It isn't difficult to find other folk remedies in books or from other families: spreading a spider's web over an abrasion speeds the healing process; tea brewed from violet blossoms improves a grouchy person's disposition; camomile tea splashed over the skin wards off mosquitoes.

Parascandola believes people cling to family traditions such as folk remedies because they are an important part of their heritage. Sometimes, he feels, holding on to such beliefs becomes almost a "spiritual experience," keeping you in touch with a loved relative.

Herbs and plants, used in a variety of ways, are perhaps the most well-known sources for folk remedies. At least 2,500 herbs have been used over the centuries for medicinal purposes, declares physician H. Winter Griffith of Tucson, Ariz., in his book, "Complete Guide to Vitamins, Minerals & Supplements" (Fisher Books). A native of northern Georgia, Griffith is familiar with folk remedies and respects their powers. "My grandmother was the local healer," he says.

Although he never prescribes herbal medicines to patients and is quick to point out the dangers of using herbs without adequate knowledge or caution, Griffith is an advocate of gargling with double-strength tea to soothe a sore throat. He says the tannic acid in the tea is an astringent and, while it won't cure the sore throat, it should at least make you feel better.

It's easy to understand how folk remedies originated; not so many years ago, Mother Nature and faith were about all people had. My grandfather, still going strong at age 92, recalls how his mother gave him a teaspoon of a mullein plant concoction to cure a persistent, terrible cough when he was a child. He says it worked. And let's face it, 90 years ago on a snowy, below-zero night, it probably made more sense to swallow a bit of brewed mullein than to take off in a horse and buggy for the doctor, who was miles away. Besides, back then, what could a doctor have done? And if the remedy worked, as it apparently did for my grandfather, who wouldn't pass it on to the next generation?

As Parascandola says, "Lots of things in folk medicine didn't have a real therapeutic effect, just a placebo effect, largely psychological."

"I think {folk medicine is} beyond folklore," adds Ray Kondratas, curator at the Medical Sciences Division of the National Museum of American History. "It's a part of our social mores and culture, especially in areas (such as the common cold) where there are no known cures."

Reinforcing any reluctance to give up folk remedies is the fact that many modern drugs were originally derived from herbs; certain plants do have healing powers. From foxglove (found in many Washington area gardens) came digitalis, used to treat congestive heart failure; willow bark, used for centuries as a pain killer, contains salicylic acid, the basic chemical from which aspirin is derived. And belladonna, or deadly nightshade, although extremely poisonous if ingested in plant or berry form (and supposedly the source for the poison that did in Emperor Claudius), gave us alkaloids to treat illnesses ranging from Parkinson's disease to epilepsy.

"Herbal remedies have picked up great steam in the last few years," says Tom Eoff, manager of Yes! Natural Gourmet. Sales in his Connecticut Avenue store are up 40 percent over last year. One of the store's most popular herbs is echinacea (purple cone flower), which reportedly boosts the immune system and helps quell a cold or flu.

Why this interest in natural remedies? A theory held by Kondratas is that people are becoming fearful of possible toxins in synthetic materials and the addiction that can result from some chemicals. He also suggests that the cultural differences between people, and how those cultures view various illnesses, have an impact on a person's ability to be treated successfully. "The psychological well-being is part of the therapeutic process," Kondratas asserts.

Maybe these theories explain why I was concerned about "the sign" not being right for my son's surgery. But it went smoothly and Ryan recovered quickly. And yes, I'm still wondering if there would have been less bleeding and less pain had we waited a week.

Angela Soper is a freelance writer in Alexandria.