Breverton's Complete Herbal



Family Iridaceae, Iris


OTHER NAMES: Blue flag, blue flower de luce, German iris, German flag.

DESCRIPTION: The sword-like leaves are bluish-green, narrow and flat, and the flower-sterns are 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm) high. The flowers are large and deep blue, or purplish-blue in color, but closely related species range from pale blue to white. The flowers have an agreeable scent, reminiscent of orange blossoms.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper often refers to the plant in his works, saying that “it strengthens the stomach exceedingly, Orris, or Flower-de-luce…takes away the pains thereof coming of cold…the smell of it strengthens the brain…They are hot and dry…relieves faint hearts, takes away windiness in degree, resists poison, helps shortness of the breath, provokes the menses. Root being green and bruised…it helps ulcers in the head, and blackness and blueness of a stroke…amends the ill colour of the face.” The root has been used as an expectorant and a remedy for colds and coughs. It is also said to relieve nausea and flatulence and improve circulation. The dried root is the valuable “orris” root, scented of violet and used in perfumes, cosmetic powders, toothpastes and breath fresheners. Pieces of the dried root were also given to infants to chew. Three species of iris furnish the orris root of commerce, the Iris germanica, or blue flag; the Iris pallida, or pale flag, and the Iris albicans (florentina), or white flag.

HISTORY: Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Pliny wrote of orris root, and Charlemagne ordered its planting. The plant was named after the rainbow goddess Iris, from the variety of colors in the flowers of the genus. Dedicated to Juno, it seems to be the origin of the scepter. Orris root powder was sometimes known as “love drawing powder.”

A Perfume for a Sweet Bag

Take half a pound of Cypress Roots, a pound of Orris, 3 quarter of a pound of Calamus, 3 Orange stick with Cloves, 2 ounces of Benjamin, 3 quarters of a pound of Rhodium, a pound of Coriander seed, and an ounce of Storax and 4 pecks of Damask Rose leaves, a peck of dried sweet Marjoram, a pretty stick of Juniper shaved very thin, some lemon pele dried and a stick of Brazil; let all these be powdered very grossly for ye first year and immediately put into your bags; the next year pound and work it and it will be very good again.”

Mary Doggett, Mary Doggett: Her Book of Receipts, 1682.



Family Iridaceae, Iris


OTHER NAMES: Culpeper also names it the flower de luce, myrtle flag, and myrtle grass. Iris aquatica, yellow iris, water flag, Jacob’s sword, dragon flower, flaggon, daggers, levers.

DESCRIPTION: Culpeper says: “It usually grows in watery ditches, ponds, lakes, and moor sides, which are always overflowed with water.” Its name means “false acorus,” referring to the similarity of its leaves to those of a plant that favors the same habitat, Acorus calamus (sweet flag), which also has a prominently veined mid-rib and sword-like leaf shape. It is a herbaceous perennial plant growing to 3–5 feet (90 cm to 1.5 m) tall, with long erect leaves and bright yellow flowers with the typical iris form. It tolerates poor soils and total immersion and is very invasive. Along with stinking iris, it is native to Britain.

PROPERTIES AND USES: In Culpeper: “It is under the dominion of the Moon. The root of this Water-flag is very astringent, cooling, and drying; and thereby helps all lasks [diarrhea] and fluxes, whether of blood or humours, as bleeding at the mouth, nose, or other parts, bloody flux, and the immoderate flux of women’s courses. The distilled water of the whole herb, flowers and roots, is a sovereign good remedy for watering eyes, both to be dropped into them, and to have cloths or sponges wetted therein, and applied to the forehead. It also helps the spots and blemishes that happen in and about the eyes, or in any other parts. The said water fomented on swellings and hot inflammations of women’s breasts, upon cancers also, and those spreading ulcers called Noli me tangere, do much good. It helps also foul ulcers in the privities [private parts] of man or woman; but an ointment made of the flowers is better for those external applications.” “Noli me tangere” (touch me not) was the name then applied to several varieties of ulcerous skin diseases, but is now restricted to Lupus exedens, an ulcerative affliction of the nose.

HISTORY: The rhizome has historically been used as a herbal remedy, most often as an emetic. Yellow iris is now used as a form of water treatment since it has the ability to take up heavy metals through its roots.


Clovis (c.466–511 CE), the Merovingian king of the Franks, first wore the flower as a heraldic device in the sixth century, and Louis VII adopted it as the fleur-de-lys emblem of France.



Family Iridaceae, Iris


OTHER NAMES: Stinking iris, gladdon, gladwyn, roast beef plant, adder’s meat, spurge plant.

DESCRIPTION: It has mauve flowers, and is one of only two native British irises. The long strap-like leaves form dense evergreen clumps, often on chalky soils. Culpeper relates that “the root is like that of the Flower-de-luce, but reddish on the outside, and whitish within, very sharp and hot in the taste, of as evil a scent as the leaves.” In the autumn and winter, it puts on a spectacular display when its almost disproportionately large seed pods burst open to reveal brilliant orange, or sometimes red, seeds.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper notes: “It is used by many country people to purge corrupt phlegm and choler, which they do by drinking the decoction of the roots…The powder thereof drank in wine, helps those that are troubled with the cramps and convulsions, or with the gout and sciatica, and gives ease to those that have griping pains in their body and belly, and helps those that have the stranguary…The root boiled in wine and drank, doth effectually procure women’s courses, and used as a pessary, works the same effect, but causes abortion in women with child…The root is very effectual in all wounds, especially of the head; as also to draw forth any splinters, thorns, or broken bones, or any other thing sticking in the flesh, without causing pains, being used with a little verdigris and honey, and the great Centaury root. The same boiled in vinegar, and laid upon an eruption or swelling, doth very effectually dissolve and consume them; yea, even the swellings of the throat called the king’s evil; the juice of the leaves or roots heals the itch, and all running or spreading scabs, sores, blemishes, or scars in the skin, wheresoever they be.”

HISTORY: Theophrastus recommended it as a purgative in the fourth century BCE. In his English translation of the Flemish botantist Rembert Dodoens’s A New Herbal, Henry Lyte, calling it “Stinking Gladin,” said that the leaves were “of a loathsome smell or stinke, almost like unto the stinking worm, called in Latin Cimex.” Despite this, the plant was highly valued as a medicinal herb, especially for making poultices for drawing out splinters and even arrow heads.

Burning Rubber

The leaves, when they are crushed, do not necessarily smell of roast beef despite the common name, but more like burning rubber. Gladwyn is an old name for a sword, referring to the shape of the leaves.



Mayster (Master) Ion Gardener wrote the first practical English text, The Feate of Gardening c. 1440. It was a set of instructions in verse on the cultivation, grafting, and the culture of herbs. All of the herbs listed were Old World, commonly grown all over Europe for hundreds of years, and the plants could make a perfect replica 15th-century garden. Here is his list of plants:









Family Arialiaceae, Ivy


OTHER NAMES: English ivy, gort, bindwood, lovestone.

DESCRIPTION: Invasive evergreen climber, with dark-green, glossy, angular leaves. The large black berries are eaten by birds in poor winters.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “About a dram of the flowers (says Dioscorides), drank twice a day in red wine, helps the lask [diarrhea], and bloody flux. It is an enemy to the nerves and sinews, being much taken inwardly, out very helpful to them, being outwardly applied. Pliny says, the yellow berries are good against the jaundice; and taken before one be set to drink hard, preserves from drunkenness, and helps those that spit blood; and that the white berries being taken inwardly, or applied outwardly, kills the worms in the belly. The berries are a singular remedy to prevent the plague, as also to free them from it that have got it, by drinking the berries thereof made into a powder, for two or three days together. They being taken in wine, do certainly help to break the stone, provoke urine, and women’s courses. The fresh leaves of Ivy, boiled in vinegar, and applied warm to the sides of those that are troubled with the spleen, ache, or stitch in the sides, do give much ease. The same applied with some Rosewater, and oil of Roses, to the temples and forehead, eases the head-ache, though it be of long continuance. The fresh leaves boiled in wine, and old filthy ulcers hard to be cured washed therewith, do wonderfully help to cleanse them. It also quickly heals green wounds, and is effectual to heal all burnings and scaldings, and all kinds of exulcerations coming thereby, or by salt phlegm or humours in other parts of the body. The juice of the berries or leaves snuffed up into the nose, purges the head and brain of thin rheum that makes defluxions into the eyes and nose, and curing the ulcers and stench therein; the same dropped into the ears helps the old and running sores of them; those that are troubled with the spleen shall find much ease by continual drinking out of a cup made of Ivy, so as the drink may stand some small time therein before it be drank. Cato says that wine put into such a cup, will soak through it, by reason of the antipathy that is between them. There seems to be a very great antipathy between wine and Ivy; for if one hath got a surfeit by drinking of wine, his speediest cure is to drink a draught of the same wine wherein a handful of Ivy leaves, being first bruised, have been boiled.” In 1597, the British herbalist John Gerard recommended water infused with ivy leaves as a wash for sore or watering eyes. The broad leaves being evergreen afford shelter to birds in the winter, and many prefer ivy to other shrubs, in which to build their nests.


HISTORY: Greek priests presented a wreath of ivy to newly-married persons, and the ivy has throughout the ages been regarded as the emblem of fidelity. Ivy leaves formed the poet’s crown, as well as the wreath of Bacchus, to whom the plant was dedicated, probably because of the practice of binding the brow with ivy leaves to prevent intoxication, a quality formerly attributed to the plant. The custom of decorating houses and churches with ivy at Christmas was forbidden by one of the early Councils of the Church, on account of its pagan associations, but the custom remained for centuries. To remove sunburn it was recommended to smear the face with tender ivy twigs boiled in butter, according to the ninth century Anglo-Saxon Leechbook of Bald. English taverns bore over their doors the sign of an ivy bush to indicate the excellence of the liquor supplied within, leading to the old saying “Good wine needs no bush” mentioned in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

From Love’s Martyr, 1601

There’s Ivy, that doth cling about the tree,

And with her leafy arms doth round embrace

The rotten hollow, withered trunk we see,

That from the maiden Cissus took that place,

Grape-crowned Bacchus did this damsel grace:

Love-piercing windows dazzled so her eye,

That in Love’s over-kindness she did die.

A rich-wrought sumptuous Banquet was prepared,

Unto the which the Gods were all invited:

Amongst them all this Cissus was ensnared,

And in the sight of Bacchus much delighted:

In her faire bosom was true Love united,

She danced and often kissed him with such mirth,

That sudden joy did stop her vital breath.

As soon as that the Nourisher of things,

Our Grand-Dame Earth had tasted of her blood,

From forth her body a fresh Plant there springs,

And then an Ivy-climbing Herb there stood,

That for the flux Dysentery is good:

For the remembrance of the God of wine,

It therefore always clasps about the Vine.

Robert Chester