Family Rosaceae, Rose
OTHER NAMES: Common lady’s mantle, Our Lady’s mantle, common alchemil, leontopodium, lion’s foot, piedde-lion, bear’s foot, nine hooks, woman’s best friend, mantell fair (Welsh).
DESCRIPTION: It has rounded, lobed leaves resembling cloaks with yellow-green flowers growing through clumps of soft foliage. (It is similar to Alchemilla mollis, but with more potent healing properties). The finely toothed leaves have given it the name of nine hooks.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Nicholas Culpeper: “Lady’s Mantle is very proper for inflamed wounds and to stay bleeding, vomiting, fluxes of all sorts, bruises by falls and ruptures. It is also good for some disorders in women’s breasts, causing them to grow les and hard, being both outwardly and inwardly applied…a bath…will sometimes prevent miscarriages. It is one of the most singular wound herbs and therefore highly prized and praised by the Germans, used in all wounds inward and outward, to drink a decoction thereof and wash the wounds therewith, or dip tents therein and put them into the wounds which wonderfully dries up all humidity of the sores and abates all inflammations thereof. It quickly heals green wounds, not suffering any corruption to remain behind and cures old sores, though fistulous and hollow.” “Green wounds” indicate that they are infected, often with a greenish tinge. It was also used to help control excessive menstrual bleeding or diarrhea. A noted “wound herb,” cuts, scrapes and burns can be treated with skin washes of lady’s mantle to prevent infection. It contains salicylic acid, and has sedative properties that help to alleviate cramps and painful menstruation. Its tannic properties produce a bright green dye for wool.
HISTORY: Jewel-like drops of moisture form on the lobed leaves on humid days, caused by water being forced out of tiny pores, and these were collected by herbalists to cure infertility. The name Alchemilla comes from the Arabic “alkemelych,” alchemist, as early chemists believed that its dewdrops also had magical powers that could really help them in their quest for the philosopher’s stone capable of turning base metals like lead to precious gold. In Sweden a tradition held that if placed under the pillow at night, the herb would promote a good night’s sleep.
Its shapely and pleated leaves look like a lady’s cloak (mantle) from medieval times. The cloak was thought suitable for the Virgin Mary, and the original common name of the herb was Our Lady’s mantle in honor of Mary.
Family Lamiaceae/Labiateae, Mint
OTHER NAMES: Elf leaf, nard, spikenard, spike, English lavender, true lavender, f leurs de lavande. It was formerly known as Lavandula officinalis and Lavandula vera. There are many, many varieties as it crosspollinates freely. What is known as “Old English lavender” is a cross between L. angustifolia and L. latifolia, itself known as “spike lavender.” French lavender is L. stoechas, with camphorscented leaves and distinctive bracts, or “ears” of flowers.
DESCRIPTION: This is a wonderfully scented plant, it can grow up to 32 inches (81 cm) high, with richly scented purple-blue flowers and aromatic gray-green leaves.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper describes it thus: “Mercury owns the herb; and it carries his effects very potently. Lavender is of a special good use for all the griefs and pains of the head and brain that proceed of a cold cause, as the apoplexy, falling-sickness, the dropsy, or sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies, and often faintings. It strengthens the stomach, and frees the liver and spleen from obstruction, provokes women’s menses, and expels the dead child and afterbirth…The chemical oil drawn from Lavender, usually called Oil of Spike, is of so fierce and piercing a quality, that it is cautiously to be used, some few drops being sufficient to be given with other things, either for inward or outward griefs.” Culpeper also says that “a decoction made with the flowers of Lavender, Horehound, Fennel and Asparagus root, and a little Cinnamon, is very profitably used to help the falling-sickness [epilepsy] and the giddiness or turning of the brain.” William Salmon in his Botanologia. The English Herbal: or History of Plants of 1710 says that: “it is good also against the biting of serpents, mad-dogs and other venomous creature, being given inwardly and applied poultice-wise to the parts wounded. The spirituous tincture of the dried leaves or seeds, if prudently given, cures hysteric fits though vehement and of long standing.”
Lavender is used to relax muscle spasms, and to relax the body in the presence of pain. It can also be used as an antidepressant, and to ease headaches. Its oil was inhaled to prevent vertigo and fainting. A water solution was used as a gargle for hoarseness or a loss of voice. For restful sleep, drink lavender flower tea or sprinkle a few drops of lavender on sheets and pillowcases. Swollen feet or ankles benefit from a cool footbath with lavender water. For minor scrapes, cuts and abrasions washing the affected area and then applying a few neat drops of lavender will help. Antibacterial lavender is a used for burns, insect bites and most common skin irritations. It kills diphtheria bacteria, streptococcal, pneumococcal and typhoid bacilli. Lavender oil is used in baths, room sprays, toilet waters, perfumes, colognes, massage oils, sachets, salves, skin lotions and oils. It is traditionally used for sachets to place among linens and clothing, both as a perfume and as a moth repellent. Flies and mosquitoes dislike its fragrance, so fresh-cut flowers make a beautiful and practical addition to the dining table. Lavender can be used in cooking, especially in making lavender biscuits. Lavender water is mildly antiseptic and can be used to wipe down kitchen work surfaces. It makes a wonderfully fragrant flower border.
HISTORY: Lavender is derived from the Latin “lavare,” to wash. It was known by the Greeks as Nardus, exported from markets in Naarda, a city in Syria, and used for throat infections and chest complaints. In Roman times the blossoms were sold for 100 denarii per pound, which was about the same as month’s wage for a farm laborer. The Romans used lavender flowerheads in their bath water as a fragrance and antiseptic. They introduced it to Britain to heal burns, cuts and wounds, and to repel nits and fleas. In France, since the 17th century the essential oil has been used for perfumes. In medieval times herbalists used lavender to prevent head lice, ease stiff joints and relieve tiredness. “Who will buy my lavender” was probably the most famous cry of London street vendors. It was used across Europe for strewing the floors of churches and houses on festive occasions, or to make bonfires on St. John’s Day, when evil spirits are supposed to be abroad. Traditionally, bundles of lavender were placed in the hands of women during childbirth to bring courage and strength. It is said that planting lavender around the house will help deter evil and protect the people within the household. Putting the flowers between the bed sheets will ensure that a couple will never quarrel.
Cloaking the Smell of Death
During the Great Plague of London (bubonic plague) in 1665, lavender was hung in bunches, so its fragrance would cloak the foul smell of death and decay. In the 17th century huge fields of lavender were grown in France to supply the perfume trade. At this time the glove makers of Grasse in France were scenting their leathers with lavender oil, and many wearers of these gloves in London during the Black Death seemed to stay plague-free. Lavender tends to repel fleas and insects.
Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint
OTHER NAMES: Bawm (Culpeper), sweet balm (there are other golden and variegated varieties), melissa, sweet melissa, bee balm (bergamot is also called bee balm), gwenynddail (bee leaves, Welsh—it is one of the greatest attractors of bees to a garden).
DESCRIPTION: It grows in clumps of up to 3 feet (90 cm), with clusters of small cream flowers. The crushed leaves smell of lemon, and it can become invasive. Its lemon scent is lost in cooking.
PROPERTIES AND USES: According to Culpeper, “It is an herb of Jupiter, and under Cancer, and strengthens nature much in all its actions. Let a syrup made of the juice of it and sugar (as you shall be taught at the latter end of this book) be kept in every gentlewoman’s house, to relieve the weak stomachs and sick bodies of their poor sickly neighbour…Serapio said it causes the mind and heart to become merry and revives the heart fainting into swoonings…drives out all troublesome cares and thoughts out of the mind arising from melancholy, or black choler, which Avicenna also confirms. It is very good to help digestion, and open obstructions of the brain; and has such a purging quality, said Avicenna, as to expel those melancholy vapours from the spirits and blood which are in the heart and arteries, though it cannot do so from other parts of the body. Dioscorides said that, if the leaves were steeped in wine, and the wine drunk, and the leaves applied externally, it is a remedy against scorpion stings, and the biting of mad dogs. [Dioscorides] commends the decoction thereof for women thereof to bath or sit in, to procure their menses; it is good to wash aching teeth therewith, and profitable for those who have the bloody diarrhoea. Pliny, when writing on balm, informs us that if it be tied to the sword which gave the wound, it instantly stops the blood. The leaves also with a little saltpetre taken in drink are good against a surfeit of mushrooms, help the griping pains of the belly, and, being made into an electuary, are good for them that cannot fetch their breath with ease…A tansy or caudle made with eggs, and the juice thereof when it is young, putting to it some sugar and rose-water, is good for women in child-bed, when the afterbirth is not thoroughly voided, and for their faintings upon and after their sore travail. The herb bruised and boiled in a little wine and oil, and laid upon a boil, will ripen and break it.” Balm contains tannins and has been found to be antibacterial, antiviral, helping to cure mild depression and aiding digestion. The leaf rubbed into the skin is a natural insect repellent, and can also alleviate pain from stings. The plant makes one of the best herbal teas, lifting one’s spirits, and is thought to be good for the memory. It is popular in France, and known as “thé de France.” It is calming, relaxing and releases tension, being beneficial for PMS sufferers. Balm is useful in a range of allergies such as hay fever and eczema. It can relieve cramps and flatulence, and relieve pain caused by irritable bowel syndrome. Melissa oil is used for depression, restlessness, excitement, headache and insomnia. It will seed itself and spread naturally, helping orchard trees become fertilized by bees. Greeks smeared the inside of beehives with its scent.
HISTORY: The Greeks called it Melisphyllon, honey leaf. Avicenna described balm as cheering and other Arab physicians believed it eased melancholy and heart problems The lemon-scented plant has been valued since antiquity. Pliny and Dioscorides believed “Balm, being applied, doth close up wounds without any peril of inflammation.” Gerard said “The juice of Balm glueth together greene wounds, being put in oil, salve or balm for that purpose, makes it of greater efficacy.” We now know that the hydrocarbons in its oils starve bacteria of oxygen. Culpeper said: “Used with salt, its takes away wens[sebaceous cysts], kernels, or hard swelling in the flesh or throat; it cleanses foul sores, and eases pains of the gout. It is also good for the liver and spleen.” In the Middle Ages lemon balm dressed wounds, cured rabid dog bites, toothache, boils and skin eruptions, pregnancy sickness, baldness and was a love charm. It was the main ingredient in Carmelite water, distilled by Parisian monks from 1611, and still used in France as a digestive and antispasmodic. It was planted by front doors in medieval times to drive away spirits, used as a strewing herb and applied fresh to polish furniture and impart a fragrance to it.
Research conducted by scientists at Northumbria University suggests that lemon balm increases the activity of acetylcholene, a chemical messenger linked to memory function that is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s disease. In 1999 a double-blind German trial studied a topical cream made from dried leaf extract of lemon balm used for the treatment of Herpes simplex labialis (“cold sores” on the lips). The lemon balm cream shortened the healing period and had an beneficial effect on associated symptoms such as itching, burning and swelling.
Family Rutaceae, Rue/Citrus
OTHER NAMES: Citrus medica, limone.
DESCRIPTION: The trees are usually around 12–15 feet (3.7–4.6 m) high, with glossy green leaves. Flowers are white with a strong fragrance, and the fruit grows underneath the flowers, so on a healthy lemon tree, flowers and ripe fruits can often be found at the same time.
PROPERTIES AND USES: In Maud Grieve’s Herbal we read: “Locally, it is a good astringent, whether as a gargle in sore throat, in pruritis of the scrotum, in uterine haemorrhage after delivery, or as a lotion in sunburn. It is said to be the best cure for severe, obstinate hiccough, and is helpful in jaundice and hysterical palpitation of the heart. The decoction has been found to be a good antiperiodic, useful as a substitute for quinine in malarial conditions, or for reducing the temperature in typhoid. It is probable that the lemon is the most valuable of all fruit for preserving health. The oil, externally, is a strong rubefacient [a substance that produces redness of the skin], and taken internally in small doses has stimulating and carminative properties…A thousand lemons yield between 1 and 2 lb. of oil.” Because of its high vitamin C content, lemon is used to help build immunity against colds, influenza, to detoxify the body and as a tonic. Drinking diluted lemon juice is proven to help prevent kidney stones.
HISTORY: In Mesopotamia citrons were propagated for their beauty and aroma, as they flowered throughout the year. Egyptians used lemons in embalming, and the tribes of Israel brought them to Israel from their captivity in Babylon. Jewish gardeners were responsible for the cultivation of citrus fruits, as Romans commissioned them to develop the orange and lemon, which they did using the citron as grafting stock. As part of his ships’ rations, Columbus took citrus seeds to the New World for the first time, where they spread throughout the Caribbean. The Spanish explorer Ponce de León then took them to Florida in 1513, and required his sailors to plant 100 seeds each wherever they landed, leading to the great Florida citrus industry.
Lemon juice is probably the best of all antiscorbutics, being used against scurvy. Even though a naval surgeon, James Lind, had proved in 1753 that citrus fruit prevented scurvy, the disease was a major killer of seamen until the early 19th century, when it was at last introduced into naval rations. Not until decades later were merchant seamen given citrus fruit.
Family Verbenaceae, Verbena
OTHER NAMES: Cedron, hierba louisa, lemon louisa, herb louisa, verveine citronelle or odorante, lemon-scented verbena, lemon beebrush.
DESCRIPTION: The pale green leaves are very fragrant, lanceolate, 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 cm) long, and the many small flowers are pale purple. The plant grows to a height of 6 feet (1.8 m), and gives out a powerful lemon scent, which intensifies when the leaves are rubbed or crushed.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Its uses are similar to those of mint, orange flowers or lemon balm (Melissa), as a stomachic and antispasmodic in dyspepsia, indigestion and flatulence, stimulating skin and stomach. Tea made from dried lemon verbena can be mildly sedative, and it is also good for congestion and can ease indigestion. An infusion of the leaves can be added to your bath water to help calm and soothe, and a compress of the leaves can help to reduce puffiness around the eyes. Its oil is used for massage when diluted with carrier oil, to help ease cramp, indigestion, anxiety, insomnia, nervous tension and stress. The leaves are used for making herbal vinegars. Partnered with lemon thyme, lemon verbena makes superb herb butter. The leaves add a lemon flavor to fish, poultry and white meat dishes, vegetable marinades, salad dressings, jams, jellies, puddings especially fruit salads and fruit-based drinks. The oil has been used in cologne, toilet water, perfume and soap. The leaves can be added to cider vinegar to make a wonderful skin tonic that helps to soften and freshen the skin. Chopped leaves, added to fresh homemade ice-cream, are a particularly refreshing summer treat.
HISTORY: Native to South America, it brought by the Spanish to Europe for its perfume in the 18th century. It was not introduced to England until 1784 and so is missing from Culpeper, and thus not noted in any great depth for medicinal purposes. Some of its names come from Maria Luisa, Princess of Parma (1751–1819), who later became queen of Spain. Her contemporaries described her as an ugly, vicious, coarse woman with no teeth, who completely dominated her husband Carlos IV of Spain. The genus name Aloysia, in the Verbenaceae family, was given in her honor.
The herb should be included in all herb gardens which are designed for scent, pot-pourris (as the leaves retain their strong scent for years) and culinary uses. The leaves of lemon verbena can be placed between linens or in linen sachets to help keep fabrics smelling sweet. Its citrus scent repels midges, flies and other insects, so is a useful herb to grow underneath windows and near doorways.
LILY OF THE VALLEY
Family Ruscaceae (formerly Liliaceae), Lily
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper also names it conval-lily, May lily and lily constancy. Liricon fancy, male lily, May bells, Our Lady’s tears, Mary’s tears, ladder to heaven
DESCRIPTION: Around 6 inches (15 cm) high, the small, sweet-scented, nodding, bell-like flowers are most commonly white, but there are also pink varieties and those with variegated leaves. All parts are toxic, and the small plant is difficult to remove, once established. Culpeper noted that it was common on Hampstead Heath in London, but Maud Grieve commented that with the removal of the trees there, the plant also disappeared.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper wrote: “It is under the dominion of Mercury, and therefore without doubt, strengthens the brain, renovates a weak memory, and makes it strong again. The distilled water, dropped into the eyes, helps inflammations thereof, as also that infirmity, which they call pin and web; the spirit of the flower, distilled in wine, restores lost speech, helps the palsy, and is exceedingly good in the apoplexy, comforts the heart and vital spirits.” It is believed to strengthen memory, to restore speech and as a liquor smeared on the forehead and the back of the neck, to make one have good common sense. Herbalist John Gerard advocated its use for those who had “dumb palsie” (Bell’s Palsy, a condition which affects the facial muscles giving them a drooping appearance), and also for those who “had fallen into apoplexy.” He also recommended it for heart problems, and wrote: “Put the flowers of May lilies into a glass and set it into a hill of ants, firmly closed for one month. After which you will find a liquor that when applied eases the pain and grief of gout.” Even now the plant is used medicinally to treat heart conditions. Its action is effected slowly and steadily unlike foxglove (digitalis) which is released all at once, making it safer.
The leaves and flowers of lily of the valley contain cardiac glycosides, including convallatoxin, which have been used in medicine for centuries. It also contains convallatoxin, which has effects similar to digitalis, so medieval herbalists often used it as a substitute for foxglove in their treatment. The plant strengthens the heartbeat, while slowing and regularizing its rate, without putting extra demand on the pulmonary blood supply. A flower decoction helped to clear urinary canal obstructions and acted as a diuretic.
HISTORY: Apollo is said to have given lily of the valley as a gift to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. The flowers were once used to make a drink, “aqua aurea” (golden water), that was believed to help boost memory and treat heart conditions. This water was so highly prized that it was stored in vessels of gold or silver, and was said to ease vomiting. In 1657, William Coles said that a wine with infused flowers was “more precious than gold” and suitable for apoplexy. In the Middle Ages flowers were popular in bridal bouquets, symbolizing purity and modesty. The Elizabethans used it in posies and nosegays to help perfume the air. Carrying a posy of the flowers was also said to improve the memory. The flowers were said to cheer the heart and lift the spirits of all those in their vicinity. The flowers are used as a symbol of humility in religious painting, and considered to be the sign of Christ’s second coming. In the “language of flowers,” the lily of the valley signifies the return of happiness. There is a folk tale that describes the affection of a nightingale for lily of the valley, and which did not come back to the woods until the flower bloomed in May. During the First World War, an ointment made from the roots was used to treat burns of the victims of mustard gas. Lily of the valley was the floral emblem of the former Yugoslavia, and became the national flower of Finland in 1967.
Our Lady’s Tears
The Latin name Convallaria majalis derives from the Latin convallis (valley) and majalis (May-flowering). In France, it has been used to bring good luck for at least 600 years, and is sold in the streets on May Day. It is one of the flowers associated with the pagan festival of Beltane, which also occurs on May 1. The flower is also known as Our Lady’s tears, since traditionally the lily of the valley came into being from Eve’s tears after she was driven with Adam from the Garden of Eden. Another Christian legend states that the Virgin Mary’s tears turned to lily of the valley when she cried at the Crucifixion of Jesus, and because of this it is also known as Mary’s Tears. Yet another tradition is that the plant originated from Mary Magdalene’s tears when she went to Christ’s tomb. Alternatively, the flower sprang from the blood of Saint Leonard of Noblac (or of Limoges) during his sixth-century battles with a dragon in France. The same legend relates to St. Leonard fighting a dragon at Horsham in Sussex.
Family Fabaceae/Leguminosae, Pea/Legume
OTHER NAMES: Licorice, sweet root, sweetwood (its Greek name, Glycyrrhiza, means sweet root).
DESCRIPTION: A hardy perennial, growing to 4 feet (1.2 m) with a spread of 3 feet (90 cm). It has feathery pinnate leaves and its spikes of white or pale blue flowers are followed by long pods.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Nicholas Culpeper: “It is under the dominion of Mercury. Liquorice boiled in fair water, with some Maiden-hair and figs, makes a good drink for those that have a dry cough or hoarseness, wheezing or shortness of breath, and for all the griefs of the breast and lungs, pthisic or consumptions, caused by the distillation of salt humours on them. It is also good in all pains of the reins, difficulty in passing urine, and heat of urine. The fine powder of liquorice blown through a quill into the eyes of those afflicted with the pin and web, as it is called, or rheumatic distillations into them, cleanses and greatly relieves them. The juice of liquorice is as effectual in all the diseases of the breast and lungs, the reins and the bladder, as the decoction. The juice dissolved in rose-water, with some gum tragacanth, is a fine medicine for hoarseness, wheezing etc.” Liquorice decreases generation of damaging molecules called free radicals, and inhibits an enzyme which is involved in the inflammatory process. The herb’s action as a fast-acting anti-inflammatory agent is due to the compound glycyrrhizin, which blocks prostaglandin production and inflammation. It is also a demulcent and expectorant commonly used for throat, stomach, urinary and intestinal irritations. Liquorice has been used in women’s formulas for centuries, normalizing and regulating hormone production. Glycyrrhizin has proven helpful in treating adrenal exhaustion, infertility due to hormonal imbalance, menopausal dysfunctions, and Addison’s disease. The root inhibits the Helicobacter pylori bacterium and is thus used as an aid for healing stomach and duodenal ulcers, and in moderate amounts it may soothe an upset stomach. Liquorice can be used to treat ileitis, leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease as it is antispasmodic in the bowels. It is said to help with age-related mental decline, and is used in stop-smoking remedies and for hair loss. The root is used to flavor black treacle and stout beers like Guinness. Its dried roots used to be sold as “sweets” (liquorice sticks) when this author was a child, but they are now generally only found in chemist and herbal shops.
HISTORY: Liquorice was prescribed by early physicians from the time of Hippocrates in cases of dropsy, to prevent thirst. Egyptian physics and Theophrastus recommended liquorice for asthma, dry cough and all diseases of the lungs. Celsus and Scribonius Largus mention liquorice as Radix dulcis (sweet root). In 1264, liquorice is accounted for in the Wardrobe Accounts of Henry IV, and in 1305, Edward I taxed liquorice imports to pay for the repair of London Bridge. It appears from Turner’s Herbal that it was cultivated in England in 1562, and Stow says “the planting and growing of licorish began about the first year of Queen Elizabeth .”
Possibly returning Crusaders first brought liquorice roots to Pontefract in Yorkshire, but more likely it was Dominican monks in the 14th century. They settled at Pontefract Priory close to the Castle, and the plant was known locally as “Spanish” or “Spanish root,” possibly because of the presence of Spanish monks there. Liquorice needs deep soil to grow because the roots can be 4 feet (1.2 m) in length, and the soft loam of Pontefract was perfect. They rarely flowered in the colder English climate, but it was of little importance as the root of the plant provided what was needed. The sap was extracted from the roots and used medicinally by the monks along with other herbs for easing coughs and stomach complaints. Culpeper tells us: “It is planted in fields and gardens in divers places of this kingdom, greatly to the profit of the cultivators.” By 1614 the extract of liquorice was being formed into small lozenges and a nobleman called Sir George Saville applied a small stamp to each round “cake,” an early form of what was to become the famous Pontefract cakes. Large areas of the town and surrounding areas were turned over to growing liquorice, even the castle courtyard. In 1760, a Pontefract apothecary, George Dunhill, began adding sugar to the recipe, producing “Pomfret cakes” commercially as a confectionery, rather than a medicine. More liquorice factories started business in the 19th century, resulting in a shortage of local raw material which created a dependency upon imports. The last liquorice harvest around Pontefract took place sometime in the 1960s. At one time there were 13 liquorice factories in the town, but now there are only two, Dunhill (owned by Haribo of Germany) and Wilkinsons (formerly owned by Cadbury, and now Kraft of the United States). Bassett’s famous sweet collection called Liquorice Allsorts appeared in 1899 after Wilkinson, a manufacturer of Pontefract cakes, was taken over.
Family Lythraceae, Loosestrife
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper calls this “Loose-Strife, with Spiked Heads of Flowers.” Blooming Sally, red Sally, long purple, lythrum, purple lythrum, spiked loosestrife, purple willow herb, rainbow weed, sage willow. Welsh llysiau’r milwr coch—bloody, red or gory soldier’s herb.
DESCRIPTION: It grows to 6 feet (1.8 m) with a spread of 30 inches (76 cm), with tall spires of small magenta flowers and lance-shaped leaves. A plant can produce 3 million seeds, so although it is a beautiful plant, it has become an invasive problem in the USA, Canada and other countries.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper recommended it for eye complaints, even types of blindness, and gives a recipe for a salve for wounds. He says “It likewise cleanses and heals all foul ulcers whatsoever, by washing them with the water, and laying on them a green leaf or two in the summer, or dry leaves in the winter. This water, when warmed, and used as a gargle, or even drunk sometimes, cures the quinsy, or king’s evil of the throat. The said water applied warm takes away spots, marks, and scabs, in the skin; and a little of it drunk quenches extraordinary thirst.” With antibacterial properties, purple loosestrife has been used as an astringent medicinal herb to treat food poisoning, diarrhea and dysentery, being considered safe to use, even for babies. Medieval herbalists believed the plant to be good for external bleeding, bad menstruation and nosebleeds. As well as stopping bleeding, it is said to brighten eyes, preserve eyesight and soothe sore eyes. An ointment for ulcers and sores can be made, and the herb was used to treat cholera in the 19th century. The whole plant can be made into a gargle for a sore throat. The plant’s high tannin content led to it being used as an alternative to oak bark for tanning leather. The tannin, obtained from the roots, was also used to preserve fishing nets. Red dye obtained from the flowers has been used in sweets, and the plant repels flies and gnats.
HISTORY: The Greeks thought that garlands of loosestrife, hung around the necks of oxen, would encourage a team to plow a field in harmony. They used the plant in a hair dye and also burned it to drive away insect pests. For centuries purple loosestrife was used to treat dysentery and diarrhea, as a gargle and eyewash and to clean wounds.
Lythrum means “gore” in Greek, and doctors used loosestrife’s leaves to stem bleeding in soldiers’ wounds after battle.
Family Myrsinaceae (formerly Primulaceae), Myrsine (Primula)
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper calls it simply “Loose-Strife, or Willow-Herb.” Willow wort, herb willow, yellow willow herb, wood pimpernel, golden loosestrife, yellow rocket, garden loosestrife. Gerard calls it the “yellow pimpernel,” but this is also known as “wood loosestrife,” another plant in the Lysimachia family.
DESCRIPTION: This perennial grows up to 4–5 feet (1.2–1.5 m) with a spread of 3 feet (90 cm), and has bright yellow five-petalled flowers and lance-shaped leaves. It grows in the same damp habitats as purple loosestrife but is not related.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “This herb is good for all manner of bleeding at the mouth, nose, or wounds, and all fluxes of the belly, and the bloody-flux, given either to drink or taken by clyster[an enema often involving a syringe]; it stays also the abundance of women’s courses; it is a singularly good wound herb for green wounds, to stay the bleeding, and quickly close together the lips of the wound if the herb be bruised, and the juice only applied. It is often used in gargles for sore mouths, as also for the secret parts. The smoke hereof being burned, drives away flies and gnats, which in the night time molest people inhabiting near marshes, and in the fen countries.” As it was thought to be a member of the loosestrife family, many of the purple loosestrife’s properties were ascribed to it. Fresh young leaves bound around a wound are supposed to stem the flow of blood, and it was used for sore gums. It is used to calm horses and cattle and burning the dried leaves and stems deters insects and snakes. The stem and leaves of the plant were tied around a horse’s neck to deter flies.
HISTORY: The first-century Greek medical writer Dioscorides reported that the juice of the leaves, administered as a drink or an enema, was an effective treatment for persons who had dysentery or were vomiting blood. He also called loosestrife a wound herb and stauncher of blood. King Lysimachus of Sicily was said to have promoted its benefits in healing wounds, so Lysimachia was named after him. Alternatively, the Greek lysimachiameans “loosen strife,” possibly from its use to stop insects irritating oxen and horses, which Pliny recounted. William Coles’s Art of Simpling (1656) relates: “if loosestrife is thrown between two oxen when they are fighting they will part presently, and being tied about their necks it will keep them from fighting.”
A Blond Moment
It is still used by herbalists as a hair dye to highlight blond hair and restore graying hair to blond.
Family Apiaceae/Umbelliferae, Umbellifers
OTHER NAMES: In France, it is called false, or bastard celery (céleri bâtard) because of its appearance and flavor. Love parsley, love ache, sea parsley, European lovage, Cornish lovage, Italian lovage, old English lovage.
DESCRIPTION: Its leaves smell of celery when crushed. It grows to 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, with deeply divided large leaves and flat clusters of small greenish-yellow flowers. It is the sole species of the genus Levisticum.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “It opens, cures, and digests humours, and mightily provokes women’s courses and urine…eases all inward gripings and pains, dissolves wind, and resists poison and infection…The distilled water of the herb helps the quinsy in the throat, if the mouth and throat be gargled and washed therewith; and relieves the pleurisy, being drank three or four times. Being dropped into the eyes, it takes away the redness or dimness of them: it likewise takes away spots or freckles in the face. The leaves bruised, and fried with a little hogs-lard, and laid hot to any blotch or boil, will quickly break it.” The rhizome and roots have been used in medicine for hundreds of years, especially for their diuretic and carminative (relieving flatulence or colic) properties. Only capers have a higher quercetin content, quercetin being a flavonoid with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and other beneficial properties. Young leaves spice up salads, and the seeds are used in bread, rice, cheese, cakes, sauces, stews, salad dressings and salads. Phillips of Bristol makes an alcoholic (5.3%) Lovage Cordial, traditionally drunk two parts lovage to one part of brandy as a “winter warmer” and as a stomach settler. More serious drinkers reverse the proportion. Lovage is a superb companion plant, especially for cucumber and parsley, and is a food plant of hoverflies, wasps and bees.
HISTORY: The Greeks used lovage to cure flatulence and ease digestion. In 1597, John Gerard considered lovage to be one greatest drugs of his day and it was used for jaundice, colic and fever in children. In the Middle Ages, travelers lined their footwear with lovage to help prevent foot odor and for its antiseptic properties. The name “lovage” meant that it came to be associated with aphrodisiacs, in Chaucer’s time becoming known as love ache and love parsley. Ache was a medieval name for parsley, and love ache transmuted to lovage.
Tudor gentry added lovage seeds to their baths to mask body odor. Later, a lovage root was added to a bath to help with physical cleanliness.
Family Gentianaceae, Gentian
OTHER NAMES: Autumn gentian, bitterwort, felwort (from field and wort). Culpeper names five types of “Autumn Gentians.”
DESCRIPTION: From a rosette of leaves, a 4–8 inch (10–20 cm) flowering stalk bears small, purple trumpet flowers. In sunshine, the lobes of the corolla are spread wide horizontally, forming conspicuous blue stars.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper notes: “They are powerful against putrefaction, venom and poison…it eases pains in the stomach, and helps those that cannot keep or relish their meat, or have lost their appetite. It refreshes those that are fatigued with travelling…the root is likewise help to be good against agues.” John Gerard, in The Herball or General History of Plants 1597 writes of felwort: “It is excellent good, as Galen says, when there is need of attenuating, purging, cleansing, and removing of obstructions, which quality it takes of his extreme bitterness…This is of such force and virtue, says Pliny, that it helps cattle which are not only troubled with the cough, but are also broken-winded. The root of Gentian given in powder the quantity of a dram, with a little pepper and Herb Grace mixed therewith, is profitable for them that are bitten or stung with any manner of venomous beast or mad dog.” Gentian’s main use is as a digestive tonic, as the plant contains one of the bitterest substances known. In addition to aiding digestion, gentian has antioxidant properties that can help prevent some age-related vision problems, for instance diabetic retinopathy and reducing toxin production that can lead to cataracts.
HISTORY: Gentian’s bitters (hence the name bitterwort) have been used in herbalism to improve the appetite and digestion for about 3000 years. During the Middle Ages, gentian was commonly employed as an antidote to poison, and in 1552 Tragus noted it as a means of diluting wounds.
Discovery of Gentians
The Illyrian King Gentius (ruled 181–c.168 BCE) discovered the medicinal value of these plants, according to Pliny and Dioscorides. Pliny wrote that he “discovered the gentian, a plant that grows nearly everywhere but does best in Illyria…Gentian grows in great abundance on moist elevations in the Alpine foothills. The root of the plant and its juice are the parts most used. The essential virtue of the gentian root is that it warms the body. However infusions of the root or juice should never be drunk by pregnant women.”
Family Boraginaceae, Borage
OTHER NAMES: Jerusalem cowslip, soldiers and sailors, Joseph and Mary, llysiau’r ysgyfaint (lung herbs, Welsh), spotted dog, maple lungwort, spotted comfrey, herb of Mary, Virgin Mary’s milkdrops, Bethlehem sage.
DESCRIPTION: The evergreen lungwort grows to 1 foot (30 cm) high with five-petalled flowers that extend in clusters as short bells from the green, hairy bracts and stems. The flowers change from pale pink to blue-purple. Its creeping rhizomes help it to spread. The plant, especially its leaves, can act as a skin irritant.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper states that lungwort is useful for treating diseases of the lungs, for coughs and wheezing and for sores on the private parts, but it appears that he is describing lungmoss, Lobaria pulmonaria, a lichen that is referred to as lungwort in some older publications. This is also known as oak moss, and Culpeper also recommended it as “an excellent remedy, boiled in beer, for broken-winded horses.” In 1931 Mrs. Grieve wrote: “The Lungwort sold by druggists to-day is not this species, but a Moss, known also as Oak Lungs and Lung Moss. The Lungwort formerly held a place in almost every garden, under the name of ‘Jerusalem Cowslip’; and it was held in great esteem for its reputed medicinal qualities in diseases of the lungs.” Sir J. E. Smith recorded: “every part of the plant is mucilaginous, but its reputation for coughs arose not from this circumstance, but from the speckled appearance of the leaves, resembling the lungs!” Medicinally, only the lungwort leaves were used. They contain saponins, allantoins, silica, flavonoids, tannins, vitamin C and mucilage, and the leaves were used to treat lung diseases such as tuberculosis, asthma and coughs. Lungwort contains antibiotics which act against bacteria in such illnesses. Its silica and allantoin content may be the reason it has been used for healing wounds and for treating eczema, hemorrhoids, varicose veins and burns. The leaves of lungwort are astringent and have been used to help staunch bleeding.
Dr. O. Phelps Brown in 1872 published The Complete Herbalist; or, The People Their Own Physicians, and wrote: “Lungwort is a herbaceous perennial, growing in Europe and this country in northern latitudes. In Europe it is a rough-leaved plant, but in this country the entire plant is smooth, which exhibits the peculiar climatic influence. It is showy, and freely cultivated. It flowers in May. The leaves are used for medical purposes. They are without any particular odour. Water extracts their properties. It is demulcent and mucilaginous, and in decoction very useful in bleeding from the lungs, and bronchial and catarrhal affections, and other disorders of the respiratory organs. Its virtues seem to be entirely expended upon the lungs, and it is certainly an efficacious remedial agent for all morbid conditions of those organs…” Lungwort was used in Dr. Brown’s patent medicine Acacian Balsam for all lung illnesses. Made into a tea, the leaves are also used as an expectorant, to relieve congestion and ease a sore throat (often mixed with coltsfoot and cowslip flowers). Recently scientists have discovered that the plant does indeed have anticatarrhal properties. Lungwort may be a good herb to grow in gardens that are plagued with slugs and snails, as they seem to avoid its toxic alkaloids and saponins. The young leaves can be picked and used to make soups and salads. In medieval times, lungwort was a popular pot herb for adding to stews and savory dishes. The flowers are good for spring floral arrangements and both the flowers and leaves can be dried for adding to potpourris. It makes excellent and attractive ground cover in any garden, attracting bumble bees.
HISTORY: From 1348–50 bubonic plague (the “Black Death”) infested Europe, killing possibly 4.2 million people in England alone. Lungwort was one of the herbs used alongside wormwood in attempts to cure the plague. Paracelsus (1493–1541) listed lungwort in his Doctrine of Signatures. Just as goldenrod was said to cure jaundice due to its yellow coloring, lungwort was said to cure pulmonary disease because the spotted leaves resembled diseased lungs. Lungwort became widely used in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries for treating diseases of the breast and lungs. Lungwort was known by some as the “herb of Mary,” used as proof for revealing if a person was a witch, and worn or used as a protection against witches and evil spirits. It is also called “Mary’s tears” because the white spots on the leaves resembled teardrops or the Virgin Mary’s milk, and the changing color of the flowers from pink to blue represented blue eyes becoming reddened from weeping.
The leaves actually contain silicic acid, which restores elasticity to the lungs. The name pulmonaria is derived from the Latin pulmo which means lung. Officinalis denotes that it was officially prescribed as a medicine. The word wort simply means plant, as in mugwort and soapwort. In German, the plant is called Gefleckte Lungenkraut.