Family Iridaceae, Iris
OTHER NAMES: Spanish saffron, hay saffron, karkom, Persian saffron.
DESCRIPTION: Lilac to pale mauve in color, its three orange stamens distinguish it from other crocuses.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “It quickens the brain…it helps consumptions of the lungs, and difficulty of breathing: it is excellent in epidemical diseases, as pestilence, small-pox, and measles. It is a notable expulsive medicine, and a good remedy for the yellow-jaundice…It is said to be more cordial, and exhilarating than any of the other aromatics, and is particularly serviceable in disorders of the breast in female obstructions, and hysteric depressions. Saffron is endowed with great virtues, for it refreshes the spirits, and is good against fainting-fits, and the palpitation of the heart: it strengthens the stomach, helps digestion, cleanses the lungs, and is good in coughs. It is said to open obstructions of the viscera, and is good in hysteric disorders. However, the use of it ought to be moderate and seasonable; for when the dose is too large, it produces a heaviness of the head, and sleepiness; some have fallen into an immoderate convulsive laughter, which ended in death.” Saffron has been used to reduce fever, to regulate the menstrual cycle, to combat epilepsy and convulsions and to treat digestive disorders. Modern research confirms it is an antidepressant. It yields a deep, rich yellow dye used to color the robes of Buddhist monks. Just a single thread can flavor a whole meal, as it contains more than 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds. Saffron is used as a flavoring agent for butter, cheese, pastry and confectionery, and is an essential ingredient of paella and bouillabaisse. It needs heat to release its flavor.
HISTORY: Krokos is Greek and saffron comes from the Arabic zafaran, meaning yellow. In mythology Krokos was a mortal so unhappy from his unrequited love for Smilax that the gods turned him into the saffron flower. From earliest times, the best quality saffron came from Cilicia (Armenia) in the Persian empire, so that “Crocum in Ciliciam ferre” became a common expression, equivalent to “carrying coals to Newcastle.” To the nations of eastern Asia, its yellow dye embodied the perfection of beauty, and its odor made a perfect ambrosia. Saffron yellow shoes formed part of the dress of the Persian kings. Non-Persians feared the Persians usage of saffron as a drugging agent and aphrodisiac. During his Asian campaigns, Alexander the Great used Persian saffron in his infusions, with rice, and in baths as a curative for battle wounds. Alexander’s troops imitated the practice learned from the Persians and brought saffron-bathing to Greece. Saffron was first documented in the seventh century BCE in Assyria. Sumerians, Egyptians, Minoans and all the ancient civilizations treasured what is still the most expensive spice in the world, and in the Hebrew Song of Solomon we read: “Your lips drop sweetness like a honeycomb, my bride, syrup and milk are under thy tongue, and your dress has the scent of Lebanon. Your cheeks are an orchard of pomegranates, and orchard full of rare fruits, spikenard [lavender] and saffron, sweet cane and cinnamon.” Nero, knowing its rarity, ordered the streets of Rome to be strewn with saffron for his triumphal entry. Medicinally, saffron was used in ancient times to treat a wide range of ailments, including stomach upsets, bubonic plague and smallpox. By medieval times, it was grown in Europe, with England’s production being centered on Saffron Walden in Essex, and was mainly used for dyeing purposes. Clinical trials have revealed saffron’s potential as an anticancer drug and an antiageing agent as it is an antioxidant. Safranal, a chemical in the spice, increases levels of the “feel good” hormone, serotonin, and can ease depression.
Cleopatra was supposed to bathe in saffron water as an aphrodisiac. The Greek dramatist Aristophanes, in The Clouds, writes of a character who wants a woman “redolent with saffron, voluptuous kisses, the love of spending, good cheer and of wanton delights.” Saffron was also used to dye the hems of the robes of prostitutes in ancient Greece.
Highly Prized Saffron
There are three stigmas per flower, and unbelievably it takes the stigmas from 50,000–75,000 flowers to yield 1 pound (450 g) of dry saffron. This represents an area the size of a football field densely packed with plants, which flower only for about two weeks and have to be picked in the morning before the flowers wilt. It takes about 20 hours’ labor to pick enough flowers to produce a pound of dry saffron. Once extracted, the stigmas must be dried quickly, lest decomposition or mold ruin the batch’s marketability. Because the cost of the labor-intensive picking is reflected in the high price, it is very often adulterated with turmeric or safflower, yet still sold as saffron. Sealed in airtight glass containers, retail saffron prices are around $1000 per pound, which may comprise between 70,000 and 200,000 orange-crimson flower threads. Iran, even now, accounts for around 80 percent of the world’s saffron production.
Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint
OTHER NAMES: Common sage, garden sage, red sage. There are over 500 varieties of sage, and most are medicinally useful, but only a handful are used in cooking.
DESCRIPTION: Hardy evergreen shrub, with a height and spread of 24 inches (60 cm), small mauve flowers and highly aromatic, gray-green, velvet-textured leaves.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper relates: “Jupiter claims this, and bids me tell you, it is good for the liver, and to breed blood. A decoction of the leaves and branches of Sage made and drank, says Dioscorides, provokes urine, brings down women’s courses, helps to expel the dead child, and causes the hair to become black. It stays the bleeding of wounds, and cleanses foul ulcers. Three spoonfuls of the juice of Sage taken fasting, with a little honey, doth presently stay the spitting or casting of blood of them that are in a consumption…Matthiolus says, it is very profitable for all manner of pains in the head coming of cold and rheumatic humours: as also for all pains of the joints, whether inwardly or outwardly, and therefore helps the falling-sickness, the lethargy such as are dull and heavy of spirit, the palsy; and is of much use in all defluxions of rheum from the head, and for the diseases of the chest or breast…Pliny says, it procures women’s courses, and stays them coming down too fast; helps the stinging and biting of serpents, and kills the worms that breed in the ear, and in sores. Sage is of excellent use to help the memory, warming and quickening the senses…The juice of Sage drank with vinegar, hath been of good use in time of the plague at all times. Gargles likewise are made with Sage, rosemary, honey-suckles, and plantain, boiled in wine or water, with some honey or alum put thereto, to wash sore mouths and throats, cankers, or the secret parts of man or woman, as need requires. And with other hot and comfortable herbs, Sage is boiled to bathe the body and the legs in the Summer time, especially to warm cold joints, or sinews, troubled with the palsy and cramp, and to comfort and strengthen the parts. It is much commended against the stitch, or pains in the side coming of wind, if the place be fomented warm with the decoction thereof in wine, and the herb also after boiling be laid warm thereunto.” An infusion of the leaves makes an excellent tonic with antiseptic, digestive and cleansing action, and acts as a gargle for sore throats and mouth ulcers. Rub the leaves on the gums and teeth to maintain oral health. Sage is helpful with menopausal symptoms and as a hair rinse. Sage adds a special flavor to biscuits, scones and bread and is renowned for sage-and-onion stuffing to accompany chicken, turkey and especially roast pork. “Sage Derby” cheese is excellent. Sage was used as a method to darken graying hair by gypsies and people living in Turkey. Sage can only be picked by hand as no machine can adequately gather the delicate styles. It takes 20,000 flowers to produce 3.5 ounces (100 g) of spice.
Improving the Memory
Sage was believed to increase mental capacity in Roman times and was associated with immortality. To be “sage” means to be wise, from the belief that sage was thought to impart wisdom and improve memory. Gerard wrote, “Sage is singularly good for the head and brain, it quickeneth the senses and memory, strengtheneth the sinews, restoreth health to those that have the palsy, and taketh away shakey trembling of the members.” Sage indeed seems to slow the aging process and is being used in research into Alzheimer’s disease.
HISTORY: The genus name Salvia derives from the Latin salvare, to heal. Sage has been prized in many cultures for its healing and medicinal properties, which include antiseptic, digestive and antibacterial uses. Theophrastus classified sage as a coronary herb, because it flushed disease from the body, easing any undue strain on the heart. The Romans considered sage to be a sacred herb and held highly elaborate ceremonies for its planting and harvesting. A sage gatherer would have a ceremonial bath to ensure that his feet were clean and pure before walking on the earth where the sage grew. In the Middle Ages, people drank sage tea to treat colds, fevers, liver trouble, epilepsy, memory loss and many other common ailments. Early Greeks drank, applied or bathed in sage tea. Charlemagne had it grown in his royal gardens.
From Love’s Martyr, 1601
Sage is an herb for health preservative,
It doth expel from women barrenness:
Ætius saith, it makes the child to live,
Whose new-knit joints are full of feebleness,
And comforteth the mothers weariness:
Adding a lively spirit, that doth good
Unto the painful labouring wives’ sick blood.
In Egypt when a great mortality,
And killing Pestilence did infect the Land,
Making the people die innumerable,
The plague being ceased, the women out of hand
Did drink of juice of Sage continually,
That made them to increase and multiply,
And bring forth store of children presently.
Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint
OTHER NAMES:Clear-Eye according to Culpeper. Clarysage, clarry, toutebonne, see bright, eyebright (also another herb), muscatel sage.
DESCRIPTION: With large, strong-smelling, hairy leaves, clary sage grows 2–3 feet (60–90 cm) high, and bears cream and lilac flowers.
PROPERTIES AND USES: “It is under the dominion of the Moon. The seed put into the eyes clears them from motes, and such like things gotten within the lids to offend them, as also clears them from white and red spots on them. The mucilage of the seed made with water, and applied to tumours, or swellings, disperses and takes them away; as also draws forth splinters, thorns, or other things gotten into the flesh. The leaves used with vinegar, either by itself, or with a little honey, doth help boils, felons, and the hot inflammations that are gathered by their pains, if applied before it be grown too great. The powder of the dried root put into the nose, provokes sneezing, and thereby purges the head and brain of much rheum and corruption. The seed or leaves taken in wine, provokes to venery. It is of much use both for men and women that have weak backs, and helps to strengthen the reins: used either by itself, or with other herbs conducing to the same effect, and in tansies often. The fresh leaves dipped in a batter of flour, eggs, and a little milk, and fried in butter, and served to the table, is not unpleasant to any, but exceedingly profitable for those that are troubled with weak backs, and the effects thereof. The juice of the herb put into ale or beer, and drank, brings down women’s courses, and expels the after-birth. It is an usual course with many men, when they have gotten the running of the reins, or women the whites, they run to the bush of clary; maid, bring hither the frying-pan, fetch me some butter quickly, then for eating fried clary, just as hogs eat acorns; and this they think will cure their disease forsooth; whereas when they have devoured as much clary as will grow upon an acre of ground, their backs are as much the better as though they had pissed in their shoes; nay, perhaps much worse. We will grant that clary strengthens the back; but this we deny, that the cause of the running of the reins [kidneys] in men, or the whites in women, lies in the back, (though the back may sometimes be weakened by them) and therefore the medicine is as proper, as for me when my toe is sore, to lay a plaster on my nose.” Clary sage is used as a relaxant and tonic, and helps with stress-related problems such as headaches, insomnia and indigestion. Clary sage is strengthening and is good to take after childbirth, being said to have a special affinity with the female system, being recommended also for women who are experiencing hot flushes, pain and tension associated with menopause, menstrual problems and PMS. Clary sage also has a reputation for creating a sense of euphoria, and was formerly used in beer and wine to heighten the effects of the alcohol. Clary oil is used as a fixer in perfumery. The young tops of clary were used in soups and as pot herbs, to “lift” omelets, and flavor jellies. The leaves were chopped into salads.
In one herbal, Dream Pillows and Love Potions by Jim Long (1997), we find this recipe for a love potion to attract a man: Mix equal parts of dried lavender, bachelor’s buttons and clary sage, with a pinch of valerian and a sassafras leaf. Place in a small sachet and wear inside the clothing.
The essential oil is clear, and has a sweet, nutty scent, almost a floral quality, being a good remedy for nervous stress. Clary contains a hormone-like compound similar to estrogen that regulates hormonal balance, and a clary sage bath is warm and very relaxing. A sage lotion can be made to treat oily hair and skin, dandruff and wrinkles.
HISTORY: The Romans called it sclarea, from clarus (clear) because they used it as an eyewash. German merchants added clary and elder flowers to Rhine wine to make it imitate a good muscatel. The practice was so common that Germans still call the herb Muskateller Salbei and the English knew it as muscatel sage. In some parts of Britain a wine has been made from the herb in flower, boiled with sugar, which had a sweet muscat flavor like a good Frontignac. It was considered an aphrodisiac in medieval times. It was employed in England as a substitute for hops, but the extra intoxication it induced gave severe headaches. Matthias de Lobel, a 17th-century Flemish physician and botanist, wrote: “Some brewers of Ale and Beere doe put it into their drinke to make it more heady, fit to please drunkards, who thereby, according to their several dispositions, become either dead drunke, or foolish drunke, or made drunke.”
ST JOHN’S WORT
Family Hypericaceae, Hypericum
OTHER NAMES: Amber, scare-devil, goat weed, sol terrestris, Tipton weed, balm of the warrior’s wound, rose of Sharon, Aaron’s beard. “Nature’s Prozac” is a fairly recent nickname.
DESCRIPTION: Hardy semi-evergreen perennial, growing from 1–3 feet (30–90 cm) tall with a 12-inch (30-cm) spread. Its pretty yellow flowers contain hypericin, and tiny resin glands on the leaves give off an unpleasant foxy scent. The stems exude a reddish-purple juice, “the blood of St. John.”
PROPERTIES AND USES: It is used as an antidepressant, and for pain and inflammation caused by nerve damage. Oil infused with the flowers can help tissue repair in wounds, burns and shingles. Culpeper writes: “It is under the celestial sign Leo, and the dominion of the Sun. It may be, if you meet a Papist, he will tell you, especially if he be a lawyer, that St. John made it over to him by a letter of attorney. It is a singular wound herb; boiled in wine and drank, it heals inward hurts or bruises; made into an ointment, it open obstructions, dissolves swellings, and closes up the lips of wounds. The decoction of the herb and flowers, especially of the seed, being drank in wine, with the juice of knot-grass, helps all manner of vomiting and spitting of blood, is good for those that are bitten or stung by any venomous creature, and for those that cannot make water. Two drams of the seed of St. John’s Wort made into powder, and drank in a little broth, doth gently expel choler or congealed blood in the stomach. The decoction of the leaves and seeds drank somewhat warm before the fits of agues, whether they be tertians or quartains, alters the fits, and, by often using, doth take them quite away. The seed is much commended, being drank for forty days together, to help the sciatica, the falling sickness, and the palsy.” An infusion of the flowers and olive oil offers a strong astringent, antibiotic, healing treatment for wounds, inflammations and aching joints. The tea is good for coughs and insomnia. St. John’s wort is prescribed for depression and migraine but not in conjunction with other antidepressants or other drugs taken for migraine. The herb affects the levels of serotonin in the body, this being a chemical that affects anxiety, depression and migraine. There can be several unpleasant side-effects for those who are light-sensitive, suffering from the skin condition rosacea etc. The stems and flowers produce red and yellow dyes.
St. John the Baptist
The plant is named after St. John the Baptist, whose feast day, June 24, occurs close to Midsummer Day when daylight in Europe is longest and the plant is in full bloom. Its five yellow petals resemble a halo, and its red sap symbolizes the blood of the martyred saint.
HISTORY: In medieval times, St. John’s wort was used for “driving out the inner devil.” The philosopher Paracelcus (c. 1525) recommended it for hallucinations and “dragons,” as well as for healing wounds. St. John’s wort is very effective as a compress for dressing wounds, and in the Middle Ages was commonly used to heal deep sword cuts. When held up to the light, the leaves appear to be peppered with what look like tiny translucent glands, perforations interpreted as punctures or “wounds.” This led to the plant being identified as a wound-healer through the Doctrine of Signatures. St. John’s wort is a proven antidepressant used to treat both humans and animals. However, this versatile herb also contains dozens of chemical compounds that disinfect and heal wounds as well as boosting the entire nervous system. It gets its common name from the superstition that on St. John’s Day, June 24, the dew which fell on the plant the evening before was efficacious in preserving the eyes from disease. The plant was collected, dipped in oil, and became transformed into a balm for every wound. Some say that its name Hypericum is derived from the Greek hyper (above) and eikon (icon), referring to the belief that the herb was so obnoxious to evil spirits that its smell would cause them to fly away. Others believe that the word comes from hyper and ereike (heath), possibly meaning the best heath of all. The plant was hung over a religious icon on St. John’s Day. Until comparatively recent times, it was gathered and hung in doorways and windows to ward off evil spirits. In Germany, the herb is commonly given to children and teenagers, and a 2008 study there compared the effects of Hypericum perforatum with placebos or a wide range of old and new antidepressants, including those from the new generation of SSRI drugs, such as Prozac and Seroxat. The herb was found to be as effective as the modern drugs, and causing fewer side effects than many standard drugs used to help those battling depression.
Helping to Conceive
If a childless wife walked naked to pick St. John’s wort in the woodlands, she would conceive within a year. (Whether the offspring was that of her husband could, no doubt, be the matter of some conjecture.)
Family Apiaceae/Umbelliferae, Umbellifers
OTHER NAMES: Rock samphire, small samphire, marsh samphire, St. Peter’s herb, sampiere, sea asparagus, poor man’s asparagus, sea pickle, crest marine.
DESCRIPTION: The leaves are narrow, sea-green, salty and succulent, and the flowers are borne in tiny greenish-white umbels. Samphire grows up to 12 inches (30 cm) in height and spread.
PROPERTIES AND USES: “It is an herb of Jupiter, and was in former times wont to be used more than now it is; the more is the pity. It is well known almost to every body, that ill digestions and obstructions are the cause of most of the diseases which the frail nature of man is subject to; both which might be remedied by a more frequent use of this herb. If people would have sauce to their meat, they may take some for profit as well as for pleasure. It is a safe herb, very pleasant both to taste and stomach, helps digestion, and in some sort opening obstructions of the liver and spleen: provokes urine, and helps thereby to wash away the gravel and stone engendered in the kidneys or bladder.”—Culpeper. A diuretic, samphire can relieve flatulence and indigestion. The leaves can be eaten in salads, cooked in butter or steamed like asparagus or make an aromatic sauce.
HISTORY: It was originally “sampiere,” a corruption from “herbe de St.-Pierre” named for the patron saint of fishermen because it grows in rocky regions and coastal marshes along the sea coast of northern Europe. The dangers involved in collecting rock samphire on sea cliffs are mentioned in Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Half-way down / Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!” John Gerard wrote in 1597: “The leaves kept in pickle and eaten in salads with oil and vinegar is a pleasant sauce for meat, wholesome for the stoppings of the liver, milt and kidneys. It is the pleasantest sauce, most familiar and best agreeing with man’s body.” Rock samphire used to be cried by the vendors in London streets as “crest marine” and in the 19th century it was shipped in casks of seawater from the Isle of Wight to markets in London. By the 1960s, it had long fallen out fashion, and was known as “poor man’s asparagus.” However, in 1981 it was served at the royal wedding breakfast of Charles and Diana, having been gathered from Sandringham marshes. It has regained favor as a garnish for restaurant fish, and sometimes as a lightly vinegared relish.
The Lone Species
It is the sole species of the genus Crithmum, and research is ongoing into its use as a treatment for obesity, samphire being rich in vitamin C, pectin, sulfates and iodine.
Family Apiaceae/Umbelliferae, Umbellifers
OTHER NAMES: Wood sanicle, European sanicle, pool-root, self-heal (as is Prunella vulgaris) snakeroot (USA). It is the only representative in Britain of the Sanicula genus.
DESCRIPTION: A little like cow parsley, but with small, white to reddish flowers growing in small hemispherical umbels, from which appear bristly fruit with hooked prickles which attach to animal fur.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “This is one of Venus’s herbs, to cure the wounds or mischiefs Mars inflicts upon the body of man. It heals green wounds speedily, or any ulcers, imposthumes, or bleedings inward, also tumours in any part of the body; for the decoction or powder in drink taken, and the juice used outwardly, dissipates the humours: and there is not found any herb that can give such present help either to man or beast, when the disease falls upon the lungs or throat, and to heal up putrid malignant ulcers in the mouth, throat, and private parts, by gargling or washing with the decoction of the leaves and roots made in water, and a little honey put thereto. It helps to stay women’s courses, and all other fluxes of blood, either by the mouth, urine, or stool, and lasks [diarrhea] of the belly; the ulcerations of the kidneys also, and the pains in the bowels, and gonorrhoea, being boiled in wine or water, and drank. The same also is no less powerful to help any ruptures or burstings, used both inwardly and outwardly. And briefly, it is as effectual in binding, restraining, consolidating, heating, drying and healing, as comfrey, bugle, self-heal, or any other of the vulnerary herbs whatsoever.” European sanicle tea relieves mucous congestion in the chest, stomach, and intestines. As a gargle and mouthwash, it is used for mouth and throat inflammations and sores. It has been used externally to treat skin eruptions, scrofula and suppurating wounds. Its mildly styptic action made it helpful for internal hemorrhages.
HISTORY: In the Middle Ages it was believed that taking sanicle would make surgeons redundant. The plant gained its medical reputation as a vulnerary (wound healer), with the herbalist Henry Lyte writing that it will “make whole and sound all wounds and hurts, both inward and outward.” A decoction was used for scald-head (scalp disease characterized by pustules), bleeding piles and rashes.
The whole herb is to be collected in June, only on the morning of a fine day, when the sun has dried the dew. The origin of the genus name is the Latin sano (I heal or cure), in reference to its medicinal virtues.
SMILAX REGELII (formerly OFFICINALIS)
Family Smilacaceae, Greenbriar
OTHER NAMES: Honduran sarsaparilla, Jamaican sarsaparilla, red-bearded sarsaparilla.
DESCRIPTION: A large perennial vine with a long, tuberous rootstock.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper observes: “This is reckoned amongst the sorts of prickly Bindweeds, of which there are three sorts; one with red berries, another with black berries, and the third which was brought into Europe by the Spaniards about the year 1563…These are all plants of Mars; of an healing quality howsoever used. Dioscorides says, that both leaves and berries, drank before or after any deadly poison, are an excellent antidote. It is also said, that if some of the juice of the berries be given to a new-born child, it shall never be hurt by poison. It is good against all sorts of venomous things. Twelve or sixteen of the berries, beaten to powder, and given in wine, procure urine when it is stopped. The distilled waters, when drank, have the same effect, cleanses the reins and assuages inward inflammations. If the eyes be washed therewith, it heals them thoroughly. The true Sarsaparilla is held generally not to heat, but rather to dry the humours; yet it is easily perceived, that it does not only dry them but wastes them away by a secret property, chiefly that of sweating, which it greatly promotes. It is used in many kinds of diseases, particularly in cold fluxes from the head and brain, rheums, and catarrhs, and cold griefs of the stomach, as it expels winds very powerfully. It helps not only the French disease but all manner of aches in the sinews or joints, all running sores in the legs, all phlegmatic swellings, tetters or ring-worms, and all manner of spots and foulness of the skin. It is reckoned a great sweetener of the blood, and has been found of considerable service in venereal cases. Infants who have received infection from their nurses, though covered with pustules and ulcers, may be cured by the use of this root without the help of mercurials; and the best way of administering it to them is to mix the powdered root with their food.” Sarsaparilla can act as an anti-inflammatory and cleansing agent, giving relief for skin diseases such as eczema, itching and psoriasis, and to treat rheumatic complaints and gout. Some believe the plant can treat impotence, as it has a testosterogenic action and can increase muscle bulk. The herb has been used to bring relief to women suffering from menopausal and menstrual problems, and to relieve depression and debility. As well as a liquid being used as a tonic pick-me-up, the smoke of sarsaparilla was inhaled by asthma sufferers.
HISTORY: The Aztecs used sarsaparilla in the treatment of syphilis, chronic skin ailments, especially those that cause putrid ulcerations, and in cases of bone disease. The plant was exported to Europe before 1530 from Mexico, often through Jamaica, and is named after Spanish zarza (bramble) and parrilla (little vine). Sarsaparilla was then used from the 16th century as a treatment for syphilis and rheumatism. Its products were also promoted as blood purifiers, tonics, diuretics, sweat inducers, and it was often used in patent medicines. The herb contains a mixture of saponins, which have strong diuretic properties, as well as some laxative (as they act as gastric irritants), diaphoretic (sweat-causing), and expectorant uses. The 16th-century physician Nicolás Monardes devoted two chapters of his Joyfulle Newes Out of the Newe Founde Worlde to this “new” herb.
In the US, before it was replaced by artificial agents, sarsaparilla root was the original flavoring for root beer. A few people may remember an old black and white TV cowboy series, Sugarfoot (1957–61). The unarmed hero, a fledgling lawyer in the lawless West, always ordered an alcohol-free sarsaparilla when he walked into a bar full of rowdy villains. The theme tune began: “Sugarfoot, Sugarfoot, easy lopin’, cattle ropin’ Sugarfoot, / Carefree as the tumbleweeds, a joggin’ along with a heart full of song / And a rifle and a volume of the law.” For unfathomable reasons the show was aired as Tenderfoot in the UK.
Sarsaparilla was still being listed in the 1850s as a treatment for syphilis in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia. A tea made of sarsaparilla was used to treat venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea. If any sufferers today would like to try it: bring two pints of water to the boil. Add 2 tablespoons each of yellow dock roots and sarsaparilla herb. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for five minutes, remove the cover and add 3½ teaspoonfuls of dried thyme herb. Then everything must be covered again and steeped an extra hour. However, it must be noted that neither the whole medication nor its saponins are actually effective in bringing in relief for syphilis and for purifying blood. Preferably, see a doctor.
SATUREJA HORTENSIS and SATUREJA MONTANA
Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint
OTHER NAMES: Garden savory (summer savory), bean herb (both).
DESCRIPTION: Summer savory is a half-hardy annual growing to 12–18 inches (30–45 cm) high with a 10-inch (25-cm) spread, with aromatic oval leaves and small white to mauve flowers. Its smell is a cross between mint and thyme, with a peppery aftertaste. Winter savory is a hardy perennial with a height of around 12–15 inches (30–38 cm) and a spread of 8 inches (20 cm), with small aromatic pointed glossy leaves and small white to pink flowers.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper says: “Mercury claims dominion over this herb. Keep it dry by you all the year, if you love yourself and your ease, and it is a hundred pounds to a penny if you do not.” He considered summer savory better than winter savory for drying to make conserves and syrups: “Keep it dry, make conserves and syrups of it for your use; for which purpose the Summer kind is best. This kind is both hotter and drier than the Winter kind…It expels tough phlegm from the chest and lungs, quickens the dull spirits in the lethargy, if the juice be snuffed up the nose; dropped into the eyes it clears them of thin cold humours proceeding from the brain…outwardly applied with wheat flour as a poultice, it eases sciatica and palsied members.” Culpeper adds: “The juice dropped into the eyes removes dimness of sight if it proceeds from thin humours distilled from the brain. The juice heated with oil of Roses and dropped in the ears removes noise and singing and deafness: outwardly applied with wheat flour, it gives ease to them.”
Both are known mainly as culinary herbs, but also possess medicinal properties. Antiseptic, antifungal and antibacterial, both types of savory have therapeutic properties similar to those of oregano, thyme and rosemary. Savory is a carminative herb used for colic, diarrhea and indigestion. Its antiseptic and astringent properties make it a good treatment for sore throats, and a poultice of the leaves gives quick relief to wasp stings and insect bites. Winter savory has a stronger, more resinous flavor than summer savory, but both impart a peppery taste to foods and blend well with thyme, marjoram and basil. Both are used to marinate meats, and to add flavor to beans (especially in Italy) and vegetables. The leaves and tender tops are used, with marjoram and thyme, to season dressings for turkey, veal or fish. Its distinctive taste resembles that of marjoram, so it is not only added to stuffing, pork pies and sausages as a seasoning, but fresh sprigs of it may be boiled with broad beans and green peas, in the same manner as mint. It is also boiled with dried peas in making pea-soup. For garnishing it has been used as a substitute for parsley and chervil, and fresh leaves can replace pepper in cooking. In Bulgarian cookery, instead of salt and pepper being on the dinner table, there is salt, paprika and savory. It is a characteristic ingredient of herbes de Provence. Winter savory oil is used in preparations to prevent incipient baldness. Cooks prefer to use summer savory. Use summer savory, with its more delicate flavor, for tender baby green beans, and winter savory to enhance dried beans and lentils.
Culpeper recommends savory as a “good remedy for the colic.” When used with bean dishes, it not only adds flavor but helps prevent flatulence, hence “bean herb.” It is no coincidence that the German word for the herb is Bohnenkraut, meaning bean herb, as one of the components of the herb naturally aids their digestion.
Satyrs and Savory
The derivation of the genus name Satureja is not clear but it may refer (via Pliny) to the satyrs, the Greek demigods of the forest who where known for their half-man/half-goat shape and insatiable sexual appetites. In legend the satyrs lived in meadows of savory and wore crowns of the herb, so the herb was once thought to be an aphrodisiac as a result of this association. The French herbalist and healer Maurice Mességué (1921–) claims that savory is an essential ingredient in love potions he makes for couples. As a boy his father told him it was “the herb of happiness.”
HISTORY: Savory was known to the Greeks and Romans, and later imported to northern Europe. Both species were noticed by Virgil as being among the most fragrant of herbs, and on this account recommended to be grown near beehives to attract bees and so flavor the honey. Vinegar, flavored with savory and other aromatic herbs, was used by the Romans in the same manner as mint sauce is used today. In Shakespeare’s time, savory was a popular herb, and is mentioned, together with different mints, marjoram and lavender, in The Winter’s Tale. Winter savory is the coarser and hardier, beloved by bees, and was extensively used as edging in Elizabethan knot gardens. The American colonists brought both winter and summer savory to North America, both being mentioned by the 17th-century American botanist John Josselyn.
Family Dipsacaceae, Teasel
OTHER NAMES: Gypsy rose, pins and needles, blue bonnets, mournful widow, lady’s pincushion, lady’s hatpins, poor widow, blackamoor’s beauty, Egyptian rose, blue buttons, bachelor’s buttons, clafrllys (itch plant, Welsh).
DESCRIPTION: When first in flower, the stamens of this 12–24 inch (30–60 cm) perennial resemble pins sticking out of a pin cushion. The attractive flower heads range in color from light blue to pale lilac.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Gerard tells us: “The plant genders scabs, if the decoction thereof be drunk certain days and the juice used in ointments.” The juice “being drunk, procures sweat, especially with Treacle, and attenuates and makes thin, freeing the heart from any infection or pestilence.” Culpeper relates that it is “very effectual for coughs, shortness of breath and other diseases of the lungs,” and says that the “decoction of the herb, dry or green, made into wine and drunk for some time together,” is good for pleurisy. The green herb, bruised and applied to any carbuncle, was stated by Culpeper to dissolve the same “in three hours’ space,” and the same decoction removed pains and stitches in the side. The decoction of the root was considered a cure for all sores and eruptions, the juice being made into an ointment for the same purpose. Also, “the decoction of the herb and roots outwardly applied in any part of the body, is effectual for shrunk sinews or veins and heals green wounds, old sores and ulcers.” An attractive garden plant, the leaves are the food plants of the rare marsh fritillary butterfly and also the small skipper, Essex skipper, marbled white, red admiral and small tortoiseshell butterflies. It is also the food of the rare narrow bordered bee hawk moth and well as being popular with burnet, lime speck pug and shaded pug moths, so is environmentally valuable. Sheep and goats will eat the plant, but cattle dislike it.
HISTORY: It has been used as a blood purifier and as a treatment for eczema and other skin disorders for centuries. The juice of scabious, mixed with powder of borax and samphire, was recommended for removing freckles, pimples and leprosy, and also as a warm decoction to remove dandruff and scurf.
Scratchy and Itchy
The botanical name of corn scabious, Scabiosa columbaria, comes from the Latin word for itch, scabiosa (from scabere, to scratch). Herbalists used scabious, dried and added to juice, as a remedy for scabies, sores left by the plague and other skin complaints.
(DEVIL’S BIT) SCABIOUS
Family Dipsacaceae, Teasel
OTHER NAMES: Wild devil’s bit, premorse.
DESCRIPTION: A slender plant with conspicuous stamens making a lilac “pincushion” like those of other scabious species. Botanically, devil’s bit has four-lobed flowers, whereas field scabious has five lobes, so they have been put in different genuses (Knautia and Succisa) within the family Dipsacaceae (Teasel).
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper recommended it for many uses, saying that the root boiled in wine and drunk was very powerful against the plague and all pestilential diseases, and fevers and poison and bites of venomous creatures, and that “it helpeth also all that are inwardly bruised or outwardly by falls or blows, dissolving the clotted blood.” The root bruised and outwardly applied, took away black and blue marks on the skin. He considered “the decoction of the herb very effectual as a gargle for swollen throat and tonsils, and that the root powdered and taken in drink expels worms.” The juice or distilled water of the herb was a remedy for green wounds or old sores, cleansing the body inwardly and freeing the skin from sores, scurf, pimples, freckles, etc. The dried root was given in powder, promoting sweat, so making it beneficial in fevers. It made a tea for coughs, fevers and internal inflammation. It purified the blood, taken inwardly, and was used as a wash externally for cutaneous eruptions (hardenings and tumors of the skin). As with field scabious, the warm decoction has also been used as a wash to free the head from scurf, sores and dandruff. Also, as with field scabious, it is an excellent food source for butterflies, moths and bees.
HISTORY: The plant was used for its diaphoretic (sweat-inducing), soothing and fever-reducing properties, the whole herb being collected in September and dried.
Bitten by the Devil
John Gerard tells how “The greater part of the root seems to be bitten away; old fantastic charmers report that the devil did bite it for envy, because it is an herb that hath so many good virtues and it is so beneficial to mankind.” The devil reputedly found this herb in Paradise but, envying the good it might do to the human race, bit away a part of the root to destroy the plant. However, it still flourishes, with a strangely stumped root. The legend seems to have been very widely spread, for the plant bears this name across Europe.
SCENTED HERB GARDENS
The earliest scented gardens were built in the courtyards of the houses of Persian nobles more than 2500 years ago. These gardens were generally square or rectangular in form, often being divided into four sections by streams flowing from a central fountain. The name for these enclosed gardens was pairi-daeza (see The Origin of Paradise, page 254). The Persians, who honored their gardeners, required three main qualities in their earthly paradises: running water, shade and scent. Through their adoption by the Byzantine church, such gardens eventually found their way into Western Europe, in the form of monastic cloister gardens. The idea of a walled, perfumed garden resonated with the medieval Christian tradition, which viewed the whole of creation in symbolic terms. Biblical references to flowers and plants, from the Song of Solomon to the Garden of Eden could be reinforced by such gardens appearing as images of Paradise itself. The Moors in Spain filled the caliph’s gardens outside Cordoba with roses in 711 CE. During the centuries preceding the First Crusade in 1095, there are mentions of rose gardens being cultivated in Germany, France, and in many of the monasteries throughout Europe. Returning Crusaders introduced varieties that had been cultivated in Asia (damask roses, i.e. the Castilian rose) to Europe, and the English took plants of the gallica and alba varieties. The rose and the lily were the first two flowers that Charlemagne ordered to be planted across his empire. In 1260 the Dominican monk Albertus Magnus specified the ingredients of a perfect paradise, or pleasure garden. There should be a fountain and a lawn of “every sweet-smelling herb such as rue, and sage and basil, and likewise all sorts of flowers, as the violet, columbine, lily, rose, iris and the like.” Albertus also recommended that “Behind the lawn there may be great diversity of medicinal and scented herbs, not only to delight the sense of smell by their perfume but to refresh the sight with their flowers.”
Along with the rose, the other major sacred flower of the early Christian church was the highly scented white Madonna lily, Lilium candidum. In monastery gardens, roses and lilies were grown together with especially aromatic herbs such as lavender and rosemary. The medieval romance garden and the Renaissance love garden were primarily rose and herb gardens, as esteemed for their aesthetic qualities as for their usefulness. The apogee of the scented garden came in the reign of Elizabeth I, when the upper classes demanded sweetly scented food, rooms and clothes. Elizabethan manor houses cultivated fragrant flowers and aromatic plants in a secluded formal garden, usually hedged with rose briars and fruit trees not only for the pleasure of walking and sitting there, but also to provide the ingredients for the stillroom. Here were prepared “sweet waters” from rose petals and rosemary flowers, and healing lotions from the stems of the Madonna lily and spikes of lavender. Aromatic herbs, like hyssop and rue, were grown for strewing over the floors of rooms to purify the air, and their dried flowers were stuffed into pillows to encourage sleep. However, by the 18th century, scented gardens almost disappeared from sight, as aromatic flowers gave way to far grander designs.
Rose Garden The original meaning of the word rosary is a round rose garden dedicated to the Virgin Mary (rosarium is Latin for rose garden). The earliest rosaries were built on holy ground, but 16th-century paintings show that the style was also adopted in private gardens, where rose gardens and arbors were built by royalty and the nobility.
Scented Gardens Many herbs release their aroma when brushed against or touched. Suggested herbs for a scented herb garden include anise hyssop, basil, catmint, feverfew, lavender, lemon balm, lemon thyme, various mints, southernwood, wormwood, verbena, scented geraniums, lily-of-the-valley, sweet marjoram, sweet violets, rosemary and thyme. Roses, jasmine, nicotiana, stocks, wallflowers and lilacs can complement the garden. Rosa gallica officinalis, the apothecary’s rose, would be a wonderful addition. On a small scale, one can establish a scented lemon garden with lemon balm, catmint, verbena, lemon grass, lemon thyme and lemon basil. For a herbal tea garden, try lemon basil, chamomile, lemon verbena, lemon balm, peppermint, orange mint, rose hips, bergamot, rosemary, pineapple sage, fennel and lavender.
Rosary Gardens Rosary Gardens are designed to create a peaceful environment ideal for quiet reflection. They can also be designed to incorporate designated flowers to honor the Virgin Mary. Stepping stones can take the place of rosary beads. Five large stones and 50 small stones make the decades of Christ’s birth, life and death (a sequence of prayers made during worship with a rosary is called a decade). The medallion with Mary’s likeness is the central part of the rosary, so a statue of Mary can stand in the heart of the rosary garden. The flowers used can be the visual symbols of the Mysteries: glorious (yellow/gold), joyful (white), luminous (purple) and sorrowful (red).
Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint
OTHER NAMES: Self-heal, heal-all, all-heal (shared with other plants), blue curls (USA), heart-of-the-earth (USA), prunella, brunella, carpenter-weed, hook heal, slough heal, carpenter weed, carpenter’s herb.
DESCRIPTION: It has purple and violet flowers in dense spikes, often with white lower lips, and can grow from 1 to 2 feet (30–60 cm) high on a weak stem that is often supported by grass. Culpeper notes that the flowers are “thick set together like an ear or spiky knap” making it easy to recognize. Nectar lies at the bottom of the corolla tube, protected from tiny insects by a thick hedge of hairs placed just above it. The flower is adapted by this formation, like the rest of the Labiatae family, for fertilization by bees, which alight on the lower lip. They then thrust their proboscises down the corolla tube for nectar. In doing so their heads are dusted with pollen from the anthers, and on visiting the next flower, this pollen is smeared on the end of the curving style that runs up the arch of the upper lip, thus effecting fertilization.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper tells us: “It is under the dominion of Mars, hot, biting, and choleric; and remedies what evils Mars afflicts the body of man with, by sympathy, as viper’s flesh attracts poison, and the loadstone iron. It kills the worms, helps the gout, cramp, and convulsions, provokes urine, and helps all joint-aches.” He explains its name as: “Self-Heal whereby when you are hurt, you may heal yourself…it is an especial herb for inward or outward wounds. Take it inwardly in syrups for inward wounds, outwardly in unguents and plasters for outward. As Self-Heal is like Bugle in form, so also in the qualities and virtues, serving for all purposes, whereunto Bugle is applied with good success either inwardly or outwardly, for inward wounds or ulcers in the body, for bruises or falls and hurts. If it be combined with Bugle, Sanicle and other like wound herbs, it will be more effectual to wash and inject into ulcers in the parts outwardly…It is an especial remedy for all green wounds to close the lips of them and to keep the place from further inconveniences. The juice used with oil of roses to anoint the temples and forehead is very effectual to remove the headache, and the same mixed with honey of roses cleans and heals ulcers in the mouth and throat.” Self heal is still in use in modern herbal treatment as an astringent for inward or outward use on injuries and wounds with bleeding. Drops are made with milk for conjunctivitis, and an ointment made for bleeding piles. The plant is also useful for treating hemorrhage and excessive bleeding during menstruation. The whole plant was said to have antibacterial, antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antiviral, astringent, carminative, diuretic, febrifuge, hypotensive, stomachic, styptic, tonic, vermifuge and vulnerary properties.
HISTORY: William Coles, in Adam in Eden (1657), explains its name: “It is called by modern writers (for neither the ancient Greek nor Latin writers knew it) Brunella, from Brunellen, which is a name given unto it by the Germans, because it cureth that inflammation of the mouth which they call ‘die Breuen,’ yet the general name of it in Latin nowadays is Prunella, as being a word of a more gentile pronunciation.” He also notes that “die Breuen” “is common to soldiers when they lie in camp, but especially in garrisons, coming with an extraordinary inflammation or swelling, as well in the mouth as throat, the very signature of the Throat which the form of the Flowers so represent signifying as much.” Thus the Doctrine of Signatures told apothecaries to prescribe prunella. Gerard wrote that: “There is not a better Wound herb in the world than that of SelfHeale is, the very name importing it to be very admirable upon this account and indeed the Virtues do make it good, for this very herb without the mixture of any other ingredient, being only bruised and wrought with the point of a knife upon a trencher or the like, will be brought into the form of a salve, which will heal any green wound even in the first intention, after a very wonderful manner, The decoction of Prunell made with wine and water doth join together and make whole and sound all wounds, both inward and outward, even as Bugle doth. To be short, it serves for the same that the Bugle serves and in the world there are not two better wound herbs as hath been often proved.” Self heal was one of many plants that found their way to North America with the early settlers.
Although self heal is not as immediately effective as comfrey, yarrow or bugle, it is a useful herb because of its almost universal availability. Its name “carpenters herb” indicates that it was traditionally used for bruised or cut fingers.
Family Brassicaceae/Cruciferae, Cabbage
OTHER NAMES: Pickpurse, casewort, shepherd’s bag, shepherd’s scrip, shepherd’s sprout, lady’s purse, witches’ pouches, rattle pouches, case-weed, pick-pocket, pick-purse, blindweed, pepper-and-salt, poor man’s parmacettie, sanguinary, mother’s heart.
DESCRIPTION: Its small white flowers are followed by triangular, notched seedpods. It is 6–18 inches (15–45 cm) high, growing from a rosette at its base.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper states: “It is under the dominion of Saturn, and of a cold, dry, and binding nature, like to him. It helps all fluxes of blood, either caused by inward or outward wounds; as also flux of the belly, and bloody flux, spitting blood, and bloody urine, stops the terms in women; being bound to the wrists of the hands, and the soles of the feet, it helps the yellow jaundice.” It is an important herb to stop bleeding, due to the tyramine and other amines it contains, and so it is used to prevent heavy menstrual bleeding, nosebleeds and as a post-partum herb. The herb acts as a vasoconstrictor, hastens coagulation and constricts blood vessels. The herb contains a protein that constricts the smooth muscles that support and surround blood vessels, especially those in the uterus. Other chemicals in the herb may accelerate clotting. Yet other compounds in the herb help the uterus contract, explaining the long-time use of the herb to help the womb return to normal size after childbirth. When the seeds are ripe, they have a fiery bite and have been ground as a pepper substitute.
HISTORY: Its flavonoids have a hemostatic action (stopping blood flow), so it has been used for most of recorded history to treat cuts, nose bleeds and uterine hemorrhages. Strangely, it used to be gathered and fed to chickens to make the yolks of their eggs much darker and more strongly flavored. Shepherd’s purse is also used in traditional Chinese medicine formulas for blurred vision, and spots before the eyes. During the First World War, as other styptics became unavailable, shepherd’s purse was used as a replacement. In magical lore, eating the seeds of the first three plants you see will prevent illness for a whole year.
The “purses” are its small, delicate, heart-shaped seedpods, shaped like the leather purses which used to be carried by shepherds and herders. It is similarly called in France bourse de pasteur, and in Germany Hirtentasche. Each plant releases as many as 40,000 seeds.
Family Caryophyllaceae, Pink/Carnation
OTHER NAMES: Common soapwort, bouncing Bet, tumbling Ted, fuller’s herb, fuller’s grass bruisewort, old maids pink, sebonllys (soapflower, Welsh), sweet Betty, wild sweet William, dog cloves, soap root, latherwort, foam dock, gill-run-bythe-street, saponary, lady-by-the-gate, crow soap, hedge pink, farewell summer.
DESCRIPTION: Straggly perennial growing 2–4 feet (60–120 cm) high and with a 1–2-feet (30–60-cm) spread, with compact clusters of pink, fragrant flowers and smooth pointed leaves.
PROPERTIES AND USES:
“Venus owns this plant. The whole plant is bitter. Bruised and agitated with water it raises a lather like soap, which easily washes greasy spots out of cloths: a decoction of it, applied externally, cures the itch. The Germans make use of it, instead of sarsaparilla, for the cure of venereal disorders. In fact it cures virulent gonorrhœas, by giving the inspissated [thickened] juice of it to the amount of half an ounce daily. It is accounted opening and attenuating, and somewhat sudorific, and by some commended against hard tumours and whitlows, but it is seldom used.”—Culpeper. When the rhizome and roots are boiled in water, their hormone-like saponins produce a lather, releasing a substance that can lift dirt and grease off clothes. Anti-inflammatory, it has been used for jaundice, dry and irritating skin conditions and for hair care. The flowers can be used in pot-pourris, and the plant is still used in shampoos, make-up removers and cleansers. Restorers and conservers still value its gentle qualities to lift dirt from fragile paintings, textiles, upholstery and silk. In the Middle East soapwort is still grown to use when washing woolen items.
HISTORY: Soapwort has an ancient reputation for treating skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, boils and acne. It was taken to the American colonies by early settlers. Soapwort used to be used for cleaning new wool, taking out the lanolin grease, and colonies of the plant have spread from their original positions growing near old wool mills. Thus the plant was known as fuller’s herb, or fuller’s grass. A fuller was the person in a mill who used the “fulling” process in cleansing (usually woolen) cloth by first “scouring” it, and then “milling” it, making it thicker. Shepherds in the Alps washed their sheep with soapwort solution before shearing them. Soapwort was used to produce a head upon beer, and was also known as bruisewort as gypsies used it for black eyes and bruises. Maud Grieve’s Herbalrecommended soapwort for venereal diseases when mercury failed to clear them up.
Family Ruscaceae, Ruscus
OTHER NAMES: King Solomon’s seal, common Solomon’s seal, lady’s seals, St. Mary’s seal, dagrau Job (Welsh for Job’s daggers), Jacob’s ladder, David’s harp, ladder-to-heaven, jade bamboo (in China, as its leaves resemble those of bamboo).
DESCRIPTION: This attractive perennial grows 12–30 inches (30–76 cm) high with a spread of 10 inches (25 cm), with white, waxy, fragrant tubular flowers hanging off arching stems.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “Saturn owns the plant, for he loves his bones well. The root of Solomon’s Seal is found by experience to be available in wounds, hurts, and outward sores, to heal and close up the lips of those that are green, and to dry up and restrain the flux of humours to those that are old. It is singularly good to stay vomitings and bleeding wheresoever, as also all fluxes in man or woman; also, to knit any joint, which by weakness uses to be often out of place, or will not stay in long when it is set; also to knit and join broken bones in any part of the body, the roots being bruised and applied to the places; yea, it hath been found by experience, and the decoction of the root in wine, or the bruised root put into wine or other drink, and after a night’s infusion, strained forth hard and drank, hath helped both man and beast, whose bones hath been broken by any occasion, which is the most assured refuge of help to people of divers counties of the land that they can have. It is no less effectual to help ruptures and burstings, the decoction in wine, or the powder in broth or drink, being inwardly taken, and outwardly applied to the place. The same is also available for inward or outward bruises, falls or blows, both to dispel the congealed blood, and to take away both the pains and the black and blue marks that abide after the hurt. The same also, or the distilled water of the whole plant, used to the face, or other parts of the skin, cleanses it from morphew, freckles, spots, or marks whatsoever, leaving the place fresh, fair, and lovely; for which purpose it is much used by the Italian Dames.”
It is astringent, demulcent and was used as a mucilaginous tonic, good in inflammations of the stomach and bowels, piles, and chronic dysentery. A strong decoction given every two or three hours was used to cure erysipelas (a skin infection), and the powdered roots made a poultice for bruises, piles, inflammations and tumors. The bruised roots were a popular cure for black eyes, mixed with cream. A decoction of the root in wine was recommended for people with broken bones, as Gerard wrote: “As touching the knitting of bones and that truly which might be written, there is not another herb to be found comparable to it for the purposes aforesaid; and therefore in brief, if it be for bruises inward, the roots must be stamped, some ale or wine put thereto and strained and given to drink…as well unto themselves as to their cattle.” According to traditional Chinese medical principles, Polygonatum has sweet and neutral properties, and is associated with the lung, heart, kidney and spleen meridians. Its main uses are to strengthen the spleen and stomach, thus improving appetite and reducing fatigue; to moisten the lungs by reducing coughs and expelling phlegm; and to strengthen the kidneys, helping reduce pain and weakness in the lower back. It is also used as a tonic herb, and has been used for respiratory and lung disorders, and to reduce inflammation. Polygonatum is also, in Chinese medicine, applied topically to treat bruises, skin ulcers and boils, hemorrhoids and oedema. The young shoots are an excellent vegetable when boiled and were commonly eaten like asparagus in Turkey.
HISTORY: In Galen’s time, the distilled water was used as a cosmetic, to which Culpeper refers. Gerard rather more ungraciously notes: “The roots of Solomon’s Seal, stamped while it is fresh and green and applied, takes away in one night or two at the most, any bruise, black or blue spots gotten by falls or women’s wilfulness in stumbling upon their hasty husband’s fists, or such like.” The flowers and roots were used as snuff, and also had a wide vogue as aphrodisiacs, for love filters and potions. Native North Americans made tea from the roots of Polygonatum biflorum (the New World close relative of Polygonatum multiflorum) for women’s complaints and general internal pains. They also used the tea to counteract the pain caused by contact with poison ivy.
Approved by Solomon
The flat, round scars on the rootstocks are said to resemble a six-pointed seal, like the Star of David or Solomon’s Biblical Seal. Another explanation is that these round depressions, or the marks which appear when the root is cut transversely, resemble Hebrew characters, and Solomon was said to have approved the plant’s use as a poultice to help heal (“seal”) broken limbs.
Family Polygonaceae, Knotweed
OTHER NAMES: Narrow leaved dock, spinach dock, broad leafed sorrel, common sorrel, garden sorrel, meadow sorrel, green sauce, sour sabs, sour grabs, sour suds, sour sauce, cuckoo sorrow, cuckoo’s meat. Although often called French sorrel, that is a close relative, buckler leaf sorrel, Rumex scutatus. Culpeper also mentions Wild Sorrel, which is sheep’s sorrel, Rumex acetosella.
DESCRIPTION: This hardy perennial grows to 24 inches (60 cm) with a 24-inch (60-cm) spread, and has shield-shaped leaves up to 6 inches (15 cm) in length and whorled spikes of reddish-green flowers which turn purple. Its sourness is sharpest at the height of its growing season—before that it is almost tasteless.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper tells us: “Sorrel is prevalent in all hot diseases, to cool any inflammation and heat of blood in agues pestilential or choleric, or sickness or fainting, arising from heat, and to refresh the overspent spirits with the violence of furious or fiery fits of agues: to quench thirst, and procure an appetite in fainting or decaying stomachs: For it resists the putrefaction of the blood, kills worms, and is a cordial to the heart, which the seed doth more effectually, being more drying and binding, and thereby stays the humors of the bloody flux, or flux of the stomach…Both roots and seeds, as well as the herb, are held powerful to resist the poison of the scorpion…The leaves, wrapt in a colewort leaf and roasted in the embers, and applied to a large imposthume, botch boil, or plague-sore, doth both ripen and break it. The distilled water of the herb is of much good use for all the purposes aforesaid.” When used as a dried herb, the leaves of the antioxidant plant have been used to treat itchy skin, fever, scurvy and ringworm. Sorrel can be cut thinly and sprinkled over soups and salads to help relieve these ailments. Sorrel is thought to cleanse the blood, and the leaves can be used as a poultice for acne or boils. Medicinally the tea has been used to treat kidney and liver ailments, and to help mouth ulcers. Sorrel tea is a popular and refreshing summer tea in Jamaica, but has to be sweetened to be palatable. When taken as tea, the herb can be helpful in treating jaundice, kidney stones and rashes. When the leaves are consumed dry and fresh, it acts as a diuretic and can clear out the body’s system, being said to “cleanse” the prostate gland. The sorrel plant contains nutraceuticals, which can help prevent and treat several diseases including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer. The body’s immune system is also enhanced due to its flavonoids, and sorrel contains high amounts of vitamin C, vitamin A, magnesium, calcium and potassium.
Sorrel is named from the French surelle, sour. Roman legionaries were said to suck on sorrel leaves when marching to prevent thirst.
The juice from crushed leaves can remove rust marks, mold and ink stains from furniture and clothes, wicker and silver. In the past, when lemons were very expensive, the lemon flavor of sorrel was a good substitute for lemon juice.
Maud Grieve in 1932 wrote that “…in this country, the leaves are now rarely eaten, unless by children and rustics, to allay thirst, though in Ireland they are still largely consumed by the peasantry with fish and milk. Our country people used to beat the herb to a mash and take it mixed with vinegar and sugar, as a green sauce with cold meat, hence one of its popular names: Greensauce.” However, sorrel is now a popular item of diet once more, the young leaves giving not just a slight acidity but also a hint of fresh apple or lemon flavor to salads. Because of their acidity, the leaves can be treated as spinach, and sorrel can be quickly heated by itself, without water, as an accompaniment to roast goose or pork, instead of apple sauce. The related Rumex scutatus is used by the French in their excellent sorrel soup.
HISTORY: Greeks, Egyptians and Romans ate sorrel as an appetite and digestion stimulant, and to counteract rich or fatty foods. In the Middle Ages, it was considered one of the finest vegetables but after the introduction of French sorrel, with its large succulent leaves, it gradually lost its position as a salad and a potherb. John Evelyn (1620–1706), the English diarist and cultivator of gardens, wrote in 1720: “Sorrel sharpens the appetite, assuages heat, cools the liver and strengthens the heart; is an antiscorbutic, resisting putrefaction and in the making of sallets [salads] imparts a grateful quickness to the rest as supplying the want of oranges and lemons. Together with salt, it gives both the name and the relish to sallets from the sapidity, which renders not plants and herbs only, but men themselves pleasant and agreeable.” The plant is also called cuckoo’s meat from an old belief that the bird cleared its voice by eating sorrel.
Family Asteraceae/Compositae, Aster/Daisy
OTHER NAMES: Garden Southernwood, Old Man Tree (Culpeper). Old man, boy’s love, lad’s love, lover’s plant, miss-in-my-corner, apple ringie, appleringie, garderobe, our lord’s wood, maid’s ruin, maiden’s ruin, garden sagebrush, European sage, lad’s love, southern wormwood, lemon plant, sitherwood.
DESCRIPTION: Hardy evergreen bushy shrub with a spread up to 3 feet (90 cm). Tiny yellow flowers form dense panicles and the feathery gray-green leaves are camphor/lemon scented.
PROPERTIES AND USES: “Government and virtues. It is a gallant mercurial plant, worthy of more esteem than it hath. Dioscorides says that the seed bruised, heated in warm water, and drank, helps those that are bursting, or troubled with cramps or convulsions of the sinews, the sciatica, or difficulty in making water, and bringing down women’s courses. The same taken in wine is an antidote, or counter-poison against all deadly poison, and drives away serpents and other venomous creatures; as also the smell of the herb, being burnt, doth the same. The oil thereof anointed on the back-bone before the fits of agues come, takes them away. It takes away inflammations in the eyes, if it be put with some part of a roasted quince, and boiled with a few crumbs of bread, and applied. Boiled with barley-meal it takes away pimples, pushes or wheals that arise in the face, or other parts of the body. The seed as well as the dried herb, is often given to kill the worms in children. The herb bruised and laid to, helps to draw forth splinters and thorns out of the flesh. The ashes thereof dries up and heals old ulcers, that are without inflammation, although by the sharpness thereof it bites sore, and puts them to sore pains; as also the sores in the privy parts of man or woman. The ashes mingled with old salad oil, helps those that have hair fallen, and are bald, causing the hair to grow again either on the head or beard. It is a powerful diuretic, and good in hysteric complaints; for this purpose, the best way of taking it is in a conserve, made with the young tops, and twice their weight of sugar. A strong decoction of the leaves is a good worm medicine, but it is a very disagreeable and nauseous one. The leaves are likewise a good ingredient in fomentations for easing pain, dispersing swellings, or stopping the progress of gangrene.”—Culpeper. It was used as a bitter digestive tonic, emmenagogue (to stimulate menstrusation), anthelmintic (antiworm treatment), antiseptic and uterine stimulant, according to Maud Grieve. Southernwood was used to treat liver, spleen and stomach problems and encourage menstruation. The leaves can be mixed with other herbs in aromatic baths and are said to counter drowsiness. An infusion of the leaves can act as a natural insect repellent when applied to the skin, and as a hair rinse is said to combat dandruff. Burned as incense, in magical lore, southernwood guards against trouble of all kinds. It has been used as a culinary herb with greasy meats. The foliage is used in aromatic vinegars, floral waters and pot-pourris. A yellow dye can be extracted from the branches of the plant, for use with wool.
According to the starchild.co.uk website: “Southernwood was said to attract ‘quick love’ and a sprig placed beneath the pillow could counteract any evil spells intended to hinder successful cohabitation. A man could win a girl’s affection if he managed to secretly place a sprig of Southernwood beneath her apron. However, the affections would not last long and would turn to hatred in a few years.”
HISTORY: The genus Artemisia was named for the Greek goddess Artemis. Historically southernwood was used as an air freshener or strewing herb, and the Greeks and Romans used the leaves in love potions, and placed the leaves in their bedding to rouse lust. Later users also thought it protected against impotence, hence the later name of lovers’ plant. Such was its reputation for increasing virility that teenage boys rubbed an ointment on their cheeks to speed up the growth of facial hair. The common nicknames of lad’s love and maiden’s ruin refer to the habit of including a spray of the plant in country bouquets presented by young men to their fancied ladies in order to seduce them. Southernwood was traditionally believed to ward off infection and, up until the early 18th century, a bunch of southernwood and rue was placed at the side of a prisoner in the dock to prevent the contagion of jail fever. Women carried sprigs of the herb for its pungent fragrance, which they hoped might keep them awake during church services. It has been used as a wash for wounds and ulcers.
The leaves are an excellent mosquito repellent when rubbed on the skin, and are also one of the best natural moth and insect repellents. The French call it garderobe (to guard, or preserve, clothes) because when it is laid among clothes, it repels moths. It became customary to lay sprays of the dried herb amongst clothes in drawers, or hang them in closets and wardrobes.
Family Asteraceae, Aster/Daisy
OTHER NAMES: Field wormwood, tall wormwood, sand wormwood, beach wormwood, northern wormwood, Pacific wormwood, boreal wormwood, field sagewort, field mugwort, wild sage (USA).
DESCRIPTION: A non-aromatic perennial with a branched creeping woody stock, rare in the UK and consequently a protected plant. The grayish-green leaves are oblong, and the small brown flowers stand in thick spikes at the tops of the branches.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper notes: “Government and virtues. It is a powerful diuretic, and is good in hysteric cases. The best way of using it is in conserve made of the fresh tops, beaten up with twice their weight of sugar. It is a Mercurial plant, and worthy of more esteem that it has. It wants but to be more known to be very highly prized, having a fine, pleasant, warm, aromatic taste, with a little bitterness, but not enough to be disagreeable: it is best given in the form of conserve, and with a great deal of success in weaknesses of the stomach. The manner is thus:— Clip four ounces of the leaves fine, and beat them in a mortar, with six ounces of loaf sugar, till the whole is like a paste; three times a day take the bigness of a nutmeg of this; it is pleasant, and very effectual; and one thing in its favour is particular, it is a composer, and always disposes to sleep. Opiates weaken the stomach, and must not be given often where their assistance is wished for; this possesses the soothing quality without the mischief. This quality is not singular to this plant; the columba is a bitter and an opiate, and thus nature mixes powers which to us appear contradictory.” This species of Artemisia has the same qualities, to a lesser degree, as the garden southernwood, and Linnaeus recommended an infusion of it to alleviate pleurisy.
HISTORY: Dr. John Hill in The British Herbal of 1756 says that it has a “warm, fine, pleasant, aromatic taste, with a little bitterness, not enough to be disagreeable. It wants but to be more common and more known to be very highly valued…” The leaves were chewed in order to treat stomach problems.
The plant was used by some Native North American tribes as an abortifacient to terminate difficult pregnancies. The Lakota people pulverized the roots for use as perfume and also put crushed roots on the face of a sleeping man so he would not wake up while his horses were stolen. A tea from the roots was used for the treatment of those who cannot urinate.
Family Plantaginaceae, Plantain
OTHER NAMES: Bird’s eye speedwell, veronica, Paul’s betony, eye of Christ, angels’ eyes, cat’s eye, bird’s eye, farewell, goodbye, fluellin, fluellin the male, fluellen (all from the Welsh, llysiau Llewelyn), rhwyddlwyn (Welsh), groundhele, common gypsyweed. There is a similar speedwell, common speedwell, Veronica officinalis, but which is not as common as germander speedwell, despite its name.
DESCRIPTION: Small plant forming clumps with pale blue flowers with four petals and a white eye.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “Venus governs this plant and it is also reckoned among the vulnerary plants, both used inwardly and outwardly: it is likewise pectoral, and good for coughs and consumptions; and is helpful against the stone and strangury, as also against pestilential fevers. An infusion of the leaves, drank constantly in the manner of tea, is greatly recommended as a provocative to venery, and a strengthener; it has been called a cure for barrenness, taken a long time in this manner.” Speedwell can be used in herbal tea cough remedies as an expectorant, and according to Maud Grieve in 1931 has diaphoretic (sweat-producing), diuretic and tonic properties. Germander speedwell is rich in tannins and its glycoside content has anti-inflammatory, diuretic and liver protective actions. Speedwell extracts are added to skin ointments to treat eczema and help heal skin irritations and wounds.
HISTORY: Ancient writers regard highly the virtues of the speedwell as a vulnerary (wound healer), a blood purifier and a remedy in various skin diseases, its outward application being considered efficacious for the “itch.” It was also believed to cure smallpox and measles, and to be a panacea for many ills. Gerard recommended it for cancer, “given in good broth of a hen,” and advocated the use of the root as a specific against pestilential fevers. Its blossoms wilt very quickly after picking, so in Germany it is known ironically as “Maennertreu” (men’s faithfulness). A common medieval benediction to a friend was either “forget me not” or “speedwell”/“farewell” (or “speed thee well”/“fare thee well”), equivalent to today’s “goodbye” or “see you soon.” Sometimes such language was accompanied with parting gifts of small blue flowers. It was actually the germander speedwell that in literature and botany was most commonly known as the “forget-me-not” for hundreds of years, until around 1880. When the Mayflower and her sister ships were launched, “Speedwell” was considered the “luckiest” name for a vessel.
Family Apiaceae, Umbellifers
OTHER NAMES: Wood spignel, spicknel, spikenel, baldmoney, mew, meu, bearwort (USA).
DESCRIPTION: This aromatic northern plant has cloud-like flowerheads arranged in rayed umbels of white or pinkish florets. The unusual feathery, dark green leaves give off a strong aroma similar to curry when crushed. As with most plants, Culpeper describes it in great detail.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper writes: “It grows wild in Lancashire, Yorkshire, and other northern counties, and is also planted in gardens. Government and virtues. It is an herb of Venus. Galen says, the roots of Spignel are available to provoke urine, and women’s courses; but if too much thereof be taken, it causes head-ache. The roots boiled in wine or water, and drank, helps the stranguary and stoppings of the urine, the wind, swellings and pains in the stomach, pains of the mother, and all joint-aches. If the powder of the root be mixed with honey, and the same taken as a licking medicine, it breaks tough phlegm, and dries up the rheum that falls on the lungs. The roots are accounted very effectual against the stinging or biting of any venomous creature, and is one of the ingredients in Mithridate and other antidotes of the same.”
HISTORY: The name baldmoney is said to be a corruption of Balder, the god of the old Norse and German religions, to whom the plant was dedicated. Spicknel is derived from spike nail, a large, long nail, an allusion to the shape of the plant’s capillary leaves. The roots have sometimes been eaten in the Scottish Highlands as a vegetable. The seeds have been used as substitutes for pepper, or other pungent aromatics. Spignel produces grooved fruits which taste strongly of curry, so it was an unpopular plant with dairy farmers as it flavored the milk.
Many of the herbs in this book are used in local alcoholic specialties. Bärwurz is an excellent distilled spirit made in Lower Bavaria from the root of the baldmoney or spignel plant. It is colorless, clear and its typical aroma is marketed as “reminiscent of forests and moss.” Bärwurz is mainly bottled in slim, brown, earthenware bottles and said to have a beneficial effect on the stomach. Its makers claim that Bärwurz relieves the bloated sensation following a large meal, which is why it is popular as a digestive schnapps.
Family Amaranthaceae, Amaranth
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper calls this plant Spinage.
DESCRIPTION: An edible flowering plant growing to a height of around 1 foot (30 cm), with triangular leaves.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper writes: “It is more used for food than medicine, being a good boiled salad, and much eaten in the spring, being useful to temper the heat and sharpness of the humours; it is cooling and moistening, diuretic, and renders the body soluble.” It is more nourishing than other green vegetables, being valuable for anemia sufferers because of its high iron and chlorophyll content. Chlorophyll is known to have a chemical formula remarkably similar to that of hemoglobin, and it is stated that the ingestion of chlorophyll will raise the hemoglobin of the blood without increasing the formed elements. The plant contains from 10 to 20 parts per 1000 by weight of chlorophyll. It is rich in vitamin A, and is thought to speed recovery after a heart attack. Spinach was the first vegetable to be frozen and sold commercially, by American inventor Clarence Birdseye in 1930.
HISTORY: The word spinach is derived from the Farsi (Persian) aspanakh, meaning “green hand.” It was introduced into China from Persia via Nepal around 647 CE, and was known as “the Persian vegetable.” Cultivated for over 2000 years and probably of Persian origin, spinach was not introduced into Europe until the ninth century, when the Saracens invaded Sicily. During the First World War, wine fortified with spinach juice was given to French soldiers weakened by hemorrhage. The plant is mentioned in 1390 in the first known English cookbook, The Forme of Cury, where it is called spinnedge or spynoches. Catherine de’ Medici was queen of France from 1547 to 1559 and asked for spinach to be served at every meal. This is why culinary dishes containing spinach are known as “Florentine,” reflecting the place of her birth. The cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man dates from 1929 and is represented as having superhuman powers whenever he eats spinach, because of its high iron content. However, it appears that a German scientist named von Wolf misplaced a decimal point when measuring the iron content in 1870, an error which multiplied its iron content tenfold. His error was not discovered and rectified until the 1930s by which time Popeye was already well established as a popular character.
Family Brassicaceae, Cabbage
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper also calls it the Castle Gilliflower and the Great Castle Gilliflower. Brompton stock, cluster-leaved stock, common stock, hoary stock, hopes, queen’s stock, wallflower stock, tenweeks stock.
DESCRIPTION: A bushy annual or short-lived perennial, 2 feet (60 cm) tall, with gray-green, lance-shaped leaves. The oldest variety bears spikes of fragrant four-petalled, light purple flowers; Culpeper mentions white, pink and scarlet flowers, but there are now even more colors available. The name “hoary stock” refers to the gray tinge on the leaves.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper referred to them as being garden flowers: “They are of temperature hot and dry, of a similar nature with the yellow or wall gilliflowers, and are plants of Mercury. The flowers of the stock gillyflower, boiled in water and drunk, are good to remedy all difficulty of breathing, and help the cough, They also promote the menses and urine, and, by bathing or sitting over the decoction, it causes perspiration.”
HISTORY: In addition Culpeper mentions an annual “Small Stock Gilliflower”—“…leucoion or ‘white violets,’ because the leaves are white; the leaves of the flowers are of various colours, and called by some writers dames matrionales, or dames violets.” It grows about 1 foot (30 cm) high, and is Hesperis matronalis (alba), known as dames rocket, sweet rocket, white sweet rocket (in white form), mother of the evening, damask violet, dames-wort, dame’s gilliflower, night-scented gilliflower, winter gillflower, summer lilac or queen’s gilliflower, the latter as it was the favorite flower of Marie Antoinette. The genus name Hesperis is Greek for evening, as the flower’s clove scent becomes more noticeable then, and matronalis refers to mother. In The Great Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard (1597) it is listed under the name Dames Violets or Queens Gillofloures. Gerard remarked that it was grown in gardens “for the beauty of their floures…The distilled water of the floures hereof is counted to be a most effectuall thing to procure a sweat,” implying that it was used to help break a fever. Dames rocket was taken to America in the 1700s and has naturalized, being a prolific seed producer.
Culpeper describes several “gilliflowers.” His “Clove Gilliflower” is the carnation, Dianthus caryophyllus, and his “Wall, or Yellow Gilliflower” is the wallflower, Erysimum cheiri.
Family Crassulaceae, Orpine
OTHER NAMES: Biting stonecrop, golden moss, wall ginger, wallpepper, gold chain, creeping Tom, mousetail, Jack-ofthe-buttery, bird bread (the French also call it pain d’oiseau).
DESCRIPTION: It is the commonest of the stonecrops, forming tufts or cushions, 3–10 inches (8–25 cm) across, which in June and July are a mass of golden star-like flowers.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Some writers considered biting stonecrop to possess considerable virtues, but others, because of the long-lasting effects of its acridity (biting quality), thought it unsafe to be administered. Culpeper noted: “Its qualities are directly opposite to the other Sedums, and more apt to raise inflammations than to cure them; it ought not to be put into any ointment, nor any other medicine.” However, he considered it good for scurvy both inwardly in decoction and outwardly, and also commended it for king’s evil (scrofula). Other herbalists recommended it for some scorbutic diseases, when properly and carefully used, recommending it in the form of a gargle for scurvy of the gums, and as a lotion for scrofulous ulcers. It has been used to treat intermittent fevers and dropsy. In large doses it is emetic and cathartic, and applied externally will sometimes produce blisters. The herb has been used as an astringent, hypotensive (to lower blood pressure), laxative, rubefacient (increasing blood flow to the skin), vermifuge and vulnerary (wound healing). A homeopathic remedy is made from the plant, used in the treatment of piles and anal irritations.
HISTORY: Pliny recommended common stonecrop to help one sleep, for which purpose it must be wrapped in a black cloth and placed under the pillow of the patient, without his knowing it, otherwise it will not be effective. The pungency of the leaves has given its specific name of acre, and the popular English names of wallpepper and wall ginger. Gerard tells us it was called mousetail, or Jack of the butterie. Dr. Fernie wrote: “…this and the Sedums album and reflexum were ingredients in a famous worm-expelling medicine or ‘theriac’ (treacle), and ‘Jack of the Buttery’ is a corruption of Bot. theriaque.” Matthias de Lobel called it vermicularis, partly because of the grub-like shape of the leaves, and partly from its medical efficacy as a vermifuge (to expel intestinal worms).
SEDUM (or HYLOTELEPHIUM) TELEPHIUM
Family Crassulaceae, Orpine
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper calls it Orpine. Live long, life everlasting, frog’s stomach, harping Johnny, live forever, midsummer men, orphan John, witch’s moneybags, herbe aux charpentiers.
DESCRIPTION: A succulent groundcover, and the largest British species of Sedum, it is readily distinguished from most allied plants by its large, broad, flattened leaves. It has pinkish red flowers, and can grow from 1–3 feet (30–90 cm) in height.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “Orpine is seldom used in inward medicines with us, although Tragus saith from experience in Germany, that the distilled water thereof is profitable for gnawings or excoriations in the stomach or bowels, or for ulcers in the lungs, liver, or other inward parts, as also in the matrix, and helps all those diseases, being drank for certain days together. It stays the sharpness of humours in the bloody-flux, and other fluxes in the body, or in wounds. The root thereof also performs the like effect. It is used outwardly to cool any heat or inflammation upon any hurt or wound, and eases the pains of them; as, also, to heal scaldings or burnings, the juice thereof being beaten with some green salad oil, and anointed. The leaf bruised, and laid to any green wound in the hand or legs, doth heal them quickly; and being bound to the throat much helps the quinsy; it helps also ruptures and burstenness. If you please to make the juice thereof into a syrup with honey or sugar, you may safely take a spoonful or two at a time, (let my author say what he will) for a quinsy, and you shall find the medicine pleasant, and the cure speedy.” The leaves have sometimes been used as a salad, like the other sedums, and sheep and goats eat it, but horses will refuse it.
HISTORY: Its hold on life has earned it the names of live long and life everlasting, as it stays fresh for a long time after being gathered, living on the store of nourishment in its fleshy leaves and swollen roots. It was as a popular remedy for diarrhea, kidney problems, piles and hemorrhages.
Its name is derived from Telephus, the son of the Greek mythological hero Heracles, who is said to have discovered its virtues. Its most familiar English name, orpine, is derived from auripigmentum, the gold-colored pigment called orpiment, or orpin, a yellow sulfur compound of the metal arsenic. The name might have been appropriate for the brilliant yellow flowers of other sedums, but is out of place applied to the crimson blossoms of orpine stonecrop.
Family Crassulaceae, Orpine
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper calls it the Small Houseleek, Prick-Madam and Wall Pepper.
DESCRIPTION: It has prostrate bulbous cylindrical leaves, and 6–10 inch (15–25 cm) stems with small white star-like flowers. There is also an earlier flowering white stonecrop, Sedum anglicum.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper observes: “It is under the dominion of the Moon, cold in quality, and something binding, and therefore very good to stay defluxions, especially such as fall upon the eyes. It stops bleeding, both inward and outward, helps cankers, and all fretting sores and ulcers; it abates the heat of choler, thereby preventing diseases arising from choleric humours. It expels poison much, resists pestilential fevers, being exceeding good also for tertian agues. You may drink the decoction of it, if you please, for all the foregoing infirmities. It is so harmless an herb, you can scarce use it amiss. Being bruised and applied to the place, it helps the king’s evil [scrofula], and any other knots or kernels in the flesh; as also the piles, but it should be used with caution. It is also so very acid that it will raise blisters, if applied externally to the skin. The juice taken inwardly excites vomiting. In scorbutic cases, and quartan agues, it is a most excellent medicine, under proper management. A decoction of it is good for sore mouths, arising from a scorbutic taint in the constitution. The leaves bruised and applied to the skin, are excellent in paralytic contractions of the limbs.”
HISTORY: The older herbalists considered the white stonecrop to possess all the virtues of the houseleek. The leaves and stalks were recommended for all kinds of inflammation, being applied as a cooling plaster to painful hemorrhoids. It was also custom to prepare and eat it as a pickle, in the same way as samphire.
This plant can acclimatize according to the environment in which it grows. If one compares a plant growing on top of a wall, with less water and fewer nutrients, to one growing in the earth at the bottom of the wall with more water and nutrients, the ground-based stonecrop will be faster-growing and larger. The plant on top of the wall may be red in color because of lack of water, which causes it to synthesize carotenoids to protect itself from the effects of photoinhibition (a reduction in the process of photosynthesis).
Family Rosaceae, Rose
OTHER NAMES: Woodland strawberry, wild (European) strawberry, European strawberry, alpine strawberry. What we know as the cultivated garden strawberry, much larger, did not become common until the 18th century.
DESCRIPTION: Height up to 12 inches (30 cm) in grassy hedges, with trifoliate leaves and small white flowers with yellow centers followed by the fruits, which have their seeds on the outside.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “Venus owns the herb. Strawberries, when they are green, are cool and dry; but when they are ripe, they are cool and moist. The berries are excellently good to cool the liver, the blood, and the spleen, or an hot choleric stomach; to refresh and comfort the fainting spirits, and quench thirst. They are good also for other inflammations; yet it is not amiss to refrain from them in a fever, lest by their putrefying in the stomach they increase the fits. The leaves and roots boiled in wine and water, and drank, do likewise cool the liver and blood, and assuage all inflammations in the reins and bladder, provoke urine, and allay the heat and sharpness thereof. The same also being drank stays the bloody flux and women’s courses, and helps the swelling of the spleen. The water of the Berries carefully distilled, is a sovereign remedy and cordial in the panting and beating of the heart, and is good for the yellow jaundice. The juice dropped into foul ulcers, or they washed therewith, or the decoction of the herb and root, doth wonderfully cleanse and help to cure them. Lotions and gargles for sore mouths, or ulcers therein, or in the privy parts or elsewhere, are made with the leaves and roots thereof; which is also good to fasten loose teeth, and to heal spongy foul gums. It helps also to stay catarrhs, or defluxions of rheum in the mouth, throat, teeth, or eyes. The juice or water is singularly good for hot and red inflamed eyes, if dropped into them, or they bathed therewith. It is also of excellent property for all pushes, wheals and other breakings forth of hot and sharp humours in the face and hands, and other parts of the body, to bathe them therewith, and to take away any redness in the face, or spots, or other deformities in the skin, and to make it clear and smooth. Some use this medicine: Take so many Strawberries as you shall think fitting, and put them into a distillatory, or body of glass fit for them, which being well closed, set it in a bed of horse dung for your use. It is an excellent water for hot inflamed eyes, and to take away a film or skin that begins to grow over them.” The trifoliate leaves can be used in salad or make a tea, which can be also used as a gargle for sore throats. The fruit is a diuretic, laxative and astringent and was used by those suffering with rheumatic gout. The root is astringent and used in diarrhea. There is a common allergy to strawberries.
A Tangle of Strawberries
Some people believe that the name strawberry is derived from the habit of placing straw under the cultivated plants when the berries are ripening, to keep garden pests away. The name in fact comes from the past historic tense “straw” of the verb “strew.” It refers to the tangle of vines with which the strawberry strews or stretches over the ground.
HISTORY: The earliest mention of the strawberry in England is in a tenth-century Saxon plant list, and in 1265 the “straberie” is mentioned in the household roll of the Countess of Leicester. “Strawberry ripe” was a favorite cry of street vendors in the 15th century as they offered the fresh fruit for sale. Ben Jonson, in his unfinished play The Sad Shepherd writes: “My Son hath sent you / A pot of Strawberries, gathered i’ the wood / (His Hogs would else have rooted up, or trod) / With a choice dish of wildings [crab apples] here, to scald / And mingle with your Cream.” Linnaeus is said to have discovered and proved the efficacy of strawberries as a cure for rheumatic gout.
Whiten Your Teeth with Strawberries
For a badly sunburnt face, however, it is recommended that you should rub the juice well into the skin, leave it on for half an hour, and then wash off with warm, soap-less water. The fruit helps to stop teeth discoloration as it contains malic acid. Mash a strawberry to a pulp, mix with half a teaspoon of baking soda, and use a toothbrush to spread the paste over your teeth, especially any stained areas. Leave this mixture on for five minutes, then remove with a fresh toothbrush to clean the stains off the teeth. Repeat once a week, and in four to five weeks there should be a noticeable difference. Cost—virtually nothing—as opposed to hundreds of pounds at a dental clinic. Also a cut strawberry rubbed over the face immediately after washing will whiten the skin and remove slight sunburn.
Family Droseraceae, Sundew
OTHER NAMES: Common sundew, round-leaved sundew, dew plant, red rot, herba rosellae.
DESCRIPTION: A small insectivorous plant 2–6 inches (5–15 cm) high, found around ponds, bogs and rivers, where the soil is peaty. Its leaves have a covering of sticky red glandular hairs, and its white flowers only open in sunshine. In winter, sundew produces a hibernaculum (a protective bud of tightly curled leaves at ground level) to survive the cold.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper tells us: “The Sun rules it, and it is under the sign Cancer. Some authors gravely tell us that a water distilled from this plant is highly cordial and restorative; but it is more than probable that it never deserved the character given of it in that respect. The leaves, bruised and applied to the skin, erode it, and bring on such inflammations as are not easily removed. The ladies in some parts mix the juice with milk, as to make an innocent and safe application for the removal of freckles, sun-burn, and other discolourings of the skin. The juice, unmixed, will destroy warts and corns, if a little of it be frequently put upon them. These are effects which pronounce its internal use to be dangerous; and if it is not productive of bad consequences, when distilled with other ingredients, for cordial waters, &c, it is because its pernicious qualities are not of a nature to rise in distillation.” It relaxes the muscles of the respiratory tract, easing breathing and relieving wheezing and so is of great value in the treatment of various chest complaints. Sundew has been used for whooping cough, incipient phthisis (early tuberculosis), chronic bronchitis and asthma. Sundew juice, mixed with thyme in a syrup, is a remedy for children’s coughs. The juice is said to take away corns and warts, and in America it has been advocated as a cure for old age. The flowering plant is said to be antibacterial, antibiotic, antispasmodic, antitussive (cough suppressant), demulcent, expectorant and hypoglycaemic (raising blood sugar levels), as well as having aphrodisiac properties. It has also been used to treat sunburn, toothache and prevent freckles.
HISTORY: In the 12th century, Italian herbalists were using sundew as a herbal remedy for coughs, naming it herba sole (sun herb), and for the following centuries it was used in cough preparations across Europe. At the same time, alchemists and scholars of the Medical School of Salerno had identified the sundew flower as beneficial in the cure of whooping cough and also effective as an aphrodisiac. It is now known that the sundew contains carotenoids that enhance the function of the immune and reproductive systems, its flavonoids have beneficial antioxidant effects and its vitamins are helpful for coughs, lung infections, asthma and other conditions. When the infusion of Ros Solis (sundew) was prepared in Salerno, because of its therapeutic attributes and pleasant taste, “Rosolio” became sought-after in all European courts. As early as the 13th century, alchemists also noted positive results from the use of sundew’s sap in the treatment of consumption, or tuberculosis. In the 16th century John Gerard observed in his Herball that “physicians have thought this herb to be a rare and singular remedy for all those that be in a consumption of the lungs.” Sundew tea was recommended for bronchitis, whooping cough, asthma and dry coughs, and recent studies have confirmed its efficacy as a cough suppressant. It is also used today in treatments for lung infections and stomach ulcers, and is a listed ingredient in around 250 registered medications. A purple or yellow dye was prepared in the Scottish Highlands from sundew plants.
Coming to a Sticky End
The moment a small insect alights upon a leaf of sundew, it is hopelessly trapped. At the base of the plant’s long flowering stems are dish-shaped leaves covered with hairs that exude a mucilage at their tips. In sunshine this sap sparkles and attracts insects. Upon an insect’s touch, the hairs bend in and down upon the creature. According to Charles Darwin, the mere contact of the legs of a small gnat with a single tentacle is enough to induce this response. All species of sundew are able to move their tentacles in response to contact with digestible prey. The tentacles are extremely sensitive and will bend toward the center of the leaf in order to bring the insect into contact with as many stalked glands as possible. Eventually, the prey either succumbs to death through exhaustion or through asphyxiation as the mucilage envelops them and clogs their spiracles. Death usually occurs within a quarter of an hour and additional amounts of sap, which contains digestive enzymes, then convert the insect’s protein into a nutrient soup to sustain the plant. The nutrients are absorbed through the leaf surface and used to help fuel plant growth.
Dew of the Sun
Each leaf hair has a small gland at the top containing a sticky fluid which looks like a glistening dewdrop, hence its name, sundew, derived from Latin ros solis, meaning dew of the sun. Sundews are adapted to living on wet boggy soil, which does not contain the nutrients needed for their survival, so they are carnivorous, feeding on small insects that are attracted by their bright color and sugary secretions.
Family Apiaceae/Umbelliferae, Parsley/Umbellifers
OTHER NAMES: Sweet chervil, anise cicely, English cicely, Spanish chervil, anise chervil, garden myrrh, sweet-scented myrrh, British myrrh, great chervil, smooth cicely, sweet bracken, sweet-fern, sweet-humlock, sweets, the Roman plant, shepherd’s needle, smoother cicely, cow chervil.
DESCRIPTION: A hardy perennial, it grows 3–5 feet (90–150 cm) tall and spreads 2 feet (60 cm). It has large, flat umbels of sweetly scented, frothy cream flowers. The leaves are finely divided and feathery. There is a strong fragrance, reminiscent of liquorice, anise or myrrh.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “This whole plant, besides its pleasantness in salads, hath its physical virtue. The root boiled and eaten with oil and vinegar, (or without oil) do much please and warm old and cold stomachs oppressed with wind or phlegm, or those that have the phthisic [tuberculosis] or consumption of the lungs. The same drank with wine is a preservation from the plague. It provokes women’s courses, and expels the after-birth, procures an appetite to meat, and expels wind. The juice is good to heal the ulcers of the head and face; the candied roots hereof are held as effectual as angelica, to preserve from infection in the time of a plague, and to warm and comfort a cold weak stomach. It is so harmless, you cannot use it amiss.” Its leaves taste strongly of a cross between aniseed and parsley. The boiled roots were chewed to freshen the breath, and the flowers can be made into a cordial, like those of elderflower. The plant has been used as a herbal tonic, for coughs and for digestive problems and all parts can be eaten.
HISTORY: Cicely derives from the obscure Greek plant name seselis, which was seemingly used as a collective term for a number of umbelliferous herbs. The botanical genus name Myrrhis is Greek and denotes both an unidentified plant and an aromatic oil from western Asia. The scientific species name odoratus is Latin, meaning scented. “Sweet Chervil or Sweet Cis is so like in taste unto Anis seede that it much delighteth the taste among other herbs in a sallet [salad]”—John Parkinson, Paradisus (1629). A decoction was used to treat the bites of snakes and mad dogs.
It is the sole species in the genus Myrrhis. Like its relatives anise, fennel, and caraway, sweet cicely can also be used to flavor aquavit. The roots can make a wine, and the crushed seeds were used as a furniture polish, especially for oak.
Family Acoraceae (formerly Araceae), Palm
OTHER NAMES: Calamus (from the Greek for reed), sweet sedge, sweet myrtle, sweet flag, sweet rush, sweet grass, sweet root, sweet calomel, sweet cane, myrtle grass, myrtle sedge, cinnamon sedge, gladdon, flagroot, beewort. Culpeper calls it Sweet-Smelling Reed, Aromatical Reed, True Acorus and Calamus Aromaticus.
DESCRIPTION: It is a vigorous, reedlike, aquatic plant with sword-shaped leaves and small yellow and green flowers on a fleshy, cane-like stalk. It can reach to 5 feet (1.5 m), and although it resembles “yellow flag” iris, a member of the lily family and the reason calamus is called sweet flag, it is actually a member of the palm family.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper recommended calamus as a “strengthener of the stomach and head.” It has been used since ancient times for its effects on the digestive system and the lungs. It is said that the herb eliminates phlegm and tranquilizes the mind, and sweet flag has been used to treat amnesia, heart palpitations, insomnia, tinnitus, chronic bronchitis and bronchial asthma. In Europe it is used as a digestive aid, helping to counter acidity and ease heartburn and dyspepsia. The sweet-scented roots and leaves are used in perfumes, and its pungent, cinnamonspicy qualities add flavor to sweets, medicines, beers, gins and schnapps.
HISTORY: Sweet flag was brought to Europe by the Tartars in the 13th century, and it is one of the herbs mentioned in the book of Exodus. Dioscorides prescribed it for eye problems, and “Acorus” is derived from the Greek word “acoron,” the adjectival form of “coreon” (pupil), because it was used as a treatment for inflammation of the eye. Acorus calamus was used as a popular “strewing herb” to ward off disease and to add a pleasing fragrance to churches and houses. Native North Americans had so many medicinal uses for calamus that it was actually considered a commodity and medium of exchange. Some Native Americans used the herb to increase strength and endurance, while others used it as a digestive aid and to help improve mental clarity and sharpness (echoing Culpeper’s beliefs). Calamus is thought to be a parasiticide, so has been used to destroy and expel parasites from the intestines. An insecticide is also made from the essential oil. Calamus has also been used to stimulate and regulate menstrual flow, and externally applied to relieve burns, skin problems, eruptions and neuralgia.
The powdered root of calamus was formerly smoked or chewed. It was thought to destroy the taste for tobacco, and thus discourage and break the smoking habit.
GALIUM ODORATUM (formerly ASPERULA ODORATA)
Family Rubiaceae, Madder/Bedstraw/Coffee
OTHER NAMES: Wild baby’s breath, master of the woods new mowed hay, woodrove, ladies in the hay, Waldmeister (German for master of the woods), woodward, kiss me quick.
DESCRIPTION: With white star-shaped flowers and a trailing stem, it only grows to 6 inches (15 cm) tall but spreads to 12 inches (30 cm) or more. It often forms carpets in beech woods, and is excellent ground cover under trees and shrubs in gardens.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper related that sweet woodruff was a restorative herb, good for people suffering from consumption. He wrote that it was also good for opening obstructions in the liver and spleen and as a provocative to venery, i.e. an aphrodisiac. Sweet woodruff contains medicinally active compounds such as coumarin, tannins, anthraquinones and iridoids. Some properties are anticoagulant, so woodruff has been used to counteract blood clotting and for varicose vein sufferers. It has also been used as a tonic tea for anxiety or insomnia but has diuretic properties. Topically it has been used as a compress for boils, ulcers, varicose veins and phlebitis (an inflammation of the veins, usually in the legs). It is said to have anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties, soothes intestinal discomfort, especially abdominal cramps, and can be used to treat headaches and migraine. Sweet woodruff has also been given to children and adults to help with insomnia, and is also a good source of flavonoids, which are useful for their antioxidant properties and for their effectiveness in keeping small blood vessels efficient and healthy. It has also been recommended as a treatment for liver disease and kidney stones and as a strengthener for the heart. The flowers can be added to salads and summer drinks. Another use for sweet woodruff is as a natural plant dye. The leaves produce a light brown dye and the roots a light red one when used with alum as a mordant or fixative.
In some descriptions of sweet woodruff, the writers claim that it went by the names woodrowel and woodrow. In fact those were the folk names of another of the woodruff family, squinancy woodruff (Asperula cynanchica)which was also known as quinsywort and squinancywort. These names indicate that squinancywort was formerly used for treating quinsy, a disease similar to tonsillitis. Squinancywort is no longer used by herbalists because it became harder to source and is now a rare plant in most of the British Isles.
HISTORY: Woodruff tastes like a mixture of cinnamon and chamomile. At the beginning of May fresh sprigs were crushed and added to white wine in Europe, to make wine cups for celebrating May Day or other ancient May festivals such as Beltane. In Germany one of the favorite hock cups is still made by steeping the fresh sprigs in Rhine wine to make Maibowle, which is drunk on the first of May. The name of the plant appears in the 13th century as “wuderove,” and later as “wood-rove.” Rove is probably derived from the French rovelle, a wheel, an allusion to the spoke-like arrangement of the leaves in whorls. In the Middle Ages the fresh leaves were bruised and applied to cuts and wounds to aid healing, and a strong decoction of the fresh herb was often used as a cordial and to tone the stomach. Medieval soldiers believed sweet woodruff promoted success in battle, and carried it tucked into their helmets when they engaged the enemy. In the Middle Ages sweet woodruff was woven into wreaths and swags and hung on the walls and strewn on the floors of churches. The herb was said to represent humility. It is now grown commercially to produce anticoagulant drugs such as Warfarin.
The plant when newly gathered has little fragrance but, when dried, has a most refreshing scent of new-mown hay or vanilla, which is retained for years. Gerard tells us: “The flowers are of a very sweet smell as is the rest of the herb, which, being made up into garlands or bundles, and hanged up in houses in the heat of summer, doth very well temper the air, cool and make fresh the place, to the delight and comfort of such as are therein. It is reported to be put into wine, to make a man merry, and to be good for the heart and liver, it prevails in wounds, as Cruciata and other vulnerary herbs do.” In Old French works it is known as mugede-bois, musk of the woods. The powdered leaves were mixed with fancy snuffs, because of their enduring fragrance, and also put into pot-pourri. To help bring restful sleep, make a pillow stuffed with sweet woodruff. In the Middle Ages sweet woodruff was used as a strewing herb and as a stuffing for mattresses to sweeten the room. It was also popular in Elizabethan England for use in nosegays, wreaths, garlands and sachets. For a sweet-smelling insect repellent, make sachets of sweet woodruff to place with stored linen. Woodruff can also add fragrance to your bath. On St. Barnabas’ Day and on St. Peter’s Day, bunches of box, sweet woodruff, lavender and roses were strewn in churches.