Breverton's Complete Herbal

WALLFLOWER

ERYSIMUM CHEIRI (CHEIRANTHUS CHEIRI)

Family Brassicaceae, Cabbage

OTHER NAMES: Culpeper calls them Wall-Flowers, or Winter Gilliflowers. Bloody warriors, Aegean wall gillifower, gillyflower, wallstock-gillofer, giroflier, handflower, beeflower, baton d’or, cherisaunce. Cruciferae was previously used as their family name, because the petals are well spaced and make a clearly visible cross.

DESCRIPTION: A small plant with dark green, pointed leaves and fragrant, deep yellow, four-petalled single flowers.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “Government and virtues: The Moon rules them. Galen, in his seventh book of simple medicines, says, that the yellow Wall-flowers work more powerfully than any of the other kinds, and are therefore of more use in physic. It cleanses the blood, and fretteth the liver and reins from obstructions, provokes women’s courses, expels the secundine, and the dead child; helps the hardness and pain of the mother, and of spleen also; stays inflammations and swellings, comforts and strengthens any weak part, or out of joint; helps to cleanse the eyes from mistiness or films upon them, and to cleanse the filthy ulcers in the mouth, or any other part, and is a singular remedy for the gout, and all aches and pains in the joints and sinews. A conserve made of the flowers, is used for a remedy both for the apoplexy and palsy.” If the flowers are steeped in oil for some weeks, the oil is useful in massaging rheumatic or neuralgic limbs. Gerard suggests that the “oyle of Wallflowers is good for use to annoint a paralyticke.” An infusion of the flowers relieves headaches and nervous disorders.

HISTORY: It is one of the earliest garden flowers in Britain, being found growing around castles and old ruins. Gerard noted “This Wallflower and the Stock Gilliflower are used by certain empiricks and quack salvers about love and lust, matters which for modesty I omit.” In times past, this flower was carried in the hand at festivals, hence the name handflower. William Turner called it Wallgelouer, or Hartisease, and this is the plant to which the name heart’s-ease was originally given.

From Hesperides, 1647

Why this flower is now called so List, sweet maids, and you shall know: Understand this firstling was Once a bright and bonny lass Kept as close as Danae was Who a sprightly springal loved, And to have it fully proved Up she got upon a wall Tempting down to slide withal: But the silken twist untied, So she fell, and bruised and died. Love, in pity of the deed, And her loving, luckless speed, Turned her to this plant we call Now, the “Flower of the Wall.”

Robert Herrick

WALNUT

JUGLANS REGIA

Family Juglandaceae, Walnut

OTHER NAMES: Jupiter’s nuts, common walnut, Persian walnut, English walnut, Carpathian walnut, royal walnut.

DESCRIPTION: A large, slow-growing, deciduous tree reaching 100 feet (30 m) with a trunk up to 7 feet (2.1 m) in diameter. It commonly has a short trunk and a broad crown.

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PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper found uses for the bark, leaves and nuts, and continued: “…The juice of the other green husks boiled with honey is an excellent gargle for sore mouths, or the heat and inflammations in the throat and stomach. The kernels, when they grow old, are more oily, and therefore not fit to be eaten, but are then used to heal the wounds of the sinews, gangrenes, and carbuncles. The said kernels being burned, are very astringent, and will stay lasks [diarrhea] and women’s courses, being taken in red wine, and stay the falling of the hair, and make it fair, being anointed with oil and wine. The green husks will do the like, being used in the same manner. The kernels beaten with rue and wine, being applied, help the quinsy; and bruised with some honey, and applied to the ears, ease the pains and inflammation of them. A piece of the green husks put into a hollow tooth, eases the pain. The catkins hereof, taken before they fall off, dried, and given a dram thereof in powder with white wine, wonderfully helps those that are troubled with the rising of the mother. The oil that is pressed out of the kernels, is very profitable, taken inwardly like oil of almonds, to help the cholic, and to expel wind very effectually; an ounce or two thereof may be taken at any time. The young green nuts taken before they be half ripe, and preserved with sugar, are of good use for those that have weak stomachs, or defluxions thereon. The distilled water of the green husks, before they be half ripe, is of excellent use to cool the heat of agues, being drank an ounce or two at a time: as also to resist the infection of the plague, if some of the same be also applied to the sores thereof. The same also cools the heat of green wounds and old ulcers, and heals them, being bathed therewith. The distilled water of the green husks being ripe, when they are shelled from the nuts, and drank with a little vinegar, is good for the place, so as before the taking thereof a vein be opened. The said water is very good against the quinsy, being gargled and bathed therewith, and wonderfully helps deafness, the noise, and other pains in the ears. The distilled water of the young green leaves in the end of May, performs a singular cure on foul running ulcers and sores…” The green husks of the fruit, boiled, make a good yellow dye.

Walnuts for Health

Walnuts are unique among nuts because they contain large amounts of alpha-linoleic acid, one of the two major types of omega-3 fatty acids. Walnut oil is recommended in cooking as walnuts contain omega-3 essential fats and can reduce the inflammation and joint pain of rheumatoid arthritis. A handful of walnuts each day can cut the size of prostate tumors and inhibit their growth. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to help stave off breast cancer and heart disease.

Nutty Foreigners

The word walnut derives from Old English wealhhnutu, literally foreign nut, wealh or wealsc meaning foreign. When the English invaded Britain, they used this term for the native Britons, calling them the Wealsch, or Welsh, and pushing them westward into Wales, the West Country and Cumbria. Thus the Welsh are called “foreigners” in their own country. The walnut was so called because it was introduced from Gaul and Italy, the Latin name for the walnut being nux Gallica, Gallic nut.

HISTORY: The wood has been used for making furniture, the wheels and bodies of coaches, gun-stocks, and by cabinetmakers for inlaying. The oil has been used for frying, eaten as butter and employed as lamp oil. Walnut oil was called “vegetable arsenic,” because of its curative effect in eczema and other skin diseases where arsenic was traditionally used.

Signature of the Skull

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The English botanist William Coles related walnuts to the Doctrine of Signatures in Adam in Eden, 1657: “Wall-nuts have the perfect Signature of the Head: The outer husk or green Covering, represent the Pericranium, or outward skin of the skull, whereon the hair groweth, and therefore salt made of those husks or barks, are exceeding good for wounds in the head. The inner woody shell hath the Signature of the Skull, and the little yellow skin, or Peel, that covereth the Kernel, of the hard Meninga and Pia-mater, which are the thin scarves that envelope the brain. The Kernel hath the very figure of the Brain, and therefore it is very profitable for the Brain, and resists poisons; For if the Kernel be bruised, and moistened with the quintessence of Wine, and laid upon the Crown of the Head, it comforts the brain and head mightily.”

WATER AGRIMONY

BIDENS TRIPARTITA

Family Asteraceae/Compositae, Aster/Daisy

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OTHER NAMES: Burr marigold, bur marigold, three-lobe beggarticks, three-part beggarticks, leafy-bracted beggarticks, triffid burr-marigold. Culpeper names it: Water-agrimony, Eupatorium, Hepatorium, Water Hemp, Bastard Hemp, Bastard Agrimony.

DESCRIPTION: It is worthwhile reading the full description of the plant given by Culpeper: “The root continues a long time, having many long slender strings; the stalk grows up about two feet high, sometimes higher; they are of a dark purple colour; the branches are many, growing at distances the one from the other, the one from the one side of the stalk, the other from the opposite point; the leaves are winged, and much indented at the edges; the flowers grow at the tops of the branches, of a brown yellow colour, spotted with black spots, having a substance within the midst of them like that of a daisy; if you rub them between your fingers they smell like rosin, or cedar when it is burnt; the seeds are long, and easily stick to any woollen thing they touch.”

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper states that it was called hepatorium “…because it strengthens the liver…It is a plant of Jupiter, as well as the other agrimony; only this belongs to the celestial sign Cancer. It healeth and dryeth, cutteth and cleanseth, thick and tough tumours of the breast; and for this I hold it inferior to but few herbs that grow. It helps the cachexia, or evil disposition of the body; also the dropsy and yellow jaundice. It opens obstructions of the liver, mollifies the hardness of the spleen; being applied outwardly, it breaks imposthumes; taken inwardly, it is an excellent remedy for the third-day ague; it provokes urine and the terms; it kills worms, and cleanseth the body of sharp humours, which are the cause of itch, scabs &e. The smoke of the herb, being burnt, drives away flies, wasps, &c. It strengthens the lungs exceedingly. Country people give it to their cattle when they are troubled with the cough, or brokenwinded.” The plant produces a weak yellow dye.

HISTORY: The plant was valued for its diuretic and astringent properties, and used in fevers, gravel, stone, bladder and kidney troubles, consumption and excessive bleeding.

Gold Fish Killer

Most Bidens species share the trait of having seeds that stick to anything passing their way. In Latin, bidens refers to having two teeth, in this case the two teeth on the seed. According to Maud Grieve in 1931, its burrs “…when the plant has been growing on the borders of a fish-pond, have been known to destroy gold fish by adhering to their gills.”

WATER BETONY

SCROPHULARIA AURICULATA

Family Scrophulariaceae, Figwort

OTHER NAMES: Culpeper also calls the plant “Broomwort, and in Yorkshire Bishop’s Leaves.” Brook or water betony, bishop-leaves, brownwort, bullwort, stinking Christopher, cressel, cressil, crowdy-kit, crowdy, fiddles, fiddler, fiddlewood, figwort, huntsman’s cap, poor man’s salve, stinking Roger, babes in a cradle, water figwort.

DESCRIPTION: A handsome semiaquatic plant which can grow to 4 feet (1.2 m) high, with maroon and green two-lipped flowers. Its leaves resemble those of wood betony, hence its name.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper notes: “Water betony is an herb of Jupiter in Cancer, and is appropriated more to wounds and hurts in the breast than wood-betony, which follows; it is an excellent remedy for sick hogs. It is of a cleansing quality: the leaves bruised and applied are effectual for all old and filthy ulcers: and especially if the juice of the leaves be boiled with a little honey, and dipped therein, and the sores dressed therewith; as also for bruises or hurts, whether inward or outward; the distilled water of the leaves is used for the same purpose; as also to bathe the face and hands spotted or blemished, or discoloured by sun burning. I confess I do not much fancy distilled waters, I mean such waters as are distilled cold; some virtues of the herb they may haply have (it were a strange thing else;) but this I am confident of, that being distilled in a pewter still, as the vulgar and apish fashion is, both chemical oil and salt is left behind, unless you burn them, and then all is spoiled, water and all, which was good for as little as can be, by such a distillation in my translation of the London dispensatory.”

HISTORY: Maud Grieve tells us: “This plant has vulnerary and detergent properties…In modern herbal medicine, the leaves are employed externally as a poultice, or boiled in lard as an ointment for ulcers, piles, scrofulous glands in the neck, sores and wounds. It is said to have been one of the ingredients in Count Matthei’s noted remedy, ‘AntiScrofuloso.’ In former days this herb was relied on for the cure of toothache and for expelling nightmare.”

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Fiddling Plant

Because the stalks are colored it was called brownwort. It was called fiddlewood because the stems are stripped by children of their leaves and scraped across each other fiddle-fashion to produce a squeaking sound. Similarly, in the name crowdy kit, kit is a West Country word for fiddle. It is called figwort because of the form of the root in another member of the genus Scrophularia, the knotted figwort, S. nodosa.

WATERCRESS

NASTURTIUM OFFICINALE

Family Brassiceae/Cruciferae, Cabbage

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OTHER NAMES: Two-rowed watercress, water pepper, winter cress, brooklime, pepper cress, true nasturtium, tall nasturtium.

DESCRIPTION: Watercress has shiny compound leaves on creeping or floating hollow stems, with fibrous roots. A fastgrowing perennial, it is one of the oldest known leaf vegetables cultivated by humans, with mild pepper-flavored leaves and stems. Watercress produces small white and green flowers in clusters. Watercress is so named because it naturally favors wet areas around springs and along riverbanks.

PROPERTIES AND USES: A nutritional culinary food, it can also be considered a medicinal plant. The leaves have a high vitamin and mineral content and help digestion. It is a diuretic, antibiotic and lowers blood sugar. Watercress contains significant amounts of iron, calcium, iodine and folic acid, in addition to vitamins A and C, and is believed to have cancer-suppressing properties. Culpeper said: “It is an herb under the dominion of the Moon. It is more powerful against the scurvy, and to cleanse the blood and humours, than brooklime, and serves in all the other uses in which brooklime is available; as to break the stone, and provoke urine and women’s courses. It is also good for them when troubled with the green sickness, and it is a certain restorative of their lost colour if they use it in the following manner: chop and boil them in the broth of meat, and eat them for a month together, morning, noon, and night. The decoction thereof cleanses ulcers by washing therewith; the leaves bruised, or the juice, is good to be applied to the face or other parts troubled with freckles, pimples, spots, or the like, at night, and washed away in the morning. The juice mixed with vinegar, and the forepart of the head bathed therewith, is very good for those that are dull and drowsy, or have the lethargy. Water-cress pottage is a good remedy to cleanse the blood in the spring, and help headaches, and consume the gross humours winter has left behind; those who would live in health, may make use of this: if any fancy not pottage, they may eat the herb as a salad.”

Wrinkled Nose

It is referred to as true nasturtium, but is not closely related to the nasturtium family, Tropaeolaceae. Loosely translated, nasturtium is derived from Latin words meaning “wrinkled nose,” alluding to its pungent odor. Officinale denotes that it is a plant used medicinally.

Liver Fluke Parasite

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Care must be taken if harvesting from the wild. Any watercress growing in water that drains from fields where animals, particularly sheep, graze should not be used raw, as it may be infected with the liver fluke parasite. However, cooking the leaves will destroy any parasites. Like many plants in this family, the foliage of watercress becomes bitter when the plants begin producing flowers.

Watercress was used to prevent scurvy and in the treatment of tuberculosis. Considered a cleansing herb, its high content of vitamin C makes it a herbal remedy that is valuable for chronic illnesses, and it has been used in the treatment of tuberculosis. The freshly pressed juice has been used internally and externally in the treatment of chest and kidney complaints. A medicinal poultice of the leaves was said to be an effective treatment for healing glandular tumors or lymphatic swellings and chronic irritations and inflammations of the skin. It was believed that a watercress lotion could reduce blemishes. Recently, watercress has been the focus of several scientific studies regarding its potential for fighting malignant disease, mainly due to its high antioxidant content. As a nutritional supplement, it contains a large quantity of vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, folic acid, iodine, iron, protein and especially calcium. Applied externally, it has a long-standing reputation as an effective hair tonic, helping to promote the growth of thick hair. It makes wonderful salads, sandwiches and soups. The seed can be ground into a powder and used as a mustard.

HISTORY: First cultivated by the Persians, it spread to Greece and Rome. It has been used since the time of Hippocrates as a stimulant and expectorant in the treatment of coughs and bronchitis. The Ancient Greeks believed that watercress made one witty, healthy and had the potential to cure insanity. Watercress was a staple food for Greek and Persian soldiers, who noticed that it improved their health and conditioning. It is now used in salads and sandwiches but in the 18th century it was simmered with scurvy grass and oranges as a “spring cleansing” soup and to cure headaches. It was a useful winter vegetable in the Middle Ages, and is today used in popular “detox” diets. New Market, Alabama, was known in the 1940s as the “Watercress Capital of the World” in America. Alresford, near Winchester, is considered the “Watercress Capital of Britain” and a local steam railway route in Hampshire, which used to take watercress to London markets, is called the Watercress Line.

WILD GARLIC

ALLIUM URSINUM

Family Alliaceae, Onion

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OTHER NAMES: Broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, ramsons, badger’s flower, bear’s garlic, badger’s garlic, devil’s garlic, gypsy onion, stinking Jenny, buckrams.

DESCRIPTION: Culpeper: “The root of this is round and whitish; the leaves are oblong, very broad, of a fine deep green. The stalk of a pale green, three square, and ten inches high, whereon grow small white flowers.” Maud Grieve was rather more dismissive: “…it grows in woods and has a very acrid taste and smell, but it also has very small bulbs, which would hardly render it of practical use.” Its clusters of star-shaped white flowers spread across swathes of woodland in spring, and the plant can be smelt from yards away.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper observes: “It is under Mars as well as the former [garlic]. The root is only known in physic; it is a powerful opener…It wonderfully opens the lungs, and gives relief in asthmas; nor is it without its merit in wind colic; and is a good diuretic, which appears by the smell it communicates to the urine. It is very useful in obstructions of the kidneys, and dropsies, especially in that which is called anasarca [oedema, excess fluid in tissues and body cavities]. It may be taken in a morning fasting, or else the conserve of Garlic which is kept in the shops may be used.” The freshly pressed juice was used to treat sore throats, coughs and colds. If the leaves are boiled, the juice can be used as a disinfectant wipe.

HISTORY: The familiar term ramsons comes from the Old English hramson or hramsa. Many old English villages have the prefix “Ram” and were named after the abundance of wild garlic growing there. Its Latin species name comes from the European brown bear’s (Ursus arctos) taste for the bulbs, and habit of digging them out of the ground, as do badgers and wild boar. Ramsons leaves have also been used as fodder. Cows that have fed on ramsons give milk that tastes slightly of garlic, and butter made from this milk was popular in 19th-century Switzerland.

Popular Ingredient

The stems are preserved by salting and eaten as a salad in Russia. The bulbs, leaves and flowers are also edible, and becoming increasingly popular once more, being featured by popular chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver to flavor salads, soups, sauces and egg dishes. The leaves can be used as salad, spice, boiled as a vegetable, in soup, or as an ingredient for pesto instead of basil. It is best to pick and use the leaves before the plant flowers.

WILD THYME

THYMUS SERPYLLUM

Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint

OTHER NAMES: Creeping thyme, running thyme, mother of thyme, breckland thyme, serpolet.

DESCRIPTION: It is shorter, with broader leaves and a weaker smell than garden thyme, from which it is probably derived, hence Culpeper’s name of Mother of Thyme. It is the lowest-growing common variety of thyme, around 1 inch (2.5 cm) high, and is good for ground-cover; it smells of oregano or lemon.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “Mother of Thyme is under Venus. It is excellent in nervous disorders. A strong infusion of it, drank in the manner of tea, is pleasant, and a very effectual remedy for head-aches, giddiness, and other disorders of that kind; and it is a certain remedy for that troublesome complaint, the night-mare. A gentleman afflicted for a long space of time with this complaint in a terrible manner, and having in vain sought for relief from the usual means employed for that purpose, was advised to make trial of the infusion of this plant, which soon removed it, and he continued free for several years, after which the disorder sometimes returned, but always gave way to the remedy.” Drunk by itself or mixed with other plants such as rosemary, it was a remedy for headaches and other nervous affections.

HISTORY: An old tradition says that thyme was one of the herbs that formed the fragrant bed of the Virgin Mary. Since the Egyptians used thyme for embalming, the herb has also been associated with death. It was one of the fragrant flowers planted on graves, and the Order of Oddfellows (a benevolent fraternal organization) carry sprigs of thyme at funerals and throw them into the grave of a dead brother. In some areas it was a custom for girls to wear sprigs of thyme, with mint and lavender, to bring them sweethearts. According to Maud Grieve: “In medicine, Wild Thyme or Serpolet has the same properties as Common Thyme, but to an inferior degree. It is aromatic, antiseptic, stimulant, antispasmodic, diuretic and emmenagogue [stimulating blood flow in the pelvic area and uterus].” She tells us that the infusion was used “for chest maladies and for weak digestion, being a good remedy for flatulence, and favourable results have been obtained in convulsive coughs, especially in whooping cough, catarrh and sore throat.”

From A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows;

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk roses and with Eglantine.

William Shakespeare

(WHITE) WILLOW

SALIX ALBA

Family Salicaceae, Willow

OTHER NAMES: European willow.

DESCRIPTION: A large tree up to 100 feet (30 m) high, with a rough grayish bark, its name derives from the white tone to the undersides of the leaves.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “The Moon owns it. Both the leaves, bark, and the seed, are used to stanch bleeding of wounds, and at mouth and nose, spitting of blood, and other fluxes of blood in man or woman, and to stay vomiting, and provocation thereunto, if the decoction of them in wine be drank. It helps also to stay thin, hot, sharp, salt distillations from the head upon the lungs, causing a consumption. The leaves bruised with some pepper, and drank in wine, helps much the wind cholic. The leaves bruised and boiled in wine, and drank, stays the heat of lust in man or woman, and quite extinguishes it, if it be long used. The seed also is of the same effect. Water that is gathered from the Willow, when it flowers, the bark being slit, and a vessel fitting to receive it, is very good for redness and dimness of sight, or films that grow over the eyes, and stay the rheums that fall into them; to provoke urine, being stopped, if it be drank; to clear the face and skin from spots and discolourings. Galen says, the flowers have an admirable faculty in drying up humours, being a medicine without any sharpness or corrosion; you may boil them in white wine, and drink as much as you will, so you drink not yourself drunk. The bark works the same effect, if used in the same manner, and the tree hath always a bark upon it, though not always flowers; the burnt ashes of the bark being mixed with vinegar, takes away warts, corns, and superfluous flesh, being applied to the place. The decoction of the leaves or bark in wine, takes away scurff and dandrif by washing the place with it. It is a fine cool tree, the boughs of which are very convenient to be placed in the chamber of one sick of a fever. In the fifty-third volume of the Philosophical Transactions, page 195, we have an account given by Mr. Stone, of the great efficacy of the bark of this tree, in the cure of intermitting fevers. He gathered the bark in summer, when it was full of sap, and having dried it by a gentle heat, gave a drachm of it in powder every four hours between the fits. While the Peruvian bark remained at its usual moderate price, it was hardly worth while to seek for a substitute, but since the consumption of that article is become nearly as equal to the supply of it, from South America, we must expect to find it dearer, and very much adulterated every year, and consequently the white Willow bark is likely to become an object worthy the attention of the faculty; and should its success, upon a more enlarged scale of practice, prove equal to Mr. Stone’s experiments, the world will be much indebted to that gentleman for his communication.” The tree has been used in dyspepsia connected with debility of the digestive organs, in convalescence from acute diseases, in worms, in chronic diarrhea and dysentery. The bark contains up to 13 percent tannin as its chief constituent, and also a small quantity of salicin.

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Discovering Aspirin

The Reverend Edward Stone (1702–68) discovered the active ingredient of aspirin when he noted in 1763 that willow bark was effective in reducing a fever. He experimented by gathering and drying a pound of willow bark and creating a powder which he gave to about 50 persons. It was consistently found to be a “powerful astringent and very efficacious in curing agues and intermitting disorders.” He had discovered salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.

HISTORY: Hippocrates wrote in the fifth century BCE about a bitter powder which could be extracted from willow bark to ease aches and pains and reduce fevers (see box), a remedy also mentioned in Egyptian, Sumerian and Assyrian texts and by Dioscorides, Pliny and Galen. The tree has always been the willow most used for pollarding (cutting back) to make fences and stakes. It has also provided the brakes on railway wagons, the sides and bottoms of carts, the rims of pails, wood for charcoal, and in Russia the trunks were used for log cabins.

Making Cricket Bats

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Salix alba “Caerulea” (cricket bat willow) is grown as a specialist timber crop in Britain, mainly for the production of cricket bats, and for other uses where a tough, lightweight wood that does not splinter easily, is needed. It may be a hybrid between white willow and crack willow. Salix fragilis, crack willow, has brittle branches which can easily be broken (cracked) off. Salix caprea, also known as pussy willow, goat willow, sallow and sally is small and bushy with beautiful catkins. Salix babylonica is the familiar weeping willow. Salix babylonica “Tortuosa,” corkscrew willow, has elaborately twisted shoots and branches.

WINTER CHERRY

PHYSALIS ALKEKENGI

Family Solanaceae, Nightshade

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OTHER NAMES: Chinese lantern, Japanese lantern, strawberry tomato, bladder cherry, jamberry.

DESCRIPTION: The plant and its varieties are grown for the decorative value of their brilliantly colored, swollen orange calyces which surround the fruit—they are colloquially known as Chinese lanterns.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “The leaves being cooling, may be used in inflammations, but not opening as the berries and fruit are: which by drawing down the urine, provoke it to be voided plentifully when it is stopped or grown hot, sharp, and painful in the passage; it is good also to expel the stone and gravel out of the reins, kidneys and bladder; helping to dissolve the stone, and voiding it by grit or gravel sent forth in the urine; it also helps much to cleanse inward imposthumes or ulcers in the reins of bladder, or in those that void a bloody or foul urine. The distilled water of the fruit, or the leaves together with them, or the berries, green or dry, distilled with a little milk and drank morning and evening with a little sugar, is effectual to all the purposes before specified, and especially against the heat and sharpness of the urine. I shall only mention one way, amongst many others, which might be used for ordering the berries, to be helpful for the urine and the stone, which is this; Take three or four good handfuls of the berries, either green or fresh, or dried, and having bruised them, put them into so many gallons of beer or ale when it is newly tunned up; This drink taken daily, hath been found to do much good to many, both to ease the pains, and expel urine and the stone, and to cause the stone not to engender.”

HISTORY: Dioscorides prescribed its stem as a sedative and its berries as diuretics and a cure for epilepsy. The berries were said to be aperient and highly recommended in fevers and in gout. John Ray stated that a gout sufferer had prevented returns of the disorder by taking eight berries at each change of the moon. Mixed with honey, the berries were said to improve eyesight. With wine they supposedly cured toothache. The leaves and stems were used for the malaise that follows malaria and scarlet fever.

Japanese Contraceptive

In Japan, its seeds are used as part of the Bon Festival, given as offerings to guide the souls of the deceased. Its balloon-like qualities also caused it to be used as a contraceptive in early Japan, an example of the Doctrine of Signatures being employed elsewhere in the world.

WITCH HAZEL

HAMAMELIS VIRGINIANA

Family Hamamelidaceae, Witch Hazel

OTHER NAMES: Spotted alder, striped alder, winterbloom, snapping hazelnut, tobacco wood.

DESCRIPTION: Deciduous twisted shrub which can grow to 15 feet (4.5 m), with yellow thread-like blossoms; it grows best in moist light shade. It blooms from September to November, hence the name winterbloom, and some varieties have an intense fragrance.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Distilled and combined with alcohol, the aromatic oil extracted from the bark makes a soothing and mildly astringent lotion. It has become a general and proven treatment for abrasions, burns, scalds, insect bites and inflammatory conditions of the skin such as acne. It is also an excellent astringent, toning facial cleanser, used to decrease bags under eyes, skin puffiness, and to reduce pore size, having become a valued ingredient in natural skin care formulations and anti-aging products. Frozen witch hazel is very soothing for insect bites, varicose veins and bruises, and a cotton ball dampened with witch hazel relieves painful hemorrhoids. Its ability to shrink swollen tissue makes witch hazel appropriate to treat laryngitis. “Swimmer’s ear” is associated typically with pus and moisture in the outer ear canal, and generally it is annoying and difficult to cure. However, a cotton swab dipped in a witch hazel, goldenseal and calendula tea, and then applied to the outer ear, is useful in treating the infection.

Witching a Well

Witch comes from “wyche” or “wice,” the Anglo-Saxon for bend. The pliable branches of witch hazel became a favorite among the American colonists dowsing to dig wells for water, so it is thought that wyche became witch. While in Europe the native common hazel (Corylus avellana) was used for dowsing rods, in North America the early settlers used Hamamelis virginiana. They called this new tree a hazel. Finding a well was thought to be evidence of witchcraft, and locating a well through dowsing was called “witching a well,” so this is a more likely explanation of the name of witch hazel.

HISTORY: The plant is not included in the earlier editions of Culpeper as it is a native of North America. When the seed-bearing capsules of witch hazel break open, they throw the seeds up to a distance of 20 feet (6 m), giving rise to the name of snapping hazel. It has long been used by the Native North Americans to make poultices for painful swellings and tumors. The distilled witch hazel widely sold commercially is not as astringent as other preparations as the tannins have been removed.

WOAD

ISATIS TINCTORIA

Family Brassicaceae, Cabbage

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OTHER NAMES: Dyer’s woad, garden woad, asp of Jerusalem, pastel (Spanish), wad or waad (Anglo-Saxon), llysiau’r lliw (Welsh for herbs of dye), glaston (this may also be originally a Welsh word, meaning blue tone).

DESCRIPTION: Gerard tells us: “Glaston or Guadon, Woad is about three feet high, with long, bluish-green leaves growing round and out of the stalk, growing smaller as they reach the top, when they branch out with small yellow flowers, which in turn produce seed like little black tongues.” It is an attractive back-of-border garden plant.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Gerard again: “The decoction made of Woad is good for hardness of the spleen, also good for wounds and ulcers to those of strong constitution and those accustomed to much physical labour and coarse fare. It is used as a dye, profitable to some, hurtful to many.” Culpeper says: “It is a cold and dry plant of Saturn. Some people affirm the plant to be destructive to bees, and fluxes them, which, if it be, I cannot help it. I should rather think, unless bees be contrary to other creatures, it possesses them with the contrary disease, the herb being exceeding dry and binding. However, if any bees be diseased thereby, the cure is, to set urine by them, but set it in a vessel, that they cannot drown themselves, which may be remedied, if you put pieces of cork in it. The herb is so drying and binding, that it is not fit to be given inwardly. An ointment made thereof staunches bleeding. A plaster made thereof, and applied to the region of the spleen which lies on the left side, takes away the hardness and pains thereof. The ointment is excellently good in such ulcers as abound with moisture, and takes away the corroding and fretting humours. It cools inflammations, quenches St. Anthony’s Fire[ergot poisoning], and stays defluxion of the blood to any part of the body. The chief use of this plant is among the dyers, but it is possessed of virtues which claim our regard for their medical effects. The tops of the plant possess those in the greatest perfection, and a strong infusion of them is the best method of giving them. This operates by urine and is excellent against obstruction of the liver and spleen, but its use must be continued a considerable time.” It is used in Chinese medicine for meningitis, mumps and sore throats, but can be poisonous.

HISTORY: The herb was found to be too astringent to be given internally as a medicine, and has been used medicinally as a plaster, applied to the region of the spleen, and as an ointment for ulcers, inflammation and to staunch bleeding. The dye chemical extracted from woad is indigo, the same dye, but in a far lower concentration as that obtained from the true indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria.

Ancient Dyes

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The famous blue dye comes from the leaves of the woad plant, especially those of the first year’s growth. It was used for dye as long ago as Neolithic times, and ancient Egyptians used it to dye cloth wrappings for mummies. In Caesar’s Gallic Wars, he notes that the British stained themselves blue with vitrum, which was translated as woad, but instead seems to have been a copper-or iron-based pigment. The ever unreliable Pliny the Elder wrote that the French called it Glastum, and stated that British women and girls colored themselves with the dye and went naked to some of their sacrifices. It may have been plentiful in Britain, but by the time of the Saxons it was being imported from France to dye home-spun cloth.

Woad was eventually superseded by the arrival of indigo in commercial quantities in the Middle Ages. Laws were passed across Europe to protect the woad industry from the competition of the indigo trade, with woad’s supporters claiming that indigo rotted yarns. In Germany, indigo came to be known as the devil’s dye. However, woad dye “fixes” and improves the quality and color of indigo, when mixed in certain proportions. Woad is also used to form a base, or mordant, for a black dye. In the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, woad was used for a blue paint throughout the manuscript.

Woad belongs to the same plant family as cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, and contains very high levels of the organic compound glucobrassicin, 20 times more than that found in broccoli. University of Bologna researchers believe that chemicals like these could one day prove to have an important part to play in the prevention and treatment of cancer. They were also able to boost its concentration by damaging the leaves, whereby glucobrassicin is released as a defense mechanism. Studies suggest that glucobrassicin, a type of glucosinolate, flushes out cancer-causing compounds including derivatives of estrogen, and recent research found that people who ate foods rich in glucosinolates had reduced levels of chemicals linked to smoking-related lung cancer. Researchers have already suggested that eating vegetables rich in chemicals such as glucobrassicin might help protect people against cancer, but it has been difficult for scientists to extract enough glucobrassicin from plants to test its effect. It is thought that its antitumour properties are likely to be particularly effective against breast cancer.

WOOD BETONY

STACHYS OFFICINALIS

Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint

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OTHER NAMES: Common betony, bishop’s wort, louse wort, wild hop, purple betony, devil’s plaything, cribau San Ffraid (St. Brigit’s combs, Welsh).

DESCRIPTION: This grassland herb grows 2 feet (60 cm) high with a 10-inch (25-cm) spread, and has pointed, toothed leaves and attractive pinkish-purple lipped flowers carried on top of the stem. Stachys is the Greek word for “ear of corn” and refers to the shape of the flower spike.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Antonio Musa, chief physician to Emperor Augustus, wrote a treatise on it listing 47 diseases curable by the use of betony, all of which Culpeper faithfully relates: “…it is a very precious herb, that is certain, and most fitting to be kept in a man’s house, both in syrup, conserve, oil, ointment and plaister; The flowers are usually conserved…it preserveth the liver and bodies of men from the danger of epidemical diseases, and from witchcraft also; it helpeth those that loath and cannot digest their meat, those that have weak stomachs and sour belchings, or continual rising in their stomach, using it familiarly either green or dry; either the herb, or roots or the flowers, in broth, drink, or meat, or made into conserve, syrup, water, electuary, or powder, as every one may best frame themselves unto, or as the time and season requireth; taken any of the aforesaid ways, it helpeth the jaundice, falling sickness, the palsy, convulsions, or shrinking of the sinews, the gout and those that are inclined to dropsy, those that have continual pains in their heads, although it turn to phrensy. The powder mixed with pure honey, is no less available for all sorts of coughs or colds, wheesing, or shortness of breath, distillations of thin rheum upon the lungs, which causeth consumptions…the decoction thereof made in wine and taken, killeth the worms in the belly, openeth obstructions both of the spleen and liver; cureth stitches, and pains in the back and sides, the torments and griping pains in the bowels, and the wind colic; and mixed with honey, purgeth the belly, helpeth to bring down women’s courses, and is of special use to those that are troubled with the falling down of the mother, and pains thereof, and causes an easy and speedy delivery of women in child-birth. It helpeth also to break and expel the stone, either in the bladder or kidneys. The decoction with wine gargled in the mouth, easeth the tooth-ach. It is commended against the stinging and biting of venomous serpents, or mad dogs, being used inwardly and applied outwardly to the place…” Closely related to hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) betony was thought to have similar properties when applied to wounds.

Serpent Killer, Stag Healer

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Maud Grieve tells us that many superstitions grew up around betony. For example, serpents would fight and kill each other if placed within a ring composed of it. Wild beasts recognized its benefits and used it if wounded. Stags, if wounded with an arrow or lance, would search out betony, and, eating it, be cured. Betony was endowed with power against evil spirits, being carefully planted in churchyards and hung about the neck as an amulet or charm. The latter sanctified, according to Erasmus, “…those that carried it about them,” and being also “good against fearful visions” and an efficacious means of “driving away devils and despair.”

HISTORY: From the time of the Ancient Egyptians to the Anglo-Saxons betony was thought to have magical powers, and it was prominent in medieval herb gardens, as it was used almost as a panacea by the herbalists. Wood betony was used to bathe children who were possessed or bewitched, as the bathwater washed away the bad magic. Betony was used to treat chest and lung problems, worms, fever, gout, uterine bleeding, dizziness and other afflictions, and even as a protection against witchcraft. There was an Italian saying: “Venda la onica e compra beonica” (Sell your coat and buy betony). Dried leaves were used in herbal tobaccos and snuffs, for instance Rowley’s British Herb Snuff which was used for headaches. In his Herball, Richarde Banckes wrote: “Eat Betony or the powder thereof and you cannot be drunken that day” whereas Gerard more bluntly states: “It maketh a man to pisse well.”

Virtues of Betony

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The 12th-century Welsh Physicians of Myddfai wrote:

THE FOLLOWING ARE THE VIRTUES OF BETONY He who will habituate himself to drink the juice, will escape the strangury. If it is boiled in white wine, and drank, it will cure the colic, and swelling of the stomach. Pounding it small, expressing the juice and apply it with a feather to the eye of a man, will clear and strengthen his sight, and remove specks from his eye. The juice is a good thing to drop into the ears of those who are deaf. The powder mixed with honey is useful for those who cough; it will remove the cough and benefit many diseases of the lungs. If boiled with leek seed, it will cure the eye, and brighten as well as strengthen the sight.

WOOD SORREL

OXALIS ACETOSELLA

Family Oxalidaceae, Wood Sorrel

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OTHER NAMES: Wood sour, sour trefoil, stickwort, fairy bells, hallelujah, cuckowes meat, three-leaved grass, surelle, stubwort, shamrock.

DESCRIPTION: It carpets deciduous woodland with its pale green, heart-shaped leaves, folded through the middle, that occur in groups of three on a slender reddish brown stalk. There are delicate flowers with white papery flowers with pink streaks, and it grows about 6 inches (15 cm) high.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “Venus owns it. Wood Sorrel serves to all the purposes that the other Sorrels do, and is more effectual in hindering putrefaction of blood, and ulcers in the mouth and body, and to quench thirst, to strengthen a weak stomach, to procure an appetite, to stay vomiting, and very excellent in any contagious sickness or pestilential fevers. The syrup made of the juice, is effectual in all the cases aforesaid, and so is the distilled water of the herb. Sponges or linen cloths wet in the juice and applied outwardly to any hot swelling or inflammations, doth much cool and help them. The same juice taken and gargled in the mouth, and after it is spit forth, taken afresh, doth wonderfully help a foul stinking canker or ulcer therein. It is singularly good to heal wounds, or to stay the bleeding of thrusts or stabs in the body; and helps to stay any hot defluxions into the throat and cleanses the viscera.” In Maud Grieve’s Herbal we read that wood sorrel has “diuretic, antiscorbutic and refrigerant action, and a decoction made from its pleasant acid leaves is given in high fever, both to quench thirst and to allay the fever.” Herbalists believe that wood sorrel is more effectual than the true sorrels (Rumex species) as a blood cleanser, and will strengthen a weak stomach, produce an appetite, check vomiting and remove obstructions of the viscera. The juice of the leaves turns red when clarified and makes a fine, clear syrup, and the juice is gargled as a remedy for ulcers in the mouth, and applied to heal wounds and to stem bleeding. Sponges and linen cloths were saturated with the juice and applied to reduce swellings and inflammation.

Four-leaf Clovers

In 1620, Sir John Melton wrote, “If a man walking in the fields find any four-leaved grass, he shall in a small while after find some good thing.” It is estimated that, on average, there are 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every instance of a true four-leaf clover. Thus, finding a true four-leaf clover needs the proverbial “luck of the Irish.” Other Oxalis species, with four regular leaflets, in particular Oxalis tetraphylla (four-leaved pink-sorrel) or Oxalis deppei (iron cross) are sometimes misleadingly sold as “four-leaf clover.”

HISTORY: Both botanical names Oxalis and acetosella refer to its acidity, being derived from the Greek oxys, meaning sour or acid, and acetosella, meaning vinegar salts. It has some folk names as an old herbal outlines: “The apothecaries and herbalists call it Alleluya and Paniscuculi, or Cuckowes meat, because either the Cuckoo feedeth thereon, or by reason when it springeth forth and flowereth the Cuckoo singeth most, at which time also Alleluya was wont to be sung in Churches.” In Europe Conserva Ligulae used to be made by apothecaries beating the fresh leaves with three times their weight of sugar and orange peel, making a cooling and acid drink that was a favorite remedy in malignant fevers and scurvy. In Dr. James Duke’s 1992 Handbook of Edible Weeds, he tells us that the Cherokees ate wood sorrel to alleviate mouth sores and sore throats, Kiowas chewed wood sorrel to alleviate thirst on long trips, Potawatomi Indians cooked it with sugar to make a dessert, the Algonquins considered it an aphrodisiac, and the Iroquois ate wood sorrel to help with cramps, fever and nausea. Its leaves have been used in spring salads and for food for centuries. In Henry VIII’s time it was held in great repute as a potherb, but after the introduction of French sorrel, with its large succulent leaves, wood sorrel gradually lost its position as a salad and pot-herb. Wood sorrel, like spinach, sweet potatoes, rhubarb, beans and broccoli, contains oxalic acid which is considered slightly toxic because it interferes with food digestion and the absorption of some trace minerals. It is known to bind with calcium and inhibit its absorption.

True Shamrock

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Traditionally, the wood sorrel was thought to be to be the three-leaved plant by which the missionary Welshman St. Patrick demonstrated the Trinity to the Irish pagans. St. Patrick filled the Emerald Isle with lush fields of shamrocks, supposedly to keep snakes from ever returning, both the physical reptiles, and metaphorically the heathen beliefs. The symbol was found on early tombs and coins, but the Irish Gaelic word seamrog, little clover, the origin of the word shamrock, was not found in writing until the early 1700s. Other candidates for the “true shamrock” are lesser trefoil (hop clover, Trifolium dubium), white clover (Trifolium repens), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and black medick (Medicago lupulina).

WOOD AVENS

GEUM URBANUM

Family Rosaceae, Rose

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OTHER NAMES: Culpeper names it Colewort, Herb Benet and Avens. Herb bonnet, herb benet, St. Benedict’s herb, city avens, wild rye, way bennet, goldy star, clove root.

DESCRIPTION: The pretty flowers have five pale yellow petals. The fruits have burrs, which help seed dispersal by getting caught in the fur of rabbits and other passing animals.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper says: “It is governed by Jupiter, and that gives hopes of a wholesome healthful herb. It is good for the diseases of the chest or breast, for pains, and stiches in the side, and to expel crude and raw humours from the belly and stomach, by the sweet savour and warming quality. It dissolves the inward congealed blood happening by falls or bruises, and the spitting of blood, if the roots, either green or dry, be boiled in wine and drank; as also all manner of inward wounds or outward, if washed or bathed therewith. The decoction also being drank, comforts the heart, and strengthens the stomach and a cold brain, and therefore is good in the spring-time to open obstructions of the liver, and helps the wind colic; it also helps those that have fluxes, or are bursten, or have a rupture; it takes away spots or marks in the face, being washed therewith. The juice of the fresh root, or powder of the dried root, hath the same effect with the decoction. The root in the spring time steeped in wine, give it delicate savour and taste, and being drank fasting every morning, comforts the heart, and is a good preservative against the plague, or any other poison. It helps digestion, and warms a cold stomach, and opens obstructions of the liver and spleen. It is very safe; you need have no dose prescribed; and is very fit to be kept in every body’s house.” Later herbalists used it to treat diarrhea, heart disease, halitosis, mouth ulcers and colic.

HISTORY: Paracelsus suggested its use against liver disease, catarrh and stomach upsets. In the 15th century wood avens was credited with the power to drive away evil spirits, and to protect against poison, rabid dogs and venomous snakes. The clove-smelling roots were kept in houses to effect this, and also used as a spice in soups and for flavoring ales.

Blessed Herb

It was associated with Christianity because its leaves grew in threes and its petals in fives (recalling the Holy Trinity and the Five Wounds of Christ). Thus herb benet is a contraction of herba benedicta, blessed herb.

(COMMON) WORMWOOD

ARTEMISIA ABSINTHIUM

Family Asteraceae, Aster

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OTHER NAMES: Wormwood, absinthe wormwood, green ginger, crown for a king.

DESCRIPTION: Grows to a height of 3 feet (90 cm) and a spread of 4 feet (1.2 m), with tiny yellow flowers and aromatic gray-green leaves. The leaves and flowers are very bitter, with a musky smell.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “This is a martial herb, and is governed by Mars. This is the strongest; the Sea Wormwood is the second in bitterness, and the Roman joins a great deal of aromatic flavour, with but a little bitterness: therefore, to acquire and enjoy the full powers they possess, they must be separately known and well distinguished, for each kind has its particularly virtues. The two first grow wild in our country; the third is frequent in the physic garden, and may always be had, but, as not a native, is not particularly considered here. The common Wormwood here described, is very excellent in weakness of the stomach; and, far beyond the common knowledge, is powerful against the gout and gravel. The leaves are commonly used, but the flowery tops are the right part.” Wormwood became used mainly as a bitter tonic, kept evil spirits at bay. With the exception of rue, wormwood is the bitterest herb in general use, and used to be used by brewers instead of hops. The leaves resist putrefaction, so were used in antiseptics.

HISTORY: Dioscorides and Pliny considered wormwood to be a stomachic tonic, and anthelmintic (to eliminate worms). In Biblical days it was a symbol of calamity and sorrow, and in Proverbs, 5:4 we read: “her end was as bitter as wormwood.” “As bitter as wormwood” used to be a common saying. Constituents in wormwood are anti-inflammatory and reduce fevers, and small doses of wormwood tea were taken before meals to stimulate digestion and prevent heartburn and flatulence. As its name implies, wormwood is a powerful worming agent that has been used for hundreds of years to expel tapeworms, threadworms, and especially roundworms from dogs, cats, humans and other animals. Bunches of wormwood were hung in chicken coops to deter flies, lice and fleas.

Green Dumplings

Wormwood is the traditional color agent for green songpyeon (a type of steamed dumpling made from rice flour), eaten during the Korean thanksgiving festival of Chuseok. It is picked in the spring when it is still young, and juice extracted from the leaves provides the dye and flavoring required for the dough.

(ROMAN) WORMWOOD

ARTEMISIA PONTICA

Family Asteraceae, Aster

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OTHER NAMES: European wormwood, bitter weed.

DESCRIPTION: With blue-green stems it grows to 2 feet (60 cm) tall, and bears tiny yellow flowers.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “It is also a martial plant. The fresh tops are used, and the whole plant dried. It is excellent to strengthen the stomach; but that is not all its virtues, the juice of the fresh tops is good against obstructions of the liver and spleen, and has been known singly to cure the jaundice…The flowery tops are the right part. These made into a light infusion, strengthen digestion, correct acidities, and supply the place of gall, where, as in many constitutions, that is deficient. One ounce of the flowers and buds should be put into a vessel, and a pint and a half of boiling water poured on them, and thus to stand all night…This regularly observed for a week, will cure all the complaints arising from indigestion and wind;…An ounce of these flowers put into a pint of brandy, and steeped there for the space of six weeks, will produce a tincture of which a table-spoonful taken in a glass of water twice a day, will, in a great measure, prevent the increase of the gravel, and give great relief in the gout…The Wormwood wine, so famous with the Germans, is made with this Roman Wormwood, put into the juice, and worked with it; it is a strong and an excellent wine, not unpleasant, yet of such efficacy to give an appetite, that the Germans drink of it so often, that they are capable to eat for hours together, without sickness or indigestion.”

HISTORY: The genus name Artemisia comes from Artemis, the Greek name for the goddess Diana. In the Herbarium of Apuleius we read: “Of these worts that we name Artemisia, it is said that Diana did find them and delivered their powers and leechdom to Chiron the Centaur, who first from these Worts set forth a leechdom, and he named these worts from the name of Diana, Artemis, that is Artemisias.” Wormwood counteracted the effects of poisoning by hemlock, toadstools and the biting of the “sea dragon.” Mexicans celebrated their great festival of the goddess of salt with a ceremonial dance by women who wore on their heads garlands of wormwood.

Vermouth

This is the most delicate and the least powerful of the wormwoods, and the aromatic flavor with which its bitterness is mixed has resulted in it being used in making the fortified wine vermouth. The aperitif’s name is derived from the German word Wermut, wormwood.

(SEA) WORMWOOD

ARTEMISIA MARITIMA

Family Asteraceae, Aster

OTHER NAMES: Old woman (in reference to “old man” or southernwood, which it resembles).

DESCRIPTION: This plant is common in sea marshes and appears similar to southernwood, but with more delicate gray-green leaves, and yellow flowers. It grows to 18 inches (45 cm) in height.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper writes: “It is a very noble bitter, and succeeds in procuring an appetite, better than the common Wormwood which is best to assist digestion…The power and efficacy of Wormwoods in general are scarce to be credited in the vast extent of cases to which they may be applied. Hysteric complaints have been completely cured by the constant use of this tincture. In the scurvy, and in the hypochondriacal disorders of studious sedentary men, few things have greater effect; for these it is best in strong infusions; and great good has risen from common Wormwood, given in jaundice and dropsies. The whole blood, and all the juices of the body, are affected…Women using it whilst suckling, their milk turns bitter.”

Dreaming of True Love

An old love charm: “On St. Luke’s Day, take marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, thyme, and a little Wormwood; dry them before a fire, rub them to powder; then sift it through a fine piece of lawn, and simmer it over a slow fire, adding a small quantity of virgin honey, and vinegar. Anoint yourself with this when you go to bed, saying the following lines three times, and you will dream of your partner that is to be: ‘St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me, / In dreams let me my true-love see.’

From Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, 1557

While wormwood have seed, get a handful or twain,

To save against March, to make flea to refrain:

Where chamber is swept, and wormwood is strown,

No flea, for his life, dare abide to be known.

What savour is better, if physic be true,

For places infected, than wormwood and rue?

It is as a comfort, for heart and the brain,

And therefore to have it, it is not in vain.

Thomas Tusser

HISTORY: The fragrant branches of the sea wormwood were often put into linen closets and mattresses to drive out fleas. In the Dutch island of Texel its name is actually “flea herb.”

YARROW

ACHILLEA MILLEFOLIUM

Family Asteraceae/Compositae, Aster, Sunflower

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OTHER NAMES: Culpeper also calls it: Nose-Bleed, Milfoil, Thousand-Leaf. Woundwort, old man’s pepper, old man’s mustard, yarroway, seven years’ love, arrowroot, bad man’s plaything, carpenter’s weed, carpenter’s plant, death flower, devil’s plaything, devil’s nettle, evil’s nettle, field hops, hundred-leaved gradd, knight’s milfoil, knyghten, militaris, military herb, noble yarrow, sanguinary, soldier’s woundwort, stanch grass, staunch grass, stanch weed, thousand seal, snake’s grass etc.

DESCRIPTION: It grows 12–36 inches (30–90 cm) with a 24-inch (60-cm) spread. Its small flowers vary from grayish-white to pale pink, and are grouped in flat clusters. It has numerous feathery leaves.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper writes: “It is under the influence of Venus. As a medicine it is drying and binding. A decoction of it boiled with white wine, is good to stop the running of the reins in men, and whites in women; restrains violent bleedings, and is excellent for the piles. A strong tea in this case should be made of the leaves, and drank plentifully; and equal parts of it, and of toad flax, should be made into a poultice with pomatum, and applied outwardly. This induces sleep, eases the pain, and lessens the bleeding. An ointment of the leaves cures wounds, and is good for inflammations, ulcers, fistulas, and all such runnings as abound with moisture. Some writers of credit take the pains to inform us what plants cattle will not eat; they judge of this by looking at what are left in grounds, where they feed; and all such they direct to be rooted up. We have in this an instance, that more care is needful than men commonly take to show what is and what is not valuable. Yarrow is a plant left standing always in fed pasture; for cattle will not eat its dry stalk, nor have the leaves any great virtue after this rises; but Yarrow still is useful. It should be sown on barren grass ground, and while the leaves are tender, the cows and horses will eat it heartily. Nothing is more welcome for them, and it doubles the natural produce. On cutting down the stalks as they rise, it keeps the leaf fresh and they will eat it as it grows.” If you cut yourself on a walk, chew or crush yarrow leaves or flowers and press them on the wound—the bleeding will stop. It has been used for regulating the menstrual cycle, and helping with poor circulation and high blood pressure. A hot cup of yarrow tea induces a therapeutic sweat which cools fevers and helps the body expels toxins. The dried flowers are long-lasting, and the leaves are good in salads. The chemical make-up of yarrow is complex, and it contains many active medicinal compounds in addition to the tannins and volatile oil azulene.

Plant Doctor

Yarrow is known as a “plant doctor.” Planted near unhealthy plants, its root secretions help the ailing plant by triggering disease resistance. Its leaves are one of the best compost accelerators, and they can be infused to make a fertilizer and fungicide that cures downy mildew and preventing fungal disease.

HISTORY: The Greeks used it to stop hemorrhaging and the Roman armies used it to stop blood pouring from wounds inflicted during battle. The Druids made amulets from yarrow to protect the home from evil. The English name, yarrow, comes from the Saxon word “gearwe.” It has been used as a cold cure since before the early medieval period. In the Middle Ages, yarrow was one of the ingredients in gruit, a selection of herbs that were used to make beer, before the widespread use of hops. Folk tales tell how yarrow can prevent, but not cure, baldness, and it was recommended for nervous headaches. Leaves held over the eyes gave the gift of second sight. Albertus Magnus (c.1206–80) wrote in his Book of Secrets that if one’s hands are smeared with yarrow juice and then plunged into a river they will act as magnets to fish. Put into sachets, yarrow is said to attract friends and distant relations to you and to ensure that love will last for at least seven years. Yarrow could also help you to find your true love, either by sleeping with yarrow under your pillow to bring dreams of your true love or by cutting the stems across the middle, which would supposedly reveal the initials of your future spouse. Yarrow was tied to an infant’s cradle to stop its soul being stolen. Originally the Chinese system of divination described in the I-Ching was practiced by throwing dried yarrow stalks to divine the future, before coins were invented.

Achilles’s Healer

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Chiron, the centaur in Greek mythology, taught its virtues to Achilles so he might make an ointment to heal his warrior Myrmidons who were wounded in the siege of Troy. Chiron then named the plant for this favorite pupil, giving his own name to the blue cornflower (Centaurea cyanus). Alternatively, Achilles scraped the rust from his spear, which grew into yarrow which helped him to cure the wounded, hence the species name achillea.