Breverton's Complete Herbal

BALSAM TREE

COMMIPHORA OPOBALSAMUM syn. GILEADENSIS

Family Burseraceae, Torchwood or Incense Tree

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OTHER NAMES: Balm-tree, balsam of Gilead, balsam of Mecca, Mecca myrrh.

DESCRIPTION: This small tree from the Red Sea region grows to 12 feet (3.7 m). It has spreading branches like wands, and a reddish bark which spontaneously exudes sweet-smelling resinous drops in summer. The process is helped by incisions cut into the bark. This is the source of the original balm of Gilead, around which many mystical associations have gathered.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper recommended the liquor as effective against snakes, scorpions, pestilence, obstructions of the liver and spleen, failing memory, falling sickness, earache, film over the eyes, coughs, shortness of breath, consumption, palsy, cramp, urinary infections, diseases of the womb, kidneys and bowels, barrenness, kidney stones, cramp, infections—in fact virtually anything that could go wrong with the body. The liquor was used by herbalists for throat infections, and as an ointment for the pain and inflammation caused by rheumatism and arthritis. There are pain-relieving substances now known as salicylates in the resin, also present in willow, elder and meadowsweet, which are the basis of the pain relief given by aspirin.

Rare and Magical

Its rarity and magical properties have caused its name to be adopted for several other plant species. For instance Canary balm (Cedronella canariensis) is also known as balm of Gilead, and it has a strong eucalyptus smell similar to many other plants with “balsam” as part of their name.

HISTORY: The forces of the Turkish empire destroyed the trees around Jericho and banned its export, growing the trees in guarded gardens at Matarie, near Cairo, where the balsam was valued as a cosmetic by ladies of the court. In the Books of Genesis and Jeremiah in the Bible, and in the works of Theophrastes, Galen and Dioscorides, it is praised. Pliny the Elder states that the tree was first brought to Rome by the generals of Vespasian, while Josephus relates that it was taken from Arabia to Judea by the queen of Sheba as a present for Solomon. There, being cultivated for its juice, particularly on Mount Gilead, it acquired its popular name. Pliny also said that it was one of the ingredients of the “Royal Perfume” of the Parthians. According to Culpeper, “the liquor they call Opobalsamum, the berries or fruit of the tree Carpobalsamum, and the sprigs or young branches thereof Zylobalsamum.

BARBERRY

BERBERIS VULGARIS

Family Berberidaceae, Berberis

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OTHER NAMES: European barberry, berber, ambarbaris, y Pren Melyn (Welsh for yellow tree), woodsour, woodsower, holy thorn, jaunders tree, jaundice barberry, jaundice berry.

DESCRIPTION: A perennial deciduous shrub with gray, woody stems that can grow up to 10 feet (3 m) tall, with tiny spikes at the base of the leaves, and small yellow flowers that hang in clusters followed by red oblong berries.

PROPERTIES AND USES: The plant has been recommended primarily as a purgative and tonic, and was prescribed for allaying the thirst associated with diabetes. The root has also been used for kidney stones, gall-bladder ailments and painful periods. Culpeper recommended it for choler, yellow jaundice, boils, ringworm, burns, catarrh, diarrhea etc. The berries have been used to make jams, jellies and syrups, and as the berries contain citric, malic and tartaric acids, they possess medicinal properties as astringents and antiscorbutics. In Wales, honey was added to berry juice to make a medicinal syrup, rich in vitamin C. The roots give a yellow dye used for dyeing wool, cotton and linen and for dyeing wood and polishing leather. The leaves give a black dye and the twigs and young leaves give a red-yellow dye. The hard yellow wood is ideal for turning and for making furniture.

HISTORY: In Egypt the berry juice was taken as a remedy for fever. The generic name may derive from the Phoenician word “barbar,” which means glossy, referring to the sheen on the leaves. In Italy and parts of Europe, barberry is called Holy Thorn, because it is thought to have formed part of the crown of thorns made for our Savior. Its bitter taste also gave the plant the name woodsour. During the medieval period this shrub could be seen growing near churches and monasteries. However farmers from the mid-17th century came to blame the plant for “blighting” wheat and it was banished to the hedgerows, becoming increasingly scarce. The “blight” was explained in 1865 by the fact that barberry is actually an intermediate host plant for black rust, a disease of wheat.

Cure For Jaundice

The bark and the yellow wood were part of a cure for yellow jaundice, conforming to the Doctrine of Signatures’s principles. It is even today widely and effectively used as a bitter tonic given to jaundice patients several times a day.

THE BARBERS PHYSIC GARDEN

THE BARBER-SURGEONS’ HALL, CITY OF LONDON

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The Barbers Company, founded in 1308, had a hall near the current site in 1445. In 1500 there were 26 halls of Livery Companies, and by 1600 there were 46 halls of which 24 had gardens. The Drapers had a large garden which was open to the public, and the Grocers also had a big garden, while that of the Parish Clerks in Bishopsgate was of modest size, being only 72 by 21 feet (22 by 6.4 m). The livery gardens were valued for recreation, as well as for growing fruit, herbs and flowers, and several had bowling alleys. In 1605 the Gardeners’ Company was founded. Today just ten companies still have gardens in the City, and although of necessity a few are small, it is good to find that the tradition of Livery Company gardens lives on. The companies are the Barbers, Drapers, Girdlers, Goldsmiths, Grocers, Merchant Taylors, Plaisterers, Salters, Stationers, and Tallow Chandlers. In 1540 the company amalgamated with the Surgeons’ Guild to form the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, hence the name of the Hall today. However, in 1745 the surgeons left and it is now again the Worshipful Company of Barbers of London. John Gerard (1545–1612) was a surgeon and also a renowned plantsman, author and gardener. His famous Herbal was published in 1597, and he became Master of the Barber Surgeons in 1607.

It is likely that the Company had a garden when their hall was built in 1445 but the first written record of it was in 1555. It was not a herb or medicine garden. In 1630, we know that the Company bought 100 “sweete briars” (Rosa rubiginosa or eglantine), probably to form a stout hedge and for the rosehips, and also rosemary, strawberry, violets and vines. In 1666 the garden prevented the Great Fire of London from reaching the Anatomical Theatre, though the rest of the Hall was lost. The succeeding Hall was destroyed by bombing in 1940, and the splendid new Barber-Surgeons’ Hall was opened in 1969. The site of the present garden is on one of the 21 bastions built in 300 CE for Emperor Hadrian’s stone fort, itself built in 122 CE. Thus it was necessary to get Scheduled Monument Consent to create the new Physic Garden from 1987 onwards. It was constructed on a derelict bomb site by the Parks and Gardens Department of the Corporation of London, who manage the garden. The Company wanted to present a broad view of the way in which plants have been used from the earliest times to the present day in the practice of medicine and surgery. It is cared for by the Corporation, and Liveryman Arthur Hollman. The garden is open to the public and is approached from Wood Street via St. Giles Church. The Company had no garden from 1666 to 1987 and the present one is its first medicinal or herbal garden.

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Plants are the origin of over 30 major medicines (drugs) whose value has been proven by scientifically controlled therapeutic trials and which are used worldwide to day, and the aim of the new Physic Garden was to present a broad view of the way in which plants had been used from the earliest times to the present day, in relation both to the practice of medicine and surgery and to the use of plants in domestic and civic environments. To show the relationship of plant use to the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, plants were selected which were especially mentioned by its former Master, the celebrated John Gerard. The plants fall into four main categories:

A. “Gerard” plants related to surgery, dentistry, wounds and burns: e.g. parsley, spurge, daisy, lady’s mantle, comfrey, selfheal, henbane.

B. Plants used traditionally for their pleasant smells, for strewing on the ground, for nosegays, for their use against insects and for dyeing: meadowsweet, chamomile, marjoram, apothecary’s rose, lavender, sweet woodruff, cotton lavender, dyer’s woodruff.

C. Medicinal plants, now discarded, which were formerly in the official pharmacopoeia: lily of the valley, rhubarb, aconite, pulmonaria (lungwort), valerian.

D. Plants which yield modern pharmaceutical medicines with confirmed efficacy: camellia, sweet clover, meadowsweet, meadow saffron, mandrake, may apple, foxglove, liquorice, yew, Madagascar periwinkle, henbane, feverfew, opium poppy, willow, barley.

In the 13th and 14th centuries the City had important royal, religious and lay residences and most of them had gardens, some of them quite large, such as that of the bishop of Ely with a perimeter of over 600 yards (550 m). These medieval gardens contained fruit trees, vines and herbs for the kitchen or for strewing on the floor. Vegetables were less important because this was an age principally of meat eating but lettuce, spinach, cucumber and cabbage were used for flavoring and sauces. Some gardens also had bee hives, because sugar was a rare commodity. Leisure use was important too and there were fine lawns with flowers such as violets, roses and lilies. However, by the early 1600s the City’s population had rapidly increased to 200,000, and the demand for housing led to a considerable loss of gardens. The example of the renewal of this urban Physic Garden has led to others being created, e.g. within the 12th-century town walls of Cowbridge, in the Vale of Glamorgan.

BARTRAM’S BOTANIC GARDEN

PHILADELPHIA

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The Pilgrim Fathers explored the local countryside before settling at Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts in 1620, and Edward Winslow noted that onions, leeks, vines, strawberry leaves, sorrel, yarrow, brooklime, watercress, liverwort and flax were growing wild. These and other early American settlers took with them the great 17th-century herbals of Parkinson and Gerard, along with a selection of seeds and rootstocks for nearly all the recommended medicinal herbs. European plants taken to, and cultivated in, America included anise, apple, bedstraw, beet, bloody cranesbill, bugleweed, currant, raspberry, strawberry, carrot, cowslip, cotton lavender, Canterbury bells, creeping bellflower, dandelion, English ivy, fennel, feverfew, cottage pink/dianthus, garlic, gillyflower, heartsease, hop, lavender, leek, lesser periwinkle, lettuce, lily of the valley, meadowsweet, meadow rue, mint, onion, parsley, parsnip, pea, pot marigold, radish, rose, sweet flag, sneezewort, sea holly and Solomon’s seal. Ships returned to England with native North American plants to be cultivated in home soil. The properties of many of these plants were learned from the Native Americans, which led to the 1672 publication of John Josselyn’s book, “New England’s Rarities Discovered.” The book included “The Physical and Chyrurgical Remedies Wherewith the Natives Constantly Use to Cure Their Distempers, Wounds and Sores.”

In 1728, the Quaker John Bartram (1699–1777) founded North America’s first botanic garden near Philadelphia. Bartram traveled extensively in the eastern American colonies collecting plants. Many of his acquisitions were transported to wealthy collectors and gardens in Europe, and in return they supplied him with books and apparatus. From about 1733, Bartram collaborated with the English merchant Peter Collinson, regularly sending “Bartram’s Boxes” to Collinson every autumn for distribution in England to a wide list of clients. Each box generally contained 100 or more new varieties of seeds, and sometimes also included dried plant specimens and natural history curiosities. Live plants were more difficult and expensive to send, being reserved for Collinson and a few special correspondents. Word of Bartram’s collecting quickly spread in Europe, and soon Collinson was acting as Bartram’s agent for a variety of other important patrons. These included Philip Miller, who wrote the popular Gardener’s Dictionary; Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections helped to form the British Museum; Lord Petre, a noted plant collector; the earls of Bute, Leicester and Lincoln; the dukes of Argyle, Richmond, Norfolk, Marlborough and Bedford; Queen Ulrica of Sweden; and Peter Kalm, the Swedish plant explorer and student of Linnaeus.

In 1743 Bartram visited Lake Ontario in the north, describing his expedition in “Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and other Matters Worthy of Notice, made by Mr. John Bartram in his Travels from Pennsylvania to Onondaga, Oswego, and the Lake Ontario, in Canada” (London, 1751). During the winter of 1765/6 he visited East Florida in the south, and an account of this trip was published with his journal in London in 1766. He also visited the Ohio River in the west, and in 1765, King George III commissioned him “Botanizer Royal for America,” on a pension of £50 a year. Bartram and his son William are credited with identifying and introducing into cultivation more than 200 American native plants.

Bartram’s Garden (46 acres/18.6 ha) is the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America, and includes an historic botanical garden and arboretum (established c.1728), located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Three generations of the Bartram family continued to maintain the garden as the premier collection of North American plant species in the world. Bartram’s house still stands in the garden, and he was visited by notable figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Carl Linnaeus (1707–78), the Swedish taxonomist responsible for developing the basis of scientific classification used today and himself a recipient of many Bartram specimens, called Bartram “the greatest natural botanist in the world.” His death in 1777 was said to be precipitated by the threat to his garden of advancing British troops. In Bartram’s Botanic Garden we can still see the following plants listed as being grown by him there:

OLD WORLD PLANTS

Pennyroyal

Agrimony

Peony

Apothecary’s rose

Periwinkle

Bay laurel

Pomegranate

Blackberry

Pot marigold

Borage

Rosemary

Cassia (Alexandrian senna)

Rue

Catnip

Saffron crocus

Chamomile

Sage

Chives

Spice bush

Clove pink (Carnation)

St. John’s wort

Comfrey

Sweet basil

Dill

Sweet flag

English holly

Sweet woodruff

Fennel

Tansy

Foxglove

Thyme

French tarragon

Woodbine honeysuckle

Fuller’s teasel

Yarrow

Germander

Horehound

NEW WORLD PLANTS

Horseradish

Balm of Gilead

Hyssop

Bee balm

Lavender

Black cohosh

Lemon balm

Boneset

Lovage

Dogwood

Lungwort

Great lobelia

Madonna lily

Sassafras

Mint

Wild ginger

Mullein

Wintergreen

Myrtle

Witch hazel

BASIL

OCIMUM BASILICUM

Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint

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OTHER NAMES: Sweet basil, French basil, Genovese basil, common basil, American dittany, our herb, St. Joseph’s wort, witches’ herb, king of herbs, holy basil.

DESCRIPTION: A tender aromatic annual which grows to 18 inches (46 cm) high with a 12 inch (30 cm) spread, the leaves have the stimulating flavor of a cross between anise and mint, but are slightly hotter. There are now about 160 varieties of basil throughout the world. What we call “wild basil” is also named cushion calamint, and is Clinopodium vulgare. It does not smell of basil, but of thyme, and looks more like mint. It was carried in posies to ward off the smells which were thought to carry infection.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Basil is more than just a culinary herb, being used to improve appetite and also taken as a restorative, stimulant and nerve tonic. Like other herbs in the mint family it is carminative and disinfectant. Nicholas Culpeper wrote: “This is the herb which all authors are together by the ears about, and rail at one another (like lawyers). Galen and Dioscorides hold it not fitting to be taken inwardly; and Chrysippus rails at it with downright Billingsgate rhetoric; but Pliny, and the Arabian physicians, defend it…an herb of Mars, and under the scorpion, and, perhaps therefore called basilicon, and it is no marvel if it carry a kind of virulent quality with it. Being applied to the place bitten by venomous beasts, or stung by a wasp or hornet, it speedily draws the poison to it. Every like draws its like.” Culpeper adds that if grown in horsedung, basil will “breed venomous beasts” and that a French physician who “by smelling it had a scorpion bred in his brain.” He tells us that basil and rue will not grow together, because “rue is as great an enemy to poison as any that grows.” He believed that basil “expels both birth and after-birth.” The fresh picked leaves make a stimulating and refreshing tea. If basil oil is burned while working or reading, it helps one to concentrate and uplifts the mood. It is the basis of pesto sauce, and fresh, torn leaves added to pasta, salad and tomato dishes will aid digestion. Scientific studies have established that compounds in basil oil have potent antioxidant, anticancer, antiviral and anti-microbial properties. Basil essential oil is now used in aromatherapy to alleviate tiredness and depression, and also makes an excellent skin tonic and assists hair growth. It reduces inflammation from insect bites.

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HISTORY: Basil has been used to relieve melancholy, fatigue, anxiety and depression, and even as an aphrodisiac, over the centuries. In India, where the herb originated, a basil leaf was placed on the tongue of the dead to assist their passage to heaven. However, the Greeks disliked basil, believing that scorpions would breed under the pots in which it grew. To the ancient Romans, basil was a symbol of hatred, yet later became a token of love in Italy. In Elizabethan times it was used to clear the brain, as a snuff for colds and to cure headaches. Young girls would wear a sprig of basil in their hair to show that they were not engaged, and in Romania if a boy accepted a sprig of basil from a girl, it meant that they were engaged. Basil is said to bring wealth to those people that carry it on their person, and brings good luck to a new home. It has been used to purify and protect, and to guard a person from evil.

Insect Repellent

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The juice of the leaves, crushed on the skin, repels mosquitoes, as has been proven by recent scientific studies. The Greek form was placed in pots on tables at mealtimes to repel flies. Place a sweet basil leaf by a window or just outside a kitchen door to repel flies. If they are persistent, crush a leaf to release a stronger aroma. The strong clove scent of sweet basil comes from eugenol, the same chemical as found in cloves. Eugenol has antiseptic properties and kills bacteria.

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A Cure For the Bite of a Basilisk

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Basil supposedly derives its name from the terrifying basilisk, a half-lizard, half-dragon, fire-breathing creature in Greek mythology with a fatal piercing stare. The wild basil plant was considered to be a magical cure against the look, breath or even the bite of the basilisk when a leaf was medicinally applied. Throughout history, basil was considered a medicinal cure for venomous bites. Because of its hostile status, Greeks and Romans believed that the most potent basil could only be grown if one sowed the seed while ranting and raving. Another source of its name is from basileus, the Greek for king, as it was found where St. Constantine and Helen found the True Cross.

BAY

LAURUS NOBILIS

Family Lauraceae, Laurel

OTHER NAMES: Sweet bay, true laurel, bay laurel, daphne, Grecian laurel, noble laurel, Roman laurel.

DESCRIPTION: Bay trees grow up to 50–60 feet (15–18 m) high in warm climates. The bay is a perennial glossy evergreen with small yellow flowers followed by black berries.

PROPERTIES AND USES: The leaves are used to flavor savory dishes, soups and stews in Mediterranean cuisine, and to aid digestion. They are an essential ingredient of a bouquet garni. An infused oil of bay has been used as a pain reliever for arthritic aches and pains, lower back pain, earaches, and sore muscles and sprains. With analgesic, antiseptic and antispasmodic properties, bay is used for treating dandruff, boosting hair growth, rheumatism, sprains, bruises, ulcers and scabies. Placing a couple of leaves of bay in a storage jar of rice or flour will deter weevils.

HISTORY: Bay was a symbol of both wisdom and glory to the Greeks and Romans, and laurel wreaths were placed on the heads and necks of victorious leaders and athletes. Culpeper wrote: “The Delphic priestesses are said to have made use of the leaves. That it is a tree of the Sun, and under the celestial sign Leo, and resists witchcraft very potently, as also all the evils old Saturn can do to the body of man, and they are not a few, for it is the speech of one, and I am mistaken if it were not Mizaldus, that neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning, will hurt a man in the place where a bay-tree is.

Wreath of Bay Leaves

The sun god Apollo was also the god of music, poetry, archery, prophecy and healing. When he tried to seduce the nymph Daphne, she ran away and to protect her her father, the river god Peneus, turned her into a bay tree. Consumed by guilt, Apollo then always wore a wreath of bay leaves on his head. As Apollo was the god of the arts of music and poetry, in medieval times successful students were crowned with a wreath, a “bacca laurea” (laurel berry) made from bay leaves. Accepted history is that the important French examination, the Baccalaureate, takes its name from this wreath. However, its etymology may derive from the Latin word “bachelarius” (bachelor), referred to a junior knight, and then by extension to the holder of a university degree inferior to that of a Master or Doctor. This was later respelled baccalaureus to reflect a false derivation from bacca laurea, alluding to the possible laurel crown of a poet, artist or conqueror.

BEET

BETA VULGARIS subsp. VULGARIS

Family Amaranthaceae (formerly Chenopodiaceae), Amaranth

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OTHER NAMES: Beetroot, garden beet, table beet, blood turnip

DESCRIPTION: All beets, such as sugar beet, spinach beet (leaf beet), chard, mangel-wurzel and beetroot are descended from sea beet, Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima, which has long fleshy roots and nutritious leaves and grows near the coast. Culpeper also describes the white beet in the same entry, which is the white turnip (Brassica rapa var. rapa).

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper says that the root is “red, spongy, and is not used to be eaten.” However, the white beet (white turnip) may be eaten. Romans used beetroot to treat fevers and constipation, with Apicius giving recipes for three soups which include beetroot to be given as a laxative. Hippocrates recommended the use of beet leaves as binding for wounds. Culpeper advocated the “red beet” to “stay the bloody diarrhoea, women’s menses, and discharges, and to help the yellow jaundice. The juice of the root put into the nostrils purges the head, helps the noise in the ears, and the toothache; the juice stuffed up the nose helps a stinking breath, if the cause lies that way.” He believed the “white beet” or turnip to be far more efficacious as it: “much loosens the belly, and is of a cleansing digesting quality, and provokes urine: the juice of it opens obstructions, both of the liver and spleen, and is good for the headache and swimmings therein, and turnings of the brain; and is effectual also against all venomous creatures; and applied to the temples, stays inflammations in the eyes; it helps burnings, being used without oil, and with a little alum put to it, is good for St. Anthony’s fire [ergot poisoning or erysipelas].” Beetroots are boiled and eaten as a cooked vegetable, or served cold with salads after adding oil and vinegar. Beet soup, borscht, is extremely popular in Eastern Europe. Betanins from the roots are used as red food colorants. For many people, including this author, the consumption of beets causes pink urine.

HISTORY: Beet has been cultivated since the second century BCE, but leafy varieties lost their popularity following the introduction of spinach.

Juicy Aphrodisiac

Beetroot juice boosts stamina and lowers blood pressure. It increases perfusion, or blood flow, to the white matter of the front lobes of the brain, helping fight dementia. Since Roman times, beetroot juice has been considered an aphrodisiac.

BERGAMOT

MONARDA DIDYMA

Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint

OTHER NAMES: Scarlet mondara, horsebalm, bee balm, crimson beebalm, Oswego tea. Not mentioned in Culpeper, but was brought from the United States in the late 17th century.

DESCRIPTION: This hardy perennial grows 2–3 feet (60–90 cm) in height, with the stems square in cross-section. It has ragged, bright red tubular flowers over an inch (2.5 cm) long, on showy heads of about 30 blossoms, with reddish bracts. Bees love the flowers, earning the herb the name “bee balm.”

PROPERTIES AND USES: As with most mints, bee balm is helpful with digestive disorders. It also has excellent antibacterial qualities that make it useful for treating infections. Native Americans such as the Blackfeet and Winnebago recognized its strong antiseptic action, and used poultices of the plant for skin infections and minor wounds. A tea made from the herb was also used to treat mouth and throat infections. Bergamot is the natural source of the antiseptic thymol, the primary active ingredient in commercial mouthwashes. The Winnebago Indians used a tea made from bee balm as a general stimulant, and it was also used as a carminative herb to treat excessive flatulence. The flowers and leaves are excellent ingredients for pot-pourris. The name Oswego tea comes from the Oswego Indians who taught the American colonists how to use it for tea after the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

HISTORY: Its name is derived from its odor which is considered similar to the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia, used to flavor Earl Grey tea). The scientific name comes from Nicolás Monardes (1493–1588) who described the first American flora in 1574. The Spaniard Monardes believed that tobacco smoke was the infallible cure for all ills, and lived to be 95.

WILD BERGAMOT

MONARDA FISTULOSA

This has varied colored flowers, including purple, lavender, magenta, rose, pink, yellowish pink, whitish and dotted. It is also known as bee balm, like bergamot, and as horsemint. There is a strong fragrance, and it was used by Native Americans to treat colds as it increases mucus flow. It was also used for headaches, burns and warts. Wild bergamot kills bacteria, fungus growth and intestinal worms. Very high in vitamins A and C, it can be eaten in salads or made into tea like Monarda didyma.

Slowing Alzheimer’s

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved tacrine hydrochloride (Cognex), a medication derived from bergamot, that seems to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by preserving acetylcholine in the brain.

BIRCH TREE

BETULA PENDULA (formerly ALBA)

Family Betulaceae, Birch

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OTHER NAMES: Silver birch, white birch, weeping birch, European weeping birch, lady of the woods.

DESCRIPTION: The young branches are rich red-brown or orange-brown, and the trunks usually white. The leaves are small, giving a dappled shade effect. Coleridge called it the “lady of the woods.” It is noted for its lightness and elegance, and after rain it has a fragrant odor. It is the national tree of Finland.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper tells us: “It is a tree of Venus, the juice of the leaves, while they are young, or the distilled water of them, or the water that comes from the tree being bored with an auger, and distilled afterwards; any of these being drank for some days together, is available to break the stone in the kidneys and bladder and is good also to wash sore mouths.” The leaves have an aromatic, agreeable odor and a bitter taste, and have been employed in birch tea as a tonic for sufferers of gout, rheumatism and dropsy. It is also recommended as a reliable solvent of stone in the kidneys. A decoction of leaves has been used for bathing skin problems such as eczema, as the oil is astringent. It is known to keep away insects and prevent gnat bites when smeared on the hands. The wood is soft and not very durable, but is cheap, and the tree is prolific in any situation and soil. It has thus been used for thread bobbins, herring-barrel staves, broom handles and various fancy articles. In country districts the birch has very many uses, the lighter twigs being employed for thatching and wattles. The twigs were also used in broom-making and in the manufacture of cloth.

HISTORY: The word birch is probably anciently derived from the Sanskrit bhurga, “a tree whose bark is used for writing upon,” and the thin peeled bark has been used for this purpose. Via the proto-Indo-European root of bherag, it transmuted into the Old German birka. From its uses in boat-building and roofing it is also connected with the Anglo-Saxon beorgan, “to protect or shelter.” Bunches of birch sticks, or “fasces,” incorporating an ax were used as a symbol by Italian Fascists, supporters of Benito Mussolini.

Fairy Folklore

Birch trees have spiritual importance in many historical religions and are associated with elves in Gaelic folklore. As such, birches frequently appear in Scottish, Irish and English folklore in association with death or fairies, or returning from the grave.

BISHOP’S WEED

AMMI MAJUS

Family Apiaceae, Carrot

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OTHER NAMES: Culpeper notes “…it is usually known by the Greek name, ammi and ammios, some call it Aethiopian cummin-seed, and others Cumminroyal, as also Herb William, and Bulwort.” Bishop’s flower, snow flakes, bullwort, greater ammi, lady’s lace, laceflower, Queen of Africa, false Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota, an invasive weed, is known as Queen Anne’s lace). Note that in the United States bishop’s weed is another name for goutweed, the invasive perennial Aegopodium podagraria which is known as ground elder in Britain.

DESCRIPTION: The annual grows to 3–4 feet (90–120 cm), and has feathery dill-like leaves and elegant umbels of white lace-like flowers followed by tiny, hot parsley-like seeds.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper notes: “It is hot and dry in the third degree, of a bitter taste, and somewhat sharp withal; it provokes lust to purpose; I suppose Venus owns it. It digests humours, provokes urine and women’s menses, dissolves wind, and being taken in wine it eases pain and griping in the bowels, and is good against the biting of serpents; it is used to good effect in those medicines which are given to hinder the poisonous operation of Cantharides upon the passage of the urine; being mixed with honey and applied to black and blue marks coming of blows or bruises, it takes them away; and being drank or outwardly applied, it abates a high colour, and makes it pale; and the fumes thereof taken with rosin or raisins, cleanses the womb.” The plant is used as a diuretic and has antispasmodic properties. It is commonly used as a cardiac tonic for the treatment of angina and palpitations. Medical research labs are testing Ammi majus, as it is showing promise in cancer and AIDS therapy. The flowers are used in floristry to add a lacy delicate look to bouquets. However, be careful handling any plants in the genus Ammi, as the sap may bring about a skin rash or irritation. Its photoactive compounds can cause blistering to normal skin when exposed to the sun.

HISTORY: The herb originated in the Nile River valley, and in Egypt was used to treat skin diseases. Culpeper noted that it grew wild across England and Wales.

Asthma Treatment

Bishop’s weed has traditionally been used in the treatment of wheezing or coughs. The seeds are now used to synthesize the prescription drug sodium cromoglycate (Intal), which is used in inhalers to prevent asthma attacks.

BISTORT

POLYGONUM/PERSICARIA BISTORTA

Family Polygonaceae or Persicaria, Knotweed

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OTHER NAMES: Culpeper says “It is also called Snakeweed, English Serpentary, Dragon-wort, Osterich, and Passions.” Common bistort, English serpentaria, snakeroot, adderwort, serpentary dragonwort, dracunculus, Easter giant, Easter ledger, Easter ledges, Easter mangiant, gentle dock, great bistort, osterick, oysterloit, passion dock, patient dock, pink pokers, pudding grass, pudding dock, red legs, twice-writhen, water ledges.

DESCRIPTION: Found wild in moist areas, it has an erect pink flower spike and grows to 3 feet (90 cm) tall. “Bistorta” means twice-twisted, and refers to the appearance of its snakelike rhizomes. Twice-writhen is a literal translation of the Latin, writhing meaning twisting. The rootstock resembles a letter S, about 2 inches (5 cm) long and 3–5 inches (7.5–13 cm) broad.

PROPERTIES AND USES: The leaves were eaten formerly as a vegetable. It removed inflammation of the eyes. The roots contain much starch, and can be nutritious boiled or made into bread. It is now used for poultices for wounds, as a gargle for oral infections and as a tea for diarrhea. The name Easter mangiant is a corruption of the French mangeant (eating), signifying that it was a plant to be eaten at Easter, often in a herb pudding. The name passions also has an Easter link.

HISTORY: Culpeper says that a decoction in wine, made from the powder, was drunk freely “to stay internal bleedings and fluxes,” being considered “available against ruptures, burstings and bruises from falls and blows.” It could also “help jaundice, expel the venom of the plague, smallpox, measles or other infectious disease, driving it out by sweating.” A distilled water of the leaves and roots was used to wash any part stung or bitten by a venomous creature, or to wash running sores or ulcers. It was also used as a gargle in sore throats and to harden spongy gums, attended with looseness of teeth and soreness of the mouth. Gerard stated that the root would have this effect, “being holden in the mouth for a certaine space and at sundry times.” He also states that “the juice of Bistort put into the nose prevaileth much against the disease called Polybus [polyps].”

Dock Pudding

Bistort leaves are the principal ingredient of dock pudding, formerly a north of England delicacy. Recipes differ, but oatmeal, nettles, onion and seasoning are also used to create this dish. Traditionally the pudding is cooked in a frying pan along with bacon.

BITTERSWEET

SOLANUM DULCAMARA

Family Solanaceae, Nightshade

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OTHER NAMES: Culpeper prefers to call it Amara-Dulcis, and says that it is called different names across the land, such as mortal, bitter-sweet, woody nightshade and felon-wort. Felonwood, nightshade, woody nightshade, bittersweet nightshade, bitter nightshade, blue nightshade, fever twig, garden nightshade, nightshade vine, scarlet berry, staff vine, violet bloom. The species name of the bittersweet herb, dulcamara, is a reference to the taste of the berries. They initially have a bitter taste and then become unpleasantly sweet as they ripen. In the Middle Ages the name dulcamara was written more properly as Amaradulcis, and literally means bittersweet.

DESCRIPTION: It is a perennial woody vine found in moist areas, among hedges and thickets and the climbing sterns can reach a length of up to 10 feet (3 m). The pinkish-purple, star-shaped flowers with yellow stamens are followed by a green, then deep red, bitter berry that hangs on the vine for months after the leaves have fallen. Bittersweet berries are red, rather than black like those of deadly nightshade.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Herbalists used the root and twig for purifying blood, treating ailments of the liver, pancreas, spleen, glandular organs, piles, jaundice, gout, herpes, bruises, sprains, corns, burns and fever. A weak poison, it is used almost always externally. It is being researched for anticarcinogenic properties.

HISTORY: Gerard wrote: “The juice is good for those that have fallen from high places, and have been thereby bruised or beaten, for it is thought to dissolve blood congealed or cluttered anywhere in the entrails and to heal the hurt places.” The herb was used in treating all kinds of sores and swellings, especially to lower the level of inflammation affecting the region around the nails. Its names of felonwood and felonwort do not refer to criminals, but rather to the old name for whitlow, which is inflammation of the toe or finger around the nail. The plant was used to dissolve blood clots (in bruises), for rheumatism, fever and as a restorative. Farmers used it as a charm around the necks of animals they thought to be under the evil eye.

Aiding the Oversexed

The bittersweet was reputed to be an antaphrodisiac, “beneficial in the reduction of mania accompanied by powerful excitement of the venereal functions; it can depress the libido in oversexed individuals.” Possibly sex-addiction clinics could be significant customers for this herb.

BLACKBERRY

RUBUS FRUTICOSUS

Family Rosaceae, Rose

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OTHER NAMES: Bramble (Culpeper), bly, fingerberry, bumble-kite, bramble-kite, blackbide, moocher, blackbutter, brummel, thimbleberry, brambleberry, brameberry, scaldhead, scaldberry, gouthead.

DESCRIPTION: The blackberry name derives from brambel, or brymbyl, which means “prickly.” The Anglo-Saxon name for the blackberry was the bramble-apple. The prickly stems, or brambles, were known as “lawyers,” as “once they get their hands into you, it’s not easy to get shot of them.” It grows up to 10 feet (3 m) and comprises a mass of arched thorny stems, which often grow down to the ground to root and form new plants. The white to pink flowers have five petals and are followed by the familiar “blackberry” fruits.

PROPERTIES AND USES: The leaves have been used for cleaning wounds and for staunching blood flow, are also useful as a tonic and have astringent properties. They have been used to help treat dysentery, diarrhea and piles, and are an excellent source of tannin, flavonoids and gallic acid. The berries are a good source of vitamin C and are excellent for tea, wine and jam making. Culpeper advised the use of buds, leaves and branches of the blackberry for treating putrid sores in the mouth and throat. Blackberry vinegar has long been a remedy for treating feverish colds. The juicy berries are traditionally made into jam, pies, crumbles, wine and vinegar. The fruit when mordanted (set) with alum gives a slate blue natural dye while the roots yield an orange color that can be used as a dye for wool and cotton.

HISTORY: The Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides (c.40–90 CE) advocated using the berries when made in to a gargle for treating sore throats and chewing the fresh raw leaves to stop gums bleeding, advice followed by Culpeper. It was believed that the blackberry bush helped to protect the dead from the devil, so they were often found planted on graves to guard the deceased.

Scald Head

The name scaldhead comes from the belief that children who ate too many blackberries suffered with a disease of the scalp called scald head. In Robinson’s New Family Herbal the leaves are boiled in a lye solution for washing a head that is itchy, although it is noted that doing this tended to make the hair go black.

BLACKTHORN OR SLOE

PRUNUS SPINOSA

Family Rosaceae, Rose

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OTHER NAMES: Mother of the wood, wishing thorn, wild plum, winter-picks (winter-picks wine used to be drunk instead of port). Culpeper calls it the “Black-Thorn, or Sloe-Bush.”(The whitethorn is the hawthorn).

DESCRIPTION: This tree grows to 12 feet (3.7 m) and has small, serrated, oval leaves on dark, thorny branches with creamy-white blooms and purplish-black fruit. The English botanist Willam Withering reported: “I have repeatedly observed to follow a wound from the thorns, I find reason for believing that there is something poisonous in their nature, particularly in the autumn,” and it seems that stock animals can be easily infected from sloe thorn pricks.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper tells us: “The fruit is chiefly used, being restringent and binding, and good for all kind of fluxes and hæmorrhages. It is likewise of service in gargarisms for sore mouths and gums, and to fasten loose teeth. The juice of sloes being boiled to a consistence, is the acacia germanica, of the shops, which is now-a-days made use of instead of the true, and put into all the great compositions…It is the juice of this berry that makes the famous marking ink to write upon linen; it being so strong an acid that no other acid known will discharge it. An handful of the flowers infused, is a safe and easy purge; and taken in wine and water, is excellent to dispel the windy cholic. The bark reduced to power, and taken in doses of two drachms, has cured some agues. The juice expressed from the unripe fruit is a very good remedy for fluxes of the bowels; it may be reduced by a gentle boiling to a solid consistence, in which state it will keep the whole year round.” The flowers and fruit can make a tonic for diarrhea, and sloe syrup has antirheumatic properties and can help fight influenza. The plant is also used for nosebleeds, constipation and eye pain. Sloes can also be made into a paste for whitening teeth and removing tartar, and the leaves can make a mouthwash. The thin-fleshed astringent fruits make sloe gin, a red liqueur based on gin or vodka and flavored with pricked sloe berries. Sugar is required to ensure that the sloe juices are extracted from the fruit. The sharp thorns have been used for centuries as awls. Traditionally the wood was used to make clubs, such as the traditional Irish shillelagh or cudgel. The wood also is used for marquetry and walking sticks.

HISTORY: The berries taste better and not so bitter if harvested after a few frosts. The sloes used to be buried in straw-lined pits for a few months to ripen them and make them sweeter. A Neolithic lake village in Glastonbury was found to have such a pit, full of sloe stones. The word sloe comes from Old English slāh: a similar word is noted in all the Germanic/Slavic languages. The term sloe, or sla/slāh, means not the fruit but the hard trunk, being connected with a verb signifying to slay, or strike, probably because the wood of this tree was used as a flail, and now makes a bludgeon. It was believed that Christ’s Crown of Thorns was made from blackthorn, and to bring blackthorn blossom into the home meant a certain death would follow. Blackthorn in bloom is considered an emblem of life and death together as the flowers appear when the tree has no leaves. It is said that a hawthorn will destroy any blackthorn near it. It is believed that if the blackthorn and the hawthorn have many berries then the ensuing winter will be severe. In Irish folklore it was believed that “the little people” lived in blackthorn bushes. Fairy tribes, called Lunantishees, are said to guard blackthorn trees and will not let you cut branches off it on November 11 or May 11. If you do you will be cursed with bad luck. It was also bad luck to wear the flowers in your buttonhole.

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Blackthorn Winter

On March 13, 2008, “Geoff F” posted a report on the Wild about Britain website: “Today I noticed some Blackthorn bushes were just starting to flower. Snapes Point, Salcombe Harbour, S. Devon close to the sea. Local tradition is that we will have a touch of cold and unsettled weather with strong easterly winds now; known in this area as the Blackthorn Winter…I did know somebody who would try to shake off the blackthorn flowers at the bottom of his garden in the hope that the weather would improve then.” On March 30, 2010, The Times reported “only two years ago the Easter weekend in late March was marked by a hefty snowfall that produced a winter wonderland. This cold spell was so common in the past that it used to be called the ‘blackthorn winter,’ when ancient folklore described how the blossom of blackthorn bushes appeared during mild weather, only to be destroyed by a cold snap at the end of March.” Thus the 2008 forecast proved accurate that year.

BLADDER WRACK

FUCUS VESICULOSUS

Family Fucaceae, Brown Algae

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OTHER NAMES: Maud Grieve, in A Modern Herbal (1931) notes “Sea-Wrack. Kelp-Ware. Black-Tang. Quercus marina. Cutweed. Bladder Fucus. Fucus (Varech) vesiculeux. Blasentang. Seetang. Meeriche.” Rockweed, sea oak, black tany, dyers fucus, rock wrack.

DESCRIPTION: The perennial frond or thallus is light yellow or brownish-green in color, from 2 to 3 feet (60–90 cm) in length and attaches itself to rocks by branched, root-like extremities. The air vesicles, or bladders, are about half an inch (13 mm) in diameter and allow this common seaweed to float upright when the sea covers it.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Bladderwrack is commonly found as a component of kelp tablets or powders used as nutritional supplements. It is sometimes loosely called kelp, but that term refers to a different variety, a larger seaweed. The consumption of seaweeds has been associated with lower cancer rates. It is a concentrated source of minerals, including iodine, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron. For vegans, seaweeds such as kelp and bladderwrack supply vital vitamin B12, which is otherwise found almost exclusively in animal products. Bladderwrack is used as an additive and flavoring in various food products in Europe.

HISTORY: Dried bladderwrack, Fucus vesiculosus, was the original source of iodine, being discovered as such by French chemist Bernard Courtois in 1812. It thus assists in the production of thyroid hormones, which are necessary for maintaining healthy metabolism in all cells of the body. This increases the rate at which the body uses energy and, as a consequence, decreases fat deposits. Both kelp and bladderwrack can stimulate weight loss when used as part of a low-calorie diet. In 1862 Dr. Godfroy Duchesne-Duparc found, while experimenting with bladderwrack in cases of chronic psoriasis, that weight was reduced without injuring health, and used the drug with success. He experimented on himself, losing 5¼ pounds (2.4 kg) in a week, after taking a bladderwrack extract made into pills before his three meals a day. It was used extensively to treat goiter, a swelling of the thyroid gland related to iodine efficiency. Maud Grieve (1858–1941) recommended bladderwrack for rheumatism (as a liniment), for arthritis inflammation (as a poultice), but its main herbal use is now to “remineralize” the body. Bladderwrack has been a source of valuable manure for potatoes and other crops, being gathered for this purpose all along European coastlines. Fresh seaweed contains 20–40 pounds (9 to 18 kg) of potash to the ton, and dried seaweed 60–230 pounds (27–104 kg), so its collection and use were recommended to farmers when the Second World War caused a shortage of artificial fertilizers. It may be spread on the land and left for some time before plowing in, but should not be left in heaps, as rotting liberates the potash which may thus be wasted. All seaweed may be dried and burned to ashes, then sprinkled on the ground as “kelp.” Kelp-burning was a major source of iodine, but a cheaper process of obtaining it from the purification of Chile saltpeter destroyed the industry. Kelp was also used as a source of impure carbonate of soda, containing sulfate and chloride of sodium and a little charcoal, for soap and glass manufacture. It use was rendered obsolete by the process of obtaining carbonate of soda more cheaply from common salt.

Welshman’s Caviar

There are many edible seaweeds; red, green and brown algae have featured in Japanese, Chinese and Korean diets since prehistoric times. Sushi is wrapped in nori seaweed, and a similar type of seaweed, laver, has been traditionally used in northern Europe for centuries. Laver is unique among seaweeds, being only one cell thick, and it still popular in Wales in the form of “laverbread,” described by the actor Richard Burton as “the Welshman’s caviar.” Laver has many uses in traditional and modern cuisine, and the delicious laverbread is made by being cleansed in fresh water (to get rid of any sand), boiled and puréed. It is then often rolled in oatmeal to make small cakes, fried in bacon fat and served with bacon and cockles to make a gourmet’s breakfast.

Shoreline Sheep

The semi-feral North Ronaldsay sheep exists on the northernmost of the Orkney Islands in Scotland, an area of just 2.7 square miles (7 km2). Along with the Shetland sheep, it is the only survivor of a type of short-tailed sheep formerly found across the islands of Orkney and Shetland. They are most notable for living almost entirely on seaweed for several months of the year, except for a short lambing season. This is the only food source available to them, as they are confined to the shoreline by a high dry-stone wall which encloses the whole island. The wall was built to preserve the limited grazing inland. The sheep have evolved a somewhat different physiology from other sheep, and their digestive system has adapted to extract the sugars in seaweeds more efficiently. Also, instead of grazing during the day and ruminating at night as other sheep do, North Ronaldsays graze as the tide reveals the shore (twice in 24 hours), and ruminate on the thin strip of shoreline left at high water. The sheep’s source of fresh water is limited to the few freshwater lakes and ponds along the seashore.

BLUEBELL

HYACINTHOIDES NON-SCRIPTA

Family Hyacinthaceae, formerly Roseaceae, Rose

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OTHER NAMES: Culpeper calls it the jacinth, or wild hyacinth. Nodding squill, common bluebell, auld man’s bell, calverkeys, culverkeys, English bluebell, ring-o’-bells, wood bells.

DESCRIPTION: The flowers are lavender-blue, pendulous, tubular with the petals recurved only at the end, and borne on one side of the flowering stem only. The flower stem bends over at the top. Note that the bluebell of Scotland is a different plant, what we call the harebell elsewhere, Campanula rotundifolia.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “It abounds in a slimy juice, but it is to be dried, and this must be done carefully; the decoction of it operates well by urine, and the powder is balsamic, and somewhat styptic. It is not enough known: there is hardly a more powerful remedy for the whites [discharges or leucorrhoea].” The bulbs of bluebells are poisonous in the fresh state and have diuretic and styptic properties. The abundant mucilage (gluey substance produced by most plants) was used as a substitute for starch when stiff ruffs were worn. It was also used for fixing feathers onto the shafts of arrows, instead of glue, and as bookbinders’ gum for the covers of books.

HISTORY: The non-scripta or non-scriptum part of the botanical name means “unlettered” or “unmarked,” to distinguish it from the classical hyacinth of Greek mythology. Tennyson speaks of bluebell juice being used to cure snake-bite. To the 19th century Romantic poets the bluebell symbolized solitude and regret.

Spanish Invasion in the Woods

In spring bluebells cover woodland floors and are often used as an indicator species to identify ancient woodlands. It is estimated that 70 percent of all common bluebells are found in Great Britain. However, there has been extensive hybridization with the recently introduced, and more vigorous, Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica. As the hybrids can thrive in a wider range of environmental conditions, they are frequently outcompeting native bluebells. The easiest ways to identify the Spanish bluebell or one of its offspring are that the stems are upright and not nodding, and the flowers are borne on more than one side of the flowering stem. Real bluebell woods have a remarkable fragrance, whereas the scent of other bluebells is less strong and less sweet.

BONESET

EUPATORIUM PERFOLIATUM

Family Asteraceae, Daisy

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OTHER NAMES: Common boneset, thoroughwort, agueweed, crosswort, feverwort, Indian sage, sweating plant, vegetable antimony, wood boneset.

DESCRIPTION: Common in North America, it was not known by Culpeper. It grows around 2–4 feet (60–120 cm) tall and has large leaves and a white flower head. The leaves distinguish the species, and the stems appear to pierce, or go through, the leaf. The words through and thorough used to be interchangeable, so the name thoroughwort alludes to this distinction. (We see the same thing happening in the word thoroughfare today.)

PROPERTIES AND USES: Grieve and others tell us it is a stimulant, febrifuge and laxative, acting slowly and persistently, with its greatest effect in illnesses of the stomach, liver, bowels and uterus. In large doses it is emetic and purgative. In moderate doses it was regarded as a mild tonic, and was also used as a diaphoretic, especially when taken as a warm infusion, for attacks of muscular rheumatism and general cold. As a remedy in catarrh and in influenza, it was extensively used, given in doses of a warm wineglassful every half hour, the patient remaining in bed. After four or five doses, heavy perspiration occurred and relief was obtained. Boneset stimulates resistance to viral and bacterial infections, and reduces fever by encouraging sweating. It also acts as an expectorant for catarrh. This species of Eupatorium was also employed in cutaneous diseases, and in the expulsion of tapeworms from the gut.

HISTORY: The plant was a favorite medicine of Native North Americans, who called it ague weed. Some writers described it as a diuretic, useful in dropsy, but this property was possessed by the purple-flowered Eupatorium purpureum, known as gravel root or Joe Pye weed, named after a famous Native American “medicine man” who used to cure typhus.

Break Bone Fever

Native North Americans used boneset to cause profuse perspiration and to treat fevers associated with a number of illnesses. They introduced the use of boneset leaves and flowering tops to the early settlers for the treatment of colds, catarrh, influenza, rheumatism, and all kinds of fevers, including break bone fever (dengue), intermittent fever (malaria), and lake fever (typhoid). The pain of dengue fever feels like one has broken bones, and it is from this association that boneset gets its name, not from any capacity to mend broken bones.

BORAGE

BORAGO OFFICINALIS

Family Boraginaceae, Borage

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OTHER NAMES: Star flower, starflower, beeplant (bees love it), talewort, cool tankard, bugloss, burrage, llawenlys (Welsh, meaning herb of gladness), tafod y fuwch or tafor yr ych (Welsh, meaning buck’s tongue or ox tongue), bronwerth (Welsh, meaning breastherb).

DESCRIPTION: Pretty flowering herb with blue star-shaped flowers, around 2–3 feet (60–90 cm) in height and spread. The leaves are covered in bristly hairs and may cause dermatitis. The brilliant blue color of the petals is believed to have been the inspiration for the color of the Madonna’s robes in many Renaissance paintings, in which the expensive pigment ultramarine was used.

PROPERTIES AND USES: The young leaves, which taste faintly of cucumber, and flowers can be used in salads and the flowers in drinks. An infusion of the leaves was said to aid kidney function and help with feverish catarrh. It is diuretic, demulcent and emollient, and externally it can be used as a poultice to reduce inflammation. Culpeper: “They are all three [borage species] herbs of Jupiter, and under Leo, all great cordials and strengtheners of nature. The leaves or roots are to very good purpose used in putrid and pestilential fevers, to defend the heart, and help to resist and expel the poison or the venom of other creatures: the seed is of the like effect; and the seed and leaves are good to increase milk in women’s breasts: the leaves, flowers, and seed, all or any of them, are good to expel pensiveness and melancholy; to clarify the blood, and mitigate heat in fevers.” According to Gerard and Culpeper, borage and bugloss (Anchusa arvensis) could be used interchangeably. As a companion plant to tomatoes, it is believed that it deters tomato worm, but borage is highly attractive to blackfly. However, this can be turned to advantage by planting it as a decoy close to fruit and vegetables, to prevent them from being blighted by pests.

Saucy Ingredient

Borage is one of the main ingredients of the superb Hessian green sauce popular in Frankfurt am Main, along with hard-boiled eggs, oil, vinegar, salt and six other herbs—sorrel, cress, chervil, chives, parsley and salad burnet. Green sauce is a popular accompaniment to many local dishes in the apfelwein house (cider pub) which I used to frequent, Adolf’s in Sachsenhausen, Frankfurt, Germany. Adolf Wagner’s wine-press hall is full of wooden benches and serves a traditional appetizer or snack with apfelwein (apple wine = cider), called “Handkäse mit Musik” (Handmade Cheese with Music). The small cheese is topped with chopped pickled onions, and its unusual name comes from the idea that one makes music via flatulence from eating onions. It is delicious, as is the apfelwein.

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HISTORY: The name burrage seems to come from the Gaelic borrach, meaning “courage.” Others believe that its name is derived from the French bourrache, which means “hairy” or “rough.” The Welsh name “buck’s tongue” indicates the roughness of the leaves. Historically it was considered a plant that would raise the spirits and drive away melancholy. According to Dioscorides, borage can “cheer the heart and lift the depressed spirits.” Both Dioscorides and Pliny thought that borage was the famous “Nepenthe” of Homer’s Odyssey which, when drunk steeped in wine, brought absolute forgetfulness. Nepenthe, however, may have been a blend of wine and either mint or opium. Borage was given to young Roman soldiers for courage and comfort, and borage flowers were floated in stirrup cups to give to Crusaders. Gerard repeated the claim of Pliny “Ego borago gaudia simper ago”—“I, borage, always bring courage.” Gerard wrote that its flowers were used in salads “to exhilarate and make the minde glad” while cooks used them “for the comfort of the heart, to drive away sorrow, and increase the joy of the minde.” An old English saying is: “To enliven the sad with a joy of a joke, / Give the wine with the borage put in to soak.” Bacon told us “The leaf of burrage hath an excellent spirit to repress the fuliginous vapour of dusky melancholia” and Salmon wrote that “Borage is one of the four cordial flowers; it comforts the heart, cheers melancholy, and recovers the fainting spirits.” The leaves and flowers were originally used in Pimms before it was replaced by mint, but the flowers still make a pretty ingredient.

Symbol of Hope

Borage seed oil has the highest concentration of gamma linolenic acid (GLA) naturally found, twice that of the evening primrose, which is used to treat pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS). GLA is an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid, which is active against various cancers, including breast, brain and prostate. It prevents the spread of malignant tumors by restricting blood vessel growth. For these reasons, borage has been adopted as the symbol of National Cancer Day, as promoted by Cancer Research UK. Borage seed oil (starflower oil) is known to be very beneficial for skin disorders such as psoriasis and eczema, and sun-damaged or aging skin.

BOUQUET GARNI

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This “garnished bouquet” is a bundle of herbs tied together with string or wrapped in a muslin or cheesecloth bag, used to prepare soup, stock and casseroles. There is no generic recipe, but most formulations include bruised bay leaves, thyme and parsley or marjoram. Depending on the recipe, the bouquet garni can include a combination of basil, burnet, celeriac, chervil, coriander seeds, garlic, lemon zest, lime zest, marjoram, orange peel, peppercorns, rosemary, savory and tarragon. Vegetables such as carrot, celery (leaves or stem), celeriac, leek, onion and parsley root can also be included. The choice of ingredients is often dependent upon what is at hand and in season. If sage is added, use only a small piece as it could swamp the other flavors. An interesting twist to add flavor is to use a strip of cleaned leek leaf to tie the ingredients together. The bouquet should be left in the pot for at least two hours from the start of cooking, and be removed prior to consumption. (Also see the entry on Fines Herbes and Herbes de Provence.)

A simple basic recipe for dried ingredients, if one is using a muslin bag in cooking, is to combine ¼ cup dried parsley, 2 tablespoons dried thyme, 2 tablespoons dried bay leaf and 2 tablespoons dried rosemary. The mixture can be placed in an airtight container, and stored in a cool, dark place for up to six months. If using fresh ingredients, tie together a bunch of parsley, 3 sprigs of thyme, a peeled clove of garlic and 2–3 bay leaves, using a long piece of string so that you can easily remove the bouquet. Another simple recipe using fresh and dried ingredients is 2 sprigs fresh thyme, 2 dried bay leaves, leafy greens from 2 celery stalks and 6 sprigs fresh parsley. Many chefs prefer the herbs to be tied with string rather than be in a muslin bag, for better flavor.

Some cookery writers divide the ingredients into liaison herbs, mild herbs, robust herbs and other flavors like this:

Liaison herbs: 1 cup parsley and ½ cup chives.

Mild herbs: 1 cup total—basil, coriander leaves, lemon thyme, marjoram.

Robust herbs: ½ cup total—oregano, sage, thyme, winter savory, rosemary, spearmint.

Other flavors: ¼ cup total—herbal seeds, spices, garlic, onion, citrus peel. You can choose as many ingredients as you wish from each category, removing woody stems and experimenting with your own favorite flavoring for different dishes. Chop or food process the ingredients, and use immediately. Alternatively, coat the herbs with extra virgin olive oil and store in an airtight container in a refrigerator.

BROOM

CYTISUS SCOPARIUS

Family Fabaceae/Leguminosae, Pea

OTHER NAMES: Besom, bizzon, brum, Irish tops, common broom, Scotch broom, green broom, butcher’s broom, Jew’s myrtle, sweet broom.

DESCRIPTION: A perennial, leguminous shrub growing to 9 feet (2.75 m) tall with thin stems, covered with profuse golden-yellow flowers which turn into black seedpods.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Broom buds were a delicacy and an appetizer, being served at the Coronation feast of King James II. The blossoms were used for making a salve to cure gout, and King Henry VIII drank flower-water to counteract “surfeit”—excessive eating and drinking. Gerard tells us: “The decoction of the twigs and tops of Broom doth cleanse and open the liver, milt [spleen] and kidneys.” Culpeper considered its decoction to be good for dropsy, “black jaundice [Weil’s disease],” ague, gout, sciatica and various pains of the hips and joints.

HISTORY: The names of besom and broom refer to its use in the making of brushes from the earliest times. Its medicinal use under the name Genista, is mentioned in the Herbarius Latinus of 1485, the Hortus Sanitatis of 1491, the Grete Herball of 1516, and the London Pharmacopeia of 1618 It was used in Anglo-Saxon medicine, and the 13th century Physicians of Myddfai in Wales recommended a mixture of broom tops and boys’ urine to cure pain caused by a thorn. They said that “The fat of a wild cat is also good.

Heraldic Broom

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Geoffrey of Anjou (1113–51) thrust a sprig of broom flowers into his helmet before a battle, that his troops might see and follow him. The Latin name for the plant was planta genista [greenweed plant], and it became the heraldic symbol of Geoffrey. He married a daughter of Henry I, and their son Henry II was the first of the “Plantagenet kings” of England, a dynasty that lasted from 1154 to 1485. A representation of the plant may be seen on the Great Seal of Richard I (1157–99).

(WHITE) BRYONY

BRYONIA ALBA

Family Cucurbitaceae, Cucumber

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OTHER NAMES: Briony, devil’s turnip, navet du diable (devil’s turnip also in France), English mandrake, wild vine, wood vine, white vine, wild hops, wild nep (wild parsnip), ladies’ seal, tetterbury.

DESCRIPTION: The single representative of the cucumber family native to Britain, with small greenish-white flowers, its tendrils help a single plant to spread and cover over several yards of hedgerow. Culpeper also notes the black bryony or black vine having the same uses, but this is a plant in another family, Dioscorea communis, one of the Dioscoreaceae, or yam family.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper says it is a “furious martial plant,” but good for many complaints such as “stitches in the side, palsies, cramps, convulsions…The root cleanseth the skin wonderfully from all black and blue spots, freckles, morphew, leprosy, foul scars, or other deformity whatsoever: as also all running scabs and manginess.” The root is acrid and cathartic and the berries poisonous. The root was given for dropsy, sciatica, rheumatism, lumbago, gout, pleurisy, influenza, bronchitis and whooping cough. If applied to the skin, the root produces redness and even blisters. Withering noted that a decoction made by boiling one pound of the fresh root in water is “the best purge for horned cattle.”

HISTORY: Bartholomew’s Anglicus tells us that Augustus Caesar wore wear a wreath of bryony during a thunderstorm to protect himself from lightning. The nauseous and bitter root juice was prescribed by Galen and Dioscorides as a violent purgative. Called wild nep, it was valued in the 14th century as an antidote to leprosy.

Molded into “Mandrakes”

The root used to be seen suspended in herb shops, sometimes trimmed into a rude human form. In Green’s Universal Herbal of 1832 we read: “The roots of Bryony grow to a vast size and have been formerly by imposters brought into a human shape, carried about the country and shown for Mandrakes to the common people. The method which these knaves practised was to open the earth round a young, thriving Bryony plant, being careful not to disturb the lower fibres of the root; to fix a mould, such as is used by those who make plaster figures, close to the root, and then to fill in the earth about the root, leaving it to grow to the shape of the mould, which is effected in one summer.

BUGLE

AJUGA REPTANS

Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint

OTHER NAMES: Bugleweed, blue bugle, bugleherb, creeping bugleweed, creeping carpet bugle, carpetweed, middle comfrey, middle consound, brown bugle, common bugle, sicklewort (as is a woundwort), herb carpenter, carpenter’s herb, thunder and lightning.

DESCRIPTION: This common perennial is found in damp woods and grassy pastures. It is a lowgrowing plant on creeping runners with stems up to 6 inches (15 cm) in length. Purplish-blue flowers appear above its rosettes of leaves, and creeping runners produce more leafy rosettes so that the whole plant eventually forms a carpet-like mat, often used as a ground cover. The species name of the bugle, reptans, alludes to the snakelike creeping runners, which make it a nuisance in lawns.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper says that the similar white bugle (Ajuga reptans alba) has the same properties, and there is also a pink variety. Remedies made from bugle have been used for treating persistent coughs, ulcers, rheumatism and all kinds of liver disorders. In its action, it resembles digitalis, lowering the pulse and equalizing the circulation, being called “one of the mildest and best narcotics in the world” (Green’s Universal Herbal 1832). Culpeper is enthusiastic about many medicinal uses, such as a wash “for such ulcers and sores as happen in the secret parts of men or women.”

HISTORY: Bugle was used by Charles V of Spain to cure his gout in the 15th century. It is called carpenter’s herb as it can staunch bleeding and possibly heal cuts, because of its tannin content. Herbalists used bugle remedies to stop internal bleeding in the lungs as well as to staunch other kinds of internal hemorrhaging. In addition, bugle has also been used to prevent hallucinations following the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol. Bugle is also seen by some herbalists as possessing mildly narcotic and sedative effects and its use is believed to possibly have a lowering effect on the heart rate similar to the action of the foxglove (Digitalis).

Relieving Pain

Recent research seems to support bugle’s use in hyperthyroid conditions and to ease breast pain (mastodynia). The lithospermic acid in bugleweed is believed to decrease levels of certain hormones, especially the thyroid hormone thyroxine, and also keeps antibodies from binding to and “burning out” cells in an overactive thyroid gland. By moderating estrogen levels, bugleweed possibly relieves breast pain. Bugle’s nerve-calming action makes it useful in pain relief for those with sensitivities to salicylates such as aspirin.

BURDOCK

ARCTIUM LAPPA formerly LAPPA MAJOR

Family Asteraceae/Compositae, Sunflower

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OTHER NAMES: Greater burdock, edible burdock, great burdoak, thorny burr, beggar’s buttons, sticky bobs, love leaves, turkey burrseed, hardock, hare burr, cockle buttons, fox’s clote. Culpeper calls it also “Personata, Bardona, Lappa Major, Great Burdock and Clotbur.” Happy-major is a folk-name derived from Lappa major.

DESCRIPTION: The light-brown sturdy taproot may weigh up to 2–4 pounds (0.9–1.8kg). It is a large-leaved hardy biennial that grows to 7 feet (2.1 m), with thistle-like purple flowers and many hooked seed-bearing burrs. Lappa means burr. Its leaves are like those of dock, thus the name burrdock, burdock.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper recommends it for many illnesses, e.g.: “the juice of the leaves, or rather the roots themselves, given to drink with old wine, doth wonderfully help the bitings of serpents: and the root beaten with a little salt, and laid on the place, suddenly eases the pain thereof, and helps those that are bit by a mad dog: the juice of the leaves, taken with honey, provokes urine, and remedies the pain of the bladder: the seed being drunk in wine forty days together, doth wonderfully help the sciatica…” Burdock leaves were recommended to relieve sores, and the juice soothed burns and was an antidote to snakebite. A decoction of the roots or leaves was a blood purifier and helpful for skin problems. It will help with constipation, liver problems and balances the helpful bacteria in the bowel. It enhances immunity, reduces fluid retention and is anti-inflammatory. Burdock roots and leaves can also be used to treat rheumatism and gout because they encourage the elimination of uric acid via the kidneys. Burdock root oil extract (Bur oil) has traditionally been popular in Europe as a scalp treatment applied to improve hair strength, shine and body, and to combat hair loss. Indeed, modern studies indicate that burdock root oil extract is rich in phytosterols and essential fatty acids required for healthy scalp and natural hair growth. The root of burdock contains up to 45 percent insulin, a non-nutritious fiber. The insulin makes burdock valuable in treating diabetes, because the insulin grabs sugars from the digestive tract, which prevents the sugar from entering the bloodstream. Roots can be roasted and young shoots peeled and eaten raw or used in soups. Rich in minerals, this plant has been used as a food by many cultures.

Burry Man

Since at least 1687 a man has dressed himself from head to toe in burrs, and paraded the streets of South Queensferry in Scotland, being rewarded for his pains with tots of whisky drunk through a straw in local pubs. During August’s “Ferry Fair,” the “Burry Man” dresses in a full body costume made of flannel, then completely covers himself with the hooked fruits of Arctium lappa and Arctium minus (wood burdock), the greater and lesser burdock. After nine or so hours of slow walking, in a heavy costume, this spirit of vegetation and fertility will have had a considerable amount to drink and will be truly exhausted.

HISTORY: North American herbalists particularly valued the seeds to treat skin problems, while in China the seeds are used to treat measles, sore throats, tonsillitis, colds, and flu. Burdock was considered to be sacred by the Celts and the Germanic peoples held it sacred to the god Thor. Since Thor reigned over the summer storms, the plant was gathered in midsummer. It was placed on the gables of buildings to protect against lightning. In the late Middle Ages burdock was still being strung over doors or braided into hair to ward off evil. Burdock has an ancient reputation as a nutritive liver tonic that helps to clean and build the blood, while its diuretic action helps in the elimination of toxins. Taken internally, this root promotes sweating and urination. In the second half of the 20th century, burdock achieved recognition for its culinary use, owing to the increasing popularity of macrobiotic diets which advocate its consumption.

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Inventing Velcro

After an Alpine walk in 1941, a Swiss engineer noticed burdock burrs attached to his clothes and his dog’s fur. Under a microscope, George de Mestral looked closely at the hook-and-loop system that the seeds use to hitchhike on passing animals, aiding seed dispersal. He realized that the same approach could be used to join other things together, and the resulting invention was Velcro, named after the French words velour (a plush knitted fabric) and crochet (hook).

The hundreds of “hooks” on each burr catch on anything with a loop, such as clothing or animal fur. Developing the idea, he discovered that cotton wore out quickly on his prototypes, so de Mestral turned his attention to synthetic fibers, settling on the newly invented nylon as an ideal material. An American article dated 1958 reads: “A ‘zipperless zipper’ has been invented—finally. The new fastening device is in many ways potentially more revolutionary than was the zipper a quarter century ago.

BUTCHER’S BROOM

RUSCUS ACULEATUS

Family Ruscaceae (formerly Liliaceae), Ruscus

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OTHER NAMES: Kneeholy, knee holly, kneeholm, kneehulver (hulver is an old name for holly), Jew’s myrtle, sweet broom, pettigree, bruscus.

DESCRIPTION: There is no similar British plant. Its tough, erect stems have no bark, but very rigid leaves, each terminating in a single sharp spine. There are small greenish-white flowers.

PROPERTIES AND USES: According to Culpeper, “It is a plant of Mars, being of a gallant cleansing and opening quality: the decoction of the roots, made with wine, opens obstructions, provokes urine, helps to expel gravel, and the stone, the stranguary, and women’s courses, as also the yellow jaundice, and the head-ache; and, with some honey or sugar put therein cleanses the breast of phlegm, and the chest of much clammy humours gathered therein; the decoction of the root drunk, and a poultice made of the berries and leaves being applied, are effectual in knitting and consolidating broken bones, or parts out of joint. The common way of using it, is to boil the root of it and parsley, and fennel, and smallage, in white wine, and drink the decoction, adding the like quantity of grass roots to them; the more of the roots you boil, the stronger will the decoction be…” A decoction was commonly used for jaundice and gravel stones. Sweetened with honey, it was said to clear the chest of phlegm and relieve difficult breathing.

HISTORY: The plant was recommended by Dioscorides and others as an aperient and diuretic in cases of dropsy, urinary obstructions and nephritis. Parkinson related that butcher’s broom was used to preserve “hanged meate” from being eaten by mice, and also for the making of brooms, “but the King’s Chamber is by revolution of time turned to the Butcher’s stall, for that a bundle of the stalkes tied together serveth them to cleanse their stalls and from thence have we our English name of Butcher’s broom.” The matured branches were bound into bundles and sold to butchers for sweeping their blocks, hence the name. Research has shown that the plant enhances blood flow to the brain, hands and legs. It improves circulation, and relieves constipation and water retention. It is used to treat varicose veins and hemorrhoids, as it tightens blood vessels and capillaries.

Knee Holly

Butcher’s broom was also called “knee holly” because it rises to about the height of a man’s knee and from its having prickly evergreen leaves. Its other name “Jew’s myrtle” occurred because it was used for service during the Feast of Tabernacles.

BUTTERBUR

PETASITES VULGARIS (syn. HYBRIDUS or OFFICINALIS)

Family Asteraceae/Compositae, Sunflower

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OTHER NAMES: Common butterwort, langwort, umbrella plant, bog rhubarb, flapperdock, blatterdock, capdockin, bogshorns, butter-dock, pestilence wort, plague flower, devil’s hat.

DESCRIPTION: A herbaceous perennial with pale pink inflorescenses, before the leaves appear. The leaves are round with a diameter of up to 27 inches (69 cm), borne on stout tall stems up to 4 feet (1.2 m) high.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper was certain “that this root, beyond all things else cures pestilential fevers, and is by long experience found to be very available against the plague, by provoking sweat; if the powder thereof, be taken in wine, it also resists the force of any other poison…away all spots and blemishes of the skin It is a great strengthener of the heart and cheerer of the vital spirits…the decoction of the root in wine is singularly good for those that wheeze much or are short-winded…The powder of the root takes.” The root has been used traditionally since the Middle Ages, and in North America during colonial times as a heart stimulant, acting as a cardiac tonic and also as a diuretic, to treat fevers, wheezing and colds. Modern research supports the opinion that butterbur root extract is effective for treatment of seasonal allergies, asthma and migraines. In Germany, butterbur extract is approved for the treatment of spasmodic urinary pain, particularly when there are stones present. Butterbur is thought to work by reducing spasms in muscle tissues, including blood vessels.

HISTORY: “The name of the genus, Petasites, is derived from the Greek word for the felt hats worn by shepherds, like that of depictions of Mercury, in reference to the large leaves of the plant which block out light and air and prevent other plants from growing” (Maud Grieve, Modern Herbal 1931). Henry Lyte, in his Herbal of 1578, calls it “a sovereigne medicine against the plague,” and remarks of its leaves that “one of them is large enough to cover a small table, as with a carpet.” Gerard recommends its use “against the plague and pestilent fevers, because it provokes sweat and drives from the heart all venom and evil heat; it kills worms. The powder of the roots cures all naughty filthy ulcers, if it be strewed therein.

Plague Flower

The name butterbur comes from the old practice of wrapping up butter in the large leaves of this herb during warm weather. It was called plague flower in old herbals, because of its value as a remedy in times of disaster.