Breverton's Complete Herbal

EARLY PURPLE ORCHID

ORCHIS MASCULA

Family Orchidaceae, Orchid

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OTHER NAMES: “It has almost as many several names attributed to the several sorts of it, as would almost fill a sheet of paper; as dog-stones, goat-stones, fool-stones, fox-stones, satiricon, cullians, together with many others too tedious to rehearse.”—Culpeper. Long purples, great orchis, cuckoos, granfer griggles, salep, saloop, hare’s bollocks, dog-stones, adder’s meat, bloody butchers, goosey ganders, kecklegs, standerwort, standergrass, Gethsemane (see Plant Names in Folklore on pages 266–267).

DESCRIPTION: Culpeper includes several species of the Orchis genus of the orchid family, including the military and pyramidical orchids. A single flower stem rises from the tuberous root, bearing flowers that as a rule are a rich purple color, mottled with lighter and darker shades. Every tint, from purple to pure white can be found. Each flower has a long spur which turns upward, and the leaves are lance-shaped on the plant which can grow to 12 inches (30 cm) high. The orchid family is the largest and most diverse of the flowering-plant kingdom, with more than 25,000 species observed so far. Each year, as many as 300 new species are added to the list and some scientists estimate that more than 5000 orchids remain undiscovered. A further 100,000 hybrids have been cultivated by dedicated horticulturalists.

PROPERTIES: “They are hot and moist in operation, under the dominion of Dame Venus, and provoke lust exceedingly, which, they say, the dried and withered roots do restrain. They are held to kill worms in children; as also, being bruised and applied to the place, to heal the king’s evil.” Culpeper recommended it for “king’s evil” i.e. scrofula, referring to a variety of skin diseases, in particular a form of tuberculosis affecting the lymph nodes of the neck. It is said to be astringent, demulcent and an expectorant. It has been used as a diet of nutritive value for children and convalescents, being boiled with water, flavored and prepared in the same way as arrowroot. Starch from the tubers is called “sahlep,” “salop,” “salep” or “saloop,” being rich in mucilage, and forming a soothing and demulcent jelly that is used in the treatment of irritations of the gastrointestinal canal. Thus it was used by infants and invalids suffering from chronic diarrhea and bilious fevers.

Before coffee supplanted it, it was sold at stalls in the streets of London. The best English salep came from Oxfordshire, but the tubers were chiefly imported from the east. In Turkey, an ice cream made from salep (flour produced from the tubers of dried wild orchids) is so popular that the trade is threatening the plants’ future, as a thousand orchids are required to make every kilo of it. The dessert is called salepi dondurma (fox-testicle ice cream).

HISTORY: According to the Greek physician Dioscorides, married couples used Orchis mascula to determine the sex of their unborn child. When the man ate the larger tuber, they would have a boy; if the woman ate the smaller tuber, they would have a girl. In his Theatrum Botanicum, John Parkinson wrote: “If a man ate a large orchid tuber, he would begat many children.” Parkinson in 1640 noted that orchids were among the drugs dispensed in London to cure conditions as diverse as fever, swellings and sores. Orchids were also thought to possess powerful aphrodisiac properties. One Greek philosopher wrote that the ground root of a species, named after the fertility god Priapus, allowed a man to perform 70 consecutive acts of sexual intercourse. As a result the particular orchid was so assiduously gathered that it almost became extinct. Vanilla is a rare example of an orchid used for food, with the seeds and pulp found in vanilla orchid pods being used to make vanilla extract, most of which is produced in Madagascar. The island churned out three million tons of vanilla extract in 2005, much of it destined for Coca-Cola. The US drinks maker is the world’s biggest consumer of vanilla extract.

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The Dog’s Bollocks

Culpeper believed that orchids were “hot and moist in operation; under the dominion of Venus, and provoke lust exceedingly.” Theophrastus, the ancient Greek “father of botany” first named the plant “orchis,” meaning “testicle.” Due to the appearance of the paired subterranean tuberoids, its root is called Adam and Eve root. We associate hares with lust, and another name for the orchis is hare’s bollocks. Another is Dog-stones, stones meaning testicles. Thus this most common of British orchids is by definition the “dog’s bollocks.”

From Love’s Martyr, 1601

There’s Standergrass, Hare’s bollocks, or great Orchis,

Provoking Venus, and procuring sport,

It helps the weakened body that’s amiss,

And falls away in a consumptuous sort,

It heals the Hectic fever by report:

But the dried shrivelled root being withered,

Hinders the virtue we have uttered.

If Man of the great springing roots doth eat,

Being in matrimonial copulation,

Male children of his wife he shall beget,

This special virtue hath the operation,

If Women make the withered roots their meat,

Faire lovely Daughters, affable, and wise,

From their fresh springing loins there shall arise.

Robert Chester

EGYPTIAN MEDICAL HERBS

From the Ebers Papyrus of c.1534 BCE, from the reign of Amenhotep I

Acacia (Acacia nilotica) A vermifuge, eases diarrhea and internal bleeding, also used to treat skin diseases.

Aloe vera For worms, relieves headaches, soothes chest pains, burns, ulcers and for skin disease and allergies.

Balsam apple (Malus sylvestris) or apple of Jerusalem. A laxative, skin allergies, soothes headaches, gums and teeth, for asthma, liver stimulant, weak digestion.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) Excellent for heart.

Bayberry (Myrica cerifera) Diarrhea, soothes ulcers, shrinks hemorrhoids, repels flies.

Camphor tree Reduces fevers, gum pains, soothes epilepsy.

Caraway (Carum carvi) Soothes flatulence, digestive, breath freshener.

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) Spice in foods, a digestive, soothes flatulence.

Cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba) Urinary tract infections, larynx and throat infections, gum ulcers and infections, soothes headaches.

Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) Pain reliever.

Dill (Anethum graveolens) Soothes flatulence, relieves dyspepsia, laxative and diuretic properties.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) Respiratory disorders, cleanses the stomach, calms the liver, soothes pancreas, reduces swelling.

Garlic (Allium sativum) Gives vitality, soothes flatulence and aids digestion, mild laxative, shrinks hemorrhoids, rids body of “spirits.”

Henna (Lawsonia inermis) Astringent, stops diarrhea, closes open wounds.

Juniper tree (Juniperus phoenecia) A digestive, soothes chest pains and stomach cramps.

Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) Mild laxative, expels phlegm, soothes liver, pancreas and chest and respiratory problems.

Meadow saffron (Citrullus colocynthis) Soothes rheumatism, reduces swelling.

Mint (Menthapiperita) Soothes flatulence, aids digestion, stops vomiting, breath freshener.

Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) Stops diarrhea, relieves headaches, soothes gums, toothaches and backaches.

Onion (Allium cepa) Diuretic, induces perspiration, prevents colds, soothes sciatica, relieves pains and other cardiovascular problems.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)Diuretic.

Poppy (Papaver somniferum) Relieves insomnia, relieves headaches, anesthetic, soothes respiratory problems, deadens pain.

Sandalwood (Santalum albus)Aids digestion, stops diarrhea, soothes headaches and gout.

Sesame (Sesamum indicum) Soothes asthma.

Tamarind (Tamarindus indica) Laxative.

Thyme (Thymus species) Pain reliever.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) Closes open wounds, also used to dye skin and cloth.

EYEBRIGHT

EUPHRASIA OFFICINALIS

Family Orobanchaceae, Broomrape

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OTHER NAMES: Red eyebright.

DESCRIPTION: An elegant little plant, 2 to 8 inches (5–20 cm) high with deeply cut leaves and numerous small white or purplish flowers. Euphrasia is a genus of around 450 species of herbaceous flowering plants which are semi-parasitic on grasses.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper writes: “It is under the sign of the Lion, and Sol claims dominion over it. The juice or distilled water of eye-bright, taken inwardly in white wine or broth, or dropped into the eyes, for divers days together, helps all infirmities of the eyes that cause dimness of sight. Some make conserve of the flowers to the same effect. Being used any of the ways, it also helps a weak brain, or memory. This tunned up with strong beer, that it may work together, and drank; or the powder of the herb mixed with sugar, a little mace, and fennel-seed, and drank, or eaten in broth; or the said powder made into an electuary with sugar, and taken, has the same powerful effect to help and restore the sight decayed through age; and Arnoldus de Ville Nova says, it has restored sight to them that have been blind a long time before.” Herbalists use eyebright as a poultice with or without concurrent administration of a tea for the redness, swelling and visual disturbances caused by blepharitis and conjunctivitis. The herb is also used for eyestrain and to relieve inflammation caused by colds, coughs, sinus infections, sore throats and hay fever.

HISTORY: Historically, eyebright’s use for eye problems was due to the Doctrine of Signatures—the purple and yellow blotches resembled a bruised eye, so it was called eyebright and bestowed with ophthalmic properties. In Milton’s Paradise Lost the Archangel Michael employs the herb to give Adam clear sight: “…to nobler sights, Michael from Adam’s eyes the film removed, Then purged with euphrasine and rue, His visual orbs, for he had much to see…” There is considerable evidence that compounds in the herb are anti-inflammatory and antibacterial.

Improving the Memory

Eyebright has a history of use as a general tonic and to improve memory, being usually drunk as a tea or infused in alcohol. Gervase Markham in Countrie Farm in 1616 suggested “Drink every morning a small draught of eyebright wine.” Gerard wrote: “Three parts of the powder of eye-bright, and one part of maces mixed therewith, takes away all hurts from the eyes, comforts the memory and clears the sight, if half a spoonful be taken every morning fasting with a cup of white wine…