Family Rosaceae, Rose
OTHER NAMES: Common hawthorn may, may blossom, mayflower, whitethorn, bread and cheese tree, hagthorn, red haw, ladies’ meat, quick, tree of chastity. In some countries the berries are known as pixie pears, cuckoo’s beads and chucky cheese.
DESCRIPTION: Hawthorn is a thorny deciduous shrub or tree that grows up to 45 feet (14 m) high, and is often used as livestock hedging because of its dense thorns. There are more than 200 species of hawthorn growing around the world. The white blossoms make a splendid show in spring. Crataegus is derived from the Greek “kratos” (strength), referring to the hardness and toughness of the wood. The wood of the hawthorn allegedly makes one of the hottest fires known to man and is considered to be better than oak for burning in ovens. Charcoal made from hawthorn was said to melt pig-iron without the aid of a blast furnace.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper says: “It is a tree of Mars. The seeds in the berries beaten to powder being drunk in wine, are held singularly good against the stone, and are good for the dropsy. The distilled water of the flowers stays the lask [diarrhea]; and the seeds, cleeted [unfastened] from the down, then bruised and boiled in wine, will give instant relief to the tormenting pains of the body. If cloths and sponges are wet in the distilled water, and applied to any place wherein thorns, splinters, &c, are lodged, it will certainly draw them forth.” Hawthorn berries have been used as a heart tonic for at least two millennia, and hawthorn is used in treating angina, irregular heartbeat, and Reynaud’s disease. Hawthorn’s medical properties are cardiac, diuretic, astringent, and tonic. Scientific study has validated that it dilates coronary arteries, improves oxygenation and energy metabolism in the heart, and decreases lactic acid, the waste product of exertion that causes heart muscle pain. Hawthorn has the ability to normalize blood pressure, lowering high blood pressure and restoring low blood pressure to normal levels. Hawthorn is also used for insomnia, as a digestive aid and to cure sore throats. The active constituents in hawthorn are noted for their antioxidant and astringent properties. Hawthorn’s diuretic properties make it useful for treating dropsy and kidney trouble. Hawthorn wood was used for making long-lasting printing blocks. The young leaves and berries of the hawthorn used to be known as “bread and cheese,” the young leaves having a nutty taste, and leaves and flowers were used to make herbal tea, jam, wine and liqueurs.
HISTORY: The tree was regarded as sacred, probably from a tradition that it furnished the Crown of Thorns. Joseph of Aramathea was said to have planted his hawthorn staff in the soil at Glastonbury, creating the Glastonbury Thorn. Along with ash and oak, it was one of the “three sacred trees” of the Celts. The original Glastonbury Thorn was supposed to flower annually on Christmas Day, but was chopped down by Cromwellians during the English Civil War. A replacement was vandalized in 2010. It is a form of the tree, growing locally, which flowers twice a year, Crataegus monogyna “Biflora.” Hawthorn has been a symbol of fertility and was said to offer protection from lightning. It is still thought unlucky to bring hawthorn flowers into the house. Hawthorn flowers were thought to bear the smell of the Plague of London. The flowers are mostly fertilized by carrion insects, attracted by the suggestion of decay in the perfume, called “the stench of death.” Flowers give off trimethylene as they deteriorate, the same chemical odor that is given off when corpses decay. In past times, May blossom signified new life and the word nuts in the traditional song “Here we go gathering nuts in May” is a corruption of the words “knots,” the pieces of hawthorn (May) wood gathered for ceremonial use. The Maypole was originally constructed from hawthorn, so that it would last for years. Across Europe, branches were cut from the hawthorn on May or Beltane Eve and were used to decorate the doors of houses and the blossoms made into garlands for the Maypole on May Day. Garlands hung over the doorway prevented evil spirits from entering the home. Hawthorn was referred to as the “faerie bush” and it was considered bad luck to cut it for fear of offending the fairies which inhabited it. A schoolboy trick that this author remembers only too well involved removing the red skin from a haw and dropping the downy seed covering down the back of someone’s shirt. The resultant “itchie” irritated the skin of the unfortunate victim.
Though the hawthorn tree now flowers around the middle of the month of May, it flowered much nearer the beginning of the month before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Thus the old proverb “ne’er cast a clout before May is out” means “never get rid of clothing before the May blossoms.” A Scots proverb: “Mony haws, Mony snaws” means that many haws on the May indicate a harsh, snowy winter. This popular nursery rhyme alludes to the hawthorn tree:
“The fair maid who, the first of May,
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree
Will ever after handsome be.”
Family Betulaceae, Birch
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper calls it hasel-nut, common hazel, cob nut.
DESCRIPTION: The hazel tree typically grows 10–25 feet (3–8 m) tall, but can reach 45 feet (14 m), and bears the familiar catkins and nuts.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper gives a rather odd account: “They are under the dominion of Mercury. The parted kernels made into an electuary, or the milk drawn from the kernels with mead or honeyed water, is very good to help an old cough; and being parched, and a little pepper put to them and drank, digests the distillations of rheum from the head. The dried husks and shells, to the weight of two drams, taken in red wine, stays lasks and women’s courses, and so doth the red skin that covers the kernels, which is more effectual to stay women’s courses. And if this be true, as it is, then why should the vulgar so familiarly affirm, that eating nuts causes shortness of breath, than which nothing is falser? For, how can that which strengthens the lungs, cause shortness of breath? I confess, the opinion is far older than I am; I knew tradition was a friend to error before, but never that he was the father of slander. Or are men’s tongues so given to slander one another, that they must slander Nuts too, to keep their tongues in use? If any part of the Hazel Nut be stopping, it is the husks and shells, and no one is so mad as to eat them unless physically; and the red skin which covers the kernel, you may easily pull off. And so thus have I made an apology for Nuts, which cannot speak for themselves.”
The name hazelnut generally applies to the nuts of any of the species of the genus Corylus. An exception is Corylus maxima, which gives us the longer, less spherical, filbert nut. Its oil is used as a carrier oil in aromatherapy, with a slightly astringent action that is good for all skin types. For medicinal use, the hazelnut or cobnut, the kernel of the seed, is used raw or roasted, or ground into a paste. Hazelnuts are rich in protein and unsaturated fat, and contain significant amounts of thiamine and vitamin B6. They are extensively used in confectionery.
There are many cultivars of the hazel, some being grown for specific qualities of the nut including large nut size and early and late fruiting cultivars, whereas other are grown as pollinators. Turkey accounts for 75 percent of the world’s annual hazelnut production of around 850,000 tons. Hazelnuts have been grown along the Black Sea coast in northern Turkey since at least 300 BCE, and hazelnut farming has been the chief form of livelihood in the region, with hazelnut orchards extending up to 20 miles (32 km) inland from the coast.
Nut Crack Night
Holy Cross Day, September 14, was formerly a school holiday so that children could go “nutting.” On Halloween, “Nut Crack Night,” lovers would roast hazelnuts over fires. If they burned steadily, their romance would flourish, but if they flew apart there would be trouble ahead. In another tradition, hazelnuts were given the names of potential husbands and thrown into the fire by girls. The loudest crack and the brightest flame indicated their true love. In eastern England, hazel boughs were collected on Palm Sunday and placed in vases on windowsills to protect against lightning. People would cut a hazel stick before sunrise on May Day and draw a circle round themselves with it to protect against fairies, serpents and evil. Adder bites were treated by laying cross-shaped pieces of hazel wood against the wound, and St. Patrick was said to have used a hazel wand to drive the serpents out of Ireland. In “The Discoverie of Witchcraft” (1534), a hazel wand was recorded as being used as a charm against witches and thieves. In 19th-century Devon, brides used to be met outside church by an old woman holding a basket of hazelnuts to encourage fertility. It was believed that a “good nut year” would mean many babies. In legend and folklore, the hazel, hawthorn and apple are associated with being at the border between the real and the magical world of elves, fairies and the like.
HISTORY: At Roman weddings hazel torches were burned on the wedding night to bring happiness to the couple. Hazelnuts were also often ground up with flour to make bread. Milk from the nuts can be used to treat chronic cough, and mixed with pepper for runny noses and eyes. The wood was traditionally grown as fast-growing coppice, the poles cut being used for wattle-and-daub buildings and agricultural fencing. It is very common in older hedgerows that were the traditional field and lane boundaries. Hazel is a favorite wood for walking sticks, shepherds’ crooks and poles for gardening purposes. The wood bends easily so is ideal for weaving fences, and its stems were bent into a U-shape to hold down thatch on roofs. Young hazel shoots are used to make baskets and containers. Hazel is traditionally the favored forked rod used for dowsing or divining. Hazelnut butter is presently being promoted as a more nutritious spread than its peanut butter counterpart.
Family Violaceae, Violet/Pansy
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper says “It is called in Sussex pansies.” Viola, wild pansy, little faces, love-in-idleness, trilliw (Welsh for three hues), herb of trinity, three faces in a hood, full me to you, biddy’s eyes, pancies, lady’s delight, cupid’s delight, johnny jump-up (USA), tittle my fancy, love-in-vain, kiss behind the garden door, herb constancy, jump up and kiss love, lovelies-bleeding, live-in-idleness, loving idol, love idol, cull me, cuddle me, call-me-to-you, jackjump-up-and-kiss-me, meet-me-in-the-entry, kiss-her-inthe-buttery, kit-run-in-the-fields, pink-o’-the-eye, kit-run-about, godfathers and godmothers, stepmother, herb trinitatis, pink-eyed-John, bouncing Bet, flower o’luce, bird’s eye, bullweed, bonewort (Anglo-Saxon).
DESCRIPTION: The modern garden pansy (Viola wittrockiana) is a plant of complex hybrid origin involving at least three species, Viola tricolor (the small purple, white and yellow “wild pansy” or “heartsease”), Viola altaica and Viola lutea (mountain pansy).
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “This is a Saturnine plant, of a cold, slimy and viscous nature. A strong decoction of the herb and flowers is an excellent cure for the venereal disorder, being an approved anti-venereal; it is also good for the convulsions in children, falling sickness, inflammation of the lungs and breast, pleurisy, scabs, itch &c. It will make excellent syrup for the aforesaid purposes.” The flowers have also been used to make yellow, green and blue-green dyes. Viola tricolor can be used both internally and as a compress or ointment in the treatment of eczema, psoriasis and acne and it is a suitable remedy for clearing cradlecap in babies. The flowers contain a high concentration of rutin, which helps prevent bruising and heals broken capillaries.
HISTORY: Gerard states: “It is good as the later physicians write for such as are sick of ague, especially children and infants, whose convulsions and fits of the falling sickness it is thought to cure. It is commended against inflammation of the lungs and chest, and against scabs and itchings of the whole body and healeth ulcers.”
Good for the Heart
The flowers were considered good in diseases of the heart, from which may have arisen its name of heartsease. It was called herba trinitatis, because it has in each flower three colors. Stepmother refers to the differently shaped petals, supposed to represent a stepmother, her own daughters and her stepchildren.
Family Ranunculaceae, Buttercup
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper also calls it: “Setter-wort, Setter-grass, Bear’s-foot, Christmas-herb, and Christmas-flowers.” Christe herbe, Christmas rose, Melampode.
DESCRIPTION: A perennial, lowgrowing plant with dark, shining, smooth leaves and flower-stalks rising directly from the root. Its large white blossoms appear in the depth of winter, earning it the name of Christmas rose. John Gerard writes of the black hellebore: “It floureth about Christmas, if the winter be mild and warm…called Christ herbe.”
PROPERTIES AND USES: “It is an herb of Saturn, and therefore no marvel if it has some sullen conditions with it, and would be far safer, being purified by the art of the alchemist than given raw. If any have taken any harm by taking it, the common cure is to take goat’s milk. If you cannot get goat’s milk, you must make a shift with such as you can get. The roots are very effectual against all melancholy diseases, especially such as are of long standing, as quartan [the fourth stage of] agues and madness; it helps the falling sickness, the leprosy, both the yellow and black jaundice, the gout, sciatica, and convulsions; and this was found out by experience, that the root of that which grows wild in our country, works not so churlishly as those do which are brought from beyond sea, as being maintained by a more temperate air. The root used as a pessary, provokes the terms exceedingly; also being beaten into powder, and strewed upon foul ulcers, it consumes the dead flesh, and instantly heals them; nay, it will help gangrenes in the beginning.”—Culpeper. Its rhizome possesses drastic purgative, emmenagogue (stimulating blood flow) and anthelmintic (expelling parasitic worms) properties, but is violently narcotic. It was formerly used in dropsy and amenorrhoea, nervous disorders and hysteria. Applied locally, the fresh root is violently irritant. The generic name of this plant is derived from the Greek elein(to injure) and bora (food), and indicates its toxic nature. The specific name niger refers to the dark-colored rootstock.
HISTORY: According to Pliny, black hellebore was used as a purgative in mania by Melampus, a soothsayer and physician, 1400 years before Christ, hence the name Melampodium. Parkinson in 1641 wrote: “a piece of the root being drawne through a hole made in the eare of a beast troubled with cough or having taken any poisonous thing cureth it, if it be taken out the next day at the same houre.”
From Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621
“Borage and hellebore fill two scenes, Sovereign plants to purge the veins Of melancholy, and cheer the heart Of those black fumes which make it smart.”
Family Apiaceae, Carrot/Parsley
OTHER NAMES: Poison hemlock, devil’s porridge (Ireland), poison parsley, spotted hemlock.
DESCRIPTION: With a usual height of 2–5 feet (60 cm to 1.5 m), (although it can grow to 10 feet/3 m) it looks like many other members of the parsley family, but there are bold red/purple blotches on the stem, finely divided leaves and typical umbels of tiny white flowers. It smells of mice, or to Culpeper “a very strong, heady, and disagreeable smell.”
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “Hemlock is exceeding cold and very dangerous, and consequently must not be taken inwardly: It may safely be applied to Inflammations, Tumours, and Swelling in any part of the Body (save the Privy parts) as also to St. Anthony’s Fire Wheals, Pushes, and creeping Ulcers that rise of hot sharp Humours, by cooling and repelling the heat. The leaves bruises, and laid to the brow or forehead, are good for those whose eyes are red or swelled, and for cleansing them of web or film growing thereon…If any shall through mistake eat the Herb Hemlock instead of Parsley, or the Root instead of a Parsnip (both which it is very like) it will cause a kind of Frenzy, or Perturbation of the senses, as if they were stupefied or drunk. The Remedy is as Pliny says, to drink of the best and strongest pure Wine, before it strike to the Heart, or Gentian put into Wine or a draught of good vinegar, wherewith Tragus doth affirm that he cured a Woman that had eaten the Root.” Coniine, which is found in hemlock, is a neurotoxin which disrupts the workings of the central nervous system and is toxic to humans and all classes of livestock. Ingestion in any quantity can result in respiratory collapse and death. It was often mistaken for cow parsley by children making whistles from its hollow stems, and led to accidental poisoning.
HISTORY: Linnaeus, in 1737, restored the classical Greek name Conium, being derived from the Greek word konas, meaning to whirl about, because the plant, when eaten, causes vertigo and potentially death. The Latin specific name maculatum (spotted) refers to the stem markings. In tradition, the purple streaks on the stem represent the brand put on Cain’s brow after he had murdered Abel. Hemlock was used in Anglo-Saxon medicine, and the name hemlock seems to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon hem (border, shore) and leác (leek or plant). In Ancient Greece, hemlock was used to poison condemned prisoners. After being condemned to death for impiety in 399 BCE, the philosopher Socrates was given a potent infusion of the hemlock plant. Plato described Socrates’s death in the Phaedo: “The man…laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said ‘No’; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And then again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said—and these were his last words—‘Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.’ ‘That,’ said Crito, ‘shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.’ To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.” William Coles in his 1656 Art of Simpling recorded: “If Asses chance to feed much upon Hemlock, they will fall so fast asleep that they will seem to be dead, in so much that some thinking them to be dead indeed have flayed off their skins, yet after the Hemlock had done operating they have stirred and wakened out of their sleep, to the grief and amazement of the owners.”
Ingredients of the Witches Brew
To be most effective, hemlock root had to be dug out at night. In the witches’ cauldron described in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1605), we see the first witch place a live toad in the mixture. The three witches then chant:
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and, cauldron, bubble.”
The second witch added:
“Fillet of a fenny snake
In the cauldron boil and bake:
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing.”
The third witch then added:
“Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravined salt-sea shark,
Root of the hemlock, digged i’the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Slivered in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-delivered by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For th’ingredients of our cauldron.”
The witches repeat their toil and trouble refrain, and the second witch adds baboon’s blood.
Family Cannabaceae (formerly Urticaceae), Nettle
OTHER NAMES: Cannabis, marijuana, pot, ganja, hash, weed etc.
DESCRIPTION: This tall, roughish annual usually grows from 3 to 10 feet (90 cm to 3 m) high. The distinctive leaves are coarsely and sharply serrate, attenuate at both ends, dark-green above, pale and downy beneath.
PROPERTIES AND USES: “It is a plant of Saturn, and good for something else, you see, than to make halters only. The seed of Hemp consumes wind, and by too much use thereof disperses it so much that it dries up the natural seed for procreation; yet, being boiled in milk and taken, helps such as have a hot dry cough…The Dutch make an Emulsion out of the Seed, and give it with good success to those that have the Jaundice, especially in the beginning of the Disease if there be no Ague accompanying it, for it opens Obstructions of the Gall, and causes digestion of Choler. The Emulsion or Decoction of the Seed stays Lasks [halts diarrhea] and continual Fluxes, eases the Cholic, and allays the troublesome Humours in the Bowels, and stays bleeding at the mouth, nose or any other place; it will destroy the worms either in man or beast…”—Culpeper. Hemp oil is one of the few dietary sources of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), promoting healthy hormones and being beneficial for PMS symptoms. The green color in hemp seed oil is a result of the high level of chlorophyll which is naturally present in the seeds. Hemp seed is a highly nutritious food, and contains antioxidants, protein, carotene, phytosterols, phospholipids, as well as a number of minerals including calcium, magnesium, sulfur, potassium, iron, zinc and phosphorus. It is a source of complete protein and contains all 20 known amino acids, including the nine essential amino acids. It also contains vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, C, D and E. It was used throughout history for making cloth and ropes. Female hemp plants were processed for domestic purposes, and provide hemp used for cordage.
HISTORY: The famous Muslim sect who attacked both Islamic Seljuq rulers and the Crusaders from 820–1231 derived their name Hashashin from the drug, and from that our word assassin is derived. Although illegal across the developed world because of the dried leaves’ intoxicating properties, Cannabis sativa subsp. indica has considerable medicinal value. Among its various uses, it is an antibiotic for gram-positive bacteria, relieves nausea induced by chemotherapy, has been used to treat glaucoma and eases arthritic pains. Modern varieties, known as “skunk,” are far more powerful and dangerous than the original plant. The 16th-century English poet Thomas Tusser noted: “Where plots full of nettles be noisome to eye / Sow thereupon hempseed, and nettle will die.” Cannabis was reintroduced into British medicine in 1842 by Dr. W O’Shaughnessy, an army surgeon who had served in India. In Victorian times it was widely used for a variety of ailments, including muscle spasms, menstrual cramps, rheumatism, and the convulsions of tetanus, rabies and epilepsy; it was also used to promote uterine contractions in childbirth, and as a sedative to induce sleep. It is said to have been used by Queen Victoria against period pains.
With the growing demand currently for ecologically sound biomass crops to use as biofuels, an environmental disaster has occurred where rainforest has been replaced with palm oil trees. Other crops such as sugar cane, rapeseed, soya, cornstalks and kenaf also carry attendant problems. The drug abuse of just one variety of hemp, Cannabis sativa, has undermined its potential as a solution to worldwide problems. Hemp is the fastestgrowing crop on Earth, producing two or three crops a year in hot countries. It will grow almost anywhere so there is no need to clear forests for its cultivation, has hardly any natural predators and requires no chemicals to grow it. Its percentage of essential fatty acids is higher than that of any other plant in the world. Hemp contains both omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids in a proportion of 3:1. This proportion is the recommended balance of omega-6 to omega-3 acids, making it a simple way to complete one’s diet. Essential fatty acids are necessary for our health, and are responsible for the good condition of our skin, hair, eyes, etc. transferring oxygen to the every cell in our body. Hemp seeds are comparable to sunflower seeds, and may be used for food and milk, tea, and for baking, like sesame seeds.
In November 2010, a French farmer was given a one-month suspended jail sentence and fined 500 Euros (£428) for feeding his ducks marijuana to rid them of worms. Police arrested Michel Rouyer after they discovered 12 cannabis plants and about 11 pounds (5 kg) of the drug during a visit to his home after a theft. Mr. Rouyer said there was “no better worming substance” for ducks and that his flock was in excellent health. A police spokesman (never having read Culpeper) said it was the first time they had heard such a claim. M. Rouyer, who lives in the village of La Gripperie-Saint-Symphorien on France’s Atlantic coast, did also admit to smoking some of the cannabis.
Family Solanaceae, Nightshade
OTHER NAMES: Black henbane, hog bean, stinking nightshade, henbell, fetid nightshade, devil’s eye, Jupiter’s bean, devil’s tobacco, poison tobacco, witches’ herb.
DESCRIPTION: Covered with sticky hairs, its gray-green, sharply toothed leaves surround bell-shaped creamy yellow or pale purple flowers, marked with deep purple veins. The stem can rise to 4 feet (1.2 m), and the whole plant, according to some, looks and smells like death.
PROPERTIES AND USES: John Gerard describes it: “The leaves, the seeds and the juice, when taken internally cause an unquiet sleep, like unto the sleep of drunkenness, which continues long and is deadly to the patient. To wash the feet in a decoction of Henbane, as also the often smelling of the flowers causes sleep.”Culpeper writes: “I wonder how astrologers could take on them to make this an herb of Jupiter: and yet Mizaldus, a man of penetrating brain, was of that opinion as well as the rest: the herb is indeed under the dominion of Saturn and I prove it by this argument: All the herbs which delight most to grow in saturnine places are saturnine herbs. Both Henbane delights most to grow in saturnine places, and whole cart loads of it may be found near the places where they empty the common Jakes, and scarce a ditch to be found without it growing by it. Ergo, it is a herb of Saturn. The leaves of Henbane do cool all hot inflammations in the eyes…It also assuages the pain of the gout, the sciatica, and other pains in the joints which arise from a hot cause. And applied with vinegar to the forehead and temples, helps the headache and want of sleep in hot fevers…The oil of the seed is helpful for deafness, noise and worms in the ears, being dropped therein; the juice of the herb or root doth the same. The decoction of the herb or seed, or both, kills lice in man or beast. The fume of the dried herb stalks and seeds, burned, quickly heals swellings, chilblains or kibes [ulcerated chilblains] in the hands or feet, by holding them in the fume thereof. The remedy to help those that have taken Henbane is to drink goat’s milk, honeyed water, or pine kernels, with sweet wine; or, in the absence of these, Fennel seed, Nettle seed, the seed of Cresses, Mustard or Radish; as also Onions or Garlic taken in wine, do all help to free them from danger and restore them to their due temper again. Take notice, that this herb must never be taken inwardly; outwardly, an oil, ointment, or plaster of it is most admirable for the gout…to stop the toothache, applied to the aching side…” Henbane was a key component of the “soporific sponge” used to achieve anesthesia for surgery. Opium, henbane, hemlock, mulberry juice, mandrake, ivy and lettuce were soaked into a sponge, which was placed over the patient’s nose before and during surgery to render him insensible.
HISTORY: The oldest surviving record of henbane, dating to 4000 BCE is an inscription on a Sumerian clay tablet, and henbane is also mentioned in the Egpytian Ebers Papyrus of 1500 BCE. The Egyptians knew it as “Sakran” (the drunken), referring to the plant’s intoxicating properties, but perhaps also with an allusion to the practice of fortifying alcoholic beverages with its seeds. Dioscorides used it to procure sleep and allay pains. The powerful hallucinogen was used as a painkiller, to treat ulcers and as a remedy for whooping cough. In 1648 Simon Paulli wrote in Flora Danica: “Among other herbs which are poisonous and harmful, Henbane is not the least, so that the common man, not without fear should spit at that herb when he hears its name spoken, not to mention when he sees it growing in great quantity where his children are running at play.” The seedheads look like a piece of jawbone complete with a row of teeth, so it was used in dentistry from ancient times. Gerard describes sharp practice involving it: “Drawers of teeth, who run about the country and pretend they cause worms to come forth from the teeth by burning the seed (of henbane) in a chafing dish of coals, the party holding his mouth over the fume thereof, do have some crafty companions who convey small lute strings into the water, persuading the patient that these little creepers came out of his mouth, or other parts which it was intended to ease.”
In 1910, an American homeopath living in London, “Dr.” Crippen, allegedly used scopolamine, an alkaloid extracted from henbane, to poison his wife. In August 2008, celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson was interviewed by Healthy and Organic Living magazine, which calls itself “the only magazine dedicated to providing information and advice for modern women who want to discover how to lead a healthy and organic lifestyle.” Asked whether he used any wild foods in his dishes, he replied “The weed henbane is great in salads.” In the following month’s publication Worrall Thompson said that he meant to say “fat hen,” not henbane.
Dioscorides and Culpeper have separate entries in this book, but the following men also contributed greatly to our understanding of herbs and medicine:
Nicolás Bautista Monardes (1493–1588) The genus Monarda (bergamot, bee balm etc.) was named for this Spanish botanist and physician. In Diálogo llamado pharmacodilosis (1536), Monardes examined humanism, and suggested studying classical authors, mainly Dioscorides. In De Secanda Vena in pleuriti Inter Grecos et Arabes Concordia (1539), he outlined and emphasized the importance of Greek and Arab medicinal practice. In 1540 he wrote a treatise upon roses and citrus fruits: De Rosa et partibus eius. His magnum opus was Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, published in three parts under varying titles in 1565, 1569 and completed in 1574. It was translated into Latin by Charles l’Écluse, and then into English by John Frampton as Joyfull News out of the New Found World. Because of this publication, Monardes made tobacco a household remedy throughout western Europe for headaches, arthritis, various wounds, and stomach cramps. Nowhere does Monardes write that tobacco might be smoked by white men for pleasure, but he recommended it as a cure for toothaches—and also for bad breath, which says a great deal about the state of 16th-century oral hygiene.
John Gerard (1545–1612) He is mentioned in the entry upon the Barbers Company Physic Garden. Gerard studied medicine and traveled widely as a ship’s surgeon. From 1577 onward, he supervised the gardens of Elizabeth I’s chief adviser William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in London. In 1596, he published a list of rare plants cultivated in his garden at Holborn, which gives us an insight into the practices of his time. In 1597 his famous Great Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes was published. By 1608 he was Master of the Barber Surgeon’s Company. In 1633 an enlarged and amended version of his Herball was printed for which he he extensively used the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, the writing of the Italian Matthiolus and the works of the German botanists Leonhart Fuchs and Conrad Gessner.
John Parkinson (1567–1650) A wonderful herbalist and botanist, he was Apothecary to James I and a founding member of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1617. Parkinson later became Royal Botanist to Charles I. In 1629 he produced Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise), which described the most efficient and effective cultivation of plants. It was followed in 1640 by the comprehensive and wonderfully illustrated Theatrum Botanicum (The Theatre of Plants). Parkinson kept his own botanical garden at Long Acre in Covent Garden, and disseminated information between European plantsmen, botanists and herbalists.
Family Aquifoliaceae, Holly
OTHER NAMES: Common holly, bat’s wings, holy tree, Christ’s thorn, Christmas holly. Culpeper also calls it hulver (holly) bush and holm.
DESCRIPTION: Holly can grow to 40 feet (12 m) high, and has glossy prickly leaves and bright red berries. Ilex is a genus of around 600 flowering plants, the only living genus in its family.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “The tree is Saturnine. The berries expel wind, and therefore are held to be profitable in the cholic. The berries have a strong faculty with them; for if you eat a dozen of them in the morning fasting when they are ripe and not dried, they purge the body of gross and clammy phlegm: but if you dry the berries, and beat them into powder, they bind the body, and stop fluxes, bloody-fluxes, and the terms in women. The bark of the tree, and also the leaves, are excellently good, being used in fomentations for broken bones, and such members as are out of joint. Pliny says, the branches of the tree defend houses from lightning, and men from witchcraft.” The leaves have been used in homeopathy for fevers, rheumatism and bronchitis.
HISTORY: Pliny describes the holly under the name of Aquifolius, needle leaf. The botanical name Ilex was the original Latin name for the holm oak (Quercus ilex), which has similar foliage to common holly. In legend, holly first sprang up under the footsteps of Christ, and its thorny leaves and scarlet berries, like drops of blood, have been thought symbolical of his sufferings, for which reason the tree is called “Christ’s thorn” across much of Europe. Holly is a traditional Christmas decoration, often used in wreaths. These decorations are said to be derived from a Roman custom of sending holly boughs, accompanied by other gifts, to friends during the festival of the Saturnalia, a custom that the early Christians adopted. The wood is hard and whitish, often being used for white chess pieces, with ebony for the black. Other uses include turnery, walking sticks and decorative inlay woodwork such as Tunbridge ware. Looms in the 1800s used holly for cloth spinning rods, as the dense wood was less likely than other woods to snag threads.
Holly berries are moderately poisonous to humans, but are an extremely important food item for numerous species of birds. In the autumn and early winter the berries are hard and unpalatable, but after being frozen or frosted several times, they soften, and become milder in taste. Holly hedges and trees also provide secure shelter for birds.
Family Caprifoliaceae, Honeysuckle
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper names it woodbine. Woodbind, goat’s leaf, fairy trumpets, honeybind, trumpet flowers, sweet suckle, common honeysuckle, European honeysuckle. Milton and Chaucer amongst others referred to honeysuckle as eglantine, a name more commonly attributed to the sweet briar rose by herbalists.
DESCRIPTION: Woodbind describes the twisting, binding nature of the honeysuckle through the woods and hedgerows. It has a wonderful fragrance, particularly in the evening when the scent is at its strongest, attracting bees, moths and butterflies to its sweet nectar. A climbing shrub with pink, white and yellow cartwheel-shaped flowers, it can grow to 25 feet (7.6 m) high if supported. The flowers give way to red berries which are toxic if eaten.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper says: “Honeysuckles are cleansing, consuming and digesting, and therefore no way fit for inflammations. Take a leaf and chew it in your mouth and you will quickly find it likelier to cause a sore mouth and throat than cure it. If it be not good for this, what is it good for? It is good for something, for God and nature made nothing in vain. It is a herb of Mercury, and appropriated to the lungs; the celestial Crab claims dominion over it, neither is it a foe to the Lion; if the lungs be afflicted by Jupiter, this is your cure. It is fitting a conserve made of the flowers should be kept in every gentlewoman’s house; I know no better cure for the asthma than this besides it takes away the evil of the spleen: provokes urine, procures speedy delivery of women in travail, relieves cramps, convulsions, and palsies, and whatsoever griefs come of cold or obstructed perspiration; if you make use of it as an ointment, it will clear the skin of morphew, freckles, and sunburnings, or whatever else discolours it, and then the maids will love it. Authors say, the flowers are of more effect than the leaves, and that is true: but they say the seeds are the least effectual of all. But there is a vital spirit in every seed to beget its like; there is a greater heat in the seed than any other part of the plant; and heat is the mother of action.” According to Maud Grieve, “a dozen or more of the 100 species of Lonicera or Honeysuckle are used medicinally.” Today, there are at least 180 species of honeysuckle recorded. Honeysuckle is astringent, depurative, expectorant, laxative, diuretic and has been used in the treatment of respiratory illnesses and catarrh. The flowers have been used in external applications for skin infections. The leaves and flowers of the honeysuckle are rich in salicylic acid, so may be used to relieve headaches, colds, flu, fever, aches, pains, arthritis and rheumatism. The leaves have anti-inflammatory properties and contain antibiotics active against staphylococci and coli bacilli. The flowers can be used for making teas, vinegars, jams and jellies. They can also be used for decorating cakes and desserts and for making country wine. One old remedy recommends curing asthma and freckles with honeysuckle wine. At least one writer tells us that inhaling the fragrant flowers, along with visualizing the way you want your body to look, can help you to lose weight.
HISTORY: Honeysuckle can be found in the Chinese pharmacopoeia Tang Ben Cao, with remedies dating to the 3rd century BCE, first published in 659 ce. The Chinese used the honeysuckle Lonicera japonica as a cleanser and for removing poisons from the body. Pliny recommended that honeysuckle should be mixed with wine to cure spleen disorders. The flowers have been highly valued for medicinal purposes by many cultures worldwide, and their use was recommended by Dioscorides and Gerard. Gerard says that honeysuckle is “neither cold nor binding, but hot and attenuating or making thin…the ripe seed gathered and dried in the shadow and drunk for four days together, doth waste and consume away the hardness of the spleen and removeth wearisomeness, helpeth the shortness and difficulty of breathing, cureth the hicket [hiccough], etc. A syrup made of the flowers is good to be drunk against diseases of the lungs and spleen.” In Scotland, it was believed that if honeysuckle grows around the entrance to the home it would prevent a witch from entering. Bringing the flowers into the house was said to bring money with them. Honeysuckle is a symbol of fidelity and affection, and those who wear honeysuckle flowers are said to be able to dream of their true love. In Victorian times young girls were banned from bringing honeysuckle into the home, because it was believed to cause dreams that were far too risqué for their sensibilities. Its clinging habit in the “language of flowers” symbolizes that two people are united in love and devotion.
Children still suck nectar from the narrow end of the flower’s thin tube, hence the name honeysuckle. Its leaves are a favorite food of goats, hence the Latin name caprifolium (goats’ leaf), and the French chèvre-feuille, German Geisblatt and Italian capri-foglio.
Family Cannabaceae, Hemp/Hop
OTHER NAMES: Humulus, lupulus, hop vine.
DESCRIPTION: A twining climber with bristly stems and coarsely toothed leaves. Tiny green male flowers are produced in branched clusters and larger female flowers appear in “hops,” beneath soft, pale green, aromatic bracts. The dried female flower clusters (hops) and hops grain are normally used. Although referred to as the hop “vine,” it is technically a bine. Vines use tendrils, suckers and other appendages for attaching themselves, but bines have stout stems with stiff hairs to aid in climbing.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper notes: “It is under the dominion of Mars. This, in physical operations, is to open obstructions of the liver and spleen, to cleanse the blood, to loosen the belly, to cleanse the reins from gravel, and provoke urine. The decoction of the tops of Hops, as well of the tame as the wild, works the same effects. In cleansing the blood they help to cure the French diseases, and all manner of scabs, itch, and other breakings-out of the body; as also all tetters, ringworms, and spreading sores, the morphew and all discolouring of the skin. The decoction of the flowers and hops, do help to expel poison that any one hath drank. Half a dram of the seed in powder taken in drink, kills worms in the body, brings down women’s courses, and expels urine. A syrup made of the juice and sugar, cures the yellow jaundice, eases the head-ache that comes of heat, and tempers the heat of the liver and stomach, and is profitably given in long and hot agues that rise in choler and blood. Both the wild and the manured are of one property, and alike effectual in all the aforesaid diseases. By all these testimonies beer appears to be better than ale. Mars owns the plant, and then Dr. Reason will tell you how it performs these actions.” It is a potent sedative and has hormonal as well as antibacterial effects, and is a bitter tonic herb that is diuretic, relieves pain and relaxes spasms. Hops are taken internally for nervous tension, insomnia, anxiety, irritability, nervous digestion (including irritable bowel syndrome) and premature ejaculation. Hops are used externally for skin infections, eczema, herpes and leg ulcers. Hops help to promote sleep and interestingly are said to decrease the desire for alcohol. The young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked like asparagus. The main commercial application of hops is in the flavoring in beer.
The antiseptic and antidandruff properties of hops are of use in many of today’s shampoos and it has recently been included in the group of products which are marketed to enhance hair growth. There are a number of antibaldness shampoos available featuring hops, often combined with nettles, burdock, pot marigold and rosemary. Hops can also be incorporated into bath gels because they stimulate the skin’s metabolism.
HISTORY: The English name hop comes from the Anglo-Saxon hoppan (to climb). Hops were cultivated continuously from the eighth century in Bohemian gardens in Bavaria and other parts of Europe. However, the first documented use of hops in beer as a “bittering agent” is from the 11th century. The liquor prepared from fermented malt formed the favorite drink of Saxons and Danes, called ale (from the Scandinavian öl—the Viking’s drink). Ale was brewed either from malt alone, or from malt mixed with honey and flavored with heath tops, ground ivy, and various other aromatic herbs, such as marjoram, horehound, buckbean, wormwood, yarrow, woodsage or germander and broom. Long after the introduction of hops, the liquor flavored in the old manner retained the name of ale, while the word of German and Dutch origin, Bier or Beer, was given only to alcohol made with the newly introduced bitter catkins. Henry VIII forbade brewers from putting hops and sulfur into ale, Parliament having been petitioned against the hop as “a wicked weed that would spoil the taste of the drink and endanger the people.” In England hops were not used extensively for making ale until around 1600. Hops became popular in brewing for their many benefits, including balancing the sweetness of the malt with bitterness, contributing a variety of desirable flavors, and having an antibiotic effect that favors the activity of brewer’s yeast over less desirable microorganisms. Traditional herb combinations for ales were abandoned when it was noticed that ales made with hops were less prone to spoilage, and gradually hop-bittered alcohol began to be called beer. Hops were at first thought to engender melancholy, but the diarist John Evelyn wrote in 1670: “Hops transmuted our wholesome ale into beer, which doubtless much alters its constitution. This one ingredient, by some suspected not unworthily, preserves the drink indeed, but repays the pleasure in tormenting diseases and a shorter life.”
ARMORACIA RUSTICANA (SYN. COCHLEARIA ARMORACIA)
Family Brassiceae/Cruciferae, Cabbage
OTHER NAMES: Red cole, mountain radish, great raifort, German mustard.
DESCRIPTION: It grows up to 4 feet (1.2 m) tall with a large leaf spread and tiny white flowers, and is mainly cultivated for its large white, tapered root, which can be 2 feet (60 cm) long. It is difficult to eradicate the plant when established.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “The juice of Horse-raddish given to drink, is held to be very effectual for the scurvy. It kills the worms in children, being drank, and also laid upon the belly. The root bruised and laid to the place grieved with the sciatica, joint-ache, or the hard swellings of the liver and spleen, doth wonderfully help them all. The distilled water of the herb and root is more familiar to be taken with a little sugar for all the purposes aforesaid.” In 1656 William Coles commented: “Of all things given to children for worms, horseradish is not the least, for it soon killeth and expelleth them.” Known primarily as a food condiment, horseradish is used as a herb to lessen joint inflammation and treat whooping cough and infected sinuses. It is also used as a diuretic, a circulatory stimulant, and an antibacterial agent. Horseradish root has antiseptic and stimulant properties, and aids in digesting rich and oily foods. Young, fresh leaves have a mild, pleasant flavor and are excellent in salads and sandwiches.
HISTORY: Armoracia is the original Latin name for the related wild radish. John Gerard (The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, 1597) wrote that “the Horse Radish stamped with a little vinegar put thereto, is commonly used among the Germans for sauce to eat fish with and such like meats as we do mustard.” Horseradish means a “coarse” radish, as a description to distinguish it from the edible radish; the prefix “horse” is often thus used, e.g. horsemint, horse chestnut.
Fresh root is grated alone, or with apple, as a condiment for fish, or with vinegar and cream to accompany roast beef, cold chicken or hard-boiled eggs. Horseradish sauces may be gently warmed, but cooking destroys the volatile oils, which are responsible for the pungency. The author’s favorite condiment, Tewkesbury mustard, is mentioned by Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2—“his wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury mustard”—and contains grated horseradish root. Its “kick” comes from a glycoside called sinigrin that releases horseradish’s acrid sulfur-bearing oil through enzymatic action.
Family Lamiaceae, Mint/Deadnettle
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper calls it hen-bit, but that is a different plant, Lamium amplexicaule. Black hoarhound, madwort, stinking horehound, black stinking horehound, fetid horehound, black archangel.
DESCRIPTION: It has bushy heart-shaped hairy leaves which have a gray mottle, and can be recognized by its whorls of hairy white, lavender or reddishpurple flowers. It can grow up to 3 feet (90 cm) in height. The scent is aromatic from a distance, but becomes more offensive as one nears it. When bruised, the plants smell of stale perspiration.
PROPERTIES AND USES: It settles nausea and vomiting which derive from the nervous system rather than the stomach. For instance, in motion sickness the nausea is triggered through the inner ear and the central nervous system. It was used particularly for morning sickness in pregnancy and also acts as a mild sedative. Black horehound had a reputation as a normalizer of menstrual function, and also as a mild expectorant. The leaves were used topically relieve insect sting, allergenic itch or sunburn.
HISTORY: Ballota comes from the Greek ballo, to reject, indicating that livestock would not eat it. Nigra, black, refers to the darkened leaves when the plant has flowered. Madwort derives from the practice whereby the leaves were mixed with a pinch or two of salt, prepared as a dressing and applied directly to any wound caused by the bite of a mad dog. The resultant effect was to calm any otherwise uncontrollable spasms. Dioscorides and Gerard believed that it could cure the bite of a rabid dog. In William Meyrick’s Herbal (1790) we read that an infusion of its leaves are good for “hypochondrical and hysterical complaints.” It was used as an antiemetic, for mild depression, and taken for nervous dyspepsia, arthritis, gout, menstrual disorders and bronchial complaints. It is claimed that the plant acts as an antispasmodic, expectorant, stimulant and vermifuge (to expel intestinal worms).
Black horehound’s second most common name is black archangel, Lucifer, while Ballota vulgare is called white archangel, Michael, who cast Lucifer from heaven. Black horehound, Lucifer’s herb, is thus the herb of sorcery and occultism, whereas white horehound was believed to have the ability to repel spells cast against a household.
Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint
OTHER NAMES: White archangel, white horehound, common hoarhound, marrubio, bull’s blood, eye of the star, hoarhound, seed of Horus, soldiers’ tea, llwyd y cwn (dogs’ hoar, Welsh), houndbane, huran, grand-bonhomme, herbe vierge (widow’s herb, French), devil’s eye.
DESCRIPTION: It grows 18 inches (46 cm) high with a 12-inch (30-cm) spread, looking a little like a white, or “dead,” nettle with clusters of small cream or purple-colored flowers. Its wrinkled aromatic leaves smell of musty thyme. The stems and leaves are covered with downy hairs, giving a silvery-gray effect, and horehound is also spelled hoarhound from the Anglo-Saxon har, meaning gray. We still use the old word hoary when referring to a white frost. All parts of the plant are poisonous, which explains some of its alternative names. Excess dosage can cause dysphagia (difficulty in swallowing), dry mouth, pupil dilation, tachycardia (speeding up of the heart), restlessness, hallucinations, delirium and coma.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper noted: “It is an herb of Mercury. A decoction of the dried herb, with the seed, or the juice of the green herb taken with honey, is a remedy for those that are short-winded, have a cough, or are fallen into a consumption, either through long sickness, or thin distillations of rheum upon the lungs. It helps to expectorate tough phlegm from the chest, being taken from the roots of Iris or Orris. It is given to women to bring down their courses, to expel the after-birth, and to them that have taken poison, or are stung or bitten by venomous serpents. The leaves used with honey, purge foul ulcers, stay running or creeping sores, and the growing of the flesh over the nails. It also helps pains of the sides. The juice thereof with wine and honey, helps to clear the eyesight, and snuffed up into the nostrils purges away the yellow jaundice, and with a little oil of roses dropped into the ears, eases the pains of them. Galen says, it opens obstructions both of the liver and spleen, and purges the breast and lungs of phlegm: and used outwardly it both cleanses and digests. A decoction of Horehound (says Matthiolus) is available for those that have hard livers, and for such as have itches and running tetters [skin diseases]. The powder hereof taken, or the decoction, kills worms. The green leaves bruised, and boiled in old hog’s grease into an ointment, heals the biting of dogs, abates the swellings and pains that come by any pricking of thorns, or such like means; and used with vinegar, cleanses and heals tetters. There is a syrup made of Horehound to be had at the apothecaries, very good for old coughs, to rid the tough phlegm; as also to void cold rheums from the lungs of old folks, and for those that are asthmatic or short-winded.” Leaves and stems can be boiled and used in cough drops and syrups. White horehound is still used as in cough mixtures as an expectorant, and for bronchitis and whooping cough. Infusing the leaves gives an insecticide, excellent against caterpillars, which can be used as a fly-killer when mixed with milk. The plant makes a bitter tonic that stimulates digestion, easing bloating and wind. Horehound also contains a potent pain reliever and nervous system stimulant.
HISTORY: The Egyptians and Romans grew white horehound to treat coughs and colds, and Egyptian priests called it the “seed of Horus,” “bulls blood” and “the eye of the star.” It was a principal ingredient in a Roman antidote for vegetable poisons. Its name may come from the Hebrew marrob (a bitter juice), and it was one of the bitter herbs which the Jews were ordered to take for the Feast of Passover. Gerard recommended it, in addition to its uses in coughs and colds, for “those that have drunk poyson or have been bitten of serpents,” and it was also administered for “mad dogge’s biting…Syrup made of the greene fresh leaves and sugar is a most singular remedie against the cough and wheezing of the lungs…and doth wonderfully and above credit ease such as have been long sicke of any consumption of the lungs, as hath beene often proved by the learned physitions of our London College.” For centuries white horehound has been traditionally used as a reliable liver and digestive remedy, as well as being used to help reduce fevers and treat the symptoms of malaria. Recently the plant has been found to have a normalizing effect on an irregular heartbeat.
Before the first documented use of hops in beer as a bittering agent in the 11th century, brewers used a wide variety of bitter herbs and flowers, including horehound. The German name for horehound means “mountain hops.” Horehound ale/beer was brewed until the 20th century in the east of England, and a non-alcoholic variety is sold today.
Family Equisetaceae, Horsetail
OTHER NAMES: Field horsetail, common horsetail, giant horsetail, shave-grass, bottle-brush, paddock-pipes, Dutch rushes, pewterwort, scouring rush, corncob plant, snake grass, puzzle grass.
DESCRIPTION: An herbaceous perennial with a hairy, tuberous rhizome. The stems are erect and grow to 2 feet (60 cm) tall, without leaves or hairs; they have black-toothed sheaths with whorls of spreading, green branches.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “This herb belongs to Saturn. It is very powerful to stop bleeding either inward or outward, the juice of the decoction being drunk, or the juice, decoction, or distilled water applied outwardly. It also stays lasks or fluxes in man or woman, and heals the inward ulcers, and the excoriation of the entrails, bladder, &c. It solders together the tops of green wounds, and cures all ruptures in children. The decoction, taken in wine, provokes urine, and helps the stone and strangury; and the distilled water drank two or three times a day, and a small quantity at a time, also eases the entrails or guts, and is effectual in a cough that comes by distillation from the head. The juice or distilled water, used as a warm fomentation is of service in inflammations, pustules or red wheals, and other breakings-out in the skin, and eases the swelling heat and inflammation of the fundament, or privy parts, in men or women.” Besides being useful in kidney and bladder trouble, horsetail can be used for hemorrhage, cystic ulceration and ulcers in the urinary passages. An external decoction will stop the bleeding of wounds and quickly heal them, and will also reduce the swelling of eyelids. Several of the species have been used medicinally, and the older herbalists considered them useful for healing wounds, and recommended them as a diuretic, for consumption and for dysentery. The ashes of the plant were considered very valuable in treating acidity of the stomach, dyspepsia, etc. The young shoots of the larger species of horsetail were formerly said to be eaten in Europe, dressed like asparagus, or fried with flour and butter. It is recorded that the poorer classes among the Romans occasionally ate them as a vegetable, but they are neither palatable nor very nutritious. They are used in Korean cuisine today. Linnaeus stated that the reindeer, which refuses ordinary hay, will eat a species of horsetail, and that it is cut as fodder in the north of Sweden for cows, with a view to increasing their milk, but that horses will not touch it. Another species, he states, forms excellent food for horses in some parts of Sweden, but cows are apt to lose their teeth by feeding on it and to be afflicted with diarrhea.
HISTORY: A quantity of silica is deposited in the stems, especially in the epidermis or outer skin. In one species, E. hyemale, the epidermis contains so many abrasive silicates that bunches of the stem were commonly sold for polishing metal and used to be imported from Holland for the purpose, hence the popular name of Dutch rushes. It is also called by old writers shavegrass, and was formerly used by white-smiths and cabinet-makers. Gerard tells us that it was used for scouring pewter and wooden kitchen utensils, and so was named pewterwort, and that fletchers and comb-makers also rubbed and polished their work with it. In later days, the dairymaids of the northern counties of England used it for scouring their milk-pails. This accounts also for its common name of scouring-rush, as it was employed for scouring (cleaning) metal items such as cooking pots or drinking mugs, particularly those made of tin. In German, the corresponding name is Zinnkraut (tin-herb).
This class of plants, the Equisetaceae, has no direct affinity with any other group of plants, being nearest allied to the ferns. The class Equisetopsida includes only a single genus, Equisetum, the name derived from the Latin words equus (a horse) and seta (a bristle), a reference to the peculiar bristly appearance of the jointed stems of the plants. Equisetum is known as a “living fossil.” Over 200 millions years ago, huge plants of this order dominated the vegetation during the Carboniferous Period, with the well-known tree-size fossils of the genus Calamites being the stems of gigantic Equisetaceae. Calamites are found in coal deposits, and some Equisetopsida were as tall as 100 feet (30 m). This family of vascular plants reproduces by spores rather than seeds. The plant has a very high diploid number—216 (108 pairs of chromosomes)—which is roughly five times greater than the human diploid number of 46. The Australian bulldog ant has the lowest diploid number possible, 1. The higher the number, the more likely it is that the organism has lost the ability to evolve, so humans may evolve into different forms, but the horsetails are in an evolutionary cul-de-sac and are unlikely to evolve further. The adder’s tongue fern has the highest diploid number, 1200, of any organism, and the highest mammal count of 102 is found in a South American desert rodent, the viscacha rat.
Family Crassulaceae, Orpine
OTHER NAMES: Sengreen (Culpeper), liveforever, llysiau pentai (plants of the housetops, Welsh), hens and chicks, sengreen, ayron, ayegreen, bullock’s eye, Thor’s beard, Jupiter’s beard, thunderbeard, Jupiter’s eye, thunder flower.
DESCRIPTION: A familiar hardy evergreen succulent, which grows in gardens and often appears on walls and roofs. There is a succulent multiple rosette of leaves with occasional pink, star-shaped flowers, growing around 9 inches (23 cm) high. It is called hens and chicks as it often propagates by lateral rosettes splitting from the mother plant.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper writes: “The ordinary houseleek is good for all inward and outward heats, either in the eyes or other parts of the body. A posset made of the juice is singularly good in all hot agues, for it cools and tempers the blood and spirits and quenches the thirst. It is also good to stay all defluxions or sharp and salt rheums in the eyes, the juice being dropped into them. If the juice be dropped into the ears, it eases pain. It stops immoderate flooding of the menstrual, and helps the humours of the bowels. It cools and restrains all hot inflammations St. Anthony’s fire [erysipelas], scaldings and burnings, the shingles, fretting ulcers, cankers, tetters, ringworms and the like; and is a certain ease to those who are affected by the gout.” After describing the use of the leaves in the cure of warts and corns, Culpeper relates: “…it eases also the headache, and the distempered heat of the brain in frenzies, or through want of sleep, being applied to the temples and forehead. The leaves bruised and laid upon the crown or seam of the head, stays bleeding at the nose very quickly. The distilled water of the herb is profitable for all the purposes aforesaid. The leaves being gently rubbed on any place stung with nettles or bees, doth quickly take away the pain, and discharge the blisters proceeding therefrom.” Gerard tells us the: “Juice of Houseleek, Garden Nightshade and the buds of Poplar, boiled in hog’s grease, make the most singular Populeon [ointment] that ever was used in Chirugerie [surgery].” The leaves were snapped in half to release the gel-like sap, to apply to insect bites, stings, burns and minor wounds in a similar manner to aloe vera. An infusion of the leaves treated bronchitis. Traditionally, to remove a corn or wart, cut a leaf in half and apply it to the corn for a few hours, and then soak the foot or hand in water before scraping off the corn or wart. The Natural History Museum’s Country Cures website relates how a Cumbrian boy had a bandaged hand caused by ringworm from cattle. A gypsy cured it by recommending “You have the cure on your wall. Take the leek, boil it and then dab the boy’s hand with the water.” She also recommended it for warts. A 1991 account from East Sussex reads: “My father-in-law was brought up in Norfolk. When he was suffering from impetigo [bacterial skin infection] a visiting gypsy woman recommended breaking off a piece of houseleek and rubbing the sores with it. The houseleek was growing on the cottage roof. My father-in-law (who is still alive) says the cure did work.”
HISTORY: Galen recommended houseleek for erysipelas and shingles, and Dioscorides as a remedy for weak and inflamed eyes. Pliny wrote that it never failed to produce sleep. In the 14th century it was used as an ingredient of a preparation for neuralgia called hemygreyne, i.e. megrim, and an ointment used at that time for scalds and burns. The names ayegreen and sengreen mean evergreen. The generic name Sempervivum is from the Latin semper (always) and vivare (to live), as the plant thrives under almost all conditions. Tectorium bears witness to its usual place of growth—a roof. It was deliberately grown on roofs and can be seen on thatched roofs in Brittany today, especially along the apex. When fixed, it spreads fast by means of its offsets, and can easily be made to cover the whole roof of a building, whether of tiles, thatch or wood, by sticking the offsets on with a little earth. (Houseleek is now being used as a roof covering for new “green” buildings. It seems to help preserve thatched roofs.) Culpeper noted: “Jupiter claims dominion over this herb, from which it is fabulously reported, that it preserves whatever it grows upon from fire and lightning,” and Charlemagne ordered it to be planted upon the roof of every house in his empire. As in Brittany, Welsh countryfolk believed it protected their homes from storms, kept evil spells away, and ensured their prosperity.
The Beard of Jupiter
The houseleek was dedicated to Jupiter (the Thunderer) and Thor (the Norse god of thunder), which explains the names of Jupiter’s eye, Thor’s beard, Jupiter’s beard, barba Jovis—its large clusters of flowers were supposed to resemble the beard of Jupiter. The German name of Donnerbart and the English thunderbeard have the same meaning, both derived from Jupiter the Thunderer.
Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint
OTHER NAMES: Blue hyssop (there is also a pink hyssop variety, Hyssop officinalis roseus). Isop (Welsh).
DESCRIPTION: Hardy evergreen bush with a height of 30 inches (76 cm) and a spread of 36 inches (91 cm), with dense spikes of dark blue flowers, and lance-like leaves tasting of mint and sage.
PROPERTIES AND USES: “The herb is Jupiter’s, and the sign Cancer. It strengthens all the parts of the body under Cancer and Jupiter; which what they may be, is found amply described in my astrological judgment of diseases. Dioscorides says, that Hyssop boiled with rue and honey, and drank, helps those that are troubled with coughs, shortness of breath, wheezing and rheumatic distillation upon the lungs.”—Nicholas Culpeper. Hyssop helps fight infection, particularly in the respiratory tract and thus helps with colds, catarrh and chest infections. Hyssop has been one of the main expectorant and decongestant herbs commonly used to treat respiratory conditions such as influenza, colds and bronchitis. It also increases circulation, causing sweating and lowering fevers. Hyssop has a regulating effect on the blood pressure, tending to lower it if it is high, and raise it if is low. The leaves, stems and flowers have a highly aromatic odor and when distilled produce an essential oil used by perfumers, its value being greater than oil of lavender. It is also employed for the manufacture of liqueurs, being an important constituent in Chartreuse. Honey obtained from hyssop is much favored. The leaves are used as a medicinal tea for colds and flu. Hyssop essential oil relieves stress, and can help clear bruises. Flowers can be used in salads, and the leaves, chopped thinly, add a mint flavor to salads or stews.
HISTORY: The Hyssopos of Dioscorides was named from azob (aesob, the Hebrew name meaning holy herb), because it was used for cleaning sacred places. Historically used as a cleansing herb, it is mentioned in the Old Testament as a symbol of purity, and is one of the “bitter herbs” to be taken over Passover. Hippocrates (c. 460–c. 377 BCE) prescribed hyssop for chest complaints. Because of its aroma it was formerly employed as a strewing herb. It said to be a sprig of hyssop that was used to offer up the sponge soaked in vinegar and sour wine for Jesus when he was on the Cross.
Hyssop makes an excellent low hedging plant, and is used as a companion plant to deter the cabbage white butterfly from brassicas. It also seems to stimulate grape production, and is thought to repel slugs from lettuce.