For hundreds and hundreds of years, ordinary country folk have been collecting, drying and preparing common wayside plants to heal and soothe pain in their neighbours.
In the Middle Ages, magic and witchcraft, spells and evil spirits were all part of the process in what was a deeply superstitious culture.
In spite of this, herbalism has survived and still flourishes.
And undoubtedly, help and healing are to be found in plants.
I find it amazing that everything needed for the good of mankind is freely provided around us; we just need to search, and there it is.
Yet we waste our time in war and our greed leads to waste and destruction.
Many of the powerful drugs used in modern medicines originated in plants.
In a way, they are already there for us, on offer so to speak.
Today’s plant-based drugs treat a range of diseases, from headaches to cancer.
Here are only a few:
1 Cannabis (Cannabis sativa), used medicinally for thousands of years,is used today in the treatment of sleeping disorders, autoimmune diseases and glaucoma.
2 Coca (Erythroxylon coca)
Cocaine was widely used as a local anaesthetic in the 19th century, and coca leaf tea is taken for altitude sickness in South America.
3 Daffodil (Narcissus): from the bulbs we have the compound galantamine hydrobromide, which is being used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
4 Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), an extremely poisonous plant, contains atropine.
Atropine is used to relax the muscles of the eye and to stop muscular spasms.
5 English yew (Taxus baccata):
The leaves of this yew are used in the synthesis of compounds called taxols, which are used in the treatment of breast cancer.
6 Fever tree (Cinchona succiruba) is a native tree of Latin America.
The bark of the fever tree produces quinine, which is used to treat malaria.
7 Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea):
Digitalis has been used since the 16th century to treat heart disease, and its derivatives are still used in modern medicine.
8 Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)
Opium derivatives such as morphine are still used as powerful painkillers in hospitals.
9 Willow (Salix alba):
The bark of the white willow contains acetyl salicylic acid, commonly known as aspirin.
It has been used for pain relief for 2,000 years.
Bark of the white willow
Feverfew is a plant that has well-known and documented health properties; this anti-inflammatory can treat rheumatism, arthritis and, most famously, migraine headaches and tension headaches.
I always grew feverfew in my own herb garden, and I can promise you that a feverfew leaf, chewed straight from the plant, has many times alleviated one of my migraine attacks.
In the British Museum there are many ancient herbal manuscripts.
The LACNUNGA, a 10th century herbal, names nine sacred herbs.
Like the Leechbook of Bald, the Lacnunga takes its name from an Old English word, læc, which means healing, and its title can be translated as "Remedies."
A 15th century herbal
One of the oldest of the British medical manuscripts, it is one of several documents found in British Library MS. Harley 585.
The Lacnunga contains nearly 200 treatments, using medicinal plants and other materials, as well as prayers and incantations.
Most of it is written in Old English and Latin, but it also includes material in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Old Irish.
Clearly, in the early Middle Ages the people of Britain were not as isolated as we might have once believed.
A 10th century manuscript
Though the manuscript dates from the 10th-11th century, some of the material it contains is far older.
For example, a long charm now known as the "Lorica of Laidcenn" can be dated, based on the language used, to the 800s.
Two other incantations in Old English -- the "Nine Herbs Charm" and a charm against a sudden stabbing pain, entitled "Wiþ færstice" -- offer a window into the British worldview and theories of disease in the 10th century.
THE NINE SACRED HERBS
The Anglo-Saxons believed that disease was spread by toxins blowing in the wind.
Songs, salt, water, and herbs were trusted means of protection from the flying venom.
The Lacnunga, a 10th century herbal, names nine sacred plants and a chant in their praise.
These nine herbs attack against nine venoms.
" A worm came creeping and tore asunder man.
Then took Woden nine magick twigs and smote the serpent
That he in nine pieces dispersed.
Now these nine herbs have power,
Against nine magick outcasts,
Against nine venoms,against nine flying things,
Against the loathed things that over land rove."
1 MUGWORT - Artemisia vulgaris
The dried leaves stuffed in a pillow bring sweet dreams, lend vigour when steeped in bath water, and prevent fatigue on a long journey.
The name derives from the fact that it was a wort [plant] that was used as an ale flavouring, hence it flavoured your mugs.
It continued as an ale flavouring right into the Middle Ages, and as healers used to administer herbs in alcohol, mugwort-flavoured ale would be a popular medicine.
2 PLANTAIN - Plantago major- in the Saxon "waybroad" in old herbals, for it thrives beside roadways.
It is a tough little herb and resists being trodden on.
The Anglo-Saxons believed that if the fresh leaves were applied to wounds they would act as a poultice to draw out poison and would stem bleeding in minor wounds.
An application would ease burns and stings.
Plantains grow freely beside chalk paths on the Sussex Downs.
When I was a little girl, my brother and I, taught by our mischievous father, would stage battles using plantain flowerheads as ammunition.
I have passed the secret on to my great-grandchildren.
Just make a loop with the stem, thread the flowerhead through, tighten the loop and PULL sharply.
It is possible to hit a target many feet away!
3 WATERCRESS - Nasturtium offcianalis - supplies a generous amount of Vitamin C.
Its juice added to water is a tonic to cure listlessness.
Known to the Saxons as Stune, this was believed to be a general tonic.
Watercress is known today for its nutrient value.
Since early times, the herb has had many uses.
Pliny, who lived from 23-79AD, listed over 40 medicinal uses for watercress, and included the belief that the smell of watercress would drive away snakes and neutralize scorpion venom!
A Persian tradition was to feed it to their children to increase strength and stature.
African tribes believed watercress could cause temporary sterility, but note, they also regarded it as an aphrodisiac....
Watercress was renowned in herbal history as a 'spring-cleaning herb' for purifying the blood and toning the whole system.
Early Romans revered the health benefits of watercress, while the Greeks believed it was valuable brain food and strengthened the nervous system.
Persian King Xerxes fed watercress to his soldiers, to keep up their strength and stamina.
4 BETONY - Stachys betonica- appears as the fourth herb in later versions of the Nine Herbs Charm.
' Atterlothe' of the original listing defies translation.
Betony, however, serves well as a substitute, for it was anciently regarded as a cure for "all ills of the body and the soul."
Betony was once the sovereign remedy for all maladies of the head, and its properties as a nervine and tonic are still acknowledged, though it is more frequently employed in combination with other herbs than alone.
It is useful in hysteria, palpitations, pain in the head and face, neuralgia and all nervous affections.
In the Medicina Britannica (1666) we read: 'I have known the most obstinate headaches cured by daily breakfasting for a month or six weeks on a decoction of Betony made with new milk and strained.'
As an aromatic, it has also astringent action, and combined with other remedies is used as a tonic in dyspepsia and as an alterative in rheumatism, scrofula and impurities of the blood.
The weak infusion forms a very acceptable substitute for tea, and in this way is extensively used in many localities.
It has somewhat the taste of tea and all the good qualities of it, without the bad ones.
To make Betony tea, pour a pint of boiling water on an ounce of the dried herb.
A wineglassful of this decoction three times a day proves a benefit against languid
A pinch of the powdered herb will provoke violent sneezing.
The dried leaves formed an ingredient in Rowley's British Herb Snuff, which was at one time quite famous for headaches.
5 CAMOMILE/CHAMOMILE - Anthemis nobilis- never fails to lift the spirits with its sweet scent.
In Tudor times, camomile lawns were popular.
As the ladies swept along with their heavy skirts, the pretty daisy-like flowers would release their delicate aroma.
Maythen, as it was known to the Saxons, is the “plants’ physician,” as it revives ailing plants when set near them.
Humans can enjoy its benefits as well.
German chamomile is used in herbal medicine for a sore stomach, irritable bowel syndrome, and as a gentle sleep aid.
It is also used as a mild laxative and is anti-inflammatory and bactericidal.
It is sometimes used as a mouthwash.
It can be taken as a herbal tea; use two teaspoons of dried flowers per cup of tea, which should be steeped for 10 to 15 minutes while covered to avoid evaporation of the volatile oils.
For a sore stomach, some recommend taking a cup every morning without food for two to three months.
6 NETTLE – Urtica Dioca – serves many useful purposes.
The leaves staunch bleeding and soothe burns.
Its seed stimulates appetie.
Nettle juice is an excellent hair lotion.
While it is commonly regarded as a troublesome weed, nettle is very nutritious.
During my stay in Yorkshire as an evacuee in World War Two, my foster-parents gave me nettle porridge.
In general stinging and thorny plants are full of nutrients, so full in fact that they have had to develop stings and thorns as a strategy against being eaten by animals.
Nettle was also believed to stimulate appetite.
This is not surprising, as its roots deep-mine the subsoil to bring up mineral nutrients.
When you are run down appetite disappears, so a nutrient-rich tonic is a good appetite stimulant.
[To eat nettle, pick only the young leaves and boil them, so that the sting disappears.
They are good in stews, but if you use them in soup or stew, add no salt, as they taste very salty.]
7 CRAB APPLE – Malus sylvestris – has long been associated with health and renewal.
The original wild apple from which all varieties derive is said to promote deep sleep and increase energy.
Why this is so is not known.
But the Saxons believed that crab apple was powerful against poison.
Possibly its nutrient value ensured that people who crab apples did not lack mineral salts in their diet, an early version of the saying that "an apple a day keeps the doctor away."
Crab apples make excellent jams and jellies.
8 CHERVIL – Anthriscus cerefolium – may posses a powerful brain stimulant.
It was once the sovereign remedy to restore the will to live.
Why this is so is unknown, but in herbal medicine today it is used as a stimulant and is said to lower blood pressure.
Chervil has been used in the past as a diuretic, expectorant, digestive aid, and skin freshener.
It was also thought to relieve symptoms of eczema, gout, kidney stones, and pleurisy.
It is most widely known as a remedy for high blood pressure today.
Make a tea, keeping a tight cover on the cup or pot to trap the volatile oils.
The leaves can also be dried and pulverized into a powder to be used in Capsule form.
This tea can also be used as an eye wash by saturating a cotton ball and placing it over the closed eye for 10 minutes.
Tender, young Chervil leaves have been used in spring tonics throughout history.
.A combination of Dandelion, Watercress, and Chervil are still recommended today for rejuvenation of the blood and body after a long winter.
Known as the silent killer, high blood pressure must have claimed many lives in the past, and sufferers probably felt generally unwell, so anything that lowered the blood pressure would have manifested itself in a general sense of wellness.
[Thyme,Thymus serpyllum , occurs in other lists of the Nine Sacred Herbs, and is said to cheer melancholy.]
9 FENNEL– Foeniculum vulgare – conveys longevity, gives strength and courage and has a pleasant aroma.
Fennel in the diet promotes good eyesight and fights obesity.
This is an excellent herb which exists in three species.
Its leaves, seeds and roots are all edible.
Fennel looks much like a large version of its relative, dill.
Also like dill, this herb has a score of herbal remedy and culinary uses.
Fennel's medicinal uses include reducing gas discomfort, cramps, bloating and more -- and it can be a useful addition to the diet of those sufferings from stomach problems.
It is recommended for numerous complaints related to excessive gas in the stomach and intestines, including indigestion, cramps, and bloating, as well as for colic in infants.
It is used in modern herbalism as a means of easing all digestive problems.
Babies take fennel water for wind, and it is popular among adults for the same reasons.
As an antispasmodic, fennel acts on the smooth muscle of the respiratory passages as well as the stomach and intestines; this is the reason that fennel preparations are also used to relieve bronchial and asthmatic spasms.
Since it relaxes bronchial passages, allowing them to open wider, it is sometimes included in asthma, bronchitis, and cough formulas.
Fennel has long been used to promote milk production in nursing mothers; and
because of its antispasmodic activity, breastfed infants whose mothers drink fennel tea are less likely to suffer from colic than other babies.
Bulk fennel seeds are most commonly used as medicine and as a cooking spice.
For the best results and flavour, crush the seeds a bit before using them: use a mortar and pestle to crush them, or simply rub them between the palms of your hands.
These "Nine Sacred Herbs" were not the only healing plants used by the Anglo-Saxons.
There were plenty of others, such as hawthorn berries, which are good for high blood pressure and sorrel, which is used for bladder problems, but these nine were said to have special status.
Why this is so no one knows for certain.
But it is worthy of note that two of them have the species name officinalis and officinale, which was always applied to plants which had a use in herbal medicine.
A herb store in the Arab market, Jerusalem