The heal­ing power of our flo­ral phar­macy

Nu­mer­ous fa­mil­iar way­side and gar­den flow­ers have served wise women, cler­ics and physi­cians down the ages. Mark Grif­fiths in­ves­ti­gates the true story of heal­ing with herbs and dis­cov­ers how Britain’s his­tory of folk medicine reaches back into the mists of

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OUR flora used to be our phar­macy. From all-heal to wound­wort, the names of nu­mer­ous native plants tes­tify to the med­i­cal em­ploy­ment we once found for them. Not count­ing al­gae (although we’ve re­sorted to those for health, too), about 2,590 plant species are native to Britain or as good as, hav­ing be­come nat­u­ralised here by the end of the Mid­dle Ages. At least 600 have been used in heal­ing and not just in folk and quack cures, but also in con­ven­tional medicine, where plants re­mained the pre­dom­i­nant in­gre­di­ents of reme­dies into the 19th cen­tury. The pro­por­tion is re­mark­able, and so is their story.

It was well un­der way by the Bronze Age. At first, the dis­cov­ery process was prob­a­bly one of trial and er­ror, for­ag­ing that was for­tu­nate or not. By such ex­per­i­ments, it seems, var­i­ous native and an­ciently in­tro­duced species were added to our bud­ding phar­ma­copoeia. Soundly em­pir­i­cal, al­beit no more so­phis­ti­cated than suck it and see, this ap­proach would con­tinue through­out our herbal his­tory. It would yield an im­pres­sive num­ber of plants whose ther­a­peu­tic value is now con­sid­ered to be proven or plau­si­ble.

But magic and mys­tery were also fac­tors. Con­sider mistle­toe, the sa­cred plant of our an­cient gods. It was ad­min­is­tered as a re­lax­ant and as an an­ti­dote for poi­son­ing— in which re­spects, science now sug­gests, it may well have yielded some ben­e­fit. Was this use­ful­ness a chance find made as re­sult of par­tak­ing of the plant dur­ing druidi­cal rites? Or did it come first, by trial and er­ror, and, to­gether with this species’ un­earthly ap­pear­ance, form the ba­sis for declar­ing mistle­toe divine?

The same ques­tion—how did it start: with a prac­ti­cal dis­cov­ery or in a mys­ti­cal be­lief? —arises with St John’s wort (Hyper­icum per­fo­ra­tum). From Clas­si­cal times on­wards, it was rec­om­mended for var­i­ous bod­ily ail­ments. Par­al­lel to these uses ran the no­tion that it would drive away evil spir­its if ingested or dis­played: Fuga Dae­mo­nium, ‘flee, de­mon!’, was one of its me­dieval names.

This species is cov­ered in minute pel­lu­cid glands that re­sem­ble holes, hence per­fo­ra­tum.

These, it was said, were pin­pricks made by the Devil, who was en­raged at be­ing put to flight by the mag­i­cal herb. In the Re­nais­sance, physi­cians di­ag­nosed this de­mon as melan­cho­lia and the tor­ments of an un­quiet mind. They weren’t wrong, it seems. To­day, af­ter stud­ies and tri­als, St John’s wort is in­creas­ingly ac­cepted as an ef­fec­tive treat­ment for mild de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety dis­or­ders.

Those di­abol­i­cal punc­ture marks bring us to one of early herbal medicine’s most im­por­tant, if wrong­headed, ideas, the Doc­trine of Sig­na­tures. This held that the heal­ing prop­er­ties of plants were di­vinely en­dowed for our ben­e­fit and that the gods or God had in­di­cated which species to use for what prob­lem by some as­pect of its anatomy or habi­tat.

Here are a few Bri­tish ex­am­ples. The tu­bers of var­i­ous native or­chids re­sem­ble the male hu­man gen­i­talia and so men con­sumed them in the be­lief that they would en­hance li­bido, po­tency and fer­til­ity. As its tubu­lar flow­ers brought the fe­male re­pro­duc­tive sys­tem to mind, birth­wort (Aristo

lochia clemati­tis) was judged able to in­duce labour or pro­cure abor­tions.

Liver­worts (Hepat­ica and Marchan­tia), spleen­wort (As­ple­nium) and lung­wort (Pul­monaria) were con­sid­ered ef­fec­tive against dis­eases of those or­gans be­cause their fo­liage was thought to look like them. Eye­bright

(Euphra­sia) was reck­oned to be of oph­thalmic ben­e­fit due to a per­ceived sim­i­lar­ity be­tween its streaked and blotched flow­ers and blood­shot and yel­lowed eyes. By now, I hardly need say that pile­wort

(Ra­nun­cu­lus fi­caria) was used to salve haem­or­rhoids—and some hellish cases at that, if its tu­bers, which sug­gested this treat­ment, are any in­di­ca­tion.

Of course, these and most other such sign­posted herbs didn’t work as ad­ver­tised. The Doc­trine of Sig­na­tures was merely su­per­sti­tion sys­tem­a­tised and lacked any real pre­dic­tive value. But it was not con­fined to the su­per­sti­tious and un­e­d­u­cated—it was in­voked by the found­ing fig­ures of western medicine in An­tiq­uity and es­poused by some of their most emi­nent suc­ces­sors, English doc­tors in­cluded, right up un­til the 18th cen­tury.

Some species, whose use­ful­ness was said to have been de­ter­mined by the doc­trine,

‘About 600 of our 2,590 native species have been used in heal­ing’

Our medicine was a com­plex hy­brid of be­liefs’

were in­deed ther­a­peu­tic. In Britain, as else­where, they are few. On ac­count of its creep­ing fleshy red stems, purslane (Por­tu­laca ol­er­acea) was taken to coun­ter­act in­testi­nal worms. The yel­low flow­ers and sap of greater celandine (Che­li­do­nium

ma­jus) sug­gested its use in treat­ing jaun­dice. Be­cause they flour­ished in wa­tery habi­tats, wil­low (Salix alba) and mead­owsweet (Filipen­dula ul­maria) were made key in­gre­di­ents of reme­dies for the fevers, chills and joint trou­bles that af­flicted peo­ple who lived near rivers and in wet­lands.

Suc­cesses such as these may have in­spired the Doc­trine of Sig­na­tures. For sure, they’d have been seen as proof of it (‘the signs said wil­low would help my aching bones and it does’). Equally, the use­ful­ness of these plants may have been hit upon by trial and er­ror and the doc­tri­nal ex­pla­na­tion ap­plied to them much later, be it to credit the Cre­ator or to as­sert what, in those days, was an au­thor­i­ta­tive rea­son for trust­ing them to work, or sim­ply as a form of mnemonic (‘ah yes—yel­low sap, that one’s good for jaun­dice’).

By the 9th cen­tury, our medicine was a com­plex hy­brid of be­liefs that had ar­rived with suc­ces­sive waves of set­tlers and vis­i­tors, chief among them the Celtic Bri­tons, Ro­mans, Sax­ons and Danes. To it, King Al­fred brought a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally se­ri­ous and uni­fy­ing ap­proach. He spon­sored the study of Clas­si­cal au­thors and the col­lect­ing and as­sess­ing of lo­cal lore. He also sent to the Con­ti­nent and the Holy Land for in­for­ma­tion and ma­te­ri­als.

The old­est sur­viv­ing English med­i­cal texts can be traced to this pe­riod, com­pi­la­tions of lae­ce­do­mas (leech­doms), mean­ing ‘reme­dies’, from laece, physi­cian, and dom, opin­ion or rul­ing. They are thick with plants, a strik­ing pro­por­tion of them native.

Con­sider a recipe for a salve for the head from the great 10th-cen­tury man­u­script that schol­ars call Bald’s Leech­book, af­ter its orig­i­nal owner, one Bald. It be­gins by ask­ing for myrrh, aloes and frank­in­cense— ex­otic ma­te­ri­als and ex­or­bi­tant, if ob­tain­able—but then it gives a home­grown al­ter­na­tive com­posed of nigon wyrta en­glisce, ‘nine English plants’, and lists them.

Some of their names pro­vide an in­sight into the An­glo-saxon herbal men­tal­ity. They

are to do with find­ing the right thing. For ex­am­ple, ha­ran spre­cel (viper’s bu­gloss,

Echium vul­gare) means ‘white-hairy speckle’, re­fer­ring to the pale bris­tles with dark spot­like bases that cover this species’ stems, so dis­tin­guish­ing it from other blue-flow­ered mem­bers of the bor­age fam­ily. Sim­i­larly,

ruwe weg­braede (Plan­tago me­dia) means ‘rough way-broad’, this plant be­ing hir­sute, broad-leaved and way­side-dwelling.

Be­tween Al­fred’s reign and the late Mid­dle Ages, priests and nuns be­came the chief cus­to­di­ans of learned medicine. They con­tin­ued to trans­late texts and com­pile reme­dies. They produced use­ful syn­onyma, par­al­lel lists of plant names, Latin and English. They gar­dened and, with the herbs that they grew, made treat­ing the needy be­yond their walls a ma­jor part of their min­istry—a ser­vice they’d per­form un­til the Re­for­ma­tion.

But they were not the only sal­va­tion for the sick and poor. There were also prim­i­tive, folk or un­ortho­dox heal­ers, pre­servers of the old ways, su­per­sti­tions and cures. They were mostly ru­ral and fe­male, of­ten lowly and il­lit­er­ate, but revered, pow­er­ful within their com­mu­ni­ties.

Their medicine, too, was plant-based, only its in­gre­di­ents tended to be gath­ered wild rather than grown. ‘Wise women’, as these cot­tage shamanesses were known, would pro­vide an al­ter­na­tive to main­stream medicine for cen­turies, and, at times, send it in im­por­tant new direc­tions by fur­nish­ing con­ven­tional prac­ti­tion­ers with clues.

The last ma­jor pro­duc­tion of our monas­tic herbal tra­di­tion is the man­u­script com­piled be­tween 1481 and 1517 by Thomas Bet­son, dea­con, healer and li­brar­ian at Syon Abbey in Mid­dle­sex. It con­tains a long list of medic­i­nal plants, many of them native, fol­lowed by a col­lec­tion of recipes for cures.

In 1518, the year af­ter Bet­son’s death, things be­gan to change. Henry VIII granted a char­ter to a new in­sti­tu­tion, the Col­lege of Physi­cians (later and still, the Royal Col­lege), so cre­at­ing a pro­fes­sional elite— learned ex­po­nents of medicine who mostly stud­ied and op­er­ated in the sec­u­lar world. The Col­lege had pow­ers.

It ex­am­ined would-be doc­tors and li­censed them to prac­tice. It pros­e­cuted and pun­ished un­li­censed prac­ti­tion­ers, wise women among them. It had do­min­ion over physic, which, in this con­text, meant in­ter­nal medicine. Strictly, no sur­geon could em­ploy physic un­less su­per­vised by a physi­cian.

It also kept watch on the apothe­caries who sup­plied medicines and their in­gre­di­ents. One of the old­est botan­i­cal ep­i­thets,

of­fic­i­nalis, means ‘as sold in apothe­caries’

shops’. It re­minds us that var­i­ous fa­mil­iar or­na­men­tal and culi­nary plants were orig­i­nally medic­i­nal: As­para­gus of­fic­i­nalis, Cal­en­dula of­fic­i­nalis, Rosa gal­lica Of­fic­i­nalis, Salvia of­fic­i­nalis.

The apothe­cary’s was an an­cient trade. As a re­sult of be­ing po­liced by the Col­lege, it grew in im­por­tance. Of­fic­i­nal be­came a by­word for of­fi­cial: herbs and prepa­ra­tions were meant to be bought only from sup­pli­ers who passed muster.

How­ever, li­censed physi­cians were few and sel­dom came cheap. Apothe­caries, like­wise, knew how to charge. When sick, the poor of­ten con­tin­ued to look to re­li­gious houses, which the Col­lege left largely alone. This re­course ended in the late 1530s with the dis­so­lu­tion of the monas­ter­ies. Henry VIII’S mar­i­tal dif­fi­cul­ties had pre­cip­i­tated a na­tional health­care cri­sis. It would not be ad­dressed un­til af­ter his death, when the Lord Pro­tec­tor Ed­ward Sey­mour took an in­ter­est in the prob­lem.

In the late 1540s, he em­ployed two gifted men at his res­i­dence—aptly enough, the erst­while Syon Abbey—the cleric, physi­cian and botanist Wil­liam Turner and a ris­ing bu­reau­crat, Wil­liam Ce­cil.

Com­manded by Sey­mour and sup­ported by Ce­cil, Turner produced A New Her­ball, which was pub­lished af­ter his mas­ter’s down­fall in three vol­umes (1551, 1562 and 1568). In it, Turner took pains to iden­tify native plants of ther­a­peu­tic value and to clar­ify and pro­mote their nam­ing in English. More­over, the body of the text was in English, how-to-do-it ma­te­rial of a kind that would nor­mally be in Latin and the mo­nop­oly of the med­i­cal elite.

Ce­cil—lord Burgh­ley as he be­came— pur­sued the project of mak­ing medicine ac­ces­si­ble in his ca­pac­ity as El­iz­a­beth I’s chief min­is­ter. Although the Col­lege of Physi­cians re­mained mighty, it some­times fell foul of the Queen in its ac­tions against un­li­censed prac­ti­tion­ers, es­pe­cially if they were women. The chate­laines of coun­try es­tates were en­cour­aged to read works of med­i­cal botany and to tend to their staff, ten­ants and the lo­cal poor.

On the bat­tle­field, at sea and among London’s de­prived, tal­ented sur­geons were em­bold­ened to prac­tise physic un­su­per­vised. And one of them knew more about its main in­gre­di­ents than any­one else in Eng­land: Burgh­ley’s ser­vant, John Ger­ard. He had trav­elled widely in search of medic­i­nal plants and cre­ated the coun­try’s great­est col­lec­tion of them in his gar­den in Hol­born. Pub­lished in early 1598 (although dated 1597), his Her­ball was ded­i­cated to his mas­ter, who had cul­ti­vated Ger­ard even more as­sid­u­ously than he had Turner decades ear­lier.

The book con­tained many non-native species. Its botan­i­cal and med­i­cal foun­da­tions re­flected re­cent Con­ti­nen­tal learn­ing and yet its English­ness rang out, page af­ter page. If he judged them ef­fec­tive, Ger­ard in­cor­po­rated reme­dies that he’d gath­ered from wise women and other un­ortho­dox prac­ti­tion­ers on ex­cur­sions about the coun­try. He in­cluded lo­cal English names for plants, many of them coined by women.

He pitched The Her­ball in such a way that the Queen’s Physi­cian could hail its un­matched ex­per­tise, while ed­u­cated gen­tle­women could use it as a guide in their char­i­ta­ble min­is­tra­tions. To in­crease its use­ful­ness, where pos­si­ble, he rec­om­mended in­dige­nous plants in pref­er­ence to ex­otics and im­ported prod­ucts.

In this, Ger­ard was re­flect­ing the spirit of his times. In 1580, an­other of Burgh­ley’s pro­tégés, Ti­mothy Bright, physi­cian and in­ven­tor of mod­ern short­hand, had pub­lished A Trea­tise: wherein is de­clared the suf­fi­cien­cie of English Medicines. The

‘The last two decades of El­iz­a­beth’s reign saw an ex­plo­sion of native herbal­ism

James I put an end to this lib­er­al­ity. Dis­tin­guished and broad-minded doc­tors, who had served El­iz­a­beth and been sym­pa­thetic to Burgh­ley and Ger­ard, found lit­tle favour with the new King. En­cour­aged by him, the Col­lege of Physi­cians took a hard line on un­li­censed heal­ers, wise women in­cluded—james, re­mem­ber, had form as a scourge of witch­craft.

In 1605, he de­creed that the writ­ing of medico-botan­i­cal works in Eng­land would hence­forth be the pre­rog­a­tive of Matthias de l’obel, an An­glo­pho­bic non-an­glo­phone. In 1618, the Physi­cians pub­lished Phar­ma­copoeia Londi­nen­sis, a di­rec­tory of sub­stances and for­mu­lae, pref­aced by a royal procla­ma­tion that pro­hib­ited prac­ti­tion­ers from pro­vid­ing or pre­scrib­ing any­thing that was not con­tained in its pages.

The Phar­ma­copoeia listed non-native plant ma­te­ri­als as ne­ces­si­ties, which gave a boost to London’s apothe­caries. Not that they needed one: the pre­vi­ous year, the King had granted them their own so­ci­ety by char­ter and, with it, power to en­force

their mo­nop­oly. This fierce reg­u­la­tion fal­tered dur­ing the Civil War. Now, Ni­cholas Culpeper, Eng­land’s most de­fi­ant med­i­cal out­sider, was able to pro­duce a se­ries of rad­i­cal works that placed the art of heal­ing back in the hands of the com­mon peo­ple and pro­moted plants that were read­ily grown or found in the wild.

The most im­por­tant went on sale in 1652 at 3d a copy: The English Physi­tian: or an Astrol­ogo-phys­i­cal Dis­course of the

Vul­gar Herbs of This Na­tion. It promised ‘a Com­pleat Method of Physick, whereby a man may pre­serve his Body in Health; or cure him­self, be­ing sick, for three pence charge, with such things only as grow in Eng­land, they be­ing most fit for English Bod­ies’. Reis­sued as The Com­plete Herbal, the book proved ir­re­press­ibly pop­u­lar.

Over the next hun­dred years, ex­plo­ration, trade and colo­nial­ism pro­vided physi­cians and apothe­caries with ever more for­eign plant medicines to pre­scribe and sell. Mean­while, many or­di­nary folk con­tin­ued to use the home­spun and home­grown al­ter-

The sa­cred plant of the An­cient Bri­tons, mistle­toe (Vis­cum al­bum) was used by them as a poi­son an­ti­dote and nerve re­lax­ant

St John’s wort (Hyper­icum per­fo­ra­tum), once sup­posed to drive away de­mons, ma­nia and me­lan­choly, now ad­min­is­tered as an anti-de­pres­sant

Lung­wort (Pul­monaria): its leaves’ shape and spot­ting were thought to in­di­cate its use­ful­ness against chest dis­eases

With flow­ers that re­sem­ble the fe­male re­pro­duc­tive or­gans, birth­wort (Aris­tolochia clemati­tis) was used in in­duc­ing labour

Used for cen­turies to re­lieve pain and fever, white wil­low (Salix alba) fur­nished mod­ern phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals with the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent of as­pirin

Rosa gal­lica Of­fic­i­nalis, the apothe­cary’s rose

Ni­cholas Culpeper cham­pi­oned the rights of or­di­nary folk to be treated with medicines made from Bri­tish plants

The yel­low sap and flow­ers of greater celandine (Che­li­do­nium ma­jus) were seen as God-given signs that it would rem­edy jaun­dice

Marigold (Cal­en­dula of­fic­i­nalis), wrote John Ger­ard, ‘is thought to strengthen & com­fort the hart, & to with­stand poi­son, as also to be good against pesti­lent agues’

The gen­uine ef­fi­cacy of fox­glove (Dig­i­talis pur­purea) in treat­ing heart con­di­tions was dis­cov­ered as a re­sult of its use in a coun­try rem­edy

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