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
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