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Nature's Pharmacy Plants Used As Medicine

Updated on September 29, 2015

Notes from a Lancashire Country Man

It is easy to forget in these days of convenience shopping how important the wild flora of a region was to people in days gone by. gone are the days when every household relied upon decoctions, salves and infusions to treat ailments from coughs and colds to life threatening diseases. There is a surprising number of common plants that have proved beneficial to man. the common daisy Bellis perennis for example. Until quite recently the flowers were employed to make a syrup that was taken to counteract colds and flu, while the leaves that may be eaten in salads contain a high Vitamin C content.

Culpeper the 17th century herbalist declared " that God made them so common because they are so useful" he recommended the herb to be boiled in asses milk as being good and effectual against wounds and to be made into an ointment or syrup. It is documented that the common daisy was the main ingredient in the production of an ointment that was especially popular during the 14th century, when the plant acquired the country name of bruise wort. { wort being the old name for herb}. An infusion of the daisy flowers/and or leaves can be used as a lotion to dab on to wounds.

Walking through a summer meadow redolent with wild flowers one can admire them for their beauty alone. Yet in days gone by one would walk in those meadows as one would walk into a pharmacy today. They would be gathered both for food and medicine. One of the plants gathered from Nature's Pharmacy was the ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolatus. In England it is one of our most common grassland plants.

The leaves of this species are easy to identify being lance-shaped hence the species name of lanceolatus { indicating a lance-shaped leaf }, which at their broadest are no more than 2cm across. They taper to a point at the tip and gradually tapering into a stalk which may well achieve 30cm in length. However, when the foliage is new and beginning to grow they form a tight " rosette " close to the ground. The under side of the leaf has 3-5 prominent rib-like veins which run the length of the blade, hence the common name of ribwort.

The flowers are an unusual form and therefore instantly recognisable borne on stalks that are much taller than the leaves, they are furrowed and prominent. The flower heads vary also in size and form. You may see in the same meadow flower heads that are the more usual elongated type and some that will be more rotund. It is the four stamens with their white filaments and yellowish-coloured anthers that circle the whole of the head that make them un- mistakable. I have used the leaves of this plant many times to make a herbal tea { an infusion } and as a syrup which was often recommended for children with coughs and colds. The leaves possess a natural anti-biotic, and Vitamin C. Culpeper, recommended the herb for inward torments of the bowel stating that " the juice of the plantain, clarified and drunk some days together " as being effectual.

It has long been regarded as a healing herb. The Anglo-Saxons had a nine-herb charm the ribwort being one of them. Between the nine herbs they believed they could cure or treat all infections and diseases.

The other common plantain may be found in a variety of places but it is on well trodden pathways and other waste places that it flourishes best of all. They can be a bane to gardeners when it takes hold in his lawn. However, if they are located soon after the leaves begin to appear they can be dug out without to much labour being involved. This species has a much broader leaf blade than the ribwort and are roughly the shape of the sole of a human's foot hence the generic name of Plantago which derives from the Latin planta meaning the sole of a foot. The seed s are large and tightly packed upon a long stalk which rises well above the foliage. They are superficially like a rats tail in form a name they are known as by country folk. These seeds were was left to swell in water, before the whole lot was taken as a purgative. However, the reaction was violent and dangerous, herbalist had to stop using it. The fresh leaves were made into a tea to use against water retention, but other herbs are thought to be more efficient in dealing with this affliction. The leaves can be used safely to ease the pain of nettle stings in the same manner as those of the broad-leaved dock, that is to say, both types of leaves must be crushed in your hand until the juice is extracted, for it is the juice of the foliage that alleviates the pain.

Sour Sorrels

It is thought that the sour docks referred to in old herbals would most likely be the sorrels. Indeed the name sorrel comes from a French word that means sour. The common sorrel was once regularly eaten as a vegetable and as a salad. It was not until the larger, more palatable cultivars came along that they fell from favour. Farm labourers working in hot meadows and pastures would suck the sorrel leaf to take away the dryness in their mouths in the manner that American Native Indians would suck a pebble on long journeys across the plains. The genus name of Rumex drives from Latin and indicates to suck.

Other dock species were also employed in medicine and culinary preparations. One use made of the broad-leaved dock, was that butter was wrapped in the foliage to keep it cool during the transportation to market. This practise earned it the country title of butter dock. These plants may lack the showy flowers of other grassland species but they have had associations with man for centuries.

The grassland in summer plays host to many species of the pea and bean family, which include vetches, medicks, trefoils and clovers. Of these it was the flower heads of red clover Trifolium pratensis that were employed medicinally in the form of a syrup that was claimed to be efficacious in counteracting the symptoms of whooping cough. The most familiar plant of the family is probably the runner and broad beans grown for centuries in cottage gardens. They all belong to the Leguminosae. The name derives from the Latin legume- a bean from legere meaning to pick { a crop }.

Yet another common plant of grassland, waste places and gardens is the common or field horse tail. In the garden they can become a floral adversary anchoring their roots deep between paving stones and similar situations, causing consternation. Like many persistent weeds one piece of the wiry root left undetected will produce another plant. The horse tails are a relic of prehistoric times. They do not produce seeds like flowering plants but spread by producing millions of microscopic spores. most species like to be anchored in wet or damp situations. Out of all the species that are found in Britain it is once again the common or garden horsetail Equisetum arvense which was utilised in medicine. The field horse tail was considered beneficial to human health for it comprises trace elements of potassium, magnesium and calcium. another important constituent of the plant is silica which aids the healing of skin and helps tooth enamel.In archaic times the plant was used to staunch bleeding.

Today infusions can be made from the dried tops which are considered to be a tonic. as a bonus this infusion can also be used as a gargle to relieve the pain of sore throats and inflamed tonsils. The Romans ate the fresh young tips in salads but the modern day palate may find the gritty texture and bitter taste not to their liking. This gritty composition led them to being used to clean pewter giving rise to the country title of pewter wort.

The gardeners dislike of the plant may be lessened, by an overnight soaking of the tops in three litres of water. The resulting liquid can be sprayed on other plants as a fungicide to prevent black spot and mildew.

Selfheal Prunella vulgaris was a much sought after plant in days gone by. Culpeper exclaimed that "he needeth neither doctor or surgeon that has selfheal to heal himself" nearly three hundred years later it was still considered as an astringent and used to heal wounds. The genus name Prunella derives from a Germanic word that alluded to the throat and was greatly employed as a gargle. In days gone by there was a strong belief in " the doctrine of signatures". It was believed that every plant would show an outward sign , in either form or colour of the affliction it was meant to cure. In the case of self heal the hooded flowers bore a fanciful resemblance to the bill hook, a tool in everyday use in medieval times. as such it caused most injuries that occurred during that time. Thus the logic of the archaic mind led herbalist to believe the plant should be used to heal such injuries.

Arboreal species have also contributed greatly towards medicinal and culinary preparations. A good example of this is the elder tree. At one time or another every part of the tree has been utilised in one way or the other. However, in this day and age it is mainly the flowers and berries that are used. During the autumn { incidentally I personally like the term Fall used by our American cousins for this season } , when the berries are mature they can be made into an elderberry rob a strong cordial that when taken at bedtime is beneficial at relieving the symptoms of colds, flu and fevers. Elderberry and elder flower wines have been consumed with relish for centuries. The flowers that hang in tight sprays may be deep fried until they are a golden brown colour -delicious!. The flowers may also be packed tightly into a glass container which is then filled with water. The resulting liquid makes a skin lotion that is regarded as excellent for complexions.

In olden times the foliage was thought to repel flies. A mixture was made of the leaves and applied to the skin to keep the flies away. The problem was it also repelled your friends.

The list of plants and trees that were utilised by man is almost endless and many more will be dealt with in detail in further hubs. The knowledge of how to use these gifts from nature has now been lost to many people. Yet we still owe them a great debt for the greatest of benefit they bestow, -the one thing we can not live without-oxygen!

rat's tail the country title for the greater plantain. The "tails" are green before they turn brown.
rat's tail the country title for the greater plantain. The "tails" are green before they turn brown.
figwort one of the many plants used in medicine.
figwort one of the many plants used in medicine.


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    • profile image

      Jennifer Wills 6 months ago

      Great article! Loved hearing historical uses of plants as well as modern uses. I am not white sure why the picture associated with this article is hemlock. I am pretty sure it is only used to poison someone.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Lizzie, your welcome glad to have been of help. Thank you for reading. Best wishes to you.

    • profile image

      Lizzie 6 years ago

      thanks 4 the info i waz looking 4 some 2 use for a scienc paper :)

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi Becky glad to have been of help. Thank you so much for your appreciated comments.Best wishes to you.

    • Becky Puetz profile image

      Becky 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Great article, well written. I learned a lot, thanks. Awesome Hub!

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Dr irum, you are welcome. Thank you for kind and appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

    • Dr irum profile image

      Dr irum 7 years ago

      Really amazing information for me , i did not know before this .Thanks my dear.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Thank's for taking the time to read. As you ,know it would probably be harder to find a plant that has not been used for one thing or another at some time or another.

    • Pollyannalana profile image

      Pollyannalana 8 years ago from US

      I have been using and studying plants & herbs for their benefits for years but never heard of these, I will have to bookmark and study this out!