I AM NOT AN HERBALIST AND NONE OF THIS IS INTENDED AS MEDICAL ADVICE OR INFORMATION NOR SHOULD IT BE CONSTRUED AS MEDICAL INFORMATION OR ADVICE. This is intended as entertainment for lovers of historical fiction.
Recently I read DREAMS OF LILACS and the young heroine helped the hero recover from serious physical injuries with a few herbs in a hot bath. It got me thinking about herbs as medicinal plants and there many uses other than cooking.
We often read about the use of herbs in historic novels and their importance cannot be underrated. A great many of our medications are, even today, based in herbology. Aspirin was based in willow (Salix Alba) bark, and the very important, digitalis is a component of foxglove. (digitalis purpurea)
Of course all opiates derive from the poppy (papaver somniferum) . This includes laudanum which you will often read about when someone is in terrible pain or needs to be sedated. Recently, I read of it in Caroline Linden’s IT TAKES A SCANDAL, a Regency placed historical, where the impoverished, injured war hero needs it for the worst of his leg injuries. It is now processed differently but this highly addictive substance is still used to quell serious coughs.
I have always had an interest in herbs because in my family some were employed and I still employ a few today. My mother’s Godmother was a curing lady and I experienced some of her abilities first hand.
Before the advent of modern medicine, doctors and surgeons were often less useful than a woman who had a storeroom of herbs. Herbs and spices were used to flavor food and to some degree prevented spoilage. But the chemicals in the herbs often had healing or beautifying properties. They were also used for dying cloth.
Colonials brought their herbs with them to the colonies. A knowledge of herbs was especially important for a place where doctors would be nearly non-existent and the possibility of illness and injury was high.
In Portland, Maine a historic house museum: THE TATE HOUSE, has a modest, terraced-garden filled with the plants that would have been important at the time. A great many of these herbs are still grown in herb gardens, including mine. I have many plants we may not think of as herbs or medicinal plants: I’ll tell you about a few of these every so often to give you a feeling of what it may have been used for and what it might have been like.
Here’s one, from my garden that is pretty common:
Lady’s Mantle (Alchemillia Vulgaris)
This plant’s leaves hold dew in a most engaging way and form close growing mounds. The delicate, greenish gold flowers appear on spikes 8 to 12 inches high in the late spring and early summer. I love to pair these with blue and white Siberian iris in bouquets. Culpepper’s Color Herbal* states its ancient medicinal virtues:
It is for wounds that are inflamed and is effectual to stay bleeding.
The distilled water drank for twenty days herl conception, To retain the birth, the woman should sit in a bath made from the decoction. It is a good wound herb both inwardly an outwardly,… (p. 108)
Culpepper’s goes on to state its modern uses (paraphrased) as an astringent and styptic, mainly for excessive menstruation . The powdered root is used for diarrhea. (p. 108)
And here’s one you may not have seen before:
Southernwood (Artemisia Arbrotanum)
You know I learn something new about my plants whenever I look in one of the many herbals I have collected. Few people grow Southernwood anymore. It is associated with worming and belongs to the same family as the absinthe creating Wormwood. It is very aromatic and I have been told that it was planted around doors to reduce unpleasant odors. The reduction of worms in the human population of its native Europe and North America may be one reason it is not so popular. Otherwise, it is said to inhibit growth of other plants. I have not seen this myself as the weeds in my yard seem to grow perfectly fine all around it.
Speaking of weeds: Next time I am going to talk about how even the plants we consider the nemesis of gardeners everywhere: Dandelions, plaintain, thistle, clover and weedy sorrel were used as food and/or to promote health.
CULPEPPER’S COLOR HERBAL by David Potterton (Editor), Michael Stringer (Illustrator) Paperback: 224 pages Publisher: Sterling Pub Co Inc (April 1992) (out of print – used copies on Amazon)
AN HERBAL OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY GARDENS AT TATE HOUSE:
Chase, Georgiana P., National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Maine, 1991 (available through the Tate House Museum, Portland Maine)
HERBS AND MEDICINAL PLANTS, Madge Hooper
Arco Publishing, Inc. 1986 (also out of print, but used copies are on Amazon)