Category Archives: herbal treatment

Coltsfoot–Herbal Cough Remedy


“Waters are distilled out of Herbs, Flowers, Fruits, and Roots.” ~Nicholas Culpeper

(Coltsfoot)

I often come across references to coltsfoot in my reading. My favorite is related by the beloved British Author Miss Read in her charming books about rural life in the small, fictional village called Thrush Green. In her Thrush Green collection, coltsfoot is a favorite herb in a concoction brewed by the eccentric herbalist, Dotty Harmer. The herb is native to England and Scotland, in grasslands and wastelands. It flowers in early spring and is one of the most popular ingredients in cough remedies. It’s generally given together with other herbs possessing soothing respiratory qualities, such as horehound, marshmallow, and ground ivy. Coltsfoot tea and coltsfoot rock, a confectionery product created from Coltsfoot extract, has long been a remedy for coughs.

(Owl Cat in one of my garden beds with catnip)

In A Modern Herbal Ms. Grieve says, “The botanical name, Tussilago, translates to ‘cough dispeller.’ Coltsfoot has been called ‘nature’s best herb for the lungs and her most eminent thoracic.’ Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny, Boyle, and other great authorities recommend the smoking of the leaves for a cough. Pliny recommended the use of both roots and leaves.”

Ms. Grieve goes on to say coltsfoot leaves are dominant in the medicinal blend called British Herb Tobacco. Other ingredients include: Buckbean, Eyebright, Betony, Rosemary, Thyme, Lavender, and Chamomile flowers. This herbal tobacco is reputed to relieve asthma and chronic bronchitis. She adds, “A decoction of coltsfoot is made of 1 OZ. of leaves, in 1 quart of water boiled down to a pint, sweetened with honey or liquorice, and taken frequently in teacupful doses for both colds and asthma.”

Liquorice has been cultivated in England since 1562, mentioned in Turner’s Herbal, and was popular by the time of Queen Elizabeth. But the plant, native to Southeast Europe and Southwest Asia, has an ancient history of use elsewhere. An extract of the root is made into a syrup, or administered in a powdered form. The most notable use for liquorice is in flavoring and candy, also a sought after remedy for soothing coughs, chest congestion, and the bladder and bowel. I take a powdered extract of the root in hot milk with a few drops of vanilla and a pinch of sugar.

This post is an excerpt from my herbal, Plants for A Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles, available  in print and kindle at Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Plants-Medieval-Garden-British-Isles-ebook/dp/B00IOGHYVU/

Nonfiction Herbal

An illustrated collection of plants that could have been grown in a Medieval Herb or Physic Garden in the British Isles. The major focus of this work is England and Scotland, but also touches on Ireland and Wales.

Information is given as to the historic medicinal uses of these plants and the rich lore surrounding them. Journey back to the days when herbs figured into every facet of life, offering relief from the ills of this realm and protection from evil in all its guises.

The Curative Powers of Elderberry


elderflowerIt’s also known as American Elder, Black Elder, and Tree of Music to give a few of its many names. There are different varieties, some that grow no larger than bushy shrubs while others obtain the height of huge trees. Native Americans used the long, straight, hollowed stems that became woody with age for arrows.

Huge Bull Elk in a Scenic BackdropThey pushed all the soft and poisonous pith out of the stems with hot sticks. Indians also bored holes in them to make flutes which gave Elder its name ‘tree of music.’ Hunters lured elk closer with elderberry whistles. I referred to this use of elder in my American historical romance novel Red Birds Song.

elderberriesThe fruit was believed to have a cooling, gentle, laxative and urine increasing effect. Elderberry wine was thought to be a tonic. The berries are said to aid arthritis. The juice simmered until thick was used as a cough syrup and for colds. The rest of the medicinal was used with great caution and some parts avoided entirely. The inner bark of elder stems and the roots were generally regarded as too dangerous to experiment with, however women drank very small amounts of elderberry bark tea for bad menstrual cramps, to ease the pain of labor and help the child along. I used a potent dose of elderberry bark tea in my historical Native American romance novel, Through the Fire.

Indians and settlers believed that small amounts of potentially poisonous plants could be beneficial under certain circumstances to stimulate the body to heal or maybe because it was fighting off the poison. Native Americans shared their storehouse of knowledge regarding herbal treatments with colonists who used these remedies in combination with those lauded cures they brought with them. Elderberry was also a vital plant in the Old World.

From Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs:

Elderberry Syrup“One of the human race’s earliest plant companions (found in Stone Age sites) the elderberry has developed reputations for great powers of good…as well as great powers of evil. In some parts of the world, no prudent carpenter would make a cradle of elderberry wood for fear of bringing harm to the baby. The elderflower has been involved in human history for centuries, and one story suggests that it takes its name from a unique medicinal dimension. The generic name Sambucus may come from the Greek Sambuke, a musical instrument made from elderberry wood. For centuries the plant has had the reputation of healing the body, but in elderberry’s golden age, it made music to heal the spirit.

During its long association with humanity, the elderberry’s traditions have become an incredible jumble of conflicting currents. It provided the wood for Christ’s cross; it was the home of the goddess Freya. If seen in a dream, it meant illness was on the way; it was such a healthful plant that seventeenth century herbalist John Evelyn called it a remedy ‘against all infirmities whatever.’  It would ward off witches if gathered on the last day of April and put up on the windows and doors of houses; it was very attractive to witches and thus should be avoided after dark.
bird eating elderberriesElderberries worked their way into every aspect of living from dyeing hair black to showing berries just at the right time to signal the beginning of wheat sowing. Shakespeare had something to say about it. One of his characters called it ‘the stinking elder.’ The Shakers used it as a medicinal. The wood of the old stems, hard and fine grained, was prized by the makers of mathematical instruments. The list could go on and on for pages; elderberries stand in our gardens as old friends.”

From: http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/elderberry

“Elderberry, or elder, has been used for centuries to treat wounds, when applied to the skin. It is also taken by mouth to treat respiratory illnesses such as cold and flu. In many countries, including Germany, elder flower is used to treat colds and flu. Some evidence suggests that chemicals in elder flower and berries may help reduce swelling in mucous membranes, such as the sinuses, and help relieve nasal congestion. Elder may have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and anticancer properties.”

*Image of elderberry syrup, also below

477900653Plant Description

“European elder is a large shrub or small tree that grows up to 30 feet tall in wet or dry soil in a sunny location. Elder is native to Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia, but it has become widespread in the United States. Deciduous leaves grow in opposite pairs and have five to seven leaflets. Flowers are white and flat-topped with five primary rays. Berries are green, turning red, then black when ripe.”

Parts Used: “The berries and flowers are used as medicine. Berries must be cooked before they are taken. Raw berries contain a chemical similar to cyanide.”

Available Forms: “Elderberry is available as a liquid, syrup, and tincture, as well as in capsule and lozenge forms. Dried elder flower is usually standardized to at least 0.8% flavonoids. Sambucol is standardized to 38% elderberry extract for adults and 19% for children. Sinupret contains 18 mg of elder flower.”

How to Take It: “Do not give elderberry or any product containing elder to a child without first talking to your pediatrician.”

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To Make Your Own Elderberry Syrup:

http://wellnessmama.com/1888/how-to-make-elderberry-syrup-for-flu-prevention/

Or order the Original Sambucus: http://www.naturesway.com/Products/Winter-Season/6970-Sambucus-Original-Syrup.aspx

Don’t Overlook Mullein–Herbal Medicine


Verbascum_densiflorum_'dense-flowered_mullein'Mullein: In Scotland (Aaron’s rod, shepherd’s club, donkey’s ears, cuddy-lugs, Rox) In North America (Indian tobacco, among many other names)

Mullein grows wild in Virginia and most everywhere else in America. I like mullein, a stately plant. The leaves are soft and fuzzy, and the flower heads impressive. Granted, it’s weedy and I don’t want it to take over, but it’s among my favorite weeds. A key herb in America, mullein is mentioned, but without nearly as much emphasis, in Scotland. Apparently, the Indians better mastered its medicinal uses, however, they are similar to those in the UK.

Perhaps because the plant is widely distributed in America, it was more greatly appreciated. The Indians smoked the dried leaves or made a smudge of them over the coals of a dying campfire and inhaled the medicinal smoke for treatment of asthma and lung conditions. The fumes were used to revive an unconscious patient. Mullein was used to ease coughs. An ounce of dried leaves were simmered in water or milk for ten minutes, strained, sweetened with honey or maple sugar, and the infusion sipped warm. This was also considered useful for diarrhea.

I’ve read of mullein leaves placed inside moccasins to sooth sore feet. The dried flowers were soaked in edible oil for several weeks, and the oil then used externally for earaches, piles, sunburn, rashes, inflammation, and internally for coughs, lung and chest trouble. Mullein oil was considered effective against disease germs and a natural antibiotic.

Herbal Lore–Boneset (Not actually used to set bones)


boneset

Boneset (Ague-weed) is a beautiful native American plant found in moist meadows, woodlands, along stream banks, or in swamps across Eastern North America and west to Louisiana and Minnesota.  A member of the aster family, it blooms July–September with flat clusters of white flowers. Once established, boneset resembles a small shrub at 3’ to 4’ tall. The base of the leaves appear to wrap around the stem, as if pierced by the stem. This perforated arrangement of the leaf and stem led to the species name E. perfoliatum. Because the leaves are wrapped around the stem, early herbalists concluded the plant would be useful as a plaster, along with bandages, for setting broken bones.

Boneset was also infused as a tea to treat fevers, colds, and digestive ailments. A Modern Herbal suggests the name boneset rose from its use as a treatment for Dengue fever, also known as Break Bone Fever, and declares, ‘Probably no plant in American domestic practice has had more extensive and frequent use.’ The summer flowers attract pollinating insects, such as butterflies. In the fall, the seeds draw a variety of songbirds.

From http://medicinalherbinfo.org/herbs/Boneset.html:

“Boneset was one of early America’s foremost medical plants, a popular panacea of extraordinary powers. Native Americans introduced the settlers to this New World herb. Its name reflects its use during a particularly harsh strain of flu called “break bone fever”. Come cold and flu season, boneset can be invaluable in relieving coughs and upper respiratory congestion. Today, it is chiefly regarded as a weed with an interesting past.”

From another interesting site: http://www.alchemy-works.com/eupatorium_perfoliatum.html

“In West Virginia folk medicine, boneset was simmered with lemon and honey to make a cough syrup. The Eclectic physicians used it with success during the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. In modern herbalism, it is usually combined with elder and willow for fevers with aches, and with scullcap and milkweed for flu.”

That’s pretty darned amazing because that was a killer flu.

About ‘Plants For A Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles’


medieval herb garden smaller sizeWith daughter Elise’s invaluable help, the print version of my herbal, Plants For A Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles , is filled with images and available in print. The kindle version also has many pics. ***Note: A number of these herbs later made their way to America and are in use today. They’re not solely relegated to the Middle Ages. That’s just the main focus of the book.

From the Introduction:

The Middle Ages span a large chunk of time. In European history, the Medieval period lasted from the 5th to the 15th century and is subdivided into the Early, the High, and the Late Middle Ages. The plants grown in a Medieval herb or physic garden depended on time and place, as well as the avail­ability of the plants. The Crusades played a vital role in the introduction of new varieties. Some of the herbs we consider inherently English, notably, rosemary, sage, and thyme, were introduced to Britain with the return of the Crusaders (the 11th through the 13th century). Before the Crusades, fewer plants were available for an herb garden. Lavender, such a favorite, didn’t arrive on the scene in England before the mid-16th century.

herbs_pennyroyal

Spices, so common today but rare then, also made their first appearance with the Crusaders. Among these were nutmeg, ginger, and peppercorns, only afforded by the wealthy. Medieval England was mad for these new taste sensations that added zest to their food and helped disguise spoiled meat. Nutmeg was touted as a cure for the plague. Ginger also made that claim, and peppercorns were worth their weight in gold. Wars were fought over spices, but back to the plants. Unless an individual lived in an isolated region and gleaned only native species, a Medieval physic garden would have had many varieties.

herbs_aconite
The herbs weren’t grown for their beauty alone, so much as for their healing properties. To the modern eye, they might appear rather weedy. Plants were peoples’ medicine kits, and aesthetics wasn’t the focus. These were not the opulent luxury gardens, but humble and earthy.

Not all of these herbs grow year round in winter, so root stock, cuttings, or seed would have been saved for the next season. Depending on what part of the plant was desired, the leaves, roots, bark, seeds, fruit, etc, determined whether they were used fresh or preserved. Methods of preparation include: waters (simple or distilled), infusions, decoctions, cordials, syrups, conserves, tinctures, oils… ‘Simples’ are the use of one herb, rather than a combination.

medieval_garden

18th century botanist and apothecary Sir John Hill in his book, The Family Herbal, says, “In general, leaves, flowers, and entire plants whether fresh or dried, are used in infusions; the roots and bark in decoctions.” So decoctions are for the tougher materials. When fresh roots are used, he advises first cutting them into thin slices. Fresh bark should be shaved down to better prepare it. Grind dried roots into a coarse powder before using them in a decoction.

A decoction might be infused with nut oil, wine, vinegar, alcohol, or water and then dispensed by the spoonful or wineglassful in the proportions deemed appropriate. This was guesswork. Tinctures are concentrated and dispensed by drops. Only a skilled herbalist was able to more accurately judge how much was enough. In the case of potentially poisonous herbs, too much was lethal. And still is. Dosage is critical.

alternative medicine--herbs

Herbs were dispensed singly or as a mixture. If an external dressing was needed, a poultice or compress might be applied. Herbal ointments were commonly made with lard. The wealthy might employ more exotic ingredients such as nut oil, wax, and resin. Medicinal baths were also used, or the patient breathed in the vapors of a steeping herb or the smoke from burning leaves. How the curative powers were delivered depended on the plant and the ailment or injury being treated.

I’ve compiled a list of many herbs, including some trees, that could have been grown in an English Medieval Herb Garden after the Crusades. These have been noted, also whether the plants were indige­nous, and, if not, when they arrived in England. Many would have been cultivated in other regions of the British Isles, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, depending on climate conditions and access to seeds.

Where possible, I noted that too, particularly Scotland. Medical properties and uses are given after each one. I’ve listed the plants in alphabetical order. Or tried. The complete plant index is at the end of this work. Some plants make appearances in reference to others because herbs are often used in combinations in medical applications. And, depending on the full name, they may not appear in the order you expect.

Agrimony, Flower Herb***Disclaimer: I am not advocating the medicinal use of these plants, only providing information about their age-old uses. Any applications are strictly up to you. Added cautions are provided for potentially poisonous herbs. Heed them.

***Amazon LinkPlants For A Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles