Tag Archives: herbal medicine

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.

Herbal Lore and the Wonder of Old-Time Plants


Natural fresh herbsSimple wayside flowers, even weeds, have a far greater heritage than most people realize. We modern folk cannot begin to grasp the enormous part that herbs–‘a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities’–played in every aspect of life in times past; the not so distant past. There were no drugstores to run to for health and beauty aids, no cures to be had at every corner. Remedies for everything from colds to the bubonic plague were made into tinctures, teas, salves, poultices..

A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve, first published in 1931, allots six pages to dandelions alone. The yellow flowers of this much maligned weed, so loved by children, supply rich nectar for the bees and wine for man. The tender spring leaves are vitamin rich and eaten fresh, or dried for digestive drinks and herbal beer. The roots are roasted for dandelion coffee, said to be indistinguishable from real coffee, though I suspect I would detect the difference. The entire plant is esteemed as a tonic, especially good for the liver and kidneys. This just scratches the surface of the wonders of dandelion.

Burdock is a marvel in its own right. The leaves and seeds are infused to treat skin disorders, including eczema, and are taken as a remedy for nervous hysteria, an interesting combination and certainly useful. Lovesick? Pansies, also known as heartsease, were highly valued for their potency in love-charms and played an important part in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.” ~ William Shakespeare

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

The Healing Herbs May Bring


medieval herb garden smaller sizeA lot of people are fighting respiratory ailments these days. Don’t overlook herbs when reaching for a cure.

In my herbal, Plants For A Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles, I discuss several plants used in treating colds, coughs, congestion… Remember, many of these herbs traveled to the America with the colonists, so their use spread. And Native American herbs were sent back to England.

“Much Virtue in Herbs, little in Men.” Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) Poor Richard’s Almanac

Some excerpts from my herbal:

“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.”

“The tincture of pulsatilla (from the pasque flower) is beneficial in disorders of the mucous membrane, the respiratory, and the digestive passages.

From A Modern Herbal: “A few drops in a spoonful of water will allay the spasmodic cough of asthma, whooping-cough and bronchitis.”

fuzzy sage with blue larkspur“Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?” ~ Old English Saying

“Sage is wreathed in lore. I love this herb. An old friend, sage always has a place, generally several, in our garden. We grow the traditional variety, also some of the unusual kinds. They rarely survive as well as the old standby, if at all. A centuries’ old tradition recommends planting rue among the sage to keep noxious toads away, but I like toads. They eat mosquitoes and other nasty’s. It was believed sage would thrive or wither as the owner’s business prospered or failed. Man, I hope our plants are alive. I use sage in cooking. The leaves can also be made into a tea for fighting colds. I know a woman who swears sage tea helped her ward off a cold. I don’t doubt her, but the flavor is so strong, I’d be hard-pressed to get my family to drink it.” (Image of sage in our garden with heirloom larkspur)

Natural fresh herbsNot in my herbal, because olive trees weren’t widely grown (if at all) in Medieval England or the rest of the British Isles, is Olive Leaf extract. Invaluable. I order mine from Olivus–organic, excellent quality, I get their premium extract. Olive leaf also comes in a tea, but I drink enough tea. I credit olive leaf and green tea with the significant improvement in my blood levels after my 2010 diagnosis of chronic leukemia. Both are powerful antioxidants that help with whatever you’re fighting. (Image of fresh herbs and oil)

In the hit paranormal television show, Grimm, my favorite spot is Rosalee’s Exotic Tea and Spice Shop, filled with herbs. She’s often making an herbal potion or remedy for whatever curse or condition needs curing. They use a lot of herbs on that show–fascinating. For more on Rosalee’s Shop visit the link.

For some reason, herbs are often associated with the realm of fantasy. But they’re quite real, as are their properties, while sometimes misunderstood and their effects exaggerated. Herbs possess medical attributes of inestimable worth, if used properly and for the right condition.

herbal medicineOf course, I had to include a disclaimer in my book so people wouldn’t stupidly overdose on an herb, particularly a poisonous one, but I believe much healing lies in plants. More than we yet know. Medieval monks were amazingly well versed in using medicinal plants. Some of that knowledge was lost with the destruction of the monks and monasteries during the Protestant Reformation. If we recovered all of that ancient knowledge, combined with what we possess now, plus ongoing research, we could cure anything. And we should be doing just that. (Image of old Alchemy laboratory)

***Plants For A Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles is available in kindle and print at Amazon and in Nookbook and print at Barnes & Noble.

“What is Paradise? But a Garden, an Orchard of Trees and Herbs, full of pleasure, and nothing there but delights.” ~William Lawson, 1618

The Lure of Herbal Lore


herb garden

“And because the Breath of Flowers is farre Sweeter in the Aire (where it comes and Gose, like the Warbling of Musick) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for delight, than to know what be the Flowers and the Plants that doe best perfume the Aire.” ~Frances Bacon

My fascination with herbs is largely prompted by my absorption with all things historical and the thrill of seeing, touching, sometimes tasting, and above all smelling the same plants known by the ancients. Herbs have changed little, if at all, over the centuries and offer us a connection with the past that precious little does in these modern days. It’s pure intoxication to rub fragrant leaves between my fingers and savor the scent while pondering the wealth behind these plants.

alternative medicine--herbs

Simple wayside flowers, even weeds, have a far greater heritage than most people realize. We cannot begin to grasp the enormous part that herbs, any plant with leaves, seeds, roots, or flowers used for flavoring food, creating medicine, or for their scent, played in times past; the not so distant past. Herbs were vital to every single aspect of life. Think about it. Every one.

There were no Wal-Mart’s or drugstores to run to for health and beauty aids, no cures to be had at every corner. Remedies for everything from colds to the bubonic plague were brewed and made into teas, tinctures, or salves. Not to neglect the importance of love potions, charms, and protection from the dark forces, including witches, vampires, and werewolves. You can never be too careful.

Beautiful romantic couple kissing Time out of mind, herbs have figured prominently in mystery and romance. Shakespeare is probably the most famous author to incorporate the juice of monkshood as the deadly elixir in Hamlet. Mandrake, the screaming roots in Harry Potter, made up the sleeping potion that sent Juliette into a death-like slumber. Poor Romeo, if only he’d known before he drank belladonna, a member of the deadly nightshade family, or wolfsbane. It seems no one is quite certain what the ill-fated lover knocked back.

Foxglove 2Whimsical fancies sprang up around the shape of plants. The bell-like flowers of foxglove were thought to be the minute gloves that fairies wore, especially as foxglove blooms in shady woodlands where everyone knows the little folk dwell. Commonly called digitalis, this now famous plant is widely used to treat heart disease. But too strong a dose and bang––you have a murder mystery. In Pocketful of Rye, famous mystery author Agatha Christie favored a poisonous concoction made of yew disguised in marmalade. The author hid deadly hemlock in a bottle of cold beer in Five Little Pigs. If you’re in an Agatha Christie novel, don’t eat or drink anything she gives you.

On a happier note, many herbs also had romantic uses. The love potion in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been analyzed by a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in England. Doctor Sell thinks it was made up of heart’s ease (violas) blended with the sweetness of musk roses. In the play, Oberon drops the flowery decoction onto the eyelids of the sleeping Titania, but the good doctor cautions against trying this at home. Rather, opt for the nape of the neck or the décolleté––breasts pushed up by a tightly drawn corset for those of you who didn’t realize.

dill with white aster and other herbs and flowers in our gardenSpeaking of romance, it was thought that a young maiden could toss a sprig of St. John’s Wort over her shoulder and soon learn the name of the man she was to marry. Leafy branches of this herb were also hung in windows to ward off evil spirits and burnt to protect against devils, goblins, and witches. Bear this in mind, if you’re troubled by them. Legend has it that angelica was revealed in a dream by an angel to cure the bubonic plague. All parts of the plant were deemed of great value against enchantment. And don’t forget boughs of the sacred rowan tree to ward off evil spells.

Chamomile, herb, cheeryFeeling timid? Anoint your feet with catnip tea to embolden yourself. Fennel seed is said to boost desire Lavender is “of ‘especiall good use for all griefes and paines of the head.” For those of you who would be true, rosemary is the symbol of fidelity between lovers. Traditionally, a wreath of the aromatic herb was worn by brides. Rosemary is also the herb of remembrance and left at the grave of loved ones. We have observed this solemn rite.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.” ~Spoken by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s tragic play Hamlet

Natural fresh herbsHistorical writers, especially, can incorporate the use of herbs to flavor their stories, but anyone can mix in a love potion or fatal elixir to spice up the usual suspects in a suspense or murder mystery. If you do so in real life, don’t tell me about it.

I hope my enthusiasm will enrich your lives with a deeper awareness of those people who dwelt on this earth long before us and inspire you to plant herbs in your gardens. For authors, herbs may help you contrive new plot twists or add authentic touches to your stories. My love of herbs and herbal lore spills over into my books.

One of my novels with a pronounced use of herbs is ghostly, time travel, murder mystery romance Somewhere My Love. The story also has Hamlet parallels because I always wanted to write a story that does, and so I did.

medieval herb garden smaller sizeI also wrote an herbal, in eBook and now in print at Amazon.

Book Description: 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.

In Need of An Herbal Tonic?


sassafras leaf in autumnSassafras comes to mind and figures prominently in my colonial American historical romances set in the Alleghenies among the Native Americans. Think the colonial frontier–The Last of the Mohicans–and you’re there.

Back to sassafras. I love the tree’s varied mitten shaped leaves and its distinctive, aromatic scent. My parents have a sassafras tree growing in their yard, but I’d have to head into the mountains to get my fix, or buy sassafras from the small local grocery store.

*Note to self, plant sassafras trees. Maybe if I put in an entire grove some would survive. Our challenge is the cows which occupy much of our land and eat anything not protected behind secure fencing. Saplings are among their favorite delicacies.

old sailing shipYou might be interested to learn, as was I, that Christopher Columbus is said to have quelled mutinous seamen by the sudden sweet smell of sassafras which indicated the nearness of land. Not only did it aid in the discovery of the New World, but was an important export to Europe in the early days of colonial American, even exceeding shipments of tobacco.

Wine made from the darkly blue berries has been imbibed for colds. During the spring-flowering period, the blossoms were simmered to make a tea for reducing fevers. A blood purifying spring tonic was and still is imbibed from a tea made by brewing the roots. A tea distilled from the bark was believed to aid in the treatment of bronchitis, respiratory ailments and tummy upset. Chewing the bark was thought to help break the tobacco habit, a problem even in the early days of this country. The roots were distilled and the oil from them used to flavor many products including ginger ale, sarsaparilla, cream soda, root beer, toothpaste…

Sassafras leaves in autumn

A poultice made from the leaves and laid on wounds was used to stop bleeding and aid in healing. Native Americans steeped in the many uses of sassafras passed their knowledge along to European settlers in the colonial frontier. A tea from the bark was also thought to be beneficial in the treatment of venereal disease, needed by both Indians and colonists alike. If you wonder what ailments afflicted folk in the early days of this country, you need only read what they were most interested in finding treatments for and cancer doesn’t make the top ten.

How to make sassafras tea: One method is to vigorously scrub several roots, a couple of inches long, and use the whole root, or cut them in into pieces, and bring to a boil in three pints of water. Reduce heat and simmer for fifteen minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and steep for another ten minutes before straining and serving. Yet another method is to drop several roots into a quart of boiling water, remove from heat and steep then serve. A pound of roots will make 4 quarts of tea and can be used several times before they lose their strength.

Native American historical romanceFor the bark, especially used as a spring tonic, cut or grind a teaspoon of bark and steep in a cup of boiling water for ten minutes, strain and sip. The tea from either root or bark should have a yellowish red hue, rich smell and pleasing taste. It can be thinned with milk or cream and sweetened. I would add some honey, but those of you who like it plain, enjoy.

And good health to us all.