Flower Power’ by Rod Amos – 16/9/2019

Flowers are an essen­tial part of our lives, and are used in drink­ing, for eating, attract­ing part­ners, admir­ing, treat­ing mal­ad­ies etc…………

Rod, a Rheumatologist, talked to us today about the myths, magic and medi­cinal qual­it­ies of English wild­flowers.

As a warn­ing, in case we fan­cied trying out a few myths and exper­i­ment­ing, we were shown pic­tures of 4 very sim­ilar look­ing plants – Cow Parsley, Sweet Cicely, Angelica and Hemlock, the last of these being the killer. Beware! The devil is in the detail!

Modern medi­cine is deemed to have taken shape from the 19th cen­tury, but prior to that, medi­cine up to the 1700s was based on Quackery, when anyone could sell any sup­posed home-made remedy. Purging the humours was another dodgy wheeze.

As far back as the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians (e.g. Hippocrates, Paracelsus, Dioscorides, Galen) rem­ed­ies, con­cocted from plants, based on myth and magic were pro­moted.

Even today there are myths.
— Why do we apply a dock leaf to a sting? Is this another sting to mask the first? Is it a placebo? It has been found that if you chew a dock leaf first, it releases anti-inflammatory prop­er­ties, so maybe there’s some­thing in it after all.
— Hawthorn (its altern­at­ive name being ‘’Mother will Die’’), brings bad luck if brought into the house, because decay­ing Hawthorn smells like the decay of bodies, giving off the same chem­ic­als.
— Lilac was used to line coffins, as the purple colour was asso­ci­ated to the last stage of mourn­ing.
— Red and white flowers are banned in hos­pit­als as they infer blood and band­ages.

Some myths and super­sti­tions gave rise to the Doctrine of Signatures – This is when nature pro­duces objects used to treat parts of the body which are sim­ilar in appear­ance :-

e.g. — Walnuts used in treat­ment of the brain
— The Eye Bright plant used for the eye
— The Lungwort plant with spots on their leaves appear­ing like air spaces in lungs, which was used for coughs etc

However, some of the main plants that have con­trib­uted to myth, magic or medi­cine, are listed below. In some cases their prop­er­ties were found by acci­dent, or because of the per­ceived Doctrine of Signatures :-
Lesser Celandine and Figwort. Their roots are like haem­or­rhoids (piles). The former is the first flower of Spring and, like fig­wort, is used to treat piles. Both are used to treat Scrofula (TB of the skin) as they con­tain sapon­ins and tan­nins which are a nat­ural pro­tec­tion for the plants and may be anti-inflammatories. Scrofula was also called ‘Kings Evil’ and was thought to be cured when the mon­arch touched you. Because of the time this involved for the King, ‘Touch pieces’ were minted with the Kings head on, as a sub­sti­tute for the mon­archs touch.
Early Purple Orchid. Its roots are like testicles, so it was power­ful in sexual magic, as an aph­ro­dis­iac, or in determ­in­ing the sex of an unborn child. This myth goes back to the Greeks and the plant has lots of folk names, but, there is no known medi­cinal value. The Church called it Gethsemane or Cross Flower because of the spots on the leaves, which rep­res­en­ted drops of blood.
- Lords and Ladies. There were lots of folk names here too, because of its shape, all infer­ring sexual magic.
Foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea). There was lots of folk­lore sur­round­ing this plant, with the Church naming it ‘’Ladys’ Fingers and Virgins’ Fingers’’. Fox=mischievous animal, glove= digitalis in Latin, mean­ing you can put your finger in it. William Withering in 1775 acci­dent­ally real­ised that a medi­cine con­coc­tion for bal­an­cing the ‘’humours’’ con­tained digoxin, an extract from fox­glove, as its active ingredi­ent, which was effect­ive against dropsy, which is a swell­ing caused by heart fail­ure.
- White Willow and Meadowsweet (Spirea), which both grow in damp places, give us sali­cylic acid, a major com­pon­ent of Aspirin. Johann Pagenstecher extrac­ted sali­cylic acid from Meadowsweet. Johann Buchner isol­ated a yellow sub­stance from willow tree tan­nins which he called salicin (Latin for willow). Raffaele Piria con­ver­ted this into sali­cylic acid. Further con­tri­bu­tions in this field were made by Thomas John Maclagan. Felix Hoffman went a step fur­ther and found acet­ylsali­cylic acid using acetic acid. He called this A for ‘acetyl’ and ‘spirin’ as it came from Spirea. ASPIRIN was born. (He also found HERO-IN.)
Oskar Lassar inven­ted his famous paste, which has sali­cylic acid in it, for treat­ing skin prob­lems.
Rev. Edmund Stone found by chew­ing willow bark, which is bitter like Peruvian bark, he could cure fever, as it con­tains quin­ine, a treat­ment for mal­aria.
Naked Ladies, (Latin name col­chicum autum­nale) which is an Autumn crocus. This comes up in Autumn before the leaves (hence the name naked ladies) and an over­dose can be pois­on­ous. It pro­duces col­chicine, used to treat gout. This was dis­covered acci­dent­ally by John Hall who mar­ried Shakespeares daugh­ter in 1607. It was recor­ded as having been used as ‘Eau de Medicineale’ by Banks and Cook on the ‘Endeavour’.
Nightshades – The deadly vari­ety (Belladonna) con­tains atropine (from Atropos, one of the 3 Fates). This dilutes the pupil and even­tu­ally leads to death. It is one sub­stance in ‘Flying Ointment’, used as a hal­lu­cin­at­ory exper­i­ence.
Monkshood – All parts of this plant are toxic, reflec­ted in its folk names. It is still used in homeo­pathy in small quant­it­ies. Cerberus and Hecate in Greek myth­o­logy men­tion the toxin acon­ite in this plant.

Now well aware of how to poison someone, Rod fin­ished his talk with a story about Dr. Edward William Pritchard who put the above inform­a­tion to use by pois­on­ing his rel­at­ives, but even­tu­ally was hung for his crimes!!!