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!!!