CHAPTER 21 – PLANTS IN FOLK-MEDICINE.
From the earliest times plants have been most extensively used in the cure of disease, although in days of old it was not so much their inherent medicinal properties which brought them into repute as their supposed magical virtues. Oftentimes, in truth, the only merit of a plant lay in the charm formula attached to it, the due utterance of which ensured relief to the patient. Originally there can be no doubt that such verbal forms were prayers, “since dwindled into mystic sentences.”  Again, before a plant could work its healing powers, due regard had to be paid to the planet under whose influence it was supposed to be;  for Aubrey mentions an old belief that if a plant “be not gathered according to the rules of astrology, it hath little or no virtue in it.” Hence, in accordance with this notion, we find numerous directions for the cutting and preparing of certain plants for medicinal purposes, a curious list of which occurs in Culpepper’s “British Herbal and Family Physician.” This old herbalist, who was a strong believer in astrology, tells us that such as are of this way of thinking, and none else, are fit to be physicians. But he was not the only one who had strict views on this matter, as the literature of his day proves–astrology, too, having held a prominent place in most of the gardening books of the same period. Michael Drayton, who has chronicled so many of the credulities of his time, referring to the longevity of antediluvian men, writes:–
“Besides, in medicine, simples had the power
That none need then the planetary hour
To help their workinge, they so juiceful were.”
The adder’s-tongue, if plucked during the wane of the moon, was a cure for tumours, and there is a Swabian belief that one, “who on Friday of the full moon pulls up the amaranth by the root, and folding it in a white cloth, wears it against his naked breast, will be made bullet-proof.”  Consumptive patients, in olden times, were three times passed, “Through a circular wreath of woodbine, cut during the increase of the March moon, and let down over the body from head to foot.”  In France, too, at the present day, the vervain is gathered under the different changes of the moon, with secret incantations, after which it is said to possess remarkable curative properties.
In Cornwall, the club-moss, if properly gathered, is considered “good against all diseases of the eye.” The mode of procedure is this:–“On the third day of the moon, when the thin crescent is seen for the first time, show it the knife with which the moss is to be cut, and repeat this formula:–
‘As Christ healed the issue of blood,
Do thou cut what thou cuttest for good.’
At sundown, the operator, after carefully washing his hands, is to cut the club-moss kneeling. It is then to be wrapped in a white cloth, and subsequently boiled in water taken from the spring nearest to its place of growth. This may be used as a fomentation, or the club-moss may be made into an ointment with the butter from the milk of a new cow.” 
Some plants have, from time immemorial, been much in request from the season or period of their blooming, beyond which fact it is difficult to account for the virtues ascribed to them. Thus, among the Romans, the first anemone of the year, when gathered with this form of incantation, “I gather thee for a remedy against disease,” was regarded as a preservative from fever; a survival of which belief still prevails in our own country:–
“The first spring-blown anemone she in his doublet wove,
To keep him safe from pestilence wherever he should rove.”
On the other hand, in some countries there is a very strong prejudice against the wild anemone, the air being said “to be so tainted by them, that they who inhale it often incur severe sickness.”  Similarly we may compare the notion that flowers blooming out of season have a fatal significance, as we have noted elsewhere.
The sacred associations attached to many plants have invested them, at all times, with a scientific repute in the healing art, instances of which may be traced up to a very early period. Thus, the peony, which, from its mythical divine origin, was an important flower in the primitive pharmacopoeia, has even in modern times retained its reputation; and to this day Sussex mothers put necklaces of beads turned from the peony root around their children’s necks, to prevent convulsions and to assist them in their teething. When worn on the person, it was long considered, too, a most effectual remedy for insanity, and Culpepper speaks of its virtues in the cure of the falling sickness.  The thistle, sacred to Thor, is another plant of this kind, and indeed instances are very numerous. On the other hand, some plants, from their great virtues as “all-heals,” it would seem, had such names as “Angelica” and “Archangel” bestowed on them. 
In later times many plants became connected with the name of Christ, and with the events of the crucifixion itself–facts which occasionally explain their mysterious virtues. Thus the vervain, known as the “holy herb,” and which was one of the sacred plants of the Druids, has long been held in repute, the subjoined rhyme assigning as the reason:–
“All hail, thou holy herb, vervin,
Growing on the ground;
On the Mount of Calvary
There wast thou found;
Thou helpest many a grief,
And staunchest many a wound.
In the name of sweet Jesu,
I lift thee from the ground.”
To quote one or two further instances, a popular recipe for preventing the prick of a thorn from festering is to repeat this formula:–
“Christ was of a virgin born,
And he was pricked with a thorn,
And it did neither bell nor swell,
And I trust in Jesus this never will.”
In Cornwall, some years ago, the following charm was much used, forms of which may occasionally be heard at the present day:–
“Happy man that Christ was born,
He was crowned with a thorn;
He was pierced through the skin,
For to let the poison in.
But His five wounds, so they say,
Closed before He passed away.
In with healing, out with thorn,
Happy man that Christ was born.”
Another version used in the North of England is this:–
“Unto the Virgin Mary our Saviour was horn,
And on his head he wore a crown of thorn;
If you believe this true, and mind it well,
This hurt will never fester nor swell.”
The _Angelica sylvestris_ was popularly known as “Holy Ghost,” from the angel-like properties therein having been considered good “against poisons, pestilent agues, or the pestilence.”
Cockayne, in his “Saxon Leechdoms,” mentions an old poem descriptive of the virtues of the mugwort:–
“Thou hast might for three,
And against thirty,
For venom availest
For plying vile things.”
So, too, certain plants of the saints acquired a notoriety for specific virtues; and hence St. John’s wort, with its leaves marked with blood-like spots, which appear, according to tradition, on the anniversary of his decollation, is still “the wonderful herb” that cures all sorts of wounds. Herb-bennet, popularly designated “Star of the earth,” a name applied to the avens, hemlock, and valerian, should properly be, says Dr. Prior, “St. Benedict’s herb, a name assigned to such plants as were supposed to be antidotes, in allusion to a legend of this saint, which represents that upon his blessing a cup of poisoned wine which a monk had given to destroy him, the glass was shivered to pieces.” In the same way, herb-gerard was called from St. Gerard, who was formerly invoked against gout, a complaint for which this plant was once in high repute. St. James’s wort was so called from its being used for the diseases of horses, of which this great pilgrim-saint was the patron. It is curious in how many unexpected ways these odd items of folk-lore in their association with the saints meet us, showing that in numerous instances it is entirely their association with certain saints that has made them of medical repute.
Some trees and plants have gained a medical notoriety from the fact of their having a mystical history, and from the supernatural qualities ascribed to them. But, as Bulwer-Lytton has suggested in his “Strange Story,” the wood of certain trees to which magical properties are ascribed may in truth possess virtues little understood, and deserving of careful investigation. Thus, among these, the rowan would take its place, as would the common hazel, from which the miner’s divining-rod is always cut.  An old-fashioned charm to cure the bite of an adder was to lay a cross formed of two pieces of hazel-wood on the ground, repeating three times this formula :–
“Underneath this hazelin mote,
There’s a braggotty worm with a speckled throat,
Nine double is he;
Now from nine double to eight double
And from eight double to seven double-ell.”
The mystical history of the apple accounts for its popularity as a medical agent, although, of course, we must not attribute all the lingering rustic cures to this source. Thus, according to an old Devonshire rhyme,
“Eat an apple going to bed,
Make the doctor beg his bread.”
Its juice has long been deemed potent against warts, and a Lincolnshire cure for eyes affected by rheumatism or weakness is a poultice made of rotten apples.
The oak, long famous for its supernatural strength and power, has been much employed in folk-medicine. A German cure for ague is to walk round an oak and say:–
“Good evening, thou good one old;
I bring thee the warm and the cold.”
Similarly, in our own country, oak-trees planted at the junction of cross-roads were much resorted to by persons suffering from ague, for the purpose of transferring to them their complaint,  and elsewhere allusion has already been made to the practice of curing sickly children by passing through a split piece of oak. A German remedy for gout is to take hold of an oak, or of a young shoot already felled, and to repeat these words:–
“Oak-shoot, I to thee complain,
All the torturing gout plagues me;
I cannot go for it,
Thou canst stand it.
The first bird that flies above thee,
To him give it in his flight,
Let him take it with him in the air.”
Another plant, which from its mystic character has been used for various complaints, is the elder. In Bohemia, three spoonsful of the water which has been used to bathe an invalid are poured under an elder-tree; and a Danish cure for toothache consists in placing an elder-twig in the mouth, and then sticking it in a wall, saying, “Depart, thou evil spirit.” The mysterious origin and surroundings of the mistletoe have invested it with a widespread importance in old folk-lore remedies, many of which are, even now-a-days, firmly credited; a reputation, too, bestowed upon it by the Druids, who styled it “all-heal,” as being an antidote for all diseases. Culpepper speaks of it as “good for the grief of the sinew, itch, sores, and toothache, the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts;” while Sir Thomas Browne alludes to its virtues in cases of epilepsy. In France, amulets formed of mistletoe were much worn; and in Sweden, a finger-ring made of its wood is an antidote against sickness. The mandrake, as a mystic plant, was extensively sold for medicinal purposes, and in Kent may be occasionally found kept to cure barrenness;  and it may be remembered that La Fontaine’s fable, _La Mandragore_, turns upon its supposed power of producing children. How potent its effects were formerly held may be gathered from the very many allusions to its mystic properties in the literature of bygone years. Columella, in his well-known lines, says:–
“Whose roots show half a man, whose juice
With madness strikes.”
Shakespeare speaks of it as an opiate, and on the Continent it was much used for amulets.
Again, certain plants seem to have been specially in high repute in olden times from the marvellous influence they were credited with exercising over the human frame; consequently they were much valued by both old and young; for who would not retain the vigour of his youth, and what woman would not desire to preserve the freshness of her beauty? One of the special virtues of rosemary, for instance, was its ability to make old folks young again. A story is told of a gouty and crooked old queen, who sighed with longing regret to think that her young dancing-days were gone, so:–
“Of rosmaryn she took six pownde,
And grounde it well in a stownde,”
And then mixed it with water, in which she bathed three times a day, taking care to anoint her head with “gode balm” afterwards. In a very short time her old flesh fell away, and she became so young, tender, and fresh, that she began to look out for a husband.  The common fennel (_Foeniculum vulgare_) was supposed to give strength to the constitution, and was regarded as highly restorative. Longfellow, in his “Goblet of Life,” apparently alludes to our fennel:–
“Above the lowly plant it towers,
The fennel, with its yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers
Lost vision to restore.
It gave new strength and fearless mood,
And gladiators, fierce and rude,
Mingled it in their daily food,
And he who battled and subdued,
The wreath of fennel wore.”
The lady’s-mantle, too (_Alchemilla vulgaris_), was once in great request, for, according to Hoffman, it had the power of “restoring feminine beauty, however faded, to its early freshness;” and the wild tansy (_Tanacetum vulgare_), laid to soak in buttermilk for nine days, had the reputation of “making the complexion very fair.”  Similarly, also, the great burnet saxifrage was said to remove freckles; and according to the old herbalists, an infusion of the common centaury (_Erythroea centaurium_) possessed the same property.  The hawthorn, too, was in repute among the fair sex, for, according to an old piece of proverbial lore:–
“The fair maid who, the first of May,
Goes to the fields at break of day,
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever after handsome be;”
And the common fumitory, “was used when gathered in wedding hours, and boiled in water, milk, and whey, as a wash for the complexion of rustic maids.”  In some parts of France the water-hemlock (_Œnanthe crocata_), known with us as the “dead-tongue,” from its paralysing effects on the organs of voice, was used to destroy moles; and the yellow toad-flax (_Linaria vulgaris_) is described as “cleansing the skin wonderfully of all sorts of deformity.” Another plant of popular renown was the knotted figwort (_Scrophularia nodosa_), for Gerarde censures “divers who doe rashly teach that if it be hanged about the necke, or else carried about one, it keepeth a man in health.” Coles, speaking of the mugwort (_Artemisia vulgaris_), says that, “if a footman take mugwort and put it in his shoes in the morning, he may go forty miles before noon and not be weary;” but as far back as the time of Pliny its remarkable properties were known, for he says, “The wayfaring man that hath the herb tied about him feeleth no weariness at all, and he can never be hurt by any poisonous medicine, by any wild beast, neither yet by the sun itself.” The far-famed betony was long credited with marvellous medicinal properties, and hence the old saying which recommends a person when ill “to sell his coat and buy betony.” A species of thistle was once believed to have the curious virtue of driving away melancholy, and was hence termed the “melancholy thistle.” According to Dioscorides, “the root borne about one doth expel melancholy and remove all diseases connected therewith,” but it was to be taken in wine.
On the other hand, certain plants have been credited at most periods with hurtful and injurious properties. Thus, there is a popular idea that during the flowering of the bean more cases of lunacy occur than at any other season.  It is curious to find the apple–such a widespread curative–regarded as a bane, an illustration of which is given by Mr. Conway.  In Swabia it is said that an apple plucked from a graft on the whitethorn will, if eaten by a pregnant woman, increase her pains. On the Continent, the elder, when used as a birch, is said to check boys’ growth, a property ascribed to the knot-grass, as in Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Coxcomb” (Act ii. sc. 2):–
“We want a boy extremely for this function,
Kept under for a year with milk and knot-grass.”
The cat-mint, when chewed, created quarrelsomeness, a property said by the Italians to belong to the rampion.
Occasionally much attention in folk-medicine has been paid to lucky numbers; a remedy, in order to prove efficacious, having to be performed in accordance with certain numerical rules. In Devonshire, poultices must be made of seven different kinds of herbs, and a cure for thrush is this:–“Three rushes are taken from any running stream, passed separately through the mouth of the infant, and then thrown back into the water. As the current bears them away, so, it is believed, will the thrush leave the child.”
Similarly, in Brandenburg, if a person is afflicted with dizziness, he is recommended to run after sunset, naked, three times through a field of flax; after doing so, the flax will at once “take the dizziness to itself.” A Sussex cure for ague is to eat sage leaves, fasting, nine mornings in succession; while Flemish folk-lore enjoins any one who has the ague to go early in the morning to an old willow, make three knots in one of its branches, and say “Good morrow, old one; I give thee the cold; good morrow, old one.” A very common cure for warts is to tie as many knots on a hair as there are warts, and to throw the hair away; while an Irish charm is to give the patient nine leaves of dandelion, three leaves being eaten on three successive mornings. Indeed, the efficacy of numbers is not confined to any one locality; and Mr. Folkard  mentions an instance in Cuba where, “thirteen cloves of garlic at the end of a cord, worn round the neck for thirteen days, are considered a safeguard against jaundice.” It is necessary, however, that the wearer, in the middle of the night of the thirteenth day, should proceed to the corner of two streets, take off his garlic necklet, and, flinging it behind him, run home without turning round to see what has become of it. Similarly, six knots of elderwood are employed “in a Yorkshire incantation to ascertain if beasts are dying from witchcraft.”  In Thuringia, on the extraction of a tooth, the person must eat three daisies to be henceforth free from toothache. In Cornwall  bramble leaves are made use of in cases of scalds and inflammatory diseases.
Nine leaves are moistened with spring-water, and “these are applied to the burned or diseased parts.” While this is being done, for every bramble leaf the following charm is repeated three times:–
“There came three angels out of the east,
One brought fire and two brought frost;
Out fire and in frost,
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Of the thousand and one plants used in popular folk-medicine we can but give a few illustrations, so numerous are these old cures for the ills to which flesh is heir. Thus, for deafness, the juice of onion has been long recommended, and for chilblains, a Derbyshire cure is to thrash them with holly, while in some places the juice of the leek mixed with cream is held in repute. To exterminate warts a host of plants have been recommended; the juice of the dandelion being in favour in the Midland counties, whereas in the North, one has but to hang a snail on a thorn, and as the poor creature wastes away the warts will disappear. In Leicestershire the ash is employed, and in many places the elder is considered efficacious. Another old remedy is to prick the wart with a gooseberry thorn passed through a wedding-ring; and according to a Cornish belief, the first blackberry seen will banish warts. Watercress laid against warts was formerly said to drive them away. A rustic specific for whooping-cough in Hampshire is to drink new milk out of a cup made of the variegated holly; while in Sussex the excrescence found on the briar, and popularly known as “robin red-breast’s cushion,” is in demand. In consumption and diseases of the lungs, St. Fabian’s nettle, the crocus, the betony, and horehound, have long been in request, and sea-southern-wood or mugwort, occasionally corrupted into “muggons,” was once a favourite prescription in Scotland. A charming girl, whom consumption had brought to the brink of the grave, was lamented by her lover, whereupon a good-natured mermaid sang to him:–
“Wad ye let the bonnie May die in your hand,
And the mugwort flowering i’ the land?”
Thereupon, tradition says, he administered the juice of this life-giving plant to his fair lady-love, who “arose and blessed the bestower for the return of health.” Water in which peas have been boiled is given for measles, and a Lincolnshire recipe for cramp is cork worn on the person. A popular cure for ringworm in Scotland is a decoction of sun-spurge (_Euphorbia helioscopia_), or, as it is locally termed, “mare’s milk.”
In the West of England to bite the first fern seen in spring is an antidote for toothache, and in certain parts of Scotland the root of the yellow iris chopped up and chewed is said to afford relief. Some, again, recommend a double hazel-nut to be carried in the pocket,  and the elder, as a Danish cure, has already been noticed.
Various plants were, in days gone by, used for the bites of mad dogs and to cure hydrophobia. Angelica, madworts, and several forms of lichens were favourite remedies. The root of balaustrium, with storax, cypress-nuts, soot, olive-oil, and wine was the receipt, according to Bonaventura, of Cardinal Richelieu. Among other popular remedies were beetroot, box leaves, cabbage, cucumbers, black currants, digitalis, and euphorbia.  A Russian remedy was _Genista sentoria_, and in Greece rose-leaves were used internally and externally as a poultice.
Horse-radish, crane’s-bill, strawberry, and herb-gerard are old remedies for gout, and in Westphalia apple-juice mixed with saffron is administered for jaundice; while an old remedy for boils is dock-tea.
For ague, cinquefoil and yarrow were recommended, and tansy leaves are worn in the shoe by the Sussex peasantry; and in some places common groundsel has been much used as a charm. Angelica was in olden times used as an antidote for poisons. The juice of the arum was considered good for the plague, and Gerarde tells us that Henry VIII. was, “wont to drink the distilled water of broom-flowers against surfeits and diseases thereof arising.” An Irish recipe for sore-throat is a cabbage leaf tied round the throat, and the juice of cabbage taken with honey was formerly given as a cure for hoarseness or loss of voice.  Agrimony, too, was once in repute for sore throats, cancers, and ulcers; and as far back as the time of Pliny the almond was given as a remedy for inebriety. For rheumatism the burdock was in request, and many of our peasantry keep a potato in their pocket as charms, some, again, carrying a chestnut, either begged or stolen. As an antidote for fevers the carnation was prescribed, and the cowslip, and the hop, have the reputation of inducing sleep. The dittany and plantain, like the golden-rod, nicknamed “wound-weed,” have been used for the healing of wounds, and the application of a dock-leaf for the sting of a nettle is a well-known cure among our peasantry, having been embodied in the old familiar adage:–
“Nettle out, dock in–
Dock remove the nettle-sting,”
Of which there are several versions; as in Wiltshire, where the child uses this formula:–
Dock shall ha’a a new smock,
The young tops of the common nettle are still made by the peasantry into nettle-broth, and, amongst other directions enjoined in an old Scotch rhyme, it is to be cut in the month of June, “ere it’s in the blume”:–
“Cou’ it by the auld wa’s,
Cou’ it where the sun ne’er fa’
Stoo it when the day daws,
Cou’ the nettle early.”
The juice of fumitory is said to clear the sight, and the kennel-wort was once a popular specific for the king’s-evil. As disinfectants, wormwood and rue were much in demand; and hence Tusser says:–
“What savour is better, if physicke be true,
For places infected, than wormwood and rue?”
For depression, thyme was recommended, and a Manx preservative against all kinds of infectious diseases is ragwort. The illustrations we have given above show in how many ways plants have been in demand as popular curatives. And although an immense amount of superstition has been interwoven with folk-medicine, there is a certain amount of truth in the many remedies which for centuries have been, with more or less success, employed by the peasantry, both at home and abroad.
- The Folklore of Plants – Index
- Continue to Chapter 22, Plants and their Legendary History
1. See Tylor’s “Primitive Culture,” ii.
2. See Folkard’s “Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics,” p. 164.
3. “Mystic Trees and Shrubs,” p. 717.
4. Folkard’s “Plant-lore,” p. 379.
5. Hunt’s “Popular Romances of the West of England,” 1871, p. 415
6. Folkard’s “Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics,” p. 216.
7. See Black’s “Folk-medicine,” 1883, p.195.
8. _Quarterly Review_, cxiv. 245.
9. “Sacred Trees and Flowers,” _Quarterly Review_, cxiv. 244.
10. Folkard’s “Plant Legends,” 364.
11. _Fraser’s Magazine_, 1870, p. 591.
12. “Mystic Trees and Plants;” _Fraser’s Magazine_, 1870, p. 708.
13. “Reliquiae Antiquse,” Wright and Halliwell, i. 195; _Quarterly Review_,1863, cxiv. 241.
14. Coles, “The Art of Simpling,” 1656.
15. Anne Pratt’s “Flowering Plants of Great Britain,” iv. 9.
16. Black’s “Folk-medicine,” p. 201.
17. Folkard’s “Plant-Lore Legends and Lyrics,” p. 248.
18. _Fraser’s Magazine_, 1870, p. 591.
19. “Plant-Lore Legends and Lyrics,” p. 349.
20. Black’s “Folk-medicine,” p. 185.
21. See Hunt’s “Popular Romances of the West of England.”
22. Black’s “Folk-medicine,” p. 193.
23. “Rabies or Hydrophobia,” T. M. Dolan, 1879, p. 238.
24. Black’s “Folk-medicine,” p. 193.