MEDICINAL PLANTS, EARLY BELIEFS.
From time immemorial, plants have been used for their curative properties. Plants and their uses play a large role in the lore of the Druids, but we know very little of their teaching. Mistletoe, Holly, Birch, Ivy, Selago (generally identified with Lycopodium Selago) and Vervain (never satisfactorily identified) were regarded as almost sacred.
The Druids celebrated three great festivals: the first of May, the autumn festival and midwinter. At the midwinter festival Mistletoe was gathered with sacred ceremonies.
The European Mistletoe rarely grows on Oak trees, hence possibly the reverence of the Druids for Mistletoe Oaks. The Mistletoe, with its three white berries, was regarded as the symbol of the Druidic Trinity; its growth on the Oak was the symbol of the incarnation of Deity in man. It is noteworthy that in the Anglo-Saxon herbals little or no importance is attached to the plants which the Druids regarded as sacred.
Herbs Used in Saxon Times. Among the plants in commonest use in Saxon times were Betony, Yarrow, Mugwort, Peony and Plantain. Betony is described in one Saxon herbal as “good whether for a man’s soul or his body.” Yarrow has been used from very ancient times in Europe in incantations by witches. To this day country folk in England regard it as a valuable herb. Mugwort was specially venerated for its supposed power against the unseen powers of evil, and it is one of the nine sacred herbs mentioned in the Lacnunga (one of the earliest Saxon manuscripts treating of herbs). Peony roots were used as amulets not only in Saxon times but throughout the Middle Ages and to within living memory. Plantain, the weed that infests lawns, was one of the nine sacred herbs.
It is interesting to note the varied uses, both direct and indirect, made of herbs for medicinal purposes in Saxon times. They were administered in decoctions, used in baths and in fumigating the sick; they were worn as amulets and hung up in dwelling rooms. Herb drinks were usually made with milk, ale, vinegar or honey.
Herb ornaments were prepared with butter.
Herb Baths. The importance attached to herb baths, particularly vapor baths, in the Saxon herbals is striking. The herbs ordered in one prescription for this purpose include the rinds of Bramble, Elm, Ash, Sloe thorn, Apple tree and Ivy, and the following plants, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Betony, Radish, Agrimony. Fumigating the sick with herbs was apparently as common in Saxon as in Babylonian times. The herbs were used thus for two purposes—to dull the senses of the patient and to drive away evil spirits.
Throughout the Middle Ages fumigating sick folk with herbs was practiced in most European countries and as late as December, 1921, a case was recorded in The Times of London, of an attempt made in Pomerania to cure a woman, believed to be possessed by a devil, by fumigating her with herbs. In Saxon times not only human beings but cattle also were fumigated.
Herbs were worn as amulets both to defend the wearer from the powers of evil and to cure him of illness. To this day white Heather and four-leaved Clover are carefully preserved by the superstitious. The use of red wool in conjunction with the herbs is noteworthy, for this custom is of very ancient eastern origin. Red was supposed to be a color abhorred by the evil spirits, and to within recent times belief in the efficacy of red wool prevailed.
Herbs were hung up over doors to preserve both human beings and cattle from evil. In the Herbarium of Apuleius it is stated of Mugwort: “If a root of this wort be hung over the door of any house, then may not any man damage the house.” There are also traces in the Saxon herbals of the ancient and world-wide custom of transferring disease to plants and then throwing the plants into running water. For instance, in the Leech Book of Bald we find a prescription “for a salve to be made lor one suffering from nocturnal goblin visitors,” in which the herbs used (Wormwood, etc.) were to be boiled in butter and sheep’s grease, with much “holy salt” added, and then thrown into running water.
The various incantations and charms to be sung or said when administering herbs are to be found in the herbals, and many of them are associated with Christian prayers. Some of the charms resemble children's nonsense rhymes, and others nursery rhymes. As an instance of the former there is a charm in the Leech Book which runs thus: “Gonomil, orgomil, marbumel, marbsai, tofeth." In the Lacnunga there is a counting-out charm which says: “Nine were Nodde's sisters, then the nine came to eight, and the eight seven, and the seven six, and the six live, and the five four, and the four three, and the three two, and the two one, and the one none.”
It is also interesting to note the frequent instructions to pick the herbs at dawn, or when day and night divide, and to look towards the east when doing so. These are traces of the worship of Eostra, the Saxon goddess of the dawn. Sun worship is indicated in the instruction to gather plants with horns (emblems of the sun's rays). The teachings of Christianity had not altogether ousted the old heathen beliefs dating back to an immemorial past.
Use of Herbs in Cosmetics. Apart from their uses in medicine, herbs were frequently used in the making of cosmetics, even in Saxon times. Prescriptions for the cure of baldness also are numerous, Sowbread anti Watercress being the herbs used. There are even prescriptions for helping hair which is too thick.
Throughout the Middle Ages monastic herb gardens were of the utmost importance, for they supplied the enormous quantities of herbs needed by the monks and nuns in their ministrations to poor sick folk.
Drying and Storing Herbs. Sixteenth-century gardening books show that herb gardens were usually divided into two parts, one part for the pot herbs and the other for the physic herbs. Thomas Hyll is the earliest writer to give full directions for the drying of herbs, and he advises hanging them up "in some Garrette or open roome and high, being sweete and dry through the Sun’s dayly shining on the place at noone." He advises keeping dried herbs in leather bags or in boxes made of the Box tree, "to the eynd the Hearbes may not lose theyre proper moisture.” He condemns the apothecaries for exposing herbs to cobwebs and "much other filth.”
In his famous Five Hundred Points Thomas Tusser takes it for granted that the herb garden is the special province of the housewife, and he lays down that it is her duty to collect seeds from her own plot and exchange with neighbors. His list of physic herbs is lengthy.
Other Uses of Herbs. It is interesting to note in the Crete Herbal I (1526) a considerable number of references to the use of herbs as amulets, the effect of herbs on the mind, and the fumigation of the sick with herbs. "To make folk merry,” for instance, "take the water that buglos [Bugloss] hath been soden in and sprynkle it about the hous or chamber and all that be therin shall be merry." For “weyknesse of ye brayne” it is enjoined to seethe Rosemary in wine and “let the patient receive the smoke at his nose." In Turner's Herbal cosmetics are never mentioned without condemnation. For instance, he states that some women wash their faces in distilled Cowslip water "to make them layre in the eyes of the worlde rather than in the eyes of God, whom they are not afrayd to offend.”
The Herbs Grown More Than 500 Years Ago. Even in the first half of the seventeenth century, "kitchen gardens” were as lavishly planted with medicinal as with pot herbs. The list of physic herbs in The Country Farme (1600) includes Mallows, Hollyhocks, Eyebright, Elecampane, Dittany, Celandine, Valerian, Angelica, Blessed Thistle, Scabious, Betony, Water Germander, Comfrey, Coltsfoot, Cinquefoil, Periwinkle, Agrimony, Paeonies, Mullein, Mercury, Adder's Tongue, Goosegrass, Solomon's Seal, Shepherd's Purse, Stinging and Dead Nettle, Pellitory of the Wall, Germander, Honeysuckle, Tobacco and Centaury,
Even Parkinson, a seventeenth-century writer whose Paradisus is the first book to treat of the pleasure garden as distinct from the herb garden, gives the medicinal uses of nearly all the plants he mentions in the “Garden of pleasant flowers."
“It is very rarely," he states, that "these (lowers serve only to decke up Lhc Gardens of the curious." Parkinson is to some extent scornful of the uses of herbs as amulets to ward off disease and evil, yet he does not question the efficacy of Borage and Bugloss to promote happiness. In common with other herbalists of his own and earlier times, he believed in the use of herbs to
strengthen the memory and to help weak brains and to soothe “frenzied” people. His Theatrum Botanicum contains more cosmetic recipes than any other herbal.
The influences of the stars on the efficacy of herbs used as medicine was apparently universally believed. Even as late as the seventeenth century, John Archer (one of the Physicians in Ordinary to Charles II) states in his Compendious Herbal (1673) that “the Sun doth not draw away the vertues of herbs, but adds to them,” and he gives full astrological directions for the picking of herbs.
The only herbal containing a section devoted entirely to herbs useful for animals is William Coles’ Art of Simpling (1656). This section is full of curious folklore, some of it dating back to classical times.
Home Remedies Still in Use. Many plant products, such as digitalis, belladonna, quinine, and penicillin, are used in present-day medicines, but to treat of even a few would take us well beyond the scope of this article. (The reader should consult the articles on the specific herbs he wishes information about.) It is of interest, however, to note the survival of a number of the old home remedies. Such products as Dandelion tea, Pennyroyal tea, Sassafras tea, Boneset tea, Witch Hazel lotion, Horehound lozenges and Wild Cherry cough medicine owe their virtues to the plants from which they take their names.
The North American Indians, like all primitive peoples, employed a considerable number of native plants for healing. In the light of modern knowledge it seems certain that many of these possessed no particular medicinal virtues, but some undoubtedly did. Among the latter were Wild Cherry, Slippery Elm, Bearberry, Witch Hazel, Lobelia and Cascara.
The early colonists made use of many of the medicinal herbs favored by the Indians as well as kinds that were familiar in Europe and were brought to North America and grown in gardens.