Spring has sprung and it is such an exciting time of year when everything really starts into growth and the change is palpable by the day. I was in the Physic Garden the other day and I could see the Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla vulgaris) were shooting up and Bears Breeches (Acanthus mollis) were spouting up everywhere. Note to self, NEVER plant that anywhere again, it is an absolute thug. Its use as a treatment for sores and wounds is so historic it’s mentioned in the Bible, but it’s an absolute heathen when it comes to taking over one’s garden.
Pulsatilla vulgaris also has a long history of use as a cure for amongst other things coughs and bronchial spasms and for period pains and the menopause. Interestingly modern herbalists and homeopaths still use it for these things today showing that the ancients knew a thing or two about plants and healing. We’ll gloss over the cure for the plague which needed a unicorn’s liver!
It is fair to say that plants have a long and noble history of use in medicine, ancient and modern. Herbalists of old knew that Digitalis, derived from foxgloves could be used to treat ‘congestion of the heart’ as they would have known it. Or that salicin (the active ingredient of aspirin), extracted from the bark of the willow tree eased aches and pains including headaches. Both are still used today but they are now manufactured using synthetic active ingredients (although you can still buy willow bark tea from health food shops).
The first herbals came from ancient Greece with the works of Galen and Dioscorides making their way into monastic libraries for use by their herbalists. More ahem, modern works came with John Gerard in 1597 and John Parkinson in 1640. But they included lots of expensive drugs that needed to be imported. The breakthrough came with the publication of Nicholas Culpeper’s herbal in 1649. He insisted on using plant medicine that grew in Britain and on using English common names, telling his impoverished patients where they could find such plants. To help further, he translated the London Pharmacopoeia from Latin into English. His work made the available remedies accessible to people in the newly burgeoning towns and cities.
I find old herbals fascinating and plant lore can keep me glued to my armchair for hours but I don’t think I’ll give up on modern medicine. Last week Madame Molly our garden cat bit me. I can only assume she had been eating rat fricassee or pheasant parfait previously as quicker than you could say “mine’s a tetanus jab” my hand was the size of an udder. A quick trip to the doctor ensued and I came away bearing a packet of antibiotics that resembled horse pills such was their size. Anyway, a week later and my hand is back to normal and I’m back in the garden. I’m glad that I live in an age where such treatment is available. Happy gardening everyone.
Tricia Harris April 2019