If you are one of thousands of people who strapped on a pair of walking shoes and ventured out on British countryside footpaths over the past few weeks, you probably did it for the therapeutic effects of exercise, sunlight, fresh (if somewhat pollen-filled) air, and the beauty of our natural flora and fauna.
Many eyes go through the meadow, but few see the flowers in it
Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson May 16, 1834
You may or may not have been aware of the medicinal uses of the very flora you swished through, trampled, or practiced your macro photography skills on. I did not even know what most of the wildflowers near my house were called, as I realised while testing the limits of my mobile phone’s camera on tiny blooms recently. I had to look them up on the Botanical Society of Britian and Ireland’s Flora Search website to identify them, and on further exploration I was surprised to find out that nearly everything I was admiring was not only edible in some form, but had traditionally been used for medicinal purposes, as many of our 19th and early 20th century online collections can attest.
Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) is common in fields and meadows in Britain. Perhaps not as famous as its cousins, V. officianalis or V. Virginicum as a medicinal herb, it could be substituted for V. officianalis as a diuretic according to the ‘Complete Pronouncing Medical Dictionary‘ (1892). It can “Strengthen the brain and apprehension exceedingly when weak, and relieves them when drooping,” which is a little hard to interpret, but more usefully taken with honey it can remedy coughs, “hardness of the spleen”, is a diuretic, and has a surprising number of other benefits, according to Robinson’s ‘A New Family Herbal‘ (1872).
Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea, also Gill-over-the-Ground, or Alehoof), traditionally used in ale brewing, has many medicinal uses. For example, this “little immigrant from Europe” may have been used to treat “falling sickness” (epilepsy) by the ancient Celts. “A plaster of mandragore and ground ivy laid upon the head is also prescribed,” relates the author of ‘Medicine in Antient Erin‘ (1909). It could be used inwardly and outwardly for wounds, it could heal ulcers and was an excellent eye-water according to the ‘Dictionary of Daily Wants‘ (1858-60). Ground ivy is listed alongside nettle and primula for “vesicular eruptions” in the ‘Skin Affections of Childhood‘, 1907.
You may still see a few bluebells flowering in sheltered areas this time of year. A little earlier in the month, these forest carpets of blue could have been used for their “balsamic and styptic nature”, according to ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal‘, where, although “its virtues are little known, it will cure the whites” (leukorrhea) in the 17th century. Be careful to dry it first though – the fresh root is poisonous!
These are just a few examples. The next time you spring over a style or hike along a hedgerow, don’t forget to consider the hidden bounty of nature’s pharmacy, however common the sights might be!
The medicinal uses of these plants are taken from historical texts and not recommended by the Wellcome Library of Wellcome Trust.