'Thyme' with medicinal plants in the south of France…
Category: Herbal Fables and Anecdotes
Herbal Fables and Anecdotes
A collection of personal stories or thoughts written based on my own healing herbal journey. In as much as many will mention medicinal plants they are not particularly about any individual medicinal plant or medical conditions. Probably my less serious, carefree category.
A few posts are based on photographs of medicinal plants to aid my ongoing botanical learning. Some are photographs from my own garden.
Furthermore many are personal stories about visits to places or enjoyment in something I have read. Most of all, they are places or things that spark my interests in medicinal plants, botany, books, magic, folklore, witchcraft or spiritually!
Finally, they are light hearted and fun – herbal fables and anecdotes!
As a special halloween treat, or perhaps trick, I thought we would look at a macabre medley of medical ministrations! Some of the gory ancient medical treatments in the search for good health!
First up, mind your brain…
There is centuries of evidence of our ancestors boring into skulls (trepanation).
Many theories abound as to why this was done. While some consider a ritualistic cause the general belief is medical intervention.
Seems likely this was for pain relief perhaps following trauma. A release of pressure from headaches and other neurological conditions such as epileptic convulsions.
Creepy crawly blood suckers …
Any Outlander fans, of books or TV series, may remember Jamie Fraser bloodied and battered, after taking punishment for Laoghaire at Castle Leoch. Mrs Fitz brought leeches for reducing swelling. She pointed out to Claire they were of no use after the bruising has set.
Although the above is a fictional account, leeches were used. Most commonly utilised in cleaning wounds to avoid infection.
This treatment, utilised to treat sciatica, contained dog oil and 500 g of worms marinated in hot oil.
The dog oil recipe contained four small puppies! In the image of the old oil jars you can just see to the left the word ‘chien’. The jar reads ‘H. de chien’ translating as oil of dog. Poor puppies. I cannot imagine this treatment of worms and puppies provided any benefit to the sciatica patient. Certainly no life for the poor puppies or indeed, the worms!
Thankfully the above treatments have fallen out of favour.
I have written previously about my visit to New Orleans and Voodoo. Looking through some old photographs recently reminded me of this trip. The photographs included in this post are from an enjoyable visit to the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum seven years ago.
I do love visiting old pharmacies and seeing all the old herb bottles and jars and drawers and accoutrements.
The one in New Orleans was a wonderful example. In true New Orleans style some Voodoo potions are included in the exhibits. Should you ever visit New Orleans the pharmacy museum is well worth a visit.
There were many things I enjoyed about the museum. Especially relevant, the information on plants and herbs was of particular interest to me.
This settler’s quote from 1760 mentions ginseng and sarsaparilla. Nowadays, both plants well-known and in use by European herbalists, particularly ginseng. At the time, sarsaparilla would have been less well-known in the UK. It is a woody vine from the Smilax genus. Found growing in southern Europe and throughout Asia.
The ginseng mentioned here is probably Panax quinquefolius or American ginseng. In Europe P. ginseng, the Asian or Chinese ginseng, is more popular. However, in 1760 ginseng would have been relatively unknown in European medicine.
In addition, I enjoyed reading the botanical magic and superstitions. There are many ticks in the forests in this area in France. How-in-ever, I doubt very much I would fancy walking around with a piece of fennel in my right shoe. That would be a little too uncomfortable, I fear!
However, I may source a dollar bill to wrap around a horse chestnut next time I fear my winter EDF electricity bill hitting my postbox.
My friend Sue, who happens to be an ecologist, recently attended a tree seminar. She mentioned the London Tree Officers are planting non-native weird and wonderful trees in Hackney. The magnificent London plane trees are suffering with Massaria, a fungal disease.
Of course, Massaria is not the only tree disease and the London plane is not the only native tree to be suffering. Consider the damage caused to native trees from Dutch Elm Disease and Chalara, more commonly known as ash dieback.
Hence, finding trees that will grow and will “thrive and survive” is becoming difficult for the London Tree Officers. And so, the weird array of non-natives in Hackney. These include trees known commonly as the Paper Mulberry and the Bee-Bee Tree. Apparently “people like them and we have to adapt”. Incidentally both are Asian species.
This raised a little debate between two friends. Sue, the ecologist, and Ian, our tree-hugging, Woodland Trust loving, nature photographer guru friend. Ian was definitely in the pro-native tree group.
The problem is we have so many non native alien plant species in Europe now. Some pose no major issues and blend in like they have always belonged… others… well.
more alien trees…
My house here in France had a maturely planted garden when I bought it. Some 40+ trees. It’s not a big garden. Too many large trees. Some had to go. I’ve always liked a ‘practical’ rather than ‘pretty’ garden. That’s not to say something can’t be both but things growing ought to serve a purpose – food, medicine… I decided if not native, nor practical, it could go on the “to go” list. But it was difficult.
Right at front of the house was a very large false acacia. Non-native. In flower it was beautiful. However, I couldn’t park my car as ants, covering the tree for the sweet flowers, fell in the car. Suffice to say driving with ants crawling up your legs is not good. The acacia was working its way toward the chopping list. I kept thinking I can’t really put it on the list because it inconveniences me, right?
Then I got a crack right through the floor of the house. The acacia had to go before any serious structural damage occurred. That was nearly 5 years ago. I still cannot get rid of it. It pops up everywhere. During the summer it was so dry everything was dying. That bloody acacia kept on appearing.
I’ve searched internet, forums, gardening groups, you-name-it trying to find a solution to no avail. I was disheartened further when one woman advised she had been trying to eradicate it for 17 years!!!!
It is on the non-European and non U.K. invasive species list. Not to be planted. I can see why. My house is near the river and there are some growing there. I wonder did previous owners plant in my garden or did it move in to my garden of its own accord?!? Someone planted it somewhere near to start this alien attack!
There is a patch some 3 km from my house. Having written about this previously I won’t go into too much detail again. However, every time I walk past this patch of knotweed my heart sinks. I decided I had to start thinking more positively about these aliens 👽. They are after all going nowhere. I started to look at the knotweed in particular.
The trouble is many of these invasive species cannot be removed. We need to hope that somehow a way of control is found. They are affecting structures, and more importantly, our native plant species.
I love the smell of broom. It is scrumptiously sweet. A native European shrub and, of course, a native medicinal. However, in the States it is commonly called Scotch Broom because those first Scottish immigrants decided to bring it with them. Consequently it is on the invasive non native alien plant species list in the States. It is not a problem in Europe. They have no idea what controls growth in Europe. We, us humans, are the bampots that keep doing this.
are there any friendly aliens ?
That being said we have some non-natives that have lived here merrily, blending in for years. Some have become very useful. Thinking of medicinal plants… echinacea springs to mind. Everyone knows it. It grows very happily here in Europe and hasn’t caused any problem. Have I used it medicinally – yes. However it is not my first port of call. I prefer to choose European natives.
Nicholas Culpeper, a London herbalist, from mid 1600’s famously believed the medicinals we need grow nearby. I have always found this to be true. It helps immensely, in practice, if you know the area where your patient lives and what grows abundantly there.
That’s my rant on non native alien plant species over for the day….
I have previously written about my visit to the wonderful ancient pharmacy of St Lizier. The guide for the apothecary had many tales to tell. One of the apothecary anecdotes refers to the famous four robbers vinegar and secret ingredients.
The story goes thus …
It was the time of a plague. A highly contagious, epidemic disease with a high degree of mortality. Characterised by high fever, often with delirium, swollen lymph nodes and infectious lungs.
Any unfortunate soul found dead during this plague had their body stripped by the four robbers.
Bizarrely the thieves never fell ill with this highly contagious disease!
Eventually the Sisters discovered the thieves’ identity. Following capture, their sentence was death. However, in exchange for their freedom they were asked to divulge their secret for plague protection.
And so, the four robbers secret ingredients?
Their secret was a strong smelling remedy of five medicinal plants in vinegar.
Artemisia or Salvia smudge sticks to cleanse and purify …
Smudging and Smudge Sticks
Many sources consider smudging an ancient tradition of indigenous American Indians. Some believe smudging was just as prevalent in ancient European cultures too.
The idea of smudging is to burn herbs to produce a smoke, no flame, to cleanse and purify. They have many uses. Some utilise them to cleanse rooms, homes or buildings. Others to cleanse and purify the aura or in meditation.
Artemisia or Salvia Smudge Sticks
Smudge sticks known as ‘sage smudge sticks’ are most popular. You will always find these sticks for sale in new age stores. Sometimes white sage (Salvia apiana) is utilised in these sticks. However, it is more often a species of Artemisia and not, botanically speaking, a true sage species. Several different Artemisia species are used.
Artemisia californica more commonly known as sagebrush apparently has aromatic sage-like foliage. Another species, is A. tridentata or big sagebrush. Perhaps the name ‘sage’ stuck due to the common names rather than scientific.
Another species commonly called California mugwort is Artemisia douglasiana. Occasionally utilised in smudge sticks. Known as mugwort or black sage smudge sticks.
A newsletter from the Aromatic Plant Project suggest the common name for A. douglasiana is blue or green sage. They mention the herb for smudge sticks too. However, they add use ceremonially in sweat lodges.
The three Artemisia species, mentioned above, and Salvia apiana grow in North America. Of course, it is possible some of these plants were included in indigenous American Indian sacred ceremonies.
in the UK …
The common mugwort growing in the UK, and indeed here in the Aude, is Artemisia vulgaris. There are many ancient superstitions around it. Travellers carried it to ward of fatigue, wild beasts and evil spirits in the middle ages.
Often considered a herb of magic. A favoured ingredient for dream pillows. In addition a popular smudging herb for clearing negative or stuck energy. Best gathered on a full moon apparently, particularly in June, if using for visions.
Finally, you can make your own smudge sticks and choose any herbs you like. So what would be your preference Artemisia or Salvia smudge sticks ? Perhaps you prefer other plants, like purifying rosemary ?
The Surgery of Davie Beaton the Outlander Castle Leoch Healer
In the first Outlander book, and the first TV series, Claire is taken by Colum MacKenzie to Davie Beaton’s dank surgery. The surgery is located in the basement of fictional Castle Leoch.
Last we saw of Claire in the TV show she had returned to her own time. With less than a month until Season 3 of the popular series airs, one wonders if Claire shall return to Castle Leoch at any point in the future, or should I say past!
In Season 1 Claire makes many interesting discoveries in the surgery of Davie Beaton and not all of them useful.
Davie Beaton’s Patient Log Book
It seems Davie Beaton, in life, was unfortunately not the best healer. Incidentally, he died of fever.
On browsing his log book, Claire reads an entry for a female patient with a thumb injury. Sarah had the misfortune of catching her thumb in a spinning wheel.
Treatment involved application of boiled pennyroyal followed by a poultice of one part each of yarrow, St John’s wort, ground slaters and mouse-ear. This combination was mixed in a base of fine clay.
The first two are reasonable choices. Yarrow stanches bleeding. St John’s wort aids wound healing.
However, it is not entirely clear if the last ingredient refers to a plant or not. Cerastium fontanum is a type of chickweed. Commonly called mouse-ear. However, Hieracium pilosella, from the same family as the common dandelion, is commonly known as hawkweed and also mouse ear.
The fictitious treatment of Sarah may well have included one of these two herbs. H. pilosella was indeed traditionally utilised as an astringent, albeit more frequently as an expectorant. It had use in treatment of whooping cough.
Unfortunately, it is also possible the recipe actually means a mouse ear! What is certain? That third ingredient of ground woodlice is definitely not of plant origin!
Consequently the treatment was unsuccessful. Although some potential beneficial herbs in the treatment regime it was seriously in need of a powerful antiseptic and strict hygiene would have been paramount and highly unlikely in poor Sarah’s case.
Davie Beaton’s Recipe Book
In addition the discovery of a book of recipes included some further bizarre and obscure remedies.
A recipe for headache recommended drying one ball of horse dung and pounding this to a powder. The resulting powder mixed in hot ale. Surely that would give you a headache rather than cure it. Perhaps the smell made one vomit. As a result of which there may have been some relief if a digestive headache or migraine.
The recipe for treating children with convulsions was five leeches behind the ear. Poor kids.
Another recipe for jaundice used decoctions of roots of celandine and turmeric. Seems reasonable. However, the addition of the juice of 200 slaters not so much! Beneficial as plant medicines. However, the cause of the jaundice would need sought for best treatment. And the inclusion of the juice of 200 woodlice – erm?
Supplies in the Surgery of Davie Beaton
There were many jars and vials. While some of the jars contained useful ingredients such as angelica, rosemary and wormwood. Others contained dried toads packed in moss, dried snails, oil of earthworms and, of course, horse dung and slaters!
As a result, Claire certainly had her work cut out finding the useful remedies in that surgery.
On a brief trip to Scotland last week, I visited Inverary Castle. A cousin was visiting from Australia and he was keen to visit the ancestral home of the chief of the Clan Campbell.
Although the site of an earlier castle, certainly since the 1400’s, building began on this particular castle in 1743. There are some later additions. The conical roofs of the corner towers are such an addition from 1877.
I personally have always thought this particular building more French château than Scottish castle. The interior continues this theme with French-influenced rooms with Beauvais tapestries. The castle also boasts paintings by French artists Girard and Guinand.
However, for me, I found two particular pieces most fascinating. One was a rubbing stone and the other a poison ring!
The rubbing stone, as you can see, apparently cured colic.
Of course, in some cases a mild colic benefits from a gentle massage, or rubbing, over the tummy area. Perhaps in some cases the rubbing stone was helpful! I can think on several much more effective digestion remedies though.
I would have loved a closer look at the poison ring but unfortunately it was safely stored within the glass display cabinet.
The particular example in the castle is Italian but it seems these were quite popular throughout Europe in the 16th century.
Any fans of singer, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, may remember she used a poison ring to eliminate some of her competitors in the Murder on the Dance Floor video. A lady determined to win that dance competition.
The castle may look familiar to Downtown Abbey fans. The Christmas 2012 episode was filmed in and around Inverary Castle. It served as the fictional Duneagle Castle. Duneagle Castle was the home of cousins young Lady Rose and her parents. Thankfully there was no death by gold ring in that episode!
Last month archaeologists from the Spanish National Research Council discovered an ancient funerary garden while excavating near Luxor in Egypt.
The garden is thought to be 4,000 years old.
As a child I had a fascination for ancient Egypt. I would watch every television documentary and read anything I could about it. I remember my excitement when my aunt Yvonne gave me a gift of a Nefertiti pendant which I still have and often wear today. Another time my mother went on a pre-Christmas shopping trip to Edinburgh. There was some Egyptian display on at the time. As a result, one of my Christmas gifts was three papyrus pictures. These I had framed and still have.
Eventually I was fortunate enough to visit Egypt on a few separate occasions when I was in my twenties. This long held desire of mine since childhood was finally accomplished, for the first time, when I was 21 years of age. Oh what a long time ago. I remember on arrival I was so excited I was actually shaking and was physically sick.
Over my visits I have travelled from Cairo to Abu Simbel and there is so much more I would still love to visit.
There are many tomb paintings and papyri depicting the importance of herbs and gardens of ancient Egypt. However, few actual discoveries. This recent find of an actual funerary garden is particularly exciting.
Researchers found evidence of a Tamarisk shrub in the garden. They have also found some seeds from other plants which they plan to have analysed.
There are some tomb paintings which include the tamarisk (Tamarix nilotica). These trees or shrubs are indigenous to Egypt so it is no surprise to find remains of one in a funerary garden. Commonly known as the Nile Tamarisk.
Tamarisk is mentioned in some medical papyri too. The ancient Egyptians used it in a medicinal remedy for drawing out inflammation. In addition, it was considered aphrodisiac and sudorific. There is some evidence the ancient Egyptians used the wood in carpentry.
More recent traditional medicinal uses include relieving headaches, reducing inflammation and as an antiseptic.
Research conducted by Ahmed Abdelgawad (Tamarix nilotica (Ehrenb) Bunge: A Review of Phytochemistry and Pharmacology) was published early in 2017 in the Journal of Microbial & Biochemical Technology. Abdelgawad found major constituents of flavonoids, tannins and phenolics in T. nilotica. The leaves exhibited significant antioxidant, anti-viral, hepatoprotective and anti-tumour activities.
One can’t help but wonder how much medicinal knowledge the Ancient Egyptians understood about the Tamarisk.
Elderflowers are in full beautiful bloom. My mind is currently a spinning wondering what delicacies I can make. Do I opt for more tincture or elderflower cordial, wine or liqueur?
Incidentally I cannot abide the smell of elderflowers. In saying that, they are still one of my favourite trees to see in bloom at this time of year. The medicinal virtues far outweigh my dislike for the smell.
Earlier in the month I posted a basic tincture recipe. An easily adapted recipe for other medicinal plants. However, I suggested collecting and drying elderflowers. Ideal to keep as a winter tonic to boost immunity or a hay fever tonic for next spring.
Now I am wondering should I make elderflower cordial, wine or liqueur?
Non alcoholic versus alcoholic I hear you ask?
The Drunken Botanist
And so on to my dilemma.
Anyone knowing me, or even following my blogs, know I LOVE books. So pondering what to do with all the beautiful elderflowers I turned to one of my books – The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart.
Anyone for Sambuca?
My best friend Sharon has always enjoyed a Sambuca after a meal. She believes it helps her digestion. Sambucus nigra is the scientific name for the elderflower tree. Although this thought had crossed my mind I did not realise any part of the plant was an ingredient. Anyone having tried Sambuca will probably agree it is a more aniseed based flavour.
However, in The Drunken Botanist, Amy explains that although artificial flavours and colours are occasionally used some black sambucas actually owe that deep purple-black colour to the crushed skins of the elderberries. So there we have it.
… and back to my dilemma…
Everyone loves a bit of elderflower wine or liqueur. But you don’t always want the alcohol. Sometimes you have to work, write blogs or prepare herbal events!
Amy’s elderflower cordial sounds absolutely delicious. One obvious difficulty for me is she recommends gathering those fresh flowers on a warm afternoon when THAT fragrance is strongest. Oh dear!
Some years back I was lucky enough to visit New Orleans. A fabulous fun place of blues and jazz. In addition, and right up my street, there are fascinating weird and wonderful herbs and voodoo and New Orleans spells. In fact it is one of the most enjoyable places I have been fortunate enough to visit. Blues, jazz, voodoo, weird and wonderful herbs and fascinating characters – what’s not to like?
Cemeteries and Voodoo
I was there at Halloween so partook in a Cemetery and Voodoo trip. We met at a French cafe. The guide was an entrancing character full of interesting anecdotes with long hair of a similar length and colour to my own. He commented on this to which I replied “Yes, grey”. I still laugh when I hear in my head his response in that New Orleans southern drawl
No honey youse and me just natural platinum blonds.
On the cemetery tour we visited the future pyramidal tomb of actor Nicholas Cage and the tomb of the legendary Marie Laveau, the voodoo priestess.
The tour ended with a visit to a present day, and living, voodoo priestess. I was in a group of perhaps a dozen people. She singled me out asking where I was from. I have to confess I was somewhat unsure what she was going on about but I think she liked me and I had no intention of upsetting a voodoo priestess so happily agreed with whatever she said.
At the end of the trip I felt obliged to purchase some items from her spellbinding wares of herbs, voodoo and New Orleans spells. This brings me on to the focus for this post as one of the items I purchased was a modern herbal spell book!
Tidying the bookcase…
We’ve had some tremendous heat, in the 30’s, this last 10 days or so. This is quite high for this time of year and the garden has required watering most days particularly my small vegetable patch. My water butts for rainwater harvesting are very low.
While tidying my bookcase I came across my New Orleans purchase. Tidying the bookcase is often a lengthy process as I invariably come across a book I haven’t read for sometime and the tidying gets forgotten about for another few hours, days or weeks… and so the book…
Voodoo and New Orleans spells
And so to a make rain spell…
Quite apt for my poor draining water butts I thought!
Fill a large pan with water and add a handful each of sulphur, sea wrack and valerian.
As you put in each of the ingredients repeat the passage from Deuteronomy 11:14.
I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil.
This spell should be performed on a Monday, the day ruled by the Moon which is the planet controlling weather.
So there you have if it. Should you ever require a bit of rain you could always try the above spell, on a Monday. Good luck.