'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 an Ayrshire lass I could hardly miss out on the birthday of our national bard, Rabbie Burns.
Much of his work involved love or nature. He was particularly known for his dislike of winter. It seems fitting on his winter birthday to remember
“… leafless trees my fancy please …”
Winter, a Dirge
Happy Burns Day!
Winter, a Dirge
The wintry west extends his blast
And hail and rain does blaw
Or the stormy north sends driving forth
The blinding sleet and snaw.
While tumbling brown the burn comes down
And roars frae bank to brae
And bird and beast in covert rest
And pass the heartless day.
The sweeping blast, the sky o’ercast.
The joyless winter day
Let others fear, to me more dear
Than all the pride of May
The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!
Thou power supreme, whose mighty scheme
These woes of mine fulfil,
Here firm I rest, they must be best,
Because they are thy will!
Then all I want, O do thou grant,
This one request of mine.
Since to enjoy thou dost deny,
Assist me to resign.
If you have ever visited the villages of Saint Guilhem-le-Désert or La Couvertoirade you may have noticed the above dried flowerhead nailed to many doors. Known locally as the cardabelle. I saw the cardabelle door charm in both villages mentioned. However, apparently it is common to see on doors in many small villages throughout the area.
The leaves have a similar resemblance to a thistle. Indeed it is in the same botanical family as the thistle and the sunflower. A member of the Asteraceae botanical family. A fascinating flower.
It is native to Southern Europe preferring stoney or rocky places on poorer soils in mountainous areas.
So what is this Cardabelle door charm for ?
Our guide, Nicholas, informed us the cardabelle is hanging on doors for two very different reasons. First of all it is a bringer of good luck. A protector against evil spirits. A reason one might expect. Secondly it is a useful instrument for weather forecasting!
Yes, you read correctly. Apparently it curls inward when bad weather is due. The images here are from Saint Guilhem-le-Désert on 8th December. It was a particularly cold day there but not wet. The following day was also cold and dry.
Unfortunately it is now an endangered species. Collection of this cardabelle door charm from the wild is now forbidden. However, our guide assures us the same flower-heads have been hanging on these doors in Saint Guilhem for years.
Apparently Carlina species were traditionally cooked and eaten as a globe artichoke substitute. It appears to have had medicinal use for spasms in the digestive tract, gall bladder and liver. Furthermore reputedly an aphrodisiac.
Finally if you are ever in the vicinity of either village they are well worth a visit to see. Both villages have fascinating history with the added bonus of seeing the cardabelle door charms in situ.
Outlander Season 3 Summary of Medicinal Plant Remedies
Well after a long Droughtlander… Season 3 eventually hit our television screens in September. The following is the Outlander Season 3 Summary of Medicinal Plant Remedies.
Episode 3 – All Debts Paid
Murtagh and Jamie
Finally in episode 3 a medicinal plant, milk thistle, enters a scene and Murtagh is back!
However, Jamie and Murtagh are in Ardmuir prison and Murtagh is poorly. He has had enough dam thistles. They chat about Claire. Click here to read more about milk thistle or Carduus marianus.
Claire and Jamie are yet to be reunited. Consequently, Claire is still in Boston, in the future, though her life is just about to change…
Episode 6 – A. Malcolm
Claire with Dorcas, Peggy and Mollie
Probably, the most eagerly anticipated episode. Claire and Jamie reunited after 20 years.
The morning after, Claire is sitting in the brothel parlour eating breakfast. Due to mistaking Claire as the new girl, Dorcas offers to show Claire where the tubs are
“…ye can soak yer parts in warm water”. – Dorcas
“Make sure ye show the jars of sweet herbs. Put them in the water. Madame Jeanne likes us to smell sweet”. – Peggy
Sweet herbs are most probably aromatic plants from the Lamiaceae botanical family. Herbs such as lavender, rosemary, lemon balm, perhaps mint too.
Mollie suggests a warm bath helps stop a bairn from coming. As a result, Claire sees the opportunity to utilise her herbal knowledge
“Actually, mugwort is quite effective for stopping pregnancy. You take it as a warm infusion” – Claire
You may remember in Season 2, Episode 2 titled “Not in Scotland Anymore”, Claire visits an apothecary store in France. There she meets and befriends Master Raymond.
After discovering Suzette (the lady’s maid) and Murtagh together, Claire returns to the apothecary in Episode 3. As a result, she asks Master Raymond’s help for birth control for Suzette. Master Raymond recommends mugwort.
Episode 7 – Crème De Menthe
Claire with Archibald Campbell and the apothecary
Wow that was a bit of rollercoaster episode…. Claire rushes off to the apothecary for plant medicines to try to save the exciseman from his severe head wound.
While there she meets Archibald Campbell asking advice for his sister Margaret. His request is for anything that might calm her nerves. In particular he mentions mandrake root and hemlock.
Mandrake root (Atropa mandragora) and Hemlock (Conium maculatum) are out of modern use. Hemlock is sedative to the motor nerves and muscles (Menzies-Trull). In Margaret’s case, her brother Archibald, probably heard of its use for excitability and mania. Hemlock is on the poison schedule.
Mandrake root had many traditional uses. Also believed sedative. Podophyllum peltatum is the American mandrake. A different species. I understand this is digestive in action.
For the exciseman, Claire purchases a bottle of laudanum, some ground yarrow root and tormentil. Claire would select laudanum, opium based, as a painkiller.
Herbalists today prefer the aerial parts of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) rather than the root. It is astringent so Claire probably would have decocted the root to use to reduce bleeding. In addition, tormentil (Potentilla tormentilla or P. erecta) is also an astringent wound healer. It is high in tannins.
Thereafter, upon returning to the brothel and the ailing exciseman, she tries her hand at trepanation! Although Claire successfully releases the clot the exciseman inevitably ends up Crème de Menthe!
Claire with Archibald and Margaret Campbell
Later Claire visits Margaret Campbell. Her brother had given her a few drops of laudanum to keep her calm prior to Claire’s arrival. Poor Margaret certainly is very sombre, at least initially!
Margaret has trouble sleeping and has nightmares. She sits staring at the wall. Claire diagnoses a mental disorder.
She recommends mistletoe tea with a few drops of tansy oil. In addition she proposes valerian tea to help her sleep. Finally she insists no more laudanum!
Claire would have recommended the combination of Viscum album (mistletoe) and Valerian officinalis (valerian) for Margaret’s nervous disposition. Mistletoe is a sedative and tonic for anxiety, nervousness and panic attacks. Valerian is a muscle relaxant and sedative for anxiety, nervous tension and excitability. Both herbs very much still in use by herbalists today.
Keen Outlander fans may remember Claire gave Angus her port which included valerian. This was the episode titled The Gathering and before her marriage to Jamie. She planned to make Agnus sleepy. Unconscious he would miss her escape from Castle Leoch. Fortunately she tripped over a sleeping Jamie in the stables before being able to steal away with a horse.
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!