Plants in Folk Medicine, by T. F.
Folklore of Plants
From the earliest times plants have been most extensively used in the
cure of disease, although in days of old it was not so much their
inherent medicinal properties which brought them into repute as their
supposed magical virtues. Oftentimes, in truth, the only merit of a
plant lay in the charm formula attached to it, the due utterance of
which ensured relief to the patient. Originally there can be no doubt
that such verbal forms were prayers, "since dwindled into mystic
sentences."  Again, before a plant could work its healing powers, due
regard had to be paid to the planet under whose influence it was
supposed to be;  for Aubrey mentions an old belief that if a plant "be
not gathered according to the rules of astrology, it hath little or no
virtue in it." Hence, in accordance with this notion, we find numerous
directions for the cutting and preparing of certain plants for medicinal
purposes, a curious list of which occurs in Culpepper's "British Herbal
and Family Physician." This old herbalist, who was a strong believer in
astrology, tells us that such as are of this way of thinking, and none
else, are fit to be physicians. But he was not the only one who had
strict views on this matter, as the literature of his day
proves—astrology, too, having held a prominent place in most of the
gardening books of the same period. Michael Drayton, who has chronicled
so many of the credulities of his time, referring to the longevity of
antediluvian men, writes:—
"Besides, in medicine, simples had the power
That none need then the planetary hour
To help their workinge, they so juiceful were."
The adder's-tongue, if plucked during the wane of the moon, was a cure
for tumours, and there is a Swabian belief that one, "who on Friday of
the full moon pulls up the amaranth by the root, and folding it in a
white cloth, wears it against his naked breast, will be made
bullet-proof."  Consumptive patients, in olden times, were three times
passed, "Through a circular wreath of woodbine, cut during the increase
of the March moon, and let down over the body from head to foot."  In
France, too, at the present day, the vervain is gathered under the
different changes of the moon, with secret incantations, after which it
is said to possess remarkable curative properties.
In Cornwall, the club-moss, if properly gathered, is considered "good
against all diseases of the eye." The mode of procedure is this:—"On
the third day of the moon, when the thin crescent is seen for the first
time, show it the knife with which the moss is to be cut, and repeat
'As Christ healed the issue of blood,
Do thou cut what thou cuttest for good.'
At sundown, the operator, after carefully washing his hands, is to cut
the club-moss kneeling. It is then to be wrapped in a white cloth, and
subsequently boiled in water taken from the spring nearest to its place
of growth. This may be used as a fomentation, or the club-moss may be
made into an ointment with the butter from the milk of a new cow." 
Some plants have, from time immemorial, been much in request from the
season or period of their blooming, beyond which fact it is difficult to
account for the virtues ascribed to them. Thus, among the Romans, the
first anemone of the year, when gathered with this form of incantation,
"I gather thee for a remedy against disease," was regarded as a
preservative from fever; a survival of which belief still prevails in
our own country:—
"The first spring-blown anemone she in his doublet wove,
To keep him safe from pestilence wherever he should rove."
On the other hand, in some countries there is a very strong prejudice
against the wild anemone, the air being said "to be so tainted by them,
that they who inhale it often incur severe sickness."  Similarly we
may compare the notion that flowers blooming out of season have a fatal
significance, as we have noted elsewhere.
The sacred associations attached to many plants have invested them, at
all times, with a scientific repute in the healing art, instances of
which may be traced up to a very early period. Thus, the peony, which,
from its mythical divine origin, was an important flower in the
primitive pharmacopoeia, has even in modern times retained its
reputation; and to this day Sussex mothers put necklaces of beads turned
from the peony root around their children's necks, to prevent
convulsions and to assist them in their teething. When worn on the
person, it was long considered, too, a most effectual remedy for
insanity, and Culpepper speaks of its virtues in the cure of the falling
sickness.  The thistle, sacred to Thor, is another plant of this kind,
and indeed instances are very numerous. On the other hand, some plants,
from their great virtues as "all-heals," it would seem, had such names
as "Angelica" and "Archangel" bestowed on them. 
In later times many plants became connected with the name of Christ, and
with the events of the crucifixion itself—facts which occasionally
explain their mysterious virtues. Thus the vervain, known as the "holy
herb," and which was one of the sacred plants of the Druids, has long
been held in repute, the subjoined rhyme assigning as the reason:—
"All hail, thou holy herb, vervin,
Growing on the ground;
On the Mount of Calvary
There wast thou found;
Thou helpest many a grief,
And staunchest many a wound.
In the name of sweet Jesu,
I lift thee from the ground."
To quote one or two further instances, a popular recipe for preventing
the prick of a thorn from festering is to repeat this formula:—
"Christ was of a virgin born,
And he was pricked with a thorn,
And it did neither bell nor swell,
And I trust in Jesus this never will."
In Cornwall, some years ago, the following charm was much used, forms of
which may occasionally be heard at the present day:—
"Happy man that Christ was born,
He was crowned with a thorn;
He was pierced through the skin,
For to let the poison in.
But His five wounds, so they say,
Closed before He passed away.
In with healing, out with thorn,
Happy man that Christ was born."
Another version used in the North of England is this:—
"Unto the Virgin Mary our Saviour was horn,
And on his head he wore a crown of thorn;
If you believe this true, and mind it well,
This hurt will never fester nor swell."
The Angelica sylvestris was popularly known as "Holy Ghost," from the
angel-like properties therein having been considered good "against
poisons, pestilent agues, or the pestilence."
Cockayne, in his "Saxon Leechdoms," mentions an old poem descriptive of
the virtues of the mugwort:—
"Thou hast might for three,
And against thirty,
For venom availest
For plying vile things."
So, too, certain plants of the saints acquired a notoriety for specific
virtues; and hence St. John's wort, with its leaves marked with
blood-like spots, which appear, according to tradition, on the
anniversary of his decollation, is still "the wonderful herb" that cures
all sorts of wounds. Herb-bennet, popularly designated "Star of the
earth," a name applied to the avens, hemlock, and valerian, should
properly be, says Dr. Prior, "St. Benedict's herb, a name assigned to
such plants as were supposed to be antidotes, in allusion to a legend of
this saint, which represents that upon his blessing a cup of poisoned
wine which a monk had given to destroy him, the glass was shivered to
pieces." In the same way, herb-gerard was called from St. Gerard, who was
formerly invoked against gout, a complaint for which this plant was once
in high repute. St. James's wort was so called from its being used for
the diseases of horses, of which this great pilgrim-saint was the
patron. It is curious in how many unexpected ways these odd items of
folk-lore in their association with the saints meet us, showing that in
numerous instances it is entirely their association with certain saints
that has made them of medical repute.
Some trees and plants have gained a medical notoriety from the fact of
their having a mystical history, and from the supernatural qualities
ascribed to them. But, as Bulwer-Lytton has suggested in his "Strange
Story," the wood of certain trees to which magical properties are
ascribed may in truth possess virtues little understood, and deserving
of careful investigation. Thus, among these, the rowan would take its
place, as would the common hazel, from which the miner's divining-rod is
always cut.  An old-fashioned charm to cure the bite of an adder was
to lay a cross formed of two pieces of hazel-wood on the ground,
repeating three times this formula :—
"Underneath this hazelin mote,
There's a braggotty worm with a speckled throat,
Nine double is he;
Now from nine double to eight double
And from eight double to seven double-ell."
The mystical history of the apple accounts for its popularity as a
medical agent, although, of course, we must not attribute all the
lingering rustic cures to this source. Thus, according to an old
"Eat an apple going to bed,
Make the doctor beg his bread."
Its juice has long been deemed potent against warts, and a Lincolnshire
cure for eyes affected by rheumatism or weakness is a poultice made of
The oak, long famous for its supernatural strength and power, has been
much employed in folk-medicine. A German cure for ague is to walk round
an oak and say:—
"Good evening, thou good one old;
I bring thee the warm and the cold."
Similarly, in our own country, oak-trees planted at the junction of
cross-roads were much resorted to by persons suffering from ague, for
the purpose of transferring to them their complaint,  and elsewhere
allusion has already been made to the practice of curing sickly children
by passing through a split piece of oak. A German remedy for gout is to
take hold of an oak, or of a young shoot already felled, and to repeat
"Oak-shoot, I to thee complain,
All the torturing gout plagues me;
I cannot go for it,
Thou canst stand it.
The first bird that flies above thee,
To him give it in his flight,
Let him take it with him in the air."
Another plant, which from its mystic character has been used for various
complaints, is the elder. In Bohemia, three spoonsful of the water which
has been used to bathe an invalid are poured under an elder-tree; and a
Danish cure for toothache consists in placing an elder-twig in the
mouth, and then sticking it in a wall, saying, "Depart, thou evil
spirit." The mysterious origin and surroundings of the mistletoe have
invested it with a widespread importance in old folk-lore remedies, many
of which are, even now-a-days, firmly credited; a reputation, too,
bestowed upon it by the Druids, who styled it "all-heal," as being an
antidote for all diseases. Culpepper speaks of it as "good for the grief
of the sinew, itch, sores, and toothache, the biting of mad dogs and
venomous beasts;" while Sir Thomas Browne alludes to its virtues in
cases of epilepsy. In France, amulets formed of mistletoe were much
worn; and in Sweden, a finger-ring made of its wood is an antidote
against sickness. The mandrake, as a mystic plant, was extensively sold
for medicinal purposes, and in Kent may be occasionally found kept to
cure barrenness;  and it may be remembered that La Fontaine's fable,
La Mandragore, turns upon its supposed power of producing children.
How potent its effects were formerly held may be gathered from the very
many allusions to its mystic properties in the literature of bygone
years. Columella, in his well-known lines, says:—
"Whose roots show half a man, whose juice
With madness strikes."
Shakespeare speaks of it as an opiate, and on the Continent it was much
used for amulets.
Again, certain plants seem to have been specially in high repute in
olden times from the marvellous influence they were credited with
exercising over the human frame; consequently they were much valued by
both old and young; for who would not retain the vigour of his youth,
and what woman would not desire to preserve the freshness of her beauty?
One of the special virtues of rosemary, for instance, was its ability to
make old folks young again. A story is told of a gouty and crooked old
queen, who sighed with longing regret to think that her young
dancing-days were gone, so:—
"Of rosmaryn she took six pownde,
And grounde it well in a stownde,"
And then mixed it with water, in which she bathed three times a day,
taking care to anoint her head with "gode balm" afterwards. In a very
short time her old flesh fell away, and she became so young, tender, and
fresh, that she began to look out for a husband. 
The common fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) was supposed to give strength
to the constitution, and was regarded as highly restorative. Longfellow,
in his "Goblet of Life," apparently alludes to our fennel:—
"Above the lowly plant it towers,
The fennel, with its yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers
Lost vision to restore.
It gave new strength and fearless mood,
And gladiators, fierce and rude,
Mingled it in their daily food,
And he who battled and subdued,
The wreath of fennel wore."
The lady's-mantle, too (Alchemilla vulgaris), was once in great
request, for, according to Hoffman, it had the power of "restoring
feminine beauty, however faded, to its early freshness;" and the wild
tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), laid to soak in buttermilk for nine days,
had the reputation of "making the complexion very fair."  Similarly,
also, the great burnet saxifrage was said to remove freckles; and
according to the old herbalists, an infusion of the common centaury
(Erythroea centaurium) possessed the same property.  The hawthorn,
too, was in repute among the fair sex, for, according to an old piece of
"The fair maid who, the first of May,
Goes to the fields at break of day,
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever after handsome be;"
And the common fumitory, "was used when gathered in wedding hours, and
boiled in water, milk, and whey, as a wash for the complexion of rustic
maids."  In some parts of France the water-hemlock (nanthe
crocata), known with us as the "dead-tongue," from its paralysing
effects on the organs of voice, was used to destroy moles; and the
yellow toad-flax (Linaria vulgaris) is described as "cleansing the
skin wonderfully of all sorts of deformity." Another plant of popular
renown was the knotted figwort (Scrophularia nodosa), for Gerarde
censures "divers who doe rashly teach that if it be hanged about the
necke, or else carried about one, it keepeth a man in health." Coles,
speaking of the mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), says that, "if a footman
take mugwort and put it in his shoes in the morning, he may go forty
miles before noon and not be weary;" but as far back as the time of
Pliny its remarkable properties were known, for he says, "The wayfaring
man that hath the herb tied about him feeleth no weariness at all, and
he can never be hurt by any poisonous medicine, by any wild beast,
neither yet by the sun itself." The far-famed betony was long credited
with marvellous medicinal properties, and hence the old saying which
recommends a person when ill "to sell his coat and buy betony." A
species of thistle was once believed to have the curious virtue of
driving away melancholy, and was hence termed the "melancholy thistle."
According to Dioscorides, "the root borne about one doth expel
melancholy and remove all diseases connected therewith," but it was to
be taken in wine.
On the other hand, certain plants have been credited at most periods
with hurtful and injurious properties. Thus, there is a popular idea
that during the flowering of the bean more cases of lunacy occur than at
any other season.  It is curious to find the apple—such a widespread
curative—regarded as a bane, an illustration of which is given by Mr.
Conway.  In Swabia it is said that an apple plucked from a graft on
the whitethorn will, if eaten by a pregnant woman, increase her pains.
On the Continent, the elder, when used as a birch, is said to check
boys' growth, a property ascribed to the knot-grass, as in Beaumont and
Fletcher's "Coxcomb" (Act ii. sc. 2):—
"We want a boy extremely for this function,
Kept under for a year with milk and knot-grass."
The cat-mint, when chewed, created quarrelsomeness, a property said by
the Italians to belong to the rampion.
Occasionally much attention in folk-medicine has been paid to lucky
numbers; a remedy, in order to prove efficacious, having to be performed
in accordance with certain numerical rules. In Devonshire, poultices
must be made of seven different kinds of herbs, and a cure for thrush is
this:—"Three rushes are taken from any running stream, passed
separately through the mouth of the infant, and then thrown back into
the water. As the current bears them away, so, it is believed, will the
thrush leave the child."
Similarly, in Brandenburg, if a person is afflicted with dizziness, he
is recommended to run after sunset, naked, three times through a field
of flax; after doing so, the flax will at once "take the dizziness to
itself." A Sussex cure for ague is to eat sage leaves, fasting, nine
mornings in succession; while Flemish folk-lore enjoins any one who has
the ague to go early in the morning to an old willow, make three knots
in one of its branches, and say "Good morrow, old one; I give thee the
cold; good morrow, old one." A very common cure for warts is to tie as
many knots on a hair as there are warts, and to throw the hair away;
while an Irish charm is to give the patient nine leaves of dandelion,
three leaves being eaten on three successive mornings. Indeed, the
efficacy of numbers is not confined to any one locality; and Mr. Folkard
 mentions an instance in Cuba where, "thirteen cloves of garlic at
the end of a cord, worn round the neck for thirteen days, are considered
a safeguard against jaundice." It is necessary, however, that the
wearer, in the middle of the night of the thirteenth day, should proceed
to the corner of two streets, take off his garlic necklet, and, flinging
it behind him, run home without turning round to see what has become of
it. Similarly, six knots of elderwood are employed "in a Yorkshire
incantation to ascertain if beasts are dying from witchcraft."  In
Thuringia, on the extraction of a tooth, the person must eat three
daisies to be henceforth free from toothache. In Cornwall  bramble
leaves are made use of in cases of scalds and inflammatory diseases.
Nine leaves are moistened with spring-water, and "these are applied to
the burned or diseased parts." While this is being done, for every
bramble leaf the following charm is repeated three times:—
"There came three angels out of the east,
One brought fire and two brought frost;
Out fire and in frost,
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost."
Of the thousand and one plants used in popular folk-medicine we can but
give a few illustrations, so numerous are these old cures for the ills
to which flesh is heir. Thus, for deafness, the juice of onion has been
long recommended, and for chilblains, a Derbyshire cure is to thrash
them with holly, while in some places the juice of the leek mixed with
cream is held in repute. To exterminate warts a host of plants have been
recommended; the juice of the dandelion being in favour in the Midland
counties, whereas in the North, one has but to hang a snail on a thorn,
and as the poor creature wastes away the warts will disappear. In
Leicestershire the ash is employed, and in many places the elder is
considered efficacious. Another old remedy is to prick the wart with a
gooseberry thorn passed through a wedding-ring; and according to a
Cornish belief, the first blackberry seen will banish warts. Watercress
laid against warts was formerly said to drive them away. A rustic
specific for whooping-cough in Hampshire is to drink new milk out of a
cup made of the variegated holly; while in Sussex the excrescence found
on the briar, and popularly known as "robin red-breast's cushion," is in
demand. In consumption and diseases of the lungs, St. Fabian's nettle,
the crocus, the betony, and horehound, have long been in request, and
sea-southern-wood or mugwort, occasionally corrupted into "muggons," was
once a favourite prescription in Scotland. A charming girl, whom
consumption had brought to the brink of the grave, was lamented by her
lover, whereupon a good-natured mermaid sang to him:—
"Wad ye let the bonnie May die in your hand,
And the mugwort flowering i' the land?"
Thereupon, tradition says, he administered the juice of this life-giving
plant to his fair lady-love, who "arose and blessed the bestower for the
return of health." Water in which peas have been boiled is given for
measles, and a Lincolnshire recipe for cramp is cork worn on the person.
A popular cure for ringworm in Scotland is a decoction of sun-spurge
(Euphorbia helioscopia), or, as it is locally termed, "mare's milk."
In the West of England to bite the first fern seen in spring is an
antidote for toothache, and in certain parts of Scotland the root of the
yellow iris chopped up and chewed is said to afford relief. Some, again,
recommend a double hazel-nut to be carried in the pocket,  and the
elder, as a Danish cure, has already been noticed.
Various plants were, in days gone by, used for the bites of mad dogs and
to cure hydrophobia. Angelica, madworts, and several forms of lichens
were favourite remedies. The root of balaustrium, with storax,
cypress-nuts, soot, olive-oil, and wine was the receipt, according to
Bonaventura, of Cardinal Richelieu. Among other popular remedies were
beetroot, box leaves, cabbage, cucumbers, black currants, digitalis, and
euphorbia.  A Russian remedy was Genista sentoria, and in Greece
rose-leaves were used internally and externally as a poultice.
Horse-radish, crane's-bill, strawberry, and herb-gerard are old remedies
for gout, and in Westphalia apple-juice mixed with saffron is
administered for jaundice; while an old remedy for boils is dock-tea.
For ague, cinquefoil and yarrow were recommended, and tansy leaves are
worn in the shoe by the Sussex peasantry; and in some places common
groundsel has been much used as a charm. Angelica was in olden times
used as an antidote for poisons. The juice of the arum was considered
good for the plague, and Gerarde tells us that Henry VIII. was, "wont to
drink the distilled water of broom-flowers against surfeits and diseases
thereof arising." An Irish recipe for sore-throat is a cabbage leaf tied
round the throat, and the juice of cabbage taken with honey was formerly
given as a cure for hoarseness or loss of voice.  Agrimony, too, was
once in repute for sore throats, cancers, and ulcers; and as far back as
the time of Pliny the almond was given as a remedy for inebriety. For
rheumatism the burdock was in request, and many of our peasantry keep a
potato in their pocket as charms, some, again, carrying a chestnut,
either begged or stolen. As an antidote for fevers the carnation was
prescribed, and the cowslip, and the hop, have the reputation of
inducing sleep. The dittany and plantain, like the golden-rod, nicknamed
"wound-weed," have been used for the healing of wounds, and the
application of a dock-leaf for the sting of a nettle is a well-known
cure among our peasantry, having been embodied in the old familiar
"Nettle out, dock in—
Dock remove the nettle-sting,"
Of which there are several versions; as in Wiltshire, where the child
uses this formula:—
Dock shall ha'a a new smock,
The young tops of the common nettle are still made by the peasantry into
nettle-broth, and, amongst other directions enjoined in an old Scotch
rhyme, it is to be cut in the month of June, "ere it's in the blume":—
"Cou' it by the auld wa's,
Cou' it where the sun ne'er fa'
Stoo it when the day daws,
Cou' the nettle early."
The juice of fumitory is said to clear the sight, and the kennel-wort
was once a popular specific for the king's-evil. As disinfectants,
wormwood and rue were much in demand; and hence Tusser says:—
"What savour is better, if physicke be true,
For places infected, than wormwood and rue?"
For depression, thyme was recommended, and a Manx preservative against
all kinds of infectious diseases is ragwort. The illustrations we have
given above show in how many ways plants have been in demand as popular
curatives. And although an immense amount of superstition has been
interwoven with folk-medicine, there is a certain amount of truth in the
many remedies which for centuries have been, with more or less success,
employed by the peasantry, both at home and abroad.
1. See Tylor's "Primitive Culture," ii.
2. See Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 164.
3. "Mystic Trees and Shrubs," p. 717.
4. Folkard's "Plant-lore," p. 379.
5. Hunt's "Popular Romances of the West of England," 1871, p. 415
6. Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 216.
7. See Black's "Folk-medicine," 1883, p.195.
8. Quarterly Review, cxiv. 245.
9. "Sacred Trees and Flowers," Quarterly Review, cxiv. 244.
10. Folkard's "Plant Legends," 364.
11. Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 591.
12. "Mystic Trees and Plants;" Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 708.
13. "Reliquiae Antiquse," Wright and Halliwell, i. 195; Quarterly Review,
1863, cxiv. 241.
14. Coles, "The Art of Simpling," 1656.
15. Anne Pratt's "Flowering Plants of Great Britain," iv. 9.
16. Black's "Folk-medicine," p. 201.
17. Folkard's "Plant-Lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 248.
18. Fraser's Magazine, 1870, p. 591.
19. "Plant-Lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 349.
20. Black's "Folk-medicine," p. 185.
21. See Hunt's "Popular Romances of the West of England."
22. Black's "Folk-medicine," p. 193.
23. "Rabies or Hydrophobia," T. M. Dolan, 1879, p. 238.
24. Black's "Folk-medicine," p. 193.