Medicinal Plants

Since time began, people have used plants to cure ailments, and until the 17th century the science of botany and medicine were closely linked.

It was once essential for people who practised medicine to have an understanding of plants and their medicinal powers. Yet at the beginning of the scientific age, these two arts became separate, and books describing plants used in medicine were no longer written. Botanical books ignored the curative effects of plants, and medical books failed to list traditional remedies which for centuries had been used to treat patients.

Traditional and modern Traditional herb gardens contained plants that were grown for both medicinal and culinary purposes. Today we usually only grow plants in the herb garden to use in cooking — herbs such as parsley, thyme, sage, mint and basil. Yet even these have been used in the past, and are still used today, to relieve the symptoms of many of the more common illnesses.Medicinal Plants

Many people still look on herbal cures as some kind of quack medicine. This is mainly because much of what we know about plants’ medicinal action is traditional and has been passed on by word of mouth, and in many cases has not been scientifically proved. Yet for centuries plants were the only cures that were available and they were certainly effective, even though they took a long time to act. Modern synthetic drugs usually take effect more quickly.

A vast range

A herbal (a book describing plants used in medicine) published in 1931 contained information about more than 2500 plants, ranging from such different varieties as Scotch Pine, Scarlet Pimpernel, Water Lily, Madonna Lily and Lilyof-the-Valley. It included medicinal plants that have poisonous or addictive effects, such as Henbane, Belladonna, and Aconite (Monkshood). These plants can be very effective, and some are even used in modern drugs.

Importance of common names

Many of the common names of medicinal plants tell us something about their use.

  • Eyebright is useful for refreshing tired eyes; Viper’s Bugloss is said to be an antidote to snake bites; Scullcap has been used to cure insomnia; and Lung-wort was used to treat diseases of the lung.
  • The word wort appears often in common names, and comes from the old English word wyrt, meaning plant and herb.
  • Woundwort was used for soothing and healing wounds, as was Moneywort; Motherwort was used in a refreshing and invigorating drink that acted as a tonic.
  • Soapwort was used both for medicinal purposes and to clean clothing. It was also known as Latherwort and Crow Soap. Sneezewort was used in powdered form for ‘stuffing up the nose to cause sneezing’.
  • Scurvy Grass was use on sea voyages as a preventative of scurvy. Its other common name is Spoonwort, which comes from the fact that its leaves are spoon-shaped and carried on long stems.

Herbs of the kitchen garden, also have their medicinal uses; for example, parsley will remove excess fluid, and peppermint relieves indigestion.

What’s in a name

The English language is rich in both descriptive and interesting common names, especially for medicinal plants. One plant may have three, four or more names which tell us something about its properties.

Self-heal (Prunea vulgaris), a remedy for internal and external wounds, is also known as All-heal, Hook-heel, Slough-heal and Blue Curls. The well-known Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) — which is used in the treatment of eye diseases as well as in poultices to relieve inflammation and swelling — has a wide range of common names, including Devil’s Cherries, Naughtyman’s Cherries and Devil’s Herb. Most are no longer in use, but they tell us something about the nature of this deadly plant.

Feverfew, or Chrysanthemurn parthenium, describes the beneficial (and also migraine-alleviating) actions of this white-flowered plant. Feverfew is a corruption of febrifuge, an agent that reduces fever. Other common names for this plant include Featherfew and Featherfoil.

Plant roots

As well as the flowers and leaves of medicinal plants, the roots are also sometimes used; usually the root is crushed and then boiling water is poured on to it to make an infusion. Comfrey Root is effective in treating coughs and styes.

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