Monday, 16 May 2011

The forgotten few

I was sorting out photos from the weekend and realised I had pictures of plants which I’d not taken before. The plants had been growing for ages, but I just hadn’t bothered to take their photos because I don’t work with them or I see them around from time to time but I wasn’t sure exactly what they were. I thought I would share them with you.

Every year around this time of year a beautiful flowered stalk appears along the walkway from the summerhouse down to the pump house. I always admire it, wonder if I know it’s correct name and then forget about it for another year. Once the flower stalks disappear, I can never find it again as the area is covered with Himalayan balsam and other large plants.

The photograph finally forced me to identify the plant properly. It was bugle, Ajuga Reptans. Not a plant I remember discussing in any forum. Trying to discover its properties was also problematic. A lot of books don’t mention it, but thankfully Matthew Wood came to my rescue. His Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants is so helpful when you’re trying to find knowledge most herbalists don’t include. He also points you in the direction of other ancient herbals where you can check the original wording and see what else the writer had to say.

Wood quotes Maud Grieve who included bugle in her Modern Herbal, giving its properties as bitter, astringent and aromatic. Grieve , in turn quotes Culpepper, who gives a clear description of the plant as well as its habitat which is still true today. He said, “It grows in woods, copse and fields generally throughout England.”

Culpepper had a high opinion of the value of the Bugle. He described it as a herb of Venus and said, “if the virtues of it make you fall in love with it (as they will if you be wise) keep a syrup of it to take inwardly, and an ointment and plaster of it to use outwardly, always by you. The decoction of the leaves and flowers in wine dissolveth the congealed blood in those that are bruised inwardly by a fall or otherwise and is very effectual for any inward wounds, thrusts or stabs in the body or bowels; and is an especial help in wound drinks and for those that are liver-grown, as they call it. It is wonderful in curing all ulcers and sores, gangrenes and fistulas, if the leaves, bruised and applied or their juice be used to wash and bathe the place and the same made into lotion and some honey and gum added, cureth the worse sores. Being also taken inwardly or outwardly applied, it helpeth those that have broken any bone or have any member out of joint. An ointment made with the leaves of Bugle, Scabious and Sanicle bruised and boiled in hog's lard until the herbs be dry and then strained into a pot for such occasions as shall require, it is so efficacious for all sorts of hurts in the body that none should be without it.”

I really like the idea that everyone should keep some form of the plant nearby. I gathered some flower stalks and will dry them. During my next visit to the farm, I may search for some more if I have time.

Culpepper also believed Bugle was helpful for people “such as give themselves much to drinking[and] are troubled with strange fancies, strange sights in the night time and some with voices….Those I have known cured after taking only two spoonfuls of the syrup of the herb after supper two hours before you go to bed.” Culpepper is unsure how the plant works and it would be fascinating if some modern research were done to see if bugle maintained its efficacy for alcohol-induced hallucinations!

Matthew Wood lists a whole range of specific indications for the herb, from irritable cough, through gallbladder congestion, to oedema, bruises, cuts, lacerations, stab wounds, haematomas and ulcers.

Grieve says the whole herb is gathered in May and early June then dried. The dose is one small wine glass full of the infusion made from 1oz of dried herb to one pint of boiling water given frequently. You can also make a salve for wounds, as well as Culpepper’s syrup. He also suggests a decoction of the herb in wine should help dissipate congealed blood caused by a fall or an inward wound such as a stabbing.

Wall Germander
Wall Germander, Teucrium Chamaedrys, was historically a gout herb. I bought it because Chris developed gout in his hand during a particularly stressful time in his life. The doctor prescribed anti-inflammatories but nothing to dispel the urea crystals, so I dosed him with yarrow, celery seed and burdock leaf. The gout disappeared and has not made a reappearance in the past ten or so years. Nothing like having a herb in the garden to scare away a condition!

Around this time, Roger Tabor, then Chairman of the Herb Society, produced a list of herbs which were disappearing from the wild. Wall germander was one of them, so I decided to plant another one close to the summer house at the farm.

Our garden plant became very woody and fell foul of Chris’ dislike of any plant which dares to encroach where he wants to mow. I cut it back too far one year in an effort to please him but the plant decided it could not cope and disappeared over the winter. The summerhouse plant is still thriving, but almost lost in a sea of encroaching grass.

Wall germander is a creeping evergreen perennial 6 to 18 inches tall. Its scalloped, opposite leaves are 1/2 - 11⁄2 inches long, dark green, and shiny. In late summer, pink tubular flowers grow in whorls from the leaf axils. Grieve says the fresh leaves are bitter and pungent to the taste and when rubbed, emit a strong odour somewhat resembling garlic. (I’ve never noticed this, so must taste a leaf next time I walk by!)

Grieve says “the Emperor Charles V having been cured of gout by a decoction of this herb taken for sixty days in succession. It was employed in various forms and combinations, of which the once celebrated “Portland Powder” is one of the chief instances.”

Portland Powder, named after an ancestor of the Duke of Portland who brought the recipe from Switzerland, consisted of equal parts of Birth wort, Gentian ; Germander, Ground-Pine, and Centaury; all dried, pulverized, and sifted.
Grieve says it was also used as a tonic in intermittent fevers, and recommended for uterine obstructions. The expressed juice of the leaves, with the addition of white wine, was held to be good in obstruction of the viscera.

The problem with wall germander, is that, like comfrey, it contains hepatoxic PSAs which damage the liver. It has therefore fallen into disuse and is not recommended any more for gout especially not for long term usage.


Rowan said...

Interesting post, I have both these in my garden but have never really thought of them as herbs.

Sarah Head said...

Hi Rowan
What is fascinating is that most wild flowers have a medicinal use if you look hard enough and far enough back in history. People used what was around them but we've forgotten or lost most of the uses.

Sheryl at Providence North said...

I have a lot of bugle and tend to just pull and toss it when it gets overgrown. I never thought of it as medicinal. After that praise, I might make it into a salve with calendula!