Thursday 2 November 2017

The Forgotten Few: Herb Robert

Plants are subtle. Sometimes they shout at you. Sometimes they brush against you until you take notice. Sometimes they sit and laugh at you for ignoring them. They know you will come to them eventually.

It was Australians who first alerted me to Herb Robert. “Where can I get hold of some herb Robert plants?” asked one woman.

“Why do you want to grow it?” I asked. “Over here, it grows everywhere; a ubiquitous weed. We try to ignore it.”

I was told it was the latest wonder drug, being used for cancer. She wanted to eat it every day to boost her immune system. She told me the name of the Australian herbalist who was waxing lyrical about the herbal properties and posted a link to Isobell Shipard’s articles. I read them and promptly dismissed them. I’m never comfortable when unknown authors gush about something. When they mention a particular product will cure all known cancers, it’s usually time to go and do the washing up.

I forgot about the articles. I did go out into the garden and noticed herb Robert was growing all over my garden; a geranium with a tiny pink flower. Its stems were mostly green but some of them were red. I smiled at it and let it slide from my memory.

It niggled at me for a couple more years that I knew nothing about this plant. Eventually, I asked the fount of all knowledge - Facebook – if anyone was working with herb Robert and had they heard about the claims being made for it in Australia. The responses were eye-opening. Several practicing herbalists in the UK and Ireland were using herb Robert in their practice with fascinating results. I needed to know more.

Who is Herb Robert? (Geraneum Robertianum)
 Herb Robert is a member of the cranesbill family, so named because the seedpods have bulbous bases and pointy tips which resemble a crane’s bill. The plant can either be annual or biennial. It grows up to 20”/50cm tall, although I’m sure the once which colonised my stream bank this summer were taller! It has deep-cut delicate leaves with three or five leaflets. The plant is hairy and smells musky, often turning deep red as it ages.   The flower has pink petals which are round-edged with white veins. The stems form nodes at the base which turn red and the roots are shallow. They are really easy to weed!

Herb Robert has many different names. Julie Bruton-Seal says its name was originally Rupert (named after a 7th century saint) and there are many different saintly Roberts including a pope associated with it. Dylan Warren- Davies, the Welsh herbalist ascribes the Robert as St Robert of Molesme, the founder of the Cistercian monastic order who was a noted herbalist and healer. The name is also connected with Robin (the bird) and Robin Goodfellow (a mischievous household sprite) but several commentators have pointed to the Latin term, rubra meaning redness as a possible source.

Wherever you are in the UK, herb Robert will have its own local name. Geoffrey Grigson, in 1958, collected 110 different regional names. Julie Bruton-Seal notes nearly a quarter were variants of robin or Robert, six were related to the plant’s smell (Stinky’ Bob!) and four to kissing. The connection between Herb Robert and Robin and Puck gives it a darker side. Don’t kill cock robin, don’t uproot herb Robert, don’t cross Robin Goodfellow – all will bring ill-luck. Only one of herb Robert’s local names mentions death. This is “Death comes quickly” and is only found in Cumbria.

What does Herb Robert do?
Look at the plant. Its redness signifies life and blood. A friend’s grandmother used to make herb Robert tea when she was feeling ill. She didn’t know she suffered with sticky blood but her grandmother recognised herb Robert would do what was needed.

Culpepper and other ancestral herbalists used herb Robert for both internal and external bleeding and other discharges. All parts of herb Robert can be utilised. Don’t try and dry it, it doesn’t work. You might be lucky if you take all the leaves off or try drying the roots. If you look hard enough it should be available all year round or infuse it in something for the times you can’t gather.

Julie Bruton-Seal says that Herb Robert can also be used for eruptions of the skin, including skin ulcers, tumours and eczema. She quotes Pechey in 1707 who noted it was helpful in treating erysipelas. Aerial parts can be useful as a mouthwash for gum disease and sore throats. The Irish traditionally use herb Robert for kidney issues as the plant is mildly diuretic and cooling. The tea can be used as a compress when there is backache.

Both Culpepper and Maud Grieve talk about herb Robert being used by farmers for all kinds of diseases in cattle and for increasing fertility when cows can’t be got into calf. It may be that the agricultural use of the plant continued when the practice of using it for humans had been forgotten. Apparently, it is still a common remedy in Ireland for red-water fever in farm cattle.

Let’s think about the smell. It stinks. Only John Pechey thought it smelt like parsnips. It’s possibly the only plant that slugs, caterpillars and other munchers studiously ignore. There must be something in the plant which repels insects.

Earlier this year, a herbalist posted about an insect repellent she’d made with elder leaf. I’d just had to prune an elder branch, so decided to make a double infused oil and add herb Robert oil to the salve along with some traditional repelling essential oils (citronella, sandalwood). 

I took it the Radical Herb Gathering in June. Every evening we were eaten by midges. The first evening I daubed myself with the insect salve – no midges. The second evening I forgot the salve and was attacked on all fronts. I put salve on the parts of my skin where I’d been attacked and it was instantly soothed.

The Irish herbalist, Bridget Meagher, is using a tincture of herb Robert for head lice. It’s wonderful to have another plant in our arsenal to deal with infestations.

There are many more uses for herb Robert besides internal and external bleeding. One Irish herbalist, is using it for high and low blood pressure, excessive menstrual bleeding, balancing blood sugar levels and as a nerve restorative. Another uses it for varicose veins and haemorrhoids mixed with yarrow and horse chestnut. A third for ear drops when treating otitis externa. She infused herb Robert with plantain, calendula and mullein in sweet almond oil. 

Why does it do all these things?
Herb Robert contains vitamins A, B and C. It has a vast array of minerals- calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and germanium.

Its actions are astringent, antibiotic, adaptogen, antiviral, styptic, tonic, diuretic, sedative, antioxidant. 

Herb Robert contains a natural source of germanium which David Farrell described in 2015 as “a valuable element and powerful antioxidant which has the ability to make oxygen readily available to the cells of the body.” He explains that more oxygen at cellular level gives the body more opportunity to fight disease by its own powers and healing can take place quickly. If cells can’t get oxygen, they can’t get nutrients to regenerate. Those cells then become anaerobic, a state leading to pain, disease, wayward cells and possibly cancer.

Farrell quotes the Nobel physicist, Otto Warburg, who said “the prime cause of cancer is lack of oxygenation of cells”. In 1966, he discovered that cancer cells could not exist in the presence of abundant oxygen but only in an anaerobic state. It’s thought that germanium stimulates electrical impulses at a cellular level to create a beneficial ripple effect throughout the whole body.

Finally, I went back to Isobell Shipard’s articles. She came across the claims for herb Robert from a 1976 article written by a Spanish doctor, who had been inspired by a Portuguese letter written to Natura magazine in 1953. The stories concerning cures talked about taking powdered herb Robert leaves mixed in fresh raw egg yolk – a form of administration I have never heard of before. It makes me wonder why the herb is maximised in a fat solution or whether it is a cultural way of taking medication in southern Europe e.g. French people prefer suppositories to tablets; Italian men drink raw eggs to increase their virility (if the fictional Scilician detective, Montalbano, is anything to go by!)

Isobell Shipard was a leading herbalist in Queensland, Australia. She died at the end of 2014 and was instrumental in bringing herbs to the attention of ordinary Australians. She advocated the use of herb Robert for over twenty-five years and without that Australian prompt I would never have considered using this powerful little ally.

I hope to inspire others to treat herb Robert with more respect and admiration for its wide range of uses. 

Bruton-Seal, J & Seal, M Wayside Medicine Merlin Unwin Books 2017 ISBN-13: 978-1910723-37-7
Culpeper, N Complete Herbal 1653 Wordsworth Reference 1995 ISBN 1 85326 345 1
Facebook Forgotten Herbs Group discussion contributions from Julie Bruton-Seal, Joanna Byron, Natasha Clarke, Nikki Darrell, Althaea Hawthorn, Mari Jerstad, Saskia Marjoram, Brigitte Meagher, Claire Mullen, Margaret Palmer, Mina Said-Alsopp, Jane Wallwork-Gush, Monica Wilde
Grigson, G. (1996) The Englishman’s Flora. Helicon Publishing Ltd, Oxford
Warren-Davis, D Reflections on Herb Robert posted 15/5/16
Plants for a Future Herb Robert (January 2004):
Shipard, I Herb Robert – Natural Alterative (3/2/08)
Wood, M The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants 2008 North Atlantic Books ISBN 9 781556 436925
Wood, M The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants 2009 North Atlantic Books ISBN 9 781556 437793