Medicinal Plants and Herbs

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Plants are amazing! They provide us with food (all our yummy fruit and vegetables), clothing (like cotton and hemp), furniture, shelter (timber for all or parts of our houses), and even the air we breathe (they produce oxygen). We literally couldn’t live without them!

Miraculously, they’ve even been the foundation of our arsenal of medicines. Did you know, for instance, that aspirin can be found in the bark of willow trees and that Native peoples, both in Europe and the Americas, have used willow bark for centuries or even thousands of years to get rid of headaches and other aches and pains? Or did you know that during World War II, thousands of pounds of rose hips were harvested by school children to make rose hip syrup so that people had enough vitamin C during the war?

We can and do synthesise aspirin now in laboratories and likewise, you can buy vitamins off the shelf. But even today, we still get lots of our current medicines directly from plants. In fact, there are estimates that as high as 40% of the treatments presently used for cancer come directly from plants. A little respect from our species to theirs is perhaps in order!

In Elizabethan times, of course, one couldn’t run to the local chemist and get a pill for your aches and pains. But one could run to the chemist and get medicines made from plants and herbs for what ailed you. Plants are used medicinally in lots of ways – decoctions, tinctures, teas/infusions, glycerites, vinegars, honeys, syrups, infused oils, ointments/salves and poultices. Below, I’ve listed the ones Drake uses.

Comfrey: in olden days, this plant was known as knit bone. As the name implies, it’s great for healing broken bones and speeding the healing of wounds when used as a poultice.

Decoctions: a method of extraction of plant materials by simmering or boiling.

Hyssop: a herb used medicinally as an antiseptic, cough reliever and expectorant. Used as a poultice, it will help heal bruises and contusions.

Knight’s milfoil or yarrow: a first aid treatment for nosebleeds and wounds. I have to admit I made up this yarn myself:                                                                                 When in battle                                                                                                                Men do toil,                                                                                                                   Bind the wound                                                                                                              With knight’s milfoil.

Mayblossom: an old word for the hawthorn tree. Hawthorn is used medicinally as a tonic for the heart and circulatory system.

Medewurte: the Elizabethan term for Meadowsweet. With a fragrance like almonds, this sweet herb was strewn on the floor to make the room smell pleasant. It can also be used to treat indigestion and heartburn.

Poltice: a soft, moist mass often heated, used to treat wounds or inflammation.

Teas/Infusions: the easiest way to make a plant extract is to make tea! That’s right. Every time you make tea that is exactly what you are doing – making an infusion. All you do is pour hot water over fresh or dried herbs and leave it to steep for several minutes. And even the black tea that so many people in enjoy in Britain today has anti-oxidant properties.

Tinctures: meaning 1) plant material extracted by alcohol and 2) a word used in heraldry to describe colours, metals and furs each having their own name; argent (silver/white), azure (blue), gules (red), or (yellow/gold), sable (black), and vert (green).

Thyme: used medicinally to treat respiratory disorders of the lungs.

Vervain: known as a cure all, vervain is used during convalescence because it is powerfully restorative. The prayer for picking vervain found in the novel is age-old:           All hail, thou holy herb, vervain, 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.

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