Natures pharmacy. A look at plants used in herbal medicine along with their habitat

It is easy to forget in these days of convenience shopping how important the wild flora was to people in days gone by. Gone are the days when every household relied upon decoctions, salves, and infusions to treat ailments from coughs and colds to life threatening diseases.

There is a surprising number of common plants that have proved beneficial to man, the common daisy Bellis perennis {above} for example.Until quite recently the flowers were employed to make a syrup that was taken to counteract colds and flu, while the leaves that can be eaten in salads contain a high Vitamin C content.

Culpeper, the 17th century herbalist declared "That God made them so common because they are so useful " He recommended the herb to be boiled in asses milk as being good and effectual against wounds and to be made into an ointment or syrup. It is documented that the common daisy was the main ingredient  in the production of an ointment that was especially popular during the 14th century, when the plant acquired the country title of bruise wort. { wort being the old name for a herb.} An infusion of the daisy flowers/and/or leaves can be used as a lotion to dab on to wounds. They were also used against acne,gout,sprains and haemorrhoids {piles}.

Summer meadows.

Walking through a summer meadow redolent with wild flowers one can admire them for their beauty alone. Yet in days gone by one would walk into those meadows as one would walk into a pharmacy today. They would be gathered both for food and medicine. One of the plants gathered from nature's pharmacy was the ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolatus. In England it is one of our most common grassland plants.

The leaves of this species are easily recognized, being lance shaped hence the species name of lanceolatus {indicating a lance shaped leaf}, which are at their broadest no more than 2cm across. They taper to a point at the tip and gradually tapering into a stalk which may well achieve 30cm in length. However,when the foliage is new and only just beginning to grow they form a tight rosette close to the ground. The underside of the leaf has 3-5 prominent rib-like veins which run the length of the blade, hence the common name of ribwort. 

Above the flowers of ribwort plantain. Below the leaves of ribwort covered by snow.

The flowers

The flowers are an unusual form and therefore instantly recognisable. They are borne on long stalks that rise up much higher than the leaves, they are furrowed and prominent. The flower heads also vary in size and form. You may see in the same meadow the usual elongated type and some that will be more rotund. It is the four stamens with their white filaments and yellowish coloured anthers that circle the whole head that make them unmistakeable.

I have used the leaves of this species many times to make a herbal tea {infusion} and as a syrup which in days gone by was recommended for children with coughs and colds. The leaves possess a natural antibiotic and VitaminC. Culpeper recommended the herb for inward torments of the bowel stating that " the juice of the plantain,clarified and drunk some days together " as being effectual.

Another plantain  Plantago major the greater plantain may be found in a variety of habitat, but it is on well trodden pathways  and other waste places that it flourishes best of all. They can become a bane to the gardener when it takes hold in his lawn. However, if they are located soon after the young leaves appear they can be dug out without to much labour being involved. This species has a much broader leaf blade than the former and are roughly the shape of the sole of a human foot. Hence the genus name of Plantago which derives from Latin planta meaning the sole of a foot. The seeds are large and tightly packed upon a long stalk which rises up above the foliage. They have a superficial resemblance to a rats tail a name they are known as by country folk.

These seeds were taken off the stem and left to swell in water, before the whole lot was taken as a purgative.. However, since the reaction from this was both violent and dangerous, herbalists had to stop using it for this purpose. The fresh leaves were used to make an infusion to use against water retention, but other herbs are thought to be more efficient in dealing with this affliction. The foliage can be used in the manner of the common dock leaf to alleviate the pain caused by nettle stings. That is to say that both types of leaves need to be crushed in your hand until the juice is extracted, for it is the juice of the foliage that stops the pain.


Sour Sorrels.

It is thought that the sour docks referred to in old herbals would most likely be the sorrels.Indeed the name sorrel  comes from an old French word meaning sour.. The common sorrel was once regularly eaten as vegetable and as a salad. It was not until the larger, more palatable cultivars came along that they fell from favour. Farm labourers working in hot fields and pastures would suck the leaves of the common sorrel to take away the dryness in the mouth in the manner that native American Indians would suck a pebble on long journeys across the plains. The genus name of Rumex derives from Latin and indicates to suck.

Other dock species were used in medicine and for culinary purposes. One use for the broad leaved dock - butter was wrapped in the large leaves to keep it cool while being transported to market. This practice gave rise to the country title of butter dock. These plants may lack the showy flowers of other grassland species but they have been utilised by man for centuries. 


The grassland in summer plays host to many species of the pea and bean family,which includes the vetches medicks,trefoils and clovers. Of these it was the flower heads of red clover Trifolium pratensis that were employed medicinally in the form of a syrup that was claimed to efficacious in counteracting the symptoms of whooping cough. The most familiar plants of the family is probably the runner and broad beans grown for centuries in cottage gardens.

Yet another common plant of grassland, waste places and gardens is the common field horse tail. In the garden they can become a floral adversary anchoring their roots deep between paving stones and similar situations causing great consternation. Like many persistent  weeds one piece of the wiry root left undetected will produce another plant. The horse tails are a relic of prehistoric times. They do not produce seeds like flowering plants but spread by producing millions of microscopic spores. Most species like to be anchored in wet or damp situations. Out of all the species that are found in Britain it is once again the common or garden horsetail which was utilised as medicine.

The field horse tail was considered beneficial to human health for it comprises trace elements of potassium, magnesium and calcium. Another important constituent of the plant is silica which aids the healing of skin and helps tooth enamel. In archaic times the plant was used to staunch bleeding.

Today infusions can be produced from the dried tops which are considered to be a tonic, as a bonus this tonic can be used as a gargle to relieve the pain of sore throats and inflamed tonsils.The Roamns ate the fresh young tips in salads but the modern day palate may find the gritty texture and bitter taste not to their liking. The gritty composition led them to be used for cleaning pewter giving rise to the country title of pewterwort.

The gardeners dislike of the plant may be lessened by soaking the tops of horse tail over night in three litres of water. The resulting liquid can be sprayed on other plants as a fungicide to prevent black spot and mildew.


Above the flowers of red clover Below the flowers of selfheal


Selfheal Prunella vulagiris was much sought after in archaic times. Culpeper exclaimed  that "He needeth neither doctor or surgeon that has selfheal to heal himself". nearly three hundred years later it was still considered as an astringent and used to heal wounds. The genus name Prunella derives from a Germanic word that alluded to the throat and was greatly employed as a gargle. In days gone by their was a great belief in the "Doctrine of Signatures" It was believed that every plant would show an outward sign either, by form or colour of the affliction it was meant to cure. In the case of the selfheal the hooded flowers bore a fanciful resemblance to the bill hook, a tool in everyday use in medieval times, as such it caused the most injuries that occurred during that period of time. Thus the logic of the archaic mind led herbalists to believe the plant should be used to heal such wounds.


Arboreal species have also contributed towards medicinal and culinary preparations. A good example of this is the elder tree. At one time or another every part of the tree has been utilised in one way or another. However, in this day and age it is mainly the flowers and berries that are used. During autumn when the berries are mature they can be made into an elderberry rob, a strong cordial that when taken at bed time is beneficial at relieving the symptoms of colds, flu and fevers. Elderberry and elder flower wine have been consumed with relish for centuries. The flowers that hang in tight sprays may be deep fried until they are golden brown-they are delicious. The flowers may also be packed tightly into a glass container which is then filled with water. the resulting liquid makes a skin lotion that is regarded as excellent for complexions.

In olden times the foliage was thought to repel flies. A mixture was made of the leaves and applied to the skin to keep the flies away. The problem was it also repelled your friends.

Above-Elder flowers

 The list of plants and trees that were utilised by man for medicinal or culinary purposes is almost endless. Here we have just scratched the surface.  Many more medicinal and culinary uses are dealt with under the subjects title on this site. For example the Coltsfoot, lesser celandine and Hogweed to name a few.

The knowledge of how to use these gifts from nature has been lost to many people. Yet we still owe them a great debt for the greatest benefit they bestow, the one thing we can not live without-oxygen!.

Any one considering using herbs for medicine and culinary purposes is advised to read  WILD HERB ADVISE { top right }.  This article is to show the reader the past uses and historical significance of our wild flora.

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photographs featured on this page --by Dal