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Medicinals through the ages I

A contribution to Monks and Medicinals at the Hospitalfield Beer & Berries Festival 21 August 2021. A brief history of medicinal plants in the ‘western’ world: Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Hildegard. First part of a series listing books and web links referred to on the day.

Introduction

Civilisations sustain themselves on the major food plants – the cereals, legumes, vegetables and the grasses and fodders for livestock – but many other plants have been eaten, less for bulk than for special taste or healing. These are the culinary and medicinal herbs, used throughout human evolution, and more recently here by mesolithic hunters, neolithic farmers, and most people that came after them [1]. Such plants have many uses.

  • They complete a varied diet, which (we know from recent research) supports a diverse and healthy microbial community, or microbiome, in the gut.
  • Some are placed on the skin as poultices, ointments, wound-herbs, repellants (yarrow, mallow, plantain, kidney vetch, etc.)
  • And others are eaten for general health, e.g. the vitamins (culinary herbs, rose hip syrup), or …
  • To cure or alleviate specific ailments (most other medicinals).

The gut microbiome? People are used to hearing about the five-a-day – the portions of vegetable and fruit needed to maintain general health – but imagine eating 20 or even 30 different plant species in a day or so. Research has found a link between the range of plants that people consume and the health and functioning of the gut microbiome. If it’s happy and healthy, there’s a chance we might be also. (More on this in Part II.)

Plants having medicinal properties: (top left c’wise) pilewort tubers and roots, betony in flower, meadowsweet in flower, opium poppy exuding latex, rhubarb root mass, angelica stem base and root, fennel.

The common knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants is fading western cultures. In some parts of the world, Indigenous Communities continued to curate a diverse range of species and retain the knowledge of how to use them. Yet the existence of many of these communities is under severe threat from land-grabbing, deforestation and mining [2]. This loss of medicinal plants from habitats and cultures is part of the general loss of biodiversity across the earth, including here in Living Field country.

The Living Field project has grown a wide range of culinary herbs and medicinals since the Garden began in 2004. We learned how to grow them from seed and cuttings and observed their roles in the natural food web – most wild and cultivated herbs offer food and shelter for spiders, hoverflies, bees and other invertebrates. We have not extracted any of their products or eaten the plants themselves – unless they are the well known culinary herbs such as thyme, sage, chervil, parsley, dill, garlic, fennel, rosemary and chive.

History of medicinals

The plants that allowed people to farm and settle in Britain and Ireland (botanical not geopolitical regions) did not grow here after the last ice retreated, but were introduced by waves of migrants arriving from Europe and the farther Mediterranean. The cereals – barley and wheat, and emmer, spelt, rye and oats – and the grain legumes, peas and beans, were all brought here in at various times over the previous 6000 years. These settlers found the climate suitable for their crops and supported high yields, as it does today [3].

With some exceptions, such as nettle, plants and animals that provided fibre for cloth and most of the cropped dye plants were also introduced. In contrast, the medicinal plants used over the millenia were a mix of native and introduced. Some of the natives have been preserved at archaeological sites: the finds of pilewort, meadowsweet, wild iris and others show that our neolithic and Bronze Age age ancestors had an understanding of the plants around them [1].

The knowledge of medicinals must have been, for thousands of years, transmitted through the generations by personal example and teaching. The process is risky – people are displaced, communities wither, knowledge is lost – but a more permanent form of transfer eventually appeared.

Pilewort – Ranunculus ficaria (top left c’wise) single flower, tubers and roots, whole plant (colours reversed), flowers heads seeking the sun in the early morning, close-up of tubers (all images Living Field)
The Greeks and the Romans

The transmission of botanical knowledge in countries that now form Europe was first based on the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans. Theophrastus (372 to 286 BCE) and Pliny (ca 23-79CE) helped found the systematic study of natural history [4]. One of the first people to list plants of medicinal value was Dioscorides, who wrote De Materia Medica [5] almost 2000 years ago around 50 CE (Common Era).

Dioscorides and his forebears understood that useful medicinals had to be distinguished from poisons and that some of the more potent medicinals also had poisonous properties and had to be dosed correctly. Of the opium poppy Papaver somniferum he writes:

” … a little of it, taken as much as a grain of ervum (a small seed), is a pain-easer, and a sleep-causer, and a digester … but being drank too much it hurts, making men lethargical, and it kills.”

The early botanists wrote mostly in Greek or Latin, languages that were understandable to few other than the very learned, and many of those were raised in religious houses. De Materia Medica was not translated into English until the 1660s [6], so the plants and the knowledge of them spread across Europe in the original languages with the migrations of Benedictines, Cistercians and other monastic houses.

Opium poppy – Papaver somniferum – showing (left, then c’wise) flower from the side, seed heads, close-up of flower from above, seed head exuding latex, tool used to scour the head (from SE Asia). All images Living Field.
The Monasteries – Monks and Medicinals (and not just monks)

Benedict’s Rules from the 6th Century [7] included care of the unfortunate and care of the sick among the instruments of good works. Cleanliness and bathing were promoted as were medicinals and the herb garden. The plan for monasteries came to include specific areas for the herb garden, the hospital, a place of blood-letting, house of the gardener and an isolation area.

Some of the concepts underlying treatment were not perhaps as scientific as we would expect them today. For quite some time, people – and the plants to cure them – were classified on the balance of four ‘humours’ – hot, cold, wet and dry, a system based on the earlier and widespread ideas of fire, air, water and earth. If you were diagnosed as too hot and wet, then you were treated to counter those humours.

Given all the other feats of technology and engineering the monasteries applied at that time, they must have known more about plants than just their imagined degree of hotness and wetness! Or maybe not.

Hildegard

One of the great polymaths at the time of monastic spread was Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), an Abbess based in Germany and attached to a Benedictine house. She wrote, among other books, Physica or Subtleties of the divine qualities of created things [8]. A section of Physica deals with medicinal plants, where (even) she began each description as to how hot, cold, wet or dry the plant was. She did not describe the appearance of the plants, which implies she expected nuns and monks to be able to identify the different species and forms.

Hildegard wrote stunning music for her nuns to sing – most of it recently recorded [8] – and did much else to advance the arts and sciences, so it is difficult to believe that she based her medicinal remedies on these four temperaments. Still, she was about right with oats:

“Oats (avena) are hot, with a sharp taste and strong vapor. Oats are a happy and healthy food for people who are well, furnishing them with a cheerful mind and a pure, clear intellect. It also provides good colour and healthy flesh.”

Physica is a link to medicinal lore that goes back to the Ancient Greeks: on the day of Beer & Berries, plants that she wrote about, such as lungwort, fennel, water mint, plantain, tansy, and yarrow, were all found in and around Hospitalfield garden. Many of her recommendations would resonate well with later herbalists. Yarrow, mallow and plantain are all designated as wound-herbs and she warns against greater celandine (whose sap can scour the skin). But she went a bit to the dark side with one or two of her remedies, invoking magic. Here is what she wrote about betony Stachys officinalis [8]:

For someone who is “conjured by fantastic and diabolic incantations, so that the man is insane with love for the woman or the woman insane with love for the man, they should seek betony …… When found, one leaf should be placed in each nostril, and one under the tongue. One leaf should be held in each hand, and one under each foot. The person should fix his eyes intently on the betony. He should do this until the leaves grow hot on his body. This should be repeated until he is better. This will release him from the madness of his love … “.

Betony, Stachys officinalis, a relative of the odorous hedge woundwort, is from a group of plants that have many medicinal uses. Bees find it to their liking. The central, inset in the photographs is of a mature flower head that has dropped some of its seed.

The story so far …

People here have used wild and cultivated plants to flavour food and ease pain. There are uncertainties in the prehistoric record over the uses of specific plants, their preparation and how knowledge was transmitted across generations. The written systematic studies that have come down to us from Theophrastus in Greece and later workers, especially Dioscorides, were copied and transported across Europe with the spread of Christian monastic life.

The Abbess Hildegard, over 9 centuries ago, compiled works on natural history that can be read today, and composed choral music that is still sung and now recorded. She was part of the great intellectual and spiritual life in monastic houses. When she was writing and composing – she died 1179 – monasteries and their knowledge of plants was spreading north to Scotland. Part II of this series tells of the contribution they made to agriculture and medicine.

Sources

[1] Plants have been used for purposes other than food and fibre throughout human evolution, see for example: Hardy K (2021) Paleomedicine and the evolutionary context of medicinal plant use. Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia 31: 1–15 https://doi.org/10.1007/s43450-020-00107-4. Extract from the text “ … the archeological evidence for cured ailments and medicinal plants that cover a wide range of both curative and invasive practices and treatments suggests a high level of confidence and  medicinal knowledge deep into human evolutionary time.” 

Books that include medicinal plants in Scotland: (a) Dickson C, Dickson J. (2000) Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire. (b) Darwin T. (1996, 2008) The Scots Herbal. Berlinn, Edinburgh. (c) Milliken W, Bridgewater S. (2004) Flora Celtica Berlinn, Edinburgh. (d) Beith M. (1995, 2018) Healing threads – traditional medicines of the Highlands and Islands, Berlinn Edinburgh.

[2] Indigenous Knowledge. For general background, try the following and forward links: UNESCO Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. There are many articles on indigenous knowledge of plants for medicinal and other uses. A recent article, open access (available free): Camara-Leret, R; Bascompte, J. 2021. Language extinction triggers the loss of unique medicinal knowledge. PNAS 118, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2103683118. For specific regions try searching for ‘location’ ‘indigenous knowledge’ ‘medicinal’, etc.

[3] An article in the Living Field’s Climate and Crops series explains why the climate here is good for crop productivity: The Long Cool Summer.

[4] Theophrastus: try Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ref – Ierodiakonou, Katerina, “Theophrastus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Pliny the Elder: try Wikipedia.

[5] Background to Dioscorides: try Wikipedia.

[6] De Materia Medica used here: an English Translation by Tess Anne Osbaldeston (2000). Dioscorides. De Materia Medica. ‘Being an Herbal with many other Medicinal Materials written in Greek in the first century of the Common Era – a new indexed version in modern English by TA Osbaldeston and RPA Wood’. IBIDIS Press. Available to buy and there is an online version. [Ed: remarkable, includes a detailed history of previous translations and other sources.]

[7] The Rule of St Benedict , written ca 535-540 CE (but not all sources agree). Various links at Britannica: Benedictine Rule. Wikipedia: Rule of St Benedict.

[8] Hildegard von Bingen. Physica. Translation from the Latin by Priscilla Throop, Illustrations by Mary Elder Jacobsen. Healing Arts Press, Rochester. For Hildegard’s recorded music: see the early music groups Sequentia and Gothic Voices.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com.

Many of the plants shown here were grown in the Living Field garden near Dundee by Gladys Wright, Jackie Thompson and helpers.

[Updated 28 September 2021 with small alteration and additional reference.]

The Garden at Hospitalfield

The renewed walled garden at Hospitalfield, Arbroath. Monks and medicinals. Artists and gentry. Now community art, a great diversity of plants and a welcoming place to relax.

The Living Field’s experience with medicinal plants led to an invitation to talk about the history and present uses of plants for health and healing at the Beer and Berries Festival to be held at Hospitalfield on 21 August 2021.

The old walled garden there has been re-designed and replanted. It’s had a history from 1260 when Hospitalfield was founded, some time after monks from Kelso Abbey in the Scottish Borders travelled north to establish Arbroath Abbey.

Given all this history and the clear success of the new plantings visible on the Hospitalfield web site [1], it was timely to see the garden first hand before sharing knowledge of medicinals.

A great diversity of plants

In late July 2021, the walled garden nurtured hundreds of flowering species (and some yet to flower), some native to the region but many from Mediterranean and even sub-tropical climatic regions – a great range of textures and exotic smells, teeming with bees and other insects.

Some of the original medicinals recorded from the 1200s had been planted, but also notable species from later in the garden’s history. Their story is related, with drawings, in a book by Laura Darling [2] describing the garden’s history, published this year.

Beer and Berries Festival August 2021

The festival of Beer and Berries will be held at Hospitalfield on 21 August 2021. From the web site [3]: “It’s the height of summer and Angus is bursting with fruit and full of grain …

” Beer and Berries is a “regional festival showcase, connecting food and drink producers and suppliers to buyers and customers, set alongside a programme of talks, workshops, events and music.”

Hospitalfield garden is a gem of a place, where art, horticulture and science come together.

Thanks to Laura Mansfield, for the original invitation to contribute to Beer and Berries, Gillian Stirton from the Hutton communications unit for suggesting the Living Field’s input, and Kate Robinson, head gardener, for correspondence on native and introduced medicinal plants in Scotland.

Author / contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com

Sources | links

[1] Hospitalfield at https://hospitalfield.org.uk/

[2] Darling, Laura. 2021. In the garden at Hospitalfield. Published by Hospitalfield, Arbroath, Angus.

[3] Beer and Berries Festival, 21 August 2021 – booking essential: https://hospitalfield.org.uk/visit/events/beer-berries-2021/

Fearnag Growers – a Community

Raghnaid Sandilands describes a community growing project in Strathnairn and introduces a new venture with ancient cereal grains.

Fearnag Growers is a communal growing project based in a beautiful old walled garden at Farr estate on South Loch Ness. It has been worked by the community since 2016 and treasured by the allotment holders, a life line through the lockdowns.

Over the years we have become a small hub for cultural and communal events, hosting a wide variety of events – a Gaelic plant lore walk at midsummer with expert Roddy MacLean, drawing the garden days with artists Sarah Longely and Maureen Shaw, a hut raising day, a woodworking workshop for children and an alfresco traditional music session, are among some of the community building days we’ve had together. 

Some of the photographs on this page show the Fèis Farr ‘Mapa Mòr’ – a huge charcoal map showing some characters from local stories and wildlife too, along with places that are important to the children, the allotments among them. 

Ancient and unusual grains – April 2021

In late April a gathering of individuals of all ages came together at Fearnag Growers to communally sow and plant a number of different types of ancient and unusual grains. The sun shone and we had a morning to gladden the heart, working together and planting small patches of emmer, eikorn, naked barley and oats, Bere barley, Shetland Aets, and other heritage varieties of wheat and barley. Col Gordon from Easter Ross, grain expert and enthusiast, gave us direction and spoke with conviction about his passion for grains. 

Grains are the staples foods of most of our cultures, but the growing of them today as monocrops or monocultures has become something very far removed from most folk.

Our major grains have very long histories. Barley and wheat began to develop in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 years ago and are directly tied to the spread and development of Eurasian civilization. Rye and oats came later to our lands.

Easy to transport and store and very adaptable, these grains migrated across the globe, developing alongside peoples and their cultures. There are thought to be tens if not hundreds of thousands of cereal landraces globally. Landraces are now critically threatened.

In recent decades, more of the world has abandoned traditional farming and seeds and adopted more industrial systems and modern seed varieties. When this happens, the genetic diversity built up, in some cases for millenia, can disappear very quickly. Today very few grain varieties are commercially available and all have been bred to work alongside high-input chemical farming.

Whereas in the past, every region in the British Isles would have a few locally adapted varieties and landraces and maybe some local customs and traditions that would accompany them, these have practically all disappeared now. Luckily, some folk had the foresight to see this happening and began to gather as much of the world’s genetic material as they were able to preserve in gene banks.

If it wasn’t for these people we truly would have lost most of these varieties. But as John Letts used to say, a mentor for Col Gordon, rather than in these gene banks “the safest places for these seeds are the farmer’s fields.”

Grains in tradition

Farmers and crop scientists are starting to understand that modern varieties, which are bred for yield above all else, are not suited to low input growing or changing climatic conditions, not to mention flavour and nutrition. But we don’t often consider the damage done by disconnecting our grains from their histories, places, peoples or cultures. Each of these older seed varieties belongs to a distinct culture and place. There are likely all sorts of traditions, stories and myths, rituals, songs and festivals that are associated with a lot of them.

Col spoke to us about the need to stop thinking about grains and farming purely in terms of production and instead rediscover and repair once again the cultural aspects that make old agrarian systems beautiful. To do this may require us to question the limits of, for instance, efficiency and try to find a scale where grains are able to be surrounded by song again. While Rachel Carson’s “the silent spring” has made us question our trajectory of progress from an ecological point of view, Col suggests there may be need for a title “The songless harvest” from a cultural point of view. 

Looking at all the things that have been lost in the name of speed, yield and efficiency, Col suggested that these are the kind of questions we need to be asking more. 

Reconnecting with our farming culture

At Fearnag Growers we hope to play a small part in passing on some of this seed but also try to reconnect with some of the cultural aspects of grain. In September we hope the build another communal event around the harvesting and preparation of the grain. There may be food and songs too. 

Col Gordon – hear more from Col and his own story in his recent Farmarama podcast series ‘Landed – the family farm (episode 1)’ He speaks in episode 2 to Raghnaid Sandilands of Fearnag Growers about her creative ethnology work and Gaelic.  

Sources | Links

[1] Fearnag Growers Facebook page.

[2] Farmarama: more at https://farmerama.co/

Contact: raghnaid@icloud.com

Editor: The Living Field thanks Raghnaid for telling us about Fearnag Growers. We look forward to hearing more at grain harvest later in the year.

Please note that the photographs taken in the garden pre-date social distancing.

Click the map to see a larger image

Pictish Knotwork

Interlaced knotwork of some major Pictish cross slabs found in Scotland, based on triquetra knots [1]

By K Owen

The Living Field welcomes this article and drawings of patterns on stone-carved monuments left by early medieval people based in and around the lowland croplands and grazing lands.

Aberlemno Kirkyard Stone, early 8th Century, Angus

The Aberlemno Kirkyard Stone is an impressive sandstone slab 2.29 m high, 1.27 m wide with stone carved interlacing and fantastic beasts on the front and the carving of the depiction of  a battle scene on the rear. The pattern below is from the front, showing the north quadrant of interlacing that forms the upper part of the cross. The stone had been damaged, so there had to be a bit of interpretation of what it should look like, using the other shapes within it and with reference to similar carvings [2, 3].

The stone now stands in the grounds of Aberlemno Church [4], itself within a landscape that has sustained crops, livestock and trees over thousands of years. The view of arable and grass fields (upper image, below) was taken from the ‘fort’ on Turin Hill, a few km to the south of the church.

Kilduncan Cross Slab, 10th Century, Fife

 The cross slab was found in 2001 lying against the wall of a barn in Kingsbarns, Fife. It is now in St Andrews Museum, Kilburn Park [5]. It is a small slab, only 0.78 m high and 0.53 m wide. There are two S-dragons carved on the face,  framing a circle, with carved interlaced knotwork in the centre of the stone.

The stone was found near the coast on the edge of an extensive area of mixed farmland producing crops and livestock. The coastline is varied: estuaries and inlets, rock extending out into the sea, stony beaches and as in the photograph, great tracts of sand.

Eassie Cross Slab, 8th Century, Angus (near Glamis)

This great stone is an old red sandstone cross slab 2.03 m high and 1.02 m wide. It is protected within the ruins of the Eassie old parish church [6] by purpose-built screens. There are four quadrants to the cross, each with carved interlaced knotwork, together with hunting scenes and angels. This is the west quadrant of the cross.

The ruined church lies several km west of Glamis. Images below show the church in 2021, the cross slab under its protective cover, and a nearby view of spring-sown crops just emerging green from the soil, tree lines and forest plantation beyond.

Ulbster Stone, 9th Century, Caithness

This once stood in an ancient burial ground attached to the ruined Church of St Martin at Ulbster near Thurso. Both sides of the slab are carved with strange beasts, symbols and interlacing. This drawing of interlaced knotwork is taken from the north quadrant of the front.

St Vigeans 1 – Drosten Stone, 9th Century, Angus

This remarkable stone stands 1.84 m high and 0.55 m wide in St Vigeans Museum near Arbroath [7]. On the face shown in the photograph below there are a number of carved animals – a doe with a suckling fawn, a  bear, an eagle feeding on a salmon, a horned animal and an archer with a bow. 

Images below, taken inside the museum show a description of the stone, the stone itself and (inset) a closer view of some of the animals, including ‘a beast with a large curved horn on its head and its tail curved over the back’ [3].

The Boar Stone of Gask, 9th Century, Perthshire

This old red sandstone slab is 1.88 m high and 1.08 m wide and now sited in the grounds of Moncreiffe House. The lower shaft of the cross has this carved interlaced knotwork while carvings of animals such as deer and boar surround it.

Sources | links

[1] Triquetra knot: a figure with three interlacing loops which have no end. Common from about 7th C in insular ornaments such as illuminated manuscripts and stone carvings.

[2] Canmore: Part of Historic Environment Scotland canmore.org.uk. On the site, search for the name of the object, building or place.

[3] Allen JR, Anderson J. 1903. The early Christian monuments of Scotland. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Reprinted 1993 by the Pinkfoot Press, Balgavies, Angus.

[4] Aberlemno Pictish stones. Four in total, three on the roadside and the one shown here in the church yard, sculpted between AD 500 and 800. Free to visit. Details on the Historic Environment Scotland web site at Aberlemno Sculptured Stones.

[5] St Andrews Museum, Kinburn Park, Doubledykes Road, KY16 9DP. More on the Visit Scotland web site.

[6] Eassie Old Church: free to visit. Information on the Canmore and VisitAngus web sites.

[7] St Vigeans Museum, near Arbroath, occupies several cottages opposite St Vigeans church. Contains 38 sculptured stones that were found in and around the churchyard. The web site gives opening times St Vigeans Stones and Museum.

Ghost Calls

This remarkable, unique exhibition is open at Dundee Contemporary Arts from 28 April 2021 to 8 August [1].

Main works include Ghost Calls (2020), a large painting in acrylic on silk (parts shown in the photos below), the mesmerising Keening Songs (2020) – an animation of over 14 mins (hard to describe) and A Crash in Fast and Slow Motion (2020), again acrylic on silk.

In Ghost Calls female forms occupy and move through a landscape. Intense colour contrasts with the greys of the figures and with shapes containing words describing how things are and where we might go.

Perhaps in relation to A Crash … , the author writes [2] “Against the backdrop of the ecological disasters of our age, I feel increasingly like we were passengers in a vehicle being driven recklessly round a blind corner, headed for some massive smash up.’

Those of us who see ecological destruction and human misery can’t help but connect with what we see here. Yet the artist offers a way forward. First, it helps to grieve, to keen.

Then to imagine. From the book of the exhibition [2]: “Talbot imagines future environments where humankind has been flung out of a capitalist-driven society of digital technologies and must look towards more ancient and holistic ways of crafting, making and belonging”

And then to act – at the end of Ghost Calls are the words: ‘This is not the end | let’s use the time we have together | embracing | a forward movement without fear’.

Britain’s environment has been irreversibly changed. The rainforest has almost gone, soils are being lost, rivers are still polluted, so much life has been made extinct. Yet there is still the need to re-group and re-form, to make the best of the land, soil and living things, those remaining and those introduced. Where’s the alternative.

You must see this exhibition.

From a Living Field correspondent visiting the exhibition on 19 May 2021.

Further

[1] Exhibition Notes: Ghost Calls by Emma Talbot. Dundee Contemporary Arts, 152 Nethergate Dundee DD1 4DY

[2] Ghost Calls. Emma Talbot. 2021. Artist and various authors. Book published as part of the exhibition. Dundee Contemporary Arts. 

[3] DCA What’s On web page for Ghost Calls.

Pilewort

One of the dark materialsa medicinal for a range of ailments … tubers found at archaeological sites suggesting it was eaten … flowers open in the sun … storage in root tubers … dispersal by bulbils

Madwort, mugwort, sneezewort, spearwort – worts apiece. But among the earliest to show itself is the pilewort or lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria: first the deep green leaves, then the buds and soon the bright yellow buttercup flowers.

Its ‘business end’ lies in the dark, just below the soil surface. The foliage has gone by summer, but a collection of small root tubers holds the plant’s stores until next spring.

Pilewort unearthed: whole plant just about to flower (right) showing the tubers above the main root mass; and closer views of the tubers (left), each about 2 cm long, the hanging one 5 cm. Photo right is edited to distinguish foliage, tubers and roots.

Prehistory – food?

The tubers, usually charred remains, have been found preserved at a range of archaeological sites throughout Europe, extending back to the Mesolithic [1], for example at mesolithic Staosnaig on Colonsay [2] and the Iron Age period at Howe Broch, Orkney [3]. The implication is that the tubers were used as food. Archaeobotanists working on the middle Bronze age in Sweden ‘considered that the tubers had been roasted and eaten like popcorn’ [3]. There are also records of the leaves being eaten.

Most plants in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, are poisonous and there are reports that Pilewort has poisoned cattle and sheep [4]. It is difficult to find definitive, recent evidence that it can or cannot be safely eaten by humans, though Long [4] cites Cornevin’s 1887 book that the plant “is not poisonous when young, as in Germany the first shoots are eaten as a salad, but that it becomes so later … “. Other records [1] suggest roots of various species among the Ranunculaceae, which includes plants much more poisonous than pilewort, have been eaten safely when cooked. Given the uncertainties, it would be wise not to try it!

Remedy for a common complaint

The pilewort, also called figwort, is claimed as cure for haemorrhoids, known colloquially as piles or figs. Grigson [5], quotes Gerard’s (1597) observation that the piles “when often bathed with the juice mixed with wine, or with the sick man’s urine, are drawne togither and dried up, and the paine quite taken away”.

Grieve [6] writes that the plant is “used externally as an ointment, made from the bruised herb with fresh lard, applied locally night and morning, or in the form of poultices, fomentations, or in suppositories.” The hanging tubers are also said to offer a physical resemblance to the complaint.

Pilewort flowers, heart-shaped leaves (lower right), and plants early morning, frosted next to a clump of lords and ladies (lower left).

Habitat and reproduction

Plants seem to thrive best in locations that are partly shaded, where sunlight filters through to them in the morning. They sometimes form a near-complete cover, but in nutrient rich places, other plants, such as cleavers and ground elder, will soon grow taller and shade them. In some years, they suffer repeated frosts, from which they recover in a few hours. After a very cold mid-April night, the pilewort in the photograph above (lower left) looked fine by mid-morning while Arum maculatum nearby still displayed frost-damaged, hanging, curved leaf stalks.

The plant has a further interesting feature in the bubils formed in leaf axils. Kerner, in the 1894 translation of his Natural History of Plants [7] reported that when growing in sunny sites, the flowers were visited by pollen-eating beetles, flies and bees that pollinated the flowers, leading to seed formation. But when in deep shade, pollination was less successful, seeds were few and the plants responded by producing “little bulbous bodies in the axils of their upper foliage leaves”, which on becoming detached when the plant withered, were dispersed and gave rise to new plants.

Today the difference reported by Kerner is considered genetic, those plants reproducing mostly by seed and those mostly by vegetative bulbils being classed as different subspecies [8].

Pilewort grows in various places in the Living Field garden. This time of year, it will be flowering beneath cut hedges.

Plate showing pilewort bulbils and root tubers (right) from Kerner von Marilaun’s The Natural History of Plants [7], taken from author’s copy.

Sources | references

[1] The Sheffield Archaeobotany site: Charles, M., Crowther, A., Ertug, F., Herbig, C., Jones, G., Kutterer, J., Longford, C., Madella, M., Maier, U., Out, W., Pessin, H., Zurro, D., (2009) Archaeobotanical Online Tutorial http://archaeobotany.dept.shef.ac.uk/ https://sites.google.com/sheffield.ac.uk/archaeobotany/tubers/identification/ranunculus-ficaria

[2] Mithen S, et al. 2001. Plant use in the Mesolithic: evidence from Staosnaig, Isle of Colonsay, Scotland. Journal of Archaeological Science 28, 223-234, https://doi.org/10.1006/jasc.1999.053 (Institutional or paid access only).

[3] Dickson C & Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, UK.

[4] Pilewort as a poisonous plant. 1) Long HC 1927. Poisonous plants on the farm. MAFF, HMSO, London. 2) Forsyth AA. 1954 (1968) British Poisonous plants. MAFF Bulletin 161, HMSO, London. 3) Cooper MR, Johnson AW 1984 Poisonous plants in Britain. MAFF Reference book 161, HMSO, London.

[5] Grigson G. 1958. The Englishman’s flora. Paperback 1975 by Paladin.

[6] Grieve M. 1931. A modern herbal. Now online, read the page on lesser celandine at botanical.com.

[7] Anton Kerner von Marilaun. 1894 (English edition). The Natural history of plants. Translated by FW Oliver. Blackie and Son, London.

[8] Stace AC 1997 (second edition) New Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press.