Medicinal plants foraging day led by Anna Canning at Kinloss Abbey, Moray. Daisy, dock, dandelion. Poultice, poison, painkiller. To eat or not to eat! The Kinloss Abbey Trust. Part of the Living Field’s exploration of medicinal plants.
On 14 May 2022, Anna Canning a medical herbalist and botanist led a well attended forage around the abbey grounds for plants once used (and some still used) for healing and health.
Kinloss Abbey  was a major northern centre during the monastic expansion in the 1100s. The Cistercian order established its first house in 1128 in the south of England, spread to Rievaulx in Yorkshire, from there to Melrose in the Scottish Borders and then on to more northerly sites such as Coupar and Kinloss.
Kinloss Abbey dates from 1150 and became a thriving centre of religion, farming and healing. The buildings were still being developed in the 1500s but in 1650 the stone was ‘said to have been sold for the building of Cromwell’s fort at Inverness.’ It’s been in ruins for several centuries since. The Kinloss Abbey Trust  cares for it now, restoring the remains and holding events like this one.
Anna Canning  began with a look at some common herbs such as creeping buttercup, daisy and dandelion growing in short cut grass by the gate. Take the dandelion. Her notes list its various properties – leaves high in vitamin C, a diuretic, eaten in salads; root a digestive tonic, can be braised with oil and soy sauce; stem latex a traditional remedy for warts; flower heads (yellow parts only) sprinkled on salads and stirred through rice dishes, made into a cordial and dandelion ‘honey’.
The group then progressed to more powerful stuff – a clump of vegetation hosting several herbs (photographs below), notably greater celandine Chelidonium majus, hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica and deadly nightshade Atropa belladonna.
While hedge woundwort is common in the area, greater celandine and deadly nightshade are not, and may have persisted in the Abbey grounds from much earlier times. The medicinal value of these and other plants was discovered long ago, set down in a few books written in Greek or Latin which can still be read today. Recognition of plants, how to grow them and how to heal with them was spread during the monastic expansion across Europe. The monks and nuns knew which wild plants to collect and grew their own more exotic species in dedicated herb gardens.
From Anna’s notes on the plants, we can learn that hedge woundwort was used as a poultice to stop bleeding and heal cuts, not just on the skin but also internally. Greater celandine, toxic and ‘not for home use’ has been applied as a sedative and exudes an orange sap used to treat warts. Deadly nightshade, highly toxic, is the origin of atropine, which has now been replaced in most uses by safer synthetic drugs. Atropine is still sometimes used as a mydriatic – to dilate the pupils of the eyes to facilitate retinal examination – and also to treat poisoning by organophosphate pesticide or fly agaric, and to raise a dangerously low heart rate (bradycardia).
Mediaeval herbalists held a remarkable degree of knowledge and practical expertise. They knew, for example, how to combine the properties of poisonous plants in the right dosage to reduce pain and trauma during surgery, well before modern anaesthetics. At Soutra Hopital , excavations of the drains suggested deadly nightshade was used in this way with hemlock Conium maculatum and opium poppy Papaver somniferum.
Today in Britain, the properties of medicinal plants – even common species such as dandelion, chickweed and cleavers – are unknown to most people. This is a position that Anna Canning is working to change.
The Living Field welcomes the opportunity to visit Kinloss Abbey and to learn more about plants from Anna’s perspective as a qualified medical herbalist. Some of the herbs and woody plants she told us about are shown in the two panels made up of photographs taken mostly in the Living Field garden .
Sources | references | links
 Kinloss Abbey near Kinloss village and Findhorn Bay, Moray. Location – lat 57.63, long -3.57 (306535, 861461).
 Soutra Hospital in the Borders, OS map ref NT 45254 58409, was established in 1164 or earlier as a lodging for travellers and then a hospital. Studies begun in the 1980s by Soutra Hospital Archaeoethnopharmacological Research Project (SHARP) found a range of objects used in medical and surgical practice, including plant remains probably combined as an anaesthetic. Brian Moffat who led the research at SHARP was scheduled to lead the Kinloss foraging with Anna Canning but unfortunately had to withdraw. See also: Soutra Aisle at Canmore.
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.
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 . 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.)
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 . 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 .
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 .
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.
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 . One of the first people to list plants of medicinal value was Dioscorides, who wrote De Materia Medica  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 , 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.
The Monasteries – Monks and Medicinals (and not just monks)
Benedict’s Rules from the 6th Century  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.
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 . 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  – 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 :
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 … “.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.]
 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: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.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.]
One of the dark materials … a 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.
Prehistory – food?
The tubers, usually charred remains, have been found preserved at a range of archaeological sites throughout Europe, extending back to the Mesolithic , for example at mesolithic Staosnaig on Colonsay  and the Iron Age period at Howe Broch, Orkney . 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’ . 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 . It is difficult to find definitive, recent evidence that it can or cannot be safely eaten by humans, though Long  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  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 , 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  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.
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  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 .
Pilewort grows in various places in the Living Field garden. This time of year, it will be flowering beneath cut hedges.
Sources | references
 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
 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).
 Dickson C & Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, UK.
 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.
 Grigson G. 1958. The Englishman’s flora. Paperback 1975 by Paladin.
 Grieve M. 1931. A modern herbal. Now online, read the page on lesser celandine at botanical.com.
 Anton Kerner von Marilaun. 1894 (English edition). The Natural history of plants. Translated by FW Oliver. Blackie and Son, London.
 Stace AC 1997 (second edition) New Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press.
Throughout August, wet ditches and banks and boggy corners are filled with wild plants in flower and host to many types of insect.
Many of these plants have at some time or another been used in medicinal preparations – meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria for fevers, and with willow the source of precursors of aspirin, valerian Valeriana officinalis as sedative, wild angelica Angelica sylvestris as condiment and cure-all, sneezewort Achillea ptarmica to clear a blocked nose, hemp-agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum for ‘catarrhs and coughs’ and yellow iris Iris pseudacorus whose uses are so wide-ranging that one alone can’t be mentioned.
Hardly valued now, they still offer rich findings to those who wish to explore our botanical heritage.
The roadside bank and ditch above, in Strathnairn, holds, within a three metre length, all the herbs mentioned here except hemp-agrimony. Sneezewort is growing at the front on drier ground. Lower images, floral branches of meadowsweet (right) and angelica, each home to many insects.
These plants thrive where the surrounding vegetation is semi-natural or else grazing land having few or no inputs of mineral fertiliser.
Elsewhere, the runoff from well-fertilised arable or grass encourages aggressive and dominant weeds – willow herb, thistles, nettle, docks and the sprawling cleavers – that soon oust the more delicate and slower growing.
The Living Field garden grows all the medicinal plants mentioned here, but for garden angelica rather than wild angelica.
Sources for medicinal uses: Grigson G 1958, 1975 An Englishman’s Flora. Darwin T 1996, 2008 The Scots Herbal. Plants for a Future www.pfaf.org