Medieval Medicinal Plants #2

In this second blog on medieval medicinal plants, I’ll talk about leprosy and plague then look at the use of plants in anaesthesia and to treat other conditions.

One disease synonymous with the medieval period is plague, which caused terror throughout Europe.  It had no cure and was believed to be a punishment from God.  The major outbreak in Europe which lasted from about 1346 to 1353, killed up to 50 million people – about 60% of the population.  Early in the outbreak, there were reports of people abandoning stricken family members, including children although later, efforts turned more to prayer.  The best chances of survival were in places operating strict quarantine policies.

A bishop instructing clerics suffering from leprosy from Omne Bonum by 14th-century clerk James le Palmer (British Library, MS Royal 6 E VI, vol. 2, fol. 301ra).

Leprosy was another disease which terrified people.  Believed to affect those guilty of lechery or immoral sex, sufferers were often shunned and exiled to the edge of the town.  We now know it is caused by a severe bacterial infection.

In medieval times it was believed that when you die you entered purgatory, where you paid for all your sins before moving on. Sufferers from leprosy, on the other hand, were paying for their sins early so were already on their way to redemption.  Thus, Christian benefactors could gain from helping lepers and asking them to pray for them in return as their prayers held more weight!

While plague and leprosy couldn’t be cured, there were effective treatments available for some things, including respiratory conditions.

A sweet confection incorporating the juice of horehound (Marrubium vulgare) was used to treat coughs and horehound is used today in herbal medicine to treat asthma and bronchitis.  Marrubiin, one of its constituents has shown a number of medicinal effects including as an antispasmodic and analgesic.

Herbs were also used in medieval anaesthetics taken before surgery, notable dwale which was drunk with wine.

Chemical diagram of lactucin

Dwale contained hemlock, opium and henbane, all of which have pain-killing or sleep-inducing properties.  Wild lettuce was also included – this was a source of lactucarium or lettuce opium, known to make you drowsy (as described by Beatrix Potter in the Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies).  The sedative effects are down to the compounds lactucin and lactucopicrin, also present in the Bach remedy plant chicory.

Wild neep (or bryony) was added – there are 2 suggestions as to what the purpose of this was – firstly, it was a direct replacement for mandrake, used in Middle Eastern recipes, but not available (or too expensive) in northern Europe.  Mandrake was used to improve sexual function of men, so was highly prized (and so expensive). Bryony had similar, fleshy roots and was sometimes known as English mandrake.   An alternative suggestion is that bryony’s inclusion was for its purgative properties, which we now know come from the compound bryonin.


Bryony (Bryonia dioica); image AnRo0002 via wikimedia commons

Hemlock, henbane and opium could all be toxic. Due to the variability in quantity of the active compounds in a given plant even when the mixture was carefully prepared, the effects were unpredictable – it was therefore beneficial to remove the mixture from the body quickly!  Other ingredients in dwale were bile, possibly to speed up absorption, and vinegar.  After surgery, vinegar was dabbed on the face or dill seeds put in the nose to bring the patient round.

Rather than drinking an anaesthetic, so-called soporific sponges could also be used.  These were soaked in a macerated mixture of opium, mandrake, hemlock and henbane.  When the sponge was needed it was soaked in hot water and the fumes inhaled.  Patients not only slept through the operation, but for several hours after, giving their bodies some time to recover from the trauma of surgery.  A sponge soaked in hot vinegar or dill seeds were used to bring the user round after the operation.  These sponges were an early example of inhalation therapy.

So, while knowledge of anatomy and what caused disease was limited, there were treatments available for certain conditions often with plants.  And today, some of these plants  have been shown to have beneficial effects.

Sources: Toni Mount (2016); Medieval Medicine Its Mysteries and Science; Amberley Publishing, ISBN 978 1 4456 5542 0

O.K. Popoola, A.M. Elbagory, F. Ameer, A.A. Hussein (2013); Marrubiin; Molecules, 18(8), 9049–9060;

J. Robertson (2018);

A.J. Carter (1999); Dwale: and anaesthetic from old England; BMJ, 319(7225), 1623–1626; 

Gwenda Kyd (2018); The Plants of Dr Bach; Vervain Publishing

Medieval Medicinal Plants #1

A few months ago, I researched a talk on medieval medicinal plants to give in the Leper Chapel in Cambridge at a re-enactment of Stourbridge Fair.  The Fair was for a time the largest in medieval Europe.  Although many of the ideas about health and healing seemed odd, medieval medics did use a significant number of plants which today have proven beneficial effects.

In this two-part blog, I’ll give a brief overview of medicine and disease in medieval times and mention some of the plants used.

The medieval world had different kinds of medical expertise available: physicians – university-educated and associated with the Church so forbidden from cutting a patient; barber-surgeons – cutters; apothecaries – remedy-makers who could also diagnose; and ‘wise-women’ – no formal training, but lots of knowledge!

A medieval urine wheel; image reproduced from ancient origins blog (details below)

Formal diagnoses were often made by considering the colour, quantity, smell and sometimes taste, of a patient’s urine.  Charts (so-called ‘urine-wheels’) were available for comparison.  The pulse was also compared with what was considered ‘normal’.

The body was believed to be made up of four humours – phlegm, yellow bile, black bile and blood. Black bile was thought to come from the kidneys and spleen and lead to melancholy. Illness was due to an imbalance of the humours and treatment sometimes involved expulsion of the excess. As blood was the most important of the humours, blood-letting (carried out by a barber-surgeon, in which up to a quarter of the blood from the body was removed) was common but purgatives and emetics were also used.

Knowledge of anatomy was limited and usually based on the dissection of pigs – as they were the same size as a man it was thought they would have the same anatomy.  However, the mystery illness known as right-sided sickness was a mystery because pigs don’t have an appendix!

Disease was believed to be a caused by exposure to foul air.  Whooping cough, or the 100-day cough, arose if a child was close to dying flowers, particularly orchids.  Strewing herbs and nosegays were commonly used.  These were spread on the floor of homes and released a sweet smell when walked on.  Herbs used included sweet woodruff and lavender.  As well as smelling nice (so keeping foul air at bay), some of the herbs repelled insects (which we now know would have a beneficial effect by reducing insect transmission of disease).  Similar herbs were used in nosegays – small bunches of fragrant herbs held close to the nose to reduce exposure to foul air. If you had to speak to a person who was ill, it was recommended that you stood upwind.

Wood betony (Stachys officinalis); image from

Medieval herbal medicine was most successful in the treatment of relatively minor complaints such as headaches.  One suggested treatment involved using a poultice made by boiling barley with betony  (Stachys officinalis) and vervain (Verbena officinalis).  Both betony and vervain are still used today to treat headaches.  Betony has proven anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, with active compounds including trigonelline and stachydrine.  Considered to be a ‘magic bullet’ and used to treat dozens of conditions, a medieval Italian proverb urged, ‘Sell your coat and buy betony’.

Vervain was used for the treatment of about 30 different complaints, including fevers and as a poultice it was used for rheumatism, earache and to treat piles as well as for headaches.  As the poultice stained the skin red, it was thought to be drawing blood from the body (so balancing the humours without blood-letting).  It was sometimes known as Herb of the Cross as it was said to have been used to staunch the wounds of Christ or Simplers’ Joy.  Simplers were people who collected herbs and sold them to apothecaries.  Extracts of vervain show sleep-promoting, anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.  One of its important constituents is verbascoside.

Next time, I’ll look at two diseases which terrified the medieval population and plant-based anaesthesia.

Sources: Toni Mount (2016); Medieval Medicine Its Mysteries and Science; Amberley Publishing, ISBN 978 1 4456 5542 0

Wu Mingren (14th March 2018); The Urine Wheel and Uroscopy: What Your Wee Could Tell a Medieval Doctor; Ancient Origins,

Mrs M. Grieve (1931); A Modern Herbal; Merchant Book Company Ltd, ISBN 1 904779 01 8

David Hoffmann (2003); Complete Illustrated Guide to the Holistic Herbal; Element Books, ISBN 0 00 713301 4

Gwenda Kyd (2018); The Plants of Dr Bach; Vervain Publishing

Bach flower remedy plants…and wine.

Over the summer I visited a vineyard in Kent and it got me thinking about how the Bach remedy plants contribute to wine-making.  Obviously, grapes come from vine, but there are a surprising number of other remedy plants that are also vital to the process.

Grape vine, fruit and wine

Wine, made from the fruit of the vine (Vitis vinifera); image from

Wine-making goes back at least 6,000 years – the first wine may have been a happy accident.  Grapes provide sugar and juice, and fungus on the skins can kick-start fermentation, so perhaps someone eating a partially fermented grape had a light-bulb moment and the rest is history!  Traditionally, grapes were crushed by trampling with the feet, so the process may have benefitted from the presence of fungi on the feet.

Today we know that grape skins and seeds contain compounds which are good for heart health and fight the spread of cancer, like resveratrol.  As red wine is made by fermenting grapes with their skins on, it has more potential benefit than white. But resveratrol is inactivated in the gut and liver so, rather than gulping the wine, sipping it slowly will help maximise absorption.  Sipping allows resveratrol to pass through the mucous membranes in the mouth and can increase absorption into the bloodstream 100-fold.

But what other plants are used in a vineyard?  You might also see roses – sometimes planted at the end of each row of vines and sometimes in small groups distributed throughout the vineyard.  It turns out that roses are susceptible to the same diseases as vines, particularly the fungal infection mildew.  The roses act ‘like a canary’, providing an early warning to winemakers who can then treat the vines to prevent them becoming infected.[1]

Oak barrels; image from

Traditionally elm trees were grown in vineyards to shade the vines and provide support for them to climb on.  The first English elm (Ulmus procera) in the UK is believed to have been brought by the Romans for this purpose.  Every English elm in Britain is thought to be a clone of this tree, which has had disastrous consequences.  The lack of genetic variation has made the species almost powerless to resist Dutch elm disease – current estimates suggest over 25 million trees (of a population of 30 million) have been affected in the major outbreak beginning in the 1960s.

Oak wood barrels are used during the fermentation and ageing stages of winemaking to affect the colour, flavour and texture of the wine, the effects depending on the species used and where it was grown.  In Europe, Quercus robur, the species used to make the Bach remedy, and Quercus petraea are commonly used.

Cork wine bottle closures, ‘corks’; image from

Finally, when the wine is ready to be bottled, another oak cousin (Quercus suber) might be used to provide corks.  Although corks have recently been widely replaced by plastic or aluminium closures, they are much more environmentally-friendly.  Their production releases 25 times less greenhouse gases than aluminium caps and 10 times less than plastic ones.

Chemical diagram of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, TCA, the main cause of corking

One issue with using corks can be ‘corking’ of the wine.  This is caused by a chemical compound called tetrachloroanisole (TCA).  It is produced by fungi acting on chlorophenols present in pesiticides and wood preservatives and makes the wine taste and smell unpleasant. But the good news is so-called cork taint can be easily removed at home.  Just pour the wine into a bowl with a ball of clingfilm (made of polyethylene (PE)…check it IS made of PE) and swirl around for 5-10 minutes.  The PE mops up the TCA and leaves the wine tasting as it should again.[2]

So next time, you’re sipping a glass of wine spare a thought for all the plants that have contributed!

Sources: Gwenda Kyd, (2018); The Plants of Dr Bach; ISBN 978-0-9928998-1-3

[1] Clémence Leberche, (27th July 2017); The Winalist; Why are roses planted in vineyards?

[2] Harold McGee, (13th January 2009); The New York Times; For a Tastier Wine, the Next Trick Involves …

Next time: Medieval medicinal plants


The Language of Bach Flowers

A few months ago, I was giving a talk about the Bach remedies, describing how the remedies are made…and mentioned the energy of the flowers being transferred to the water.  At this point, someone in the front row interrupted and challenged me on what exactly was transferred….energy is a measurable thing so can it be measured?  And if not, then how could I say something was transferred?  One of the ‘joys’ of living in Cambridge is the large number of scientists ready for a ‘lively discussion’!   After several minutes I did manage to get on with the talk, but it did get me thinking about the language we use to talk about the remedies.

Bach flower essences

Bach flower remedies…but what are they made of? image

The problem is, while the effects of the remedies are obvious to us, anecdotal evidence is not going to convince a cynic – so saying they work in a reproducible way is not enough to prove something is transferred from the flower.  Nor is anything that sounds pseudo-scientific.  So, in this blog I thought I’d have a look at a few of the words we use to describe what the remedies are made of.

Let’s start with the word that got me into bother…ENERGY.  The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines energy as ‘the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity’, or more scientifically ‘the property of matter and radiation which is manifest as a capacity to perform work’. The important thing is energy is a measurable quantity.  If we can’t (or haven’t) measured transfer of energy from flowers to water, then can we say energy is involved?  There is clearly the transfer of something – the water we put the flowers onto often changes colour, so something chemical IS transferred and with this will be energy (as where there’s mass there must be energy).  But this isn’t really what we mean (and in any case by the time the mother tincture is made then further diluted, any quantity of chemical compounds originating from the flowers will be minimal).

Energy is also used in other contexts – e.g. the energy of the room changes when X comes in.  I think most of us have experience of this – when, without saying or doing anything, a person can make a place feel different just by being there, but it’s impossible to quantify and is it good enough to use to describe what’s in the remedies?   There’s a whole area of complementary therapies based on ‘energy healing’ and I guess we use the word energy the way they do – an unmeasurable but tangible force which can affect anything it comes into contact with.  But while this is fine if you’re talking to people open to this way of thinking it probably won’t ‘cut it’ with someone more cynical.

flowers energy

Impatiens glandulifera

Another issue with energy, if you use the analogy of X changing the energy of the room, is that each person has a different effect (energy) i.e. we’re all of the same species but have a different effect on the energy and yet, but when we’re making remedies I think we’d say e.g. that all Impatiens glandulifera flowers would produce Impatiens flower remedy with the same energy.

If energy can be troublesome, what about ESSENCE.  I do like is – it puts across the idea of it being the important part of the flower which is used.  And it’s not a word which is used often otherwise.  Except perhaps in food flavourings, but even the use of essence in e.g. vanilla essence,  use doesn’t contradict our use. OED defines essence as ‘The intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, which determines its character.’  Sounds good!

Another possibility is VIBRATION…or sometimes vibrational energy.  This has the same issues as energy…in this case OED defines as ‘An oscillation of …an electromagnetic wave’ (a measurable quantity).  However, a further, informal definition is given for vibrations – ‘a person’s emotional state, the atmosphere of a place, or the associations of an object, as communicated to and felt by others.’ It does feel a bit 1960s (think ‘Good Vibrations’) but it does work pretty well.

Bach flowers energy

A representation of energy or vibrational fields; image

Where does this leave us?  Well, I think the important things are to pick what we feel comfortable using but most importantly, be ready to explain what we mean with an appreciation that our chosen words may have other meanings or connotations to other people.

As for me, my experience with my heckler made me wary of using the word energy but after thinking about it I think all 3 of the above options have merit.   What do you think?  Comment on Facebook and maybe we can have our own ‘lively discussion’!

Source: Oxford English Dictionary,

Bach flower shapes and energy

Could the energy of a flower essence be reflected in the shape of the plant’s flowers?

A few years ago, I heard a talk which suggested this.  I can’t remember the name of the speaker but she linked various flower essence systems together through flower shape.  It’s an interesting idea and, if true, could be useful if, for example, we find ourselves somewhere we can’t access Dr Bach’s remedies or plants and we could select from the local flora based on flower shape.

So I thought I’d have a look at this in a vaguely systematic way.  I took the Australian Bush essences and used a list of their indications to map them to the closest Bach remedy (or often remedies).  Currently there are 66 Bush essences that come from single flowers, some of which are very specific or relate to the physical or metaphysical (for example, Mulla mulla for fear of flames and heat; She oak indicated for female imbalance and Angelsword for spiritual confusion).

Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum); image from

For those which related to emotional states, I compared photographs of the flowers from the Bush Flower Essences and Bach Centre websites and if this didn’t give a clear answer, from internet searches of the species’ botanical names.

Fringed violet (Thysanotus tuberosus); image copyright ABFE




It proved to be good revision of indications for me!  But what about the flower shapes?  The example which was given in the talk linked Star of Bethlehem with Fringed violet (one of the indicators for this is shock).  The photos look convincing, with each having flowers with six narrow petals but is it just a coincidence?

The table shows the results from the 20 best matches of indications, other than Star of Bethlehem/Fringed violet and my comparison of flower shapes (flower shape similarity, Fss).

Bush flower essence Bach remedy Common indication(s) Fss
Billy goat plum

Black-eyed Susan


Dog rose•

Dog rose of the wild forces

Grey spider flower

Gymnea lily



Kapok bush

Mountain devil

Red grevillea

Red lily

Southern cross

Sturt Desert pea

Sturt Desert rose


Sunshine wattle

Tall yellow top

Yellow cowslip orchid

Crab apple


White chestnut


Cherry plum

Rock rose


Chestnut bud


Wild rose





Sweet chestnut




Water violet


Unable to accept physical self


Obsessive thoughts

Fearful; shy

Fear of losing control


Dominating, over-riding personality

Inability to learn from past

Changeable; dithering


Hatred; anger

Affected by criticism and other people

Daydreaming; lack of focus

Complaining; victim mentality

Deep hurt; emotional pain


Daydreaming; vagueness

Stuck in the past

Isolation; loneliness

Critical; judgemental





















*Dog rose of the wild forces has 6 petals compared to 5 for cherry plum, but otherwise, there is a slight similarity in shape.

**Isopogon is slightly bud-like.

***Kapok bush flower petals are the same shape as wild rose flower petals, but narrower.  There are the same number of petals in each.

•Dog rose Bush flower essence is from Bauera rubioides not Rosa canina (from which Bach Wild rose is made).

There are three flowers where there appear to be some similarities with the Bach flowers, the most similar being Kapok bush and Wild rose (Rosa canina) – see photos below.  Kapok bush/Wild rose is fairly convincing but I would have expected more if the link was any more than coincidental (there aren’t that many potential shapes of flowers!)

Not in any way a comprehensive or exhaustive study, but I can’t find any compelling evidence that there is a link between flower shape and the indications for the remedy (and by implication, the energy of the flower).

What do you think?  Have you found any examples, either among the Bush flower essences or any of the other remedy systems, where the flowers seem similar to the Bach flowers? Post comments on facebook.

Kapok bush (Cochlospermum fraseri); image copyright ABFE

Rosa canina

Dog rose (Rosa canina); image from









Australian Bush Flower Essences info sheet; Bush Biotherapies Ltd

The Plants of Dr Bach (

Bach Flower Remedies and the Doctrine of Signatures

Dr Bach described himself as a herbalist and he had a knowledge of plants and medicine gained from talking to folk healers as well as from personal study.  What, then, was the influence of ideas central to herbal medicine in his discovery of the 38 flower remedies?  We can speculate (in the absence of any definitive knowledge!) and in this blog I’d like to consider the possible influence of one idea known as the Doctrine of Signatures.

Today this is much mocked by sceptics, but it undeniably contributed to the shaping of herbal medicine as we know it now, as well as to the discovery of some drugs used in conventional medicine.  The Doctrine stated that God had marked some plants to tell us how they could be used – the leaves of lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalislook like diseased lungs and so were used to treat lung diseases; the structure of the eyebright (Euphrasia officinalisflower resembles an eye so the plant was used to treat eye conditions, etc. [1]

Doctrine suggested seed heads linked to teeth

Henbane seed heads; image courtesy of Jenny Humphrey

It was popularised by the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493–1541) but there is evidence of its importance throughout the history of medicine.  Henbane (Hyoscyamus spp.) was smoked by the Ancient Egyptians to treat toothache – perhaps as a result of the seed heads looking like a row of teeth.  In fact, henbane contains hallucinogenic compounds including scopolamine which would cause users to forget their toothache for a while, even if it didn’t cure the pain permanently! [2]

The Doctrine was key to the writings of William Coles, a contemporary of Nicholas Culpeper but, in contrast, Culpeper believed in the astrological properties of plants.  However, even Culpeper succumbed to the idea that every plant had a purpose – writing on honeysuckle that chewing it did not help a sore mouth he said, “If it is not good for this, what is it good for? It is good for something, for God and Nature made nothing in vain.”[3]

Other aspects of the Doctrine were the idea that plants grew where they were needed and that their behaviour could also guide us to their medicinal effects.   The former was important in the decision of Rev. Edward Stone to try taking willow bark to treat his agues (willow is abundant in damp conditions where agues (with malaria-like symptoms) were common). Initially, the effect of Stone’s allusion to the Doctrine was to make physicians sceptical of his report of the bark’s effects, but his work led eventually to the discovery of the drug aspirin.[2]

But do the sceptics have a point?  It’s easy to select examples either to support or dismiss the Doctrine.  However, faced with finding a plant to treat a specific condition from the thousands available, where would you begin?  At least the Doctrine provided an arguably logical starting point.  And if healers tried a plant and it didn’t work they would move onto something else (a bit like pharmaceutical companies do today with potential drugs).   In some ways this mirrors Dr Bach’s discoveries – he carefully observed the nature of plants (shown in part by their behaviour?) but also tried many plants and discarded those which did not show the desired effects.

Juglans regia

Walnut: hard shell or hard hat?; image Mo sibbons

I’ve had a think about the Flower Remedies to see if there are any whose indications might have been suggested using the Doctrine.  Some are obvious… aspen with its quaking leaves suggesting anxiety; chestnut bud’s sticky coating suggesting mistakes that are difficult to throw off; walnut’s hard shell giving protection; water violet standing proud and alone in ponds and impatiens, impatiently firing off its seeds explosively.

What do you think?  Any more examples?  Post them on facebook here


[1] Science Museum;

[2] G.Kyd, M. Sibbons, (2013); Molecules Medicines and Mischief: A Year on the Chemical Trail around Cambridge University Botanic Garden; link to book info.

[3] T. Breverton, (2011); Breverton’s Complete Herbal; Quercus Publishing Plc, ISBN: 978-0-85738-336-5, p176

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy “Plants” #38 Rock Water

Rock water

(Ok, so not exactly a plant, but couldn’t leave it out…)

Rock water

Water; image from pixabay

Rock water, the remedy for rigidity and self-denial, is made by the sun method.

Water can be taken from any healing spring but it must be free of human interference so distant from areas of habitation.   This will minimise any water pollution.

Pollution of streams has three major sources – fertilisers, pesticides and acid rain.

Fertilisers are a source of the nutrients nitrogen and/or phosphorous for plants and promote growth so are used in agriculture.  Common fertilisers are ammonium nitrate, urea and ammonium phosphate.  These are water soluble so are readily washed into streams by rainwater.   They can cause algae to grow, blocking sunlight from aquatic plants.  The plants die and along with the algae are decomposed by microbes.  This depletes the oxygen levels in the water causing other living organisms to die.

A possible pollutant of rock water

Chemical diagram of pyrethrin I

Pesticides are also used in agriculture to control animals or plants which adversely affect crops.  One of the most commonly used classes is the pyrethrins.  The first examples were isolated from Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium and the compounds are potent insecticides.

So-called acid rain occurs when atmospheric pollutants, such as nitric oxide and sulfur dioxide from car exhausts, react with water to produce acids like nitric acid and sulfuric acid which increase the acidity of rain.

A possible pollutant of water

Chemical diagram of oxazepam


Water pollution is more problematic in urban areas where wastewater enters rivers.  Some recent studies have looked at the effect of commonly-used prescription medications which can contaminate water.  One of the biggest polluters are the benzodiazepines, like Valium and oxazepam.  The latter compound has been found in Swedish rivers and makes fish less fearful and more active.

Anti-depressants like setraline (Zoloft) also have an effect on fish, suppressing territorial aggression and promoting sociability and boldness.  However, although in a laboratory environment these effects are beneficial and the fish live longer and perhaps happier lives, in the real world changes of behaviour which make fish more chilled and bolder may lead to them being more likely to be eaten.

Other effects of drugs including Prozac have been seen in starlings.   Prozac causes changes in feeding patterns and females show a reduced libido which, in the long term, could affect the viability of the species.  There are various possible solutions to pharmaceutical pollution including filtration of wastewater through constructed wetlands but their high cost raises the question of who should pay.

For an introduction and sources and more info., click the links.

rock water

Water; image from pixabay

Thanks for your company on this meander through the Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy plants.  Hope you’ve enjoyed finding out a bit more about these special plants as much as I have. I’m currently turning the series of blogs into a book which will be published later in 2017.

In the meantime, look out for some new blogs soon!

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #37 Willow

Willow (Salix vitellina, usually Salix alba var. vitellina)

Salix alba vitellina

Golden willow twigs; image courtesy of

Willow, the remedy for those filled with self-pity and resentment, is made by the boiling method. Salix vitellina, or golden willow, is considered to be a variety of white willow, Salix alba.

Used historically to treat pain and fevers, the modern-day use of compounds related to those in willow bark is due to the work of Rev. Edward Stone.  He was suffering from agues (a collection of symptoms including intermittent fever) and decided to try chewing a piece of willow bark.  He felt it helped his symptoms and, after testing the powdered bark on 50 of his friends, reported its benefits in a letter in 1763.

The bark contains the compound salicin which is readily oxidised to give salicylates (ions of salicylic acid).  In the tree these act as allelopathic compounds, excreted into the soil to deter other plants from growing.  In the human body they act as COX enzyme inhibitors so reduce the production of prostaglandins.  These would cause pain and inflammation.

Acetyl salicylic acid

Chemical diagram of aspirin

However, the use of salicylates can cause the side-effect of stomach bleeding so in 1890, the pharmaceutical company Bayer launched a project to look for a gentler alternative – one which retained the beneficial properties but with reduced potential side-effects.  The compound they came up with was acetyl salicylic acid, better known today as aspirin.

Aspirin was the first of a new class of drugs known as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) and became widely used. It was the drug of choice against the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.  The use of aspirin to treat inflammation and fevers has been overtaken by newer drugs such as paracetamol.  However, the potential side-effect of stomach bleeding has led to another use. Today many people take a low dose of aspirin to help prevent heart attacks and strokes.  Aspirin remains one of the most important and widely used drugs on the market with an annual global usage of over 100 billion tablets.

Willow bark is still used by herbalists to treat pain, inflammation and fevers. Other chemicals present in the bark, such as flavonoids, may contribute to its success at lower doses than aspirin.  These may also reduce the occurrence of side-effects.

Willow has many other traditional medicinal uses.  Culpeper recommended using a drink made by mixing the boiled leaves or seeds in wine to extinguish the heat of lust in both men and women!  Galen describes using the burnt ashes of the bark, mixed with vinegar to take away warts, corns and superfluous flesh.  Today, salicylic acid (the parent salicylate) is used to treat warts, corns and verrucae.

Willow fluff in Beijing; image

In the 1960s, millions of willow and poplar trees were planted in Beijing.  However, these shed catkins in the spring and this can be a fire hazard.  The fluff can also cause irritation to the respiratory system.   Reducing the number of female trees, the main culprits, would be beneficial and recently, only male trees have been planted. For existing female trees, two possible solutions have been tried.

The trees can be given a ‘sex-change’ – their upper branches are removed and male branches grafted on, but, although effective, this is time-consuming and expensive.

In 2016, a chemical method was attempted.  15,000 trees were injected with three plant chemicals which are growth promoters, including indole-3-butyric acid (IBA).  These compounds inhibit flowering and promote vegetative growth – which doesn’t require catkins to be produced. The injections are about 10 times cheaper than the ‘sex change surgery’. IBA is an auxin, which occurs naturally in willows and is used in some commercial plant rooting products.  Results of this trial have not yet been publicised.


Chemical diagram of indole-3-butyric acid

For an introduction or sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #36 Wild Rose

Wild Rose (Rosa canina)

Wild Rose, the remedy for those who are apathetic, is made by the boiling method.

Rosa canina, or dog rose, is usually found growing in hedgerows.  The leaves were traditionally used as a laxative and the seeds as a diuretic. Use of the dog rose to treat bites from rabid dogs may have led to its common name.  Alternatively, this may have been a corruption of ‘dag rose’ referring to the sharp thorns, like daggers.

dog rose hips

Rosehips; image from

The fruits, known as rosehips, are a good source of vitamin C as well as other vitamins and flavonoids. According to data from the US Department of Agriculture, rosehips contain 426 mg of vitamin C/100 g fruit, compared to 50–60 for oranges or their juice and 29.1 for limes.  During World War II, British schoolchildren gathered the hips and these were usually made into a syrup, used to ensure sufficient vitamin C was consumed.

Rosehip syrup is still taken today as a tonic and to reduce tiredness.  Rosehips are also used to treat conditions of the bladder and kidneys and to reduce pain in osteoarthritis sufferers.  The hairs around the seeds cause itching and ground rosehips are used in some commercial itching powders.

L-abscorbic acid

Chemical diagram of vitamin C

Vitamin C, or L-ascorbic acid, is needed in the body to protect cells and keep them healthy; to maintain healthy connective tissue and to heal wounds.  In the UK, the recommended daily amount required by an adult is 40 mg.  A lack of vitamin C can cause scurvy but the body can’t store the vitamin and sufficient can usually obtained from the diet.

Some people advocate supplements giving doses of 1,000 mg or higher but these can cause stomach problems.  Most famously, in 1971, eminent chemist Linus Pauling published claims that high doses of vitamin C could prevent the common cold and cancer.  The winner of two Nobel prizes, Pauling was also a leading peace campaigner and anti-nuclear activist.  However, to date there is insufficient evidence to support his ideas.

Rosa canina; wild rose

Dog rose; image from

Hanging a rose over the dinner table symbolised that all confidences would be held sacred and today, the plaster ornament at the centre of a ceiling is still known as the rose.  This is the origin of the phrase sub rosa, meaning in confidence or in secret.

Rose essential oil comes mainly from the damask rose (Rosa damascena) or cabbage rose (Rosa centrifolia), grown in Bulgaria and France.  It takes around 10,000 flowers to produce 25 ml of oil.  The oil contains a large number of chemical compounds including citronellol, geraniol, rose oxide and β-ionone.  However, the compound β-damascenone is the most significant contributor to the fragrance. The quantity of β-damascenone in rose oil is used as a determinant of quality.

Damask rose was traditionally used to treat coughs, colds and eye infections and to staunch bleeding.  Rose oil is used in aromatherapy for stress and grief to nurture the body and in cosmetics for mature skin.

Apothecary rose (Rosa gallica officinalis) has sedative and antidepressant properties, is an astringent and can lower cholesterol.  Traditionally, petals were dried and rolled into beads which were strung into chains for religious use as a rosary.  Flowers are used in pot pourri and petals sometimes used as confetti.

For an introduction or sources and more info., follow the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #35 Wild Oat

Wild Oat (Bromus ramosus)

Wild oat, the remedy to help those at a cross-roads in their life to find their true direction, is made by the sun method.

Chemical diagram of peramine

Bromus ramosus is commonly known as the hairy brome – one of around 170 brome grasses in the genus.  The brome grasses are classified in a different genus but within the same family as the common oat (Avena sativa) and both their genus names are Latin words for oats.  Other relations include the wheat-grass family (wheat, barley and rye).

Brome grasses are susceptible to infection by endophytic fungi which live within the grass but for the most part do it no harm.  The fungi do, however, produce chemical compounds to protect their hosts.  One common example is peramine, an alkaloid which acts as a deterrent to insect feeding, found in Bromus ramosus infected with Epichloё bromicola.

A well-known example of an endophytic fungus is Claviceps purpurea, which often affects rye, producing the disease ergot of rye.  Ergot produces toxic alkaloids known as the ergot alkaloids which cause two types of illness – one convulsive and the other, commonly known as St. Anthony’s fire, gangrenous.  Medicinally, ergot was traditionally used to induce childbirth and study of the ergot alkaloids led their common nucleus to be identified as lysergic acid.

Chemical diagram of lysergic acid; LSD is the diethylamide, where the H atom of the OH group is replaced by N(CH2CH3)2

In the 1930s, chemist Albert Hofmann was working on making derivatives of lysergic acid and first made the diethylamide which he called LSD-25.   After taking some by accident in the 1940s, he described the hallucinatory properties of the compound, now known just as LSD, and it went on to be used both legally and illegally for its hallucinogenic effects.  The discovery and study of LSD and its effects on the brain made a significant contribution to the understanding of the link between neurochemistry and mental illness.

LSD was tested in a CIA mind-control programme, Project MKUltra, a series of illegal experiments carried out between 1953 and 1973.  The drug was often given without consent, including to prisoners, military and government employees and the general public.   The programme aimed to develop and test drugs and procedures for use in interrogations and torture specifically by altering the victims’ mental state.   Use of LSD was eventually abandoned due to its unpredictable effects.

Wild oat;

Hairy brome; image by Leo Michels (Own work, [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Brome grasses have little economic value and are often considered to be weeds.  The common names of Bromus sterilis are poverty brome or barren brome, attesting to this.  Bromus diandrus is known as ripgut brome – this refers to the danger posed to animals from the seeds.  These are sharp with backward-facing hairs which can become lodged like a fish hook.

The invasive weed cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is relatively fast-growing and fire retardant so interferes with the fire cycle in natural plant communities.   It is combustible so increases the number of fires but is adapted to survive these events better than most other plants.   Stemming the spread of cheatgrass is a significant issue in parts of the USA, due to the increased occurrence of wildfires.

For an introduction and sources and more info., click the links.