For thousands of years, Man has been experimenting with utilization of plants and animals in treatment of diseases and other ailments. On this page, a number of species, which have been – or still are – utilized as traditional medicine, are presented, divided into three categories: plants, fungi, and animals, each of these arranged alphabetically according to scientific names (sometimes the family name).
This page is not intended as a manual, and I take no responsibility whatsoever for any incorrect information given here. However, I should be happy to be informed about any such errors. You can use this email address: email@example.com
Brøndegaard, V.J. (1978-80). Folk og flora. Dansk etnobotanik, bd. 1-4. Rosenkilde og Bagger. (’People and Plants. Danish Ethnobotany’ – in Danish)
Changkija, S. (1999). Folk Medicinal Plants of the Nagas in India. Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 58, pp. 205-230.
Chevallier, A. (2010). Herbal Remedies. Metro Books
Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica (1993). Eastland Press
Christiansen, M.S. (1970). Danmarks vilde planter – med et udvalg af vore nordiske nabolandes flora, bd. 1-3. Politikens Forlag. (’Wild Plants of Denmark’ – in Danish)
Corneliuson, J. (1997). Växternas namn. Vetenskapliga växtnamns etymologi. Språkligt ursprung och kulturell bakgrund. 2nd revised printing 1999. Wahlström & Widstrand. (Etymology of plant names, in Swedish)
Duke, J.A. (1997). The Green Pharmacy. St. Martin’s Paperbacks
Grieve, M. (1931). A Modern Herbal. Jonathan Cape, in: www.botanical.com
Kruger, A. (1998). The Pocket Guide to Herbs. Parkgate Books
Kunwar, R.M., K.P. Shrestha & R.W. Bussmann (2010). Traditional herbal medicine in Far-west Nepal: a pharmacological appraisal. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine
Manandhar, N.P. (2002). Plants and People of Nepal. Timber Press
Spencer, E.R. (1974). All about Weeds. Dover Publications. Unabridged edition of Spencer’s book Just Weeds, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957
Starý, F. (1991). The Natural Guide to Medicinal Herbs and Plants. Dorset Press
and various Chinese herbal books.
To attract people’s attention, this wandering tradesman has draped a snake around his neck, while trying to sell traditional medicine. – Badulla, Sri Lanka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This man is cutting up bark to make traditional medicine, Langtang National Park, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Traditional medicine for sale at a market, Gyantse, Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Street vendors, selling traditional medicine, Kathmandu, Nepal. Some of the ingredients are displayed, such as heads of hornbills and ibises, scorpions, and dried lizards. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Abelmoschus manihot (Hibiscus manihot)
English names: Aibika, sunset muskmallow, sunset hibiscus, sweet hibiscus, palmate-leaved hibiscus.
Family: Mallow family (Malvaceae).
Distribution: Indigenous to India, China, and Southeast Asia. Cultivated elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, juice from the root is applied to sprains, while a paste of the bark is applied to wounds. Juice of the flowers is used as a remedy for bronchitis and tooth ache. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is widely used to treat kidney problems.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental, and as a source of food. The leaves are eaten in several Pacific Islands. In Japan and Korea, paper is made from the plant.
Note: Aibika is a near relative of okra, or ladies’ fingers (Abelmoschus esculentus), which has edible fruits.
Aibika (Abelmoschus manihot) is common in the lower valleys of Nepal, here photographed in the Marsyangdi Valley, Annapurna. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Crab’s eye, cock’s eyes, bead vine, jumbie bead, rosary pea, prayer bead, paternoster pea, love pea, precatory bean, coral bead, red-bead vine, country liquorice, Indian liquorice, Jamaica wild liquorice.
Family: Pea family (Fabaceae).
Distribution: Possibly a native of India. At an early stage, it was introduced to many other countries, and today it has a pan-tropical and -subtropical distribution.
Medicinal usage: Crab’s eye has antibacterial properties. In Nepal, it has numerous uses as folk medicine. A paste of the root is applied to boils, and also applied to treat headache, sore throat, and rheumatism. A paste of the leaves is applied for boils, swellings, rheumatism, caries, asthma, and loss of skin pigment. Juice of the leaves is taken for cough and fever, and as a blood purifier. Chewing fresh leaves relieves cough and hoarseness. Seeds are antiperiodic, diaphoretic, emetic, expectorant, and purgative. They are used for nausea, eye diseases, itching, and loss of skin pigment. A paste of the seeds is used for sciatica, fever, headache, malaria, paralysis, skin diseases, and bad nerves. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is said that the plant promotes hair growth, and oil from the seeds is believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Other usage: In Nepal, Chepang and Mooshar tribals cook the young leaves for food. Thin branches are used for binding. The seeds are used as beads in rosaries and necklaces. In the old days, they were also used by jewellers as weights, as their weight is always consistent.
Formerly, in India, the seeds were used for murder, and for killing cattle. In King’s American Dispensatory (1898), H.W. Felter & J.U. Lloyd write: “Abrus seeds are the agents, by which the Chamar caste (or ‘native skinners’) carry on the felonious poisoning of cattle for the purpose of securing their hides. This is done by means of small spikes, called sui (‘needles’) or sutari (‘awls’), which are prepared by soaking the awl in a thin paste of the water-soaked, pounded seeds, and then drying the weapon in the sun, after which it is oiled and sharpened upon stone, affixed in a handle, and then used to puncture the skin of the animal.”
The common name jumbie bead stems from Trinidad, where bracelets, made from the seeds, are worn around the wrist or ankle to ward off jumbies (evil spirits) and mal-yeux (‘evil eyes’).
Notes: The seeds are very poisonous – ingestion of a few seeds may be fatal.
The common names crab’s eye and cock’s eyes refer to the black markings on the seeds.
In many areas, e.g. Belize, West Indies, United States, Hawaii, and Polynesia, crab’s eye is proclaimed an invasive weed.
The seeds of crab’s eye (Abrus precatorius) are used medicinally for a large number of ailments, but as they are extremely poisonous, they should never be eaten. – Dehra Dun, Uttarakhand, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Acer caesium (A. molle)
English names: Blue-grey maple, Indian maple.
Family: Soapberry family (Sapindaceae).
Distribution: From Afghanistan across the Himalaya to western China.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, juice of the bark is applied to swellings of muscles, and also to boils and pimples.
Other usage: The wood is used for furniture, cups, bowls, rifle stocks, etc. The leaves are used for wrapping fruit, making it more durable.
Notes: The name blue-grey maple refers to the colour of the foliage. Over-exploitation of the timber for commercial and local use has caused the species to decline, especially in Pakistan. (Source: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, iucnredlist.org)
Leaves of blue-grey maple (Acer caesium), Kilanmarg, Kashmir, India. The common name was given in allusion to its blue-grey foliage. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Yarrow, yarroway, knight’s milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, thousand-weed, bloodwort, staunchweed, nosebleed, old man’s pepper, carpenter’s weed, devil’s nettle, devil’s plaything, bad man’s plaything.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: Temperate Eurasia. Naturalized in North America.
Medicinal usage: Yarrow was formerly much esteemed as a vulnerary, and its old names knight’s milfoil and soldier’s woundwort testify to this. English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) informs us that, during the Trojan War, the Greek hero Achilles used yarrow to stop bleeding on wounded soldiers – hence the name Achillea, applied to the genus by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778). The Highlanders still make an ointment from it, which they apply to wounds.
Another popular name of yarrow is nosebleed, from its ability to staunch bleeding of the nose. Herbalist John Parkinson (1567-1650) tells us that “if it be put into the nose, assuredly it will stay the bleeding of it.” [‘To stay’ is an old expression for ‘to stop’.] Herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) speaks of yarrow as a profitable herb in cramps, and Parkinson recommends a decoction to be drunk warm for ague (malaria).
Among the Micmac people of north-eastern North America, the stalk was chewed or stewed to induce sweating to break fevers and colds. Furthermore, they pounded the stalks into a pulp to be applied to bruises, sprains, and swelling.
Today, yarrow is used to relieve menstrual cramps, for colic and infections, and as a diuretic. It stimulates sweating and reduces fever. In the Orkneys, milfoil tea is drunk to dispel melancholy.
Other usage: In the seventeenth century, yarrow was an ingredient in salads. Flowers and leaves have a bitter, pungent taste, hence its popular name ‘old man’s pepper’. It has also been employed as snuff.
In Sweden, yarrow was formerly used in beer brewing, hence its popular name jordhumle (‘field hops’). Linnaeus considered beer of this type more intoxicating than beer brewed with hops.
In a Chinese form of divination, hexagrams are generated by throwing sticks, made from yarrow stalks – a random method, using the I Ching, or Book of Changes, consisting of sixty-four hexagrams, each of them six lines, each of which is either yin (dark forces) or yang (light forces).
Notes: The specific name millefolium is derived from the many fine segments of the leaves, hence its popular names milfoil and thousand-weed. The name yarrow is a corruption of gearwe, the Anglo-Saxon name for the plant.
In earlier days, yarrow was an herb, dedicated to the Evil One, hence the folk names devil’s nettle, devil’s plaything, and bad man’s plaything. It was also used for divination in spells. In eastern England, where yarrow was called yarroway, a peculiar mode of divination took place with its leaves, with which you would tickle the inside of the nose, while reciting the following lines. If your nose began to bleed, this was seen as a certain omen of success:
Yarroway, yarroway, bear a white blow,
If my love loves me, my nose will bleed now.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Södra Greda, Öland, Sweden. In the background brown knapweed (Centaurea jacea). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of inflorescences, Jutland, Denmark. The flowerheads of yarrow are very small, but with large ray-florets, making each flowerhead look like an individual flower. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Occasionally, a form of yarrow with reddish inflorescences, A. millefolium var. sudetica, may be seen. – Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Aconitum gammiei (A. dissectum, A. wallichianum)
English names: Monkshood, aconite, wolf’s bane, helmet flower.
Family: Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae).
Distribution: A. gammiei is found in the Himalaya, from central Nepal to northern Myanmar, and also in south-western China. A. napellus is distributed in south-western Britain, central and eastern Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Balkans.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, juice of the root of A. gammiei is used to treat stomach ache. A paste from the root of a near relative, A. ferox, is applied for neuralgia, leprosy, cholera, and rheumatism. It is also regarded as a diuretic and diaphoretic. In western Nepal, the tuber of A. spicatum is used as an antipyretic and analgesic, and also for sore throat, tonsillitis, and gastritis. In north-eastern India, A. palmatum is utilized by the Naga people. The root is crushed, soaked overnight, and drunk to relieve diarrhoea, dysentery, and rheumatism. In Europe, a drug from A. napellus was formerly used to relieve pain from neuralgia and sciatica, but the usage was stopped after a number of deaths, caused by the drug.
Other usage: In Middle Age Europe, witches reputedly used an extract from A. napellus during their ‘flying’ ceremonies. In the old days, the poisonous juice of aconite species was applied to hunting arrows all over Eurasia, and it was also applied to arrows and spears during wars. In some areas, it was utilized to eliminate criminals.
Notes: Most species of monkshood are deadly poisonous, even in small dosages. The generic name Aconitum refers to the mountain Aconitos, near the Black Sea, where the Greek hero Heracles went to the underworld Hades to bring up its guardian, the three-headed dog Kerberos. As he tugged this terrible animal out of Hades, its froth fell on the ground as drops, from which Aconitum sprouted – a figure of the extreme toxicity of the genus. The common name wolf’s bane refers to an old method of killing wolves, either with poisoned arrows or in traps with stakes, smeared in aconite juice. The names monkshood and helmet flower refer to the unique flower structure with five coloured sepals, the upper ones forming an erect hood.
Aconitum gammiei is one among c. 33 species of monkshood in the Himalaya. This one was photographed in the Upper Langtang Valley, central Nepal. In the background a species of bistort (Polygonum). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Middle Age Europe, witches reputedly used an extract from Aconitum napellus during their ‘flying’ ceremonies. – This picture was taken in Cirque de Troumouse, in the French Pyrenees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In this picture from Dovrefjell, Norway, the sepals have been removed from a flower of northern monkshood (Aconitum septentrionale), showing why this plant in Scandinavia has the popular name ‘Chariot of Venus’. In Roman mythology, the chariot of Venus was drawn by two doves. Pistil and stamens do look a bit like two doves, harnessed to a chariot. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ageratum conyzoides (Ageratum obtusifolium)
English names: Goat-weed, billygoat weed, chickweed, whiteweed, bastard agrimony, appa grass.
English names: Mexican blueweed, flossflower, bluemink, pussy foot, Mexican paintbrush.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: Native to Central and South America. Both species have become naturalized worldwide in tropical and subtropical areas.
Medicinal usage: The juice of both species is widely used to treat cuts, wounds, and burns, and for its antibacterial properties. In Nepal, goat-weed is often used in traditional medicine. A paste of the root, mixed with bark of Schima wallichii, is applied to set dislocated bones. A paste of the leaves is applied to remove thorns from the feet, to boils, and, mixed with several other plants, to snakebites. Crushed leaves are rubbed into the hair to expel lice. A paste of the flowers is used to treat rheumatism, and juice from them is applied to scabies. Juice of the flowers, mixed with tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) and boiled for 10 minutes, is taken for colds and cough. In Brazil, an infusion of goat-weed is employed to treat colic, colds, fever, diarrhoea, rheumatism, and spasms. In Africa, both species are used to treat fever, rheumatism, headache, pneumonia, and colic.
Other usage: Goat-weed is used as an insecticide and nematicide. In India, an extract of Mexican blueweed has been employed to kill mosquito larvae.
Notes: The genus Ageratum has evolved an ingenious method of protecting itself from insects. These plants produce a compound, which interferes with the function of the organ responsible for the secretion of juvenile hormones. This chemical will trigger the next moulting cycle to prematurely develop adult structures and can render most insects sterile if ingested in large enough quantities. (Source: wiki.medicinalplants-uses.com).
Ingestion of Ageratum is quite risky, as it may harm your liver. Both species are also toxic to grazing animals, causing liver lesions. – In Vietnamese, goat-weed is called cứt lợn (‘pig faeces’), because it often grows in dirty areas. – Both species are regarded as invasive weeds in numerous countries around the world.
Goat-weed (Ageratum conyzoides) is a native of Brazil, but has become naturalized in numerous tropical and subtropical areas. – Marsyangdi Valley, Annapurna, C Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Mexican blueweed (Ageratum houstonianum) is a native of Central America. Like goat-weed, it has become naturalized innumerable places. It is very common in Taiwan, where this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common agrimony, church steeples, cocklebur, sticklewort.
Family: Rose family (Rosaceae).
Distribution: Most of Europe, western Asia, and North Africa.
Medicinal usage: Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) calls agrimony an “herb of princely authority,” while Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), who was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine), states that it is not only “a remedy for those that have bad livers,” but also “for such as are bitten by serpents.”
English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) says: “A decoction of the leaves is good for them that have naughty livers,” while another herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), recommends it, in addition to the uses above, for gout, “either used outwardly in an oil or ointment, or inwardly, in an electuary or syrup, or concreted juice.” He praises its use externally, stating how sores may be cured “by bathing and fomenting them with a decoction of this plant,” and that it heals “all inward wounds, bruises, hurts and other distempers.” He continues: “The decoction of the herb, made with wine and drunk, is good against the biting and stinging of serpents . . . it also helpeth the colic, cleanseth the breath and relieves the cough. A draught of the decoction taken warm before the fit first relieves and in time removes the tertian and quartian ague” [malaria]. And furthermore: “Agrimony draweth forth thorns, splinters of wood, or any such thing in the flesh. It helpeth to strengthen members that are out of joint.”
In his compendium, The Vegetable System, English botanist John Hill (c. 1714-1775) recommends “an infusion of 6 oz. of the crown of the root in a quart of boiling water, sweetened with honey and half a pint drank three times a day,” for jaundice.
Agrimony is tonic, diuretic, and astringent (thus good for diarrhoea), and is still regarded as a very useful agent in skin eruptions, pimples, and diseases of the blood. A strong decoction of the root and leaves, sweetened with honey or sugar, has been taken successfully to cure scrofulous sores and ulcers. It has also been used for gallstones.
A near relative, hairy agrimony (A. pilosa), is utilized in Nepal for e.g. diarrhoea, dysentery, haemorrhoids, and tuberculosis. A paste of the plant is applied to the head to relieve headache, and also used for snakebites. Ash from the plant is a remedy to treat wounds. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used to cure bloody stool or urine, and to curb profuse menstruation.
Other usage: Agrimony contains tannin, in former times used in dressing leather.
Notes: The generic name Agrimonia (and with that the English name) is a derivation of Argemone, from the Greek argemos, meaning ‘a white spot (cataract) on the eye’, which, according to the Ancient Greeks, a species of Argemone was able to cure. The specific name eupatoria refers to King Mithridates VI of Pontus (134-63 B.C.), called Eupator Dionysius (which can be translated as ‘the noble father of plants’), who was a renowned herbalist.
The common name church steeples refers to the long, spire-like inflorescence, cocklebur and sticklewort to the prickly fruits, which easily detach when in contact with socks, sweaters, or animal furs.
Sheep and goats will eat this plant, while cattle, horses, and pigs leave it untouched. – The magic powers of agrimony are mentioned in an old English medical manuscript:
If it be leyd under mann’s heed,
He shal sleepyn as he were deed;
He shal never drede ne wakyn
Till fro under his heed it be takyn.
Flowering common agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), Djursland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Agrimony fruits are hooked, an adaptation to dispersal by furred animals. – Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Agropyron repens and Agropyrum repens, see Elytrigia repens.
English names: Lady’s mantle, lion’s foot, bear’s foot, nine hooks.
Family: Rose family (Rosaceae).
Distribution: Numerous closely related species are found across Eurasia and in North America.
Medicinal usage: A traditional astringent herb, formerly considered one of the best herbs for wounds. English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) says: “Lady’s mantle is very proper for inflamed wounds and to stay bleeding, vomitings, fluxes of all sorts, bruises by falls and ruptures. It is one of the most singular wound herbs and therefore highly prized and praised, used in all wounds inward and outward, to drink a decoction thereof and wash the wounds therewith, or dip tents therein and put them into the wounds, which wonderfully drieth up all humidity of the sores and abateth all inflammations thereof. It quickly healeth green wounds, not suffering any corruption to remain behind and cureth old sores, though fistulous and hollow.” [‘To stay’ is an old expression for ‘to stop’.]
In former days, in Sweden, a tincture of the leaves was given for spasmodic or convulsive diseases. An old authority states that if placed under the pillow at night, the herb will promote quiet sleep.
In modern herbal treatment, it is employed to curb profuse menstruation.
Other usage: Formerly used to dye yarn olive-green or yellow. In Denmark, around 1800, it was eaten as a vegetable or in salads.
Notes: The generic name Alchemilla is derived from the Arabic alkemelych (‘alchemy’), given to the plant in allusion to its reputation as a magical herb. The name lady’s mantle stems from the shape of the leaves, resembling the scalloped edges of a lady’s mantle. The leaf shape also resembles the imprint of a lion’s paw. The local name nine hooks refers to the margin of the leaf, which has mostly nine lobes, finely toothed at the edges.
Cultivated lady’s mantle (Alchemilla), Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Garlic.
Family: Onion family (Alliaceae).
Distribution: Native area unknown, possibly the Mediterranean or Asia Minor. Cultivated almost worldwide.
Medicinal usage: Garlic was in high esteem among the Ancient Egyptians, and in Europe, during World War I, it was widely used to prevent wounds from turning septic. Today, it is highly valued for its antifungal, antiseptic and antibacterial properties, used for a huge number of ailments, including heart trouble, high or low blood pressure, high level of cholesterol, hardening of arteries, enlarged prostate, fever, headache, stomach ache, gout, joint pain, haemorrhoids, and menstrual disorders. Garlic is excellent for respiratory infections, such as colds, cough, asthma, and bronchitis, and it is highly probable that it acts as a preventive for many types of cancer.
Other usage: Cultivated as a condiment, and also eaten as a vegetable.
Notes: In Europe, in the old days, garlic was regarded as a magic herb, which would protect you against evil. The Ancient Greeks often placed it at crossroads to placate the frightening Hecate, goddess of the underworld, who haunted desolate places at night. People of the Balkans would hang garlic on stable doors to deter milk thieves at night, and in other parts of Europe, garlic rosaries were worn around the neck as protection from evil spirits and disease. In the novel Dracula (1897), by Irish author Abraham Stoker (1847-1912), garlic is utilized to ward off vampires.
According to a Hindu legend, The Churning of the Milk Ocean, from the Bhagavata-Purana, garlic came into existence this way: The gods had become weakened and had been usurped by the asuras (demons). The gods appealed to the supreme god Vishnu for help, and he suggested that they should regain their power by drinking the miraculous amrita, the nectar of immortality, which they could obtain by churning the cosmic milk ocean, thus bringing the jar with amrita to the surface. However, Vishnu advised the other gods to treat the asuras diplomatically by suggesting them to jointly churn the ocean. When the amrita was brought to the surface, Vishnu would ensure that the gods got hold of it. To perform this stupendous task, the gods and the asuras uprooted the mountain Mandara, placing it upside down in the ocean, and coiling the giant, many-headed naga (serpent) Vasuki around it. By pulling alternately at each end of Vasuki, the mountain would act as a gigantic churn, thus bringing the pot, containing the amrita, to the surface. When that happened, the man-eagle Garuda, Vishnu’s mount, snatched the pot and ran away with it, but some drops spilled and fell on the ground. Later a plant, containing all the divine properties of the amrita, sprouted from these drops – garlic.
Loading sacks of garlic (Allium sativum) on donkeys, to be taken to the market, Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Garlic for sale at a market, Valparai, West Ghats, Tamil Nadu, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common marshmallow, sweet weed.
Family: Mallow family (Malvaceae).
Distribution: Native from the Baltic Sea and SE Europe, eastwards across southern Siberia. Naturalized in other parts of Europe and in eastern United States.
Medicinal usage: Since Ancient Egypt, an extract of the root has been used for cough. In Ancient Arabia, a poultice made from marshmallow was used for inflammation, and in Ancient Greece it was used for stings, wounds and ulcers. Traditionally, in Denmark, it was utilized for a number of ailments, such as boils, dysentery, bladder stones, epilepsy, tuberculosis, tooth ache, colic, kidney pain, haemorrhoids, stomach ache, and whooping cough. – In today’s herbal medicine, it is used for treatment of cough, colds, flu, bronchitis, diabetes, skin problems, ulcers, and urinary tract inflammation. All parts of the plant are rich in mucilage, which will heal soreness and inflammation.
Other usage: In Ancient Egypt, the sap was extracted and mixed with nuts and honey, or the soft, spongy pith was boiled in sugar syrup and dried to produce a soft, chewy sweet. – Formerly, in England and the United States, stem and root, which contains some sugar, were used in sweets, named marshmallows. Today’s marshmallows, however, have nothing to do with the plant. They are a mixture of whipped sugar, water and gelatine, which is then moulded into small cylindrical pieces and coated with corn starch.
Note: The specific name officinalis indicates the medicinal properties of this plant.
Common marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), Lolland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Anethum graveolens (A. sowa, Peucedanum graveolens)
English names: Dill, meeting house seed.
Family: Umbellifers (Apiaceae).
Distribution: Probably a native of the Mediterranean. Cultivated in large parts of the world and often escaped.
Medicinal usage: The medical properties of dill were already known in Ancient Greece and Rome, and it is also mentioned in the Bible. English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) writes: ”Mercury has the dominion of this plant, and therefore to be sure it strengthens the brain. (…) It stays the hiccough, being boiled in wine, and but smelled unto, being tied in a cloth. The seed is of more use than the leaves, and more effectual to digest raw and vicious humours, and is used in medicines that serve to expel wind, and the pains proceeding therefrom.” [‘To stay’ is an old expression for ‘to stop’.]
In today’s herbal medicine, dill is considered antibacterial, an antioxidant, and a powerful remedy for menstrual flow. The fruits, as well as an oil derived from them, possess stimulant, aromatic, carminative, and stomachic properties. It is utilized for lowering cholesterol levels, and for colic, excessive gas, bad breath, heartburn, menstrual cramps, depression, and epilepsy. In Chinese traditional medicine, it is said to benefit the spleen, kidney, and stomach.
Other usage: In the Middle Ages, dill was used by magicians in their spells, and in charms against witchcraft. In Nimphidia, the Court of Faery, from 1627, English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) writes:
Therewith her vervain and her dill,
That hindereth witches of their will.
In Denmark, an old word says that on Walpurgis Night (30 April), and on St. John’s Day (24 June), the cattle have to be fed with dill and garlic, among other things, to protect it against witchcraft, and to lift shortcomings in the yield of milk, or in the churning of butter.
Dill is widely used in European and Asian cuisines as a vegetable, in soups, sauces, and cakes, and as topping on cold dishes and sour cream products. The seeds are used as a spice, especially in pickles and vinegar. In Jutland, Denmark, dill, thyme, and bog myrtle were once added to a local liqueur. – The species is utilized as perfume in soap production. It can also be used as an insect repellent.
Notes: In his book The Popular Names of British Plants, Richard Chandler Prior (1809-1902) states that the name dill is derived from an old Norse word, dilla (to lull), in allusion to the carminative properties of the plant. The old name meeting house seed refers to the custom of chewing dill seeds during long church services to calm rumbling stomachs.
Danish poet Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) says that dill “in it hides the essence of old, leaning farm houses.”
Dill (Anethum graveolens), growing among boulders along the sea front, Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cultivated dill, covered in morning dew, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Angelica archangelica (Archangelica officinalis)
English names: Garden angelica, root of the Holy Ghost.
Family: Umbellifers (Apiaceae).
Distribution: Northern Eurasia and Greenland. Cultivated in large parts of Europe.
Medicinal usage: In the Middle Ages, dried roots were considered to be an important remedy against plague. In his Paradise in Sole, from 1629, herbalist John Parkinson (1567-1650) puts angelica in the forefront of all medicinal plants.
The root stalks, leaves and fruit possess carminative, stimulant, diaphoretic, stomachic, tonic, and expectorant properties, and today angelica is regarded as a valuable remedy for various heart problems, heartburn, colds, coughs, fever, pleurisy, rheumatism, psoriasis, and urinary diseases. It contains an essential oil with antiseptic properties.
A near relative, Chinese angelica (A. sinensis) – in Chinese 當歸 (‘female ginseng’) – is much utilized in Chinese traditional medicine, mainly for treatment of menstrual disorders, but also e.g. liver problems, hair loss, sciatica, and shingles.
Other usage: Tender stems and leaves are eaten raw or cooked. The roots, which in autumn has a high content of sugar, are dug up and boiled. The stem and seeds are used in confectionery, and candied stems are eaten by the French. The dried leaves, on account of their aroma, are used in the preparation of hop bitters. Garden angelica is an important ingredient in chartreuse, the famous liqueur produced by Carthusian monks.
Notes: Legends explain the names angelica and archangelica in various ways. According to one Middle Age legend, an angel had a dream that this herb would cure the plague. Another has it that angels – or even Archangel Gabriel himself – brought the knowledge of this herb to humans. A third legend says that it blooms on the day of Michael the Archangel (May 8, old style; May 18, new style), and on that account it is believed to protect against evil spirits and witchcraft. All parts of the plant were thought to be an effective remedy against spells and enchantment, and one of its popular names was root of the Holy Ghost. – The obsolete specific name officinalis refers to the medicinal properties of the plant.
Coastal form of garden angelica (Angelica archangelica ssp. litoralis), Horsens Fjord, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Aphanochilus polystachya, see Elsholtzia fruticosa.
Archangelica officinalis, see Angelica archangelica.
Arctium lappa (A. majus)
English names: Great burdock, fox’s clote, thorny bur, clot-bur, beggar’s buttons, cockle buttons, love leaves, happy major, herrif.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: Native to Temperate Eurasia. Naturalized in North America.
Medicinal usage: English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) says: “The burdock leaves are cooling and moderately drying, wherby good for old ulcers and sores. (…) The leaves applied to the places troubled with the shrinking in the sinews or arteries give much ease: a juice of the leaves or rather the roots themselves given to drink with old wine, doth wonderfully help the biting of any serpents – the root beaten with a little salt and laid on the place suddenly easeth the pain thereof, and helpeth those that are bit by a mad dog. (…) The seed being drunk in wine 40 days together doth wonderfully help the sciatica: the leaves bruised with the white of an egg and applied to any place burnt with fire, taketh out the fire, gives sudden ease and heals it up afterwards. (…) The root may be preserved with sugar for consumption, stone and the lax. The seed is much commended to break the stone, and is often used with other seeds and things for that purpose.” – Traditionally, in many countries, farmers have applied bruised leaves as a remedy for hysteria.
In modern herbal medicine, root and seeds are used for boils, scurvy, psoriasis, rheumatism, and arthritis. The leaves are applied externally as a poultice for tumours, gouty swellings, bruises, ulcers, and inflammation, and an infusion of the leaves is used for indigestion. Burdock is also utilized for seborrhea, which causes dandruff, and it is regarded as one of the best blood purifiers. Research indicates that it may inhibit attack of HIV virus. – In Nepal, the root is utilized as a diuretic and diaphoretic, and juice of the plant is applied to boils.
Other usage: The root is edible, with a sweet and mucilaginous taste. It is much utilized in Chinese cuisine. The stalk is also edible. After removing the rind and boiling the stalk, it tastes like asparagus. However, it is highly laxative, so only small amounts can be enjoyed.
Notes: The generic name Arctium is derived from the Greek arktos (‘bear’), in allusion to the burs, which are somewhat similar to bear claws. The name burdock of course refers to the burs, which, when ripe, will attach itself to any animal fur, sweater, or trousers, which happens to bruise the plant. ‘Dock’ is a term applied to various plants with large leaves. One authority states that the specific name lappa is from the Celtic llap (‘a hand’), alluding to the ‘gripping’ burs. The popular name herrif is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words, haeg (‘hedge’), and reafe (‘robber’), perhaps referring to the vigorous growth of this species.
In the tragedy Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Pandarus says: “They are burs, I can tell you, they’ll stick where they are thrown.” And in another Shakespeare tragedy, King Lear, we also have a direct reference to this plant:
Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With burdocks, hemlocks, nettles, cuckoo-flowers.
In his delightful book All about Weeds, American botanist Edwin Spencer (1881-1964) writes about the burs: “Sometimes (a boy) is mean enough to throw a bunch of the burs into the hair of a rival, or even into the hair of the girl he thinks has snubbed him. She who has had this experience needs no technical description of the burdock.”
The flowerheads of great burdock (Arctium lappa) are hooked along the edge. One wing of this blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) got stuck in the hooks, causing the death of the bird. – Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Seed heads of great burdock, weighed down by snow, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The root of great burdock is edible, with a sweet and mucilaginous taste. It is much utilized in Chinese cuisine. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Arisaema tortuosum (A. curvatum, A. helleborifolium)
English names: Jack-in-the-pulpit, snake plant.
Family: Arum family (Araceae).
Distribution: Montane areas of Central Asia, A. tortuosum from Pakistan across the Himalaya to south-western China, A. utile from Afghanistan east to Bhutan.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, the powdered corm of A. tortuosum is applied to snake bites. Juice of the corm is applied to wounds of livestock to kill fly larvae. Seeds are fed to sheep with colic.
Other usage: Fresh corms of A. tortuosum are used as an insecticide. Corm and ripe fruits of various Arisaema species of the Himalaya are edible when boiled. Leaves of A. utile are eaten as a potherb, or fermented to make so-called gundruk, which is eaten in winter, when fresh vegetables are scarce in the mountains. (Read more about production of gundruk elsewhere on this website, see Plants: Plant hunting in the Himalaya – Among Annapurna giants).
The flower of Arisaema tortuosum is rather bizarre, its spadix elongated into a long, dark, velvety tip, pointing upwards. – Khumbu, E Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the Annapurna area, central Nepal, Arisaema utile is much utilized to make gundruk. The leaves are fermented and afterwards stored in airtight containers for food in winter, when fresh vegetables are scarce in the mountains. On the lower picture, the leaves are spread out on a roof top to dry in the sun. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In autumn, the seeds of Arisaema species are bright red, clustered along the base of the spadix. In Nepal, these plants are called sarpa ko makai (’snake maize’). The spathe of some species – notably Arisaema nepenthoides – resembles a cobra with its hood spread out, while the fruit cluster resembles a maize cob. – Lata, Uttarakhand, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Arnica, mountain tobacco, leopard’s bane.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: Temperate Eurasia. Naturalized in North America.
Medicinal usage: In his illustrated herbal Neuwe Kreuterbuch (1588), German physician and botanist Jacobus Theodorus (Jakob Dietrich, 1525-1590) – better known under the name Tabernaemontanus and often called ’the father of German botany’ – describes arnica’s later so common usage to treat bleeding: ”In Sachsen, common people use arnica, when they fall down from a high place, or are otherwise hurt during work. You take a handful [of flowers], boil them in beer and drink this concoction in the morning, whereupon you cover yourself to sweat. Where you were hurt feels great pain for two or three hours, but then you are cured.”
In Denmark, arnica was much utilized in the 1700s. In an herbal book, it is said that it has dissolving and neurotonic properties, and another source mentions that a decoction of the plant, drunk with beer, can be used for headache, pressure on the chest, and pains in arms and legs. Arnica flower tea was used as a laxative. In another herbal from the 1700s, it is said that the flower, laid on an aching tooth, would cause ‘the worms’ to fall out. Danish herbalist Laust Glavind (died 1891) recommended a decoction of arnica and linseed in beer for insanity. As late as in the 1920s, herbal tea with arnica was drunk by women in northern Jutland to treat sterility.
To prevent hair loss, the scalp was bathed in beer, boiled with arnica root, and the label on an Austrian remedy for growth of hair, Quinar, states the following: “Substances are extracted from the flowers, which in an effective way will make your hair bouffant, luxuriant, and beautiful. For centuries, these substances have been known as life-giving for hair growth. Dissolved in alcohol, with added quinine, they form the most important ingredients in Quinar.”
In modern herbal medicine, arnica is regarded as a stimulant and diuretic, chiefly used for low fever and paralysis. It is excellent for shock. Arnica oil is a good remedy for bruises and sprains, but it should not be applied to open wounds. It is also used for insect bites, arthritis, muscle and cartilage pain, chapped lips, and acne.
Other usage: The leaves were formerly utilized as a substitute for tobacco – hence the name mountain tobacco. Today, an extract of the plant is used for flavouring beverages, frozen dairy desserts, candy, baked goods, gelatin, and puddings, and also as an ingredient in hair tonics and anti-dandruff remedies. The oil is used in perfumes and cosmetics.
Notes: Very poisonous, should not be used internally. – The common name leopard’s bane refers to the great toxicity of this species. An old German folk name of the plant is Wohlverleih (‘endowed with good’).
Arnica (Arnica montana), Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common wormwood, absinthe wormwood, green ginger.
English names: Sea wormwood, Old Woman.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: Common wormwood is probably native to the Mediterranean and western and central Asia, and it was cultivated in other areas of Europe as early as the Middle Ages. It was introduced by early settlers to North America, where it is now widely naturalized. Sea wormwood is native to most of Europe, east to Central Asia, growing on saline soils.
Medicinal usage: Common wormwood held a high reputation among herbalists in Ancient Greece and Rome. According to them, it would counteract the effects of poisoning by hemlock (see Conium maculatum on this page), toadstools, and the biting of the sea dragon. – During the Middle Ages, in the Nordic countries, wormwood was used for all sorts of ailments and diseases. In 1546, Danish herbalist Henrik Smid notes: ”Where is the person who can explain all the virtues of wormwood?”
In his compendium The Vegetable System, English botanist John Hill (c. 1714-1775) says: “The leaves have been commonly used, but the flowery tops are the right part. These, made into a light infusion, strengthen digestion, correct acidities, and supply the place of gall, where, as in many constitutions, that is deficient. (…) In the morning, the clear liquor with two spoonfuls of wine should be taken at three draughts, an hour and a half distance from one another. Whoever will do this regularly for a week, will have no sickness after meals, will feel none of that fulness so frequent from indigestion, and wind will be no more troublesome; if afterwards, he will take but a fourth part of this each day, the benefit will be lasting.’”
In modern herbal medicine, common wormwood is used as a tonic, stomachic, febrifuge, and as an anthelmintic. It is also a good remedy for indigestion, debility, and gall bladder infection. As a nervine tonic, it is particularly helpful against epilepsy and for flatulence.
About sea wormwood, English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) says: “Boiling water poured upon it produces an excellent stomachic infusion, but the best way is taking it in a tincture made with brandy. Hysteric complaints have been completely cured by the constant use of this tincture. In the scurvy and in the hypochondriacal disorders of studious, sedentary men, few things have a greater effect: for these it is best in strong infusion. The whole blood and all the juices of the body are effected by taking this herb.”
Dr. Hill (see above) states: “This is a very noble bitter. Its peculiar province is to give an appetite, as that of the common wormwood is to assist digestion. The flowery tops and the young shoots possess the virtue, the older leaves and the stalk should be thrown away as useless. (…) The apothecaries put three times as much sugar as of the ingredient in their conserves; but the virtue is lost in the sweetness, those will not keep so well that have less sugar, but ’tis easy to make them fresh as they are wanted.”
Numerous closely related Asian species are also utilized medicinally.
Other usage: Since the Middle Ages, wormwood has been utilized to get rid of lice and fleas. It was strewn in bedrooms and placed among clothes and furs to keep away moths. In corn lofts, ‘worms’ and snout beetles were exterminated with wormwood, and smoke from the burning herb would keep flies and mosquitos at bay. In July’s Husbandry, from 1577, English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser (1524-1580) says:
While wormwood hath seed get a handful or twaine
To save against March, to make flea to refraine:
Where chamber is sweeped and wormwood is strowne,
What saver is better (if physick be true)
For places infected than wormwood and rue?
It is a comfort for hart and the braine,
And therefore, to have it, is not in vaine.
In former days, milk and beer vessels were cleaned in hot water with wormwood added to it. For hundreds of years, both species have been added to alcohol in the Nordic countries, and still today, it is added to two alcoholic drinks, vermouth and absinthe, in southern Europe. However, absinthe is addictive, and in large quantities it is deadly. – Today, common wormwood is cultivated as an ornamental. It can be utilized for dyeing, giving yellow colours.
Notes: The genus Artemisia is named after Artemis, the Greek goddess of wilderness and wild animals, hunting, childbirth and virginity, protector of young girls, and also bringer and reliever of disease in women. In his Herbarium, Roman philosopher and scholar Lucius Apuleius (c. 124-170 A.D.) writes: “Of these worts that we name Artemisia, it is said that Diana found them and delivered their powers and leechdom to Chiron the Centaur, who first from these worts set forth a leechdom, and he named these worts from the Greek name of Diana, Artemis.”
The common name green ginger was given in allusion to the medical properties of common wormwood, comparable with those of ginger (Zingiber officinale, see elsewhere on this page). The name Old Woman was given to sea wormwood to distinguish it from Old Man, or southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum), which it somewhat resembles.
An old proverb says: “As bitter as wormwood”, and all members of the genus are remarkable for their extreme bitterness.
To make a love charm, an old word says, “On St. Luke’s Day [18th October], take marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, thyme, and a little wormwood; dry them before a fire, rub them to powder; then sift it through a fine piece of lawn, and simmer it over a slow fire, adding a small quantity of virgin honey, and vinegar. Anoint yourself with this when you go to bed, saying the following lines three times, and you will dream of your partner ‘that is to be’:
St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me,
In dreams let me my true-love see.
Absinthe wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), Öland, Sweden. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sea wormwood (Artemisia maritima) is common on European littoral meadows, here at Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sea wormwood is easily identified by its whitish foliage. – Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Scarlet milkweed, blood-flower, silkweed, milky cottonbush, red-cotton, redhead, bastard ipecacuanha, wild ipecacuanha.
Family: Dogbane family (Apocynaceae).
Distribution: Native of the West Indies. Cultivated and naturalized worldwide in tropical and subtropical areas.
Medicinal usage: Formerly, Native Americans used milkweed as a contraceptive and for snakebites. – In the West Indies, the juice is used as an anthelmintic and emetic, the root as a purgative. In Nepal, juice of the leaves is utilized to expel intestinal worms, and is also applied to boils. The latex is applied to warts. Elsewhere it is used as a febrifuge and expectorant, and to treat skin parasites, constipation, venereal diseases, kidney stones, and asthma.
Other usage: Widely cultivated as an ornamental. – According to Kew Bulletin (1897), this species has insecticidal properties, being especially obnoxious to fleas. Infected rooms are thoroughly swept with brooms, made from this plant, and the pests are said to disappear.
Note: In his delightful book All about Weeds, American botanist Edwin Spencer (1881-1964) writes about pollination of milkweeds: “(…) they have one of the most distinct flowers of the plant kingdom. It is made for the purpose of tricking insects in order that cross fertilization may be assured. (…) insects attempting to get nectar from the cups in the flower. There are five of these cups on each flower, and they usually are found hanging mouth downward. They are very smooth, and a foot of the insect that tries to alight on one of them invariably slips off and lands on the slit, which lies between two of the cups. This is exactly what should happen; the very purpose for which the flower was made. In that slit lies the male principle of the flower in such a position that it may never come in contact with the female organ, unless it is pulled out and pulled in again. So the foot of the insect goes into the slit and finds itself caught as if between two tough little wires. If the insect is strong enough, a jerk or two will bring out the foot, and along with it two little bags of pollen, which ride away on the insect’s leg to another flower, where the foot again slips into a slit, but this time carrying the pollen bags (…) right down upon the stigmatic surface of the female organ. There the bags stay, and the pollen in them develops as it should (…). Of course, that same insect leg may come out of the second flower slit with two more bags of pollinia hanging to it like two little saddle bags. (…) it takes a strong leg to do this work, and strong insects are sometimes seen with several bags of pollinia hanging to their legs. If the insect is not strong enough, he pays dearly for the sip of nectar he gets. (…) if he cannot pay for that nectar by carrying away to another flower those two little pollinia bags, he hangs there until he dies (…).”
Scarlet milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), Anshi National Park, Karnataka, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Asclepias gigantea, see Calotropis gigantea.
Azadirachta indica (Melia azadirachta)
English names: Neem tree, Indian lilac, margosa.
Family: Mahogany family (Meliaceae).
Distribution: Native to the Indian Subcontinent and islands off S Iran. Widely cultivated elsewhere in the tropics.
Medicinal usage: Neem has been used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine for over 2000 years. Juice of the bark is used for fever, cough, and urinary disorders. A paste of the bark is applied to swelling or bleeding from the gums. Oil from the seeds is used to improve the liver function, detoxify the blood, and to balance blood sugar levels, and is also applied to burns. A paste of the seeds is used for leprosy. Neem is also used for skin diseases, as a vermifuge, to fight bacterial, viral, and fungal attacks, and as a contraceptive and sedative. Twigs, called datun, are utilized as a kind of toothbrush, as they are chewed and rubbed against the gums. The juice possesses bacteria-killing properties and thus reduces plaque.
Other usage: Widely planted as a wind-breaker and fodder tree. The wood is insect repellent and much used for construction and furniture. In India, dried leaves are placed in cupboards to keep insects away, and boiled leaves can drive harmful birds, such as sparrows, away from crops. Powdered seeds are used as an insecticide. Tender shoots and flowers are eaten as a vegetable, and also pickled. Oil is used as an ingredient in soap, shampoo, creams, and toothpaste. In rural areas, it is used to grease cart wheels. Neem cake is used as fertilizer, the resin to produce gum arabic. The bark contains tannin. Flowers are an excellent source of honey.
Notes: The plant is sacred to Hindus and is utilized in several festivals. – It is regarded as invasive in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Australia.
Flowering branch of neem tree (Azadirachta indica), south of Mysore, Karnataka, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This woman in Varanasi, India, is selling neem twigs, called datun, which are used as a kind of toothbrush. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Begonia picta (B. erosa, B. rex, B. echinata)
Family: Begonia family (Begoniaceae).
Distribution: Montane areas from Pakistan across the Himalaya to south-western China.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, the plant juice is used for headache. Crushed leaves are applied to sore nipples. Juice of the root is applied to inflamed eyes, and also drunk to treat peptic ulcers. Among the Naga people of north-eastern India, a paste of the leaves is applied to treat stomatitis and bristles on the tongue. The juice is used for diarrhoea and dysentery.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental. Leaves are edible, raw or cooked. In Nepal, leaf-stalks and stem are pickled, and the juice is applied to dyed clothes to make colours permanent. Naga people use the root stalk to make a red dye, by mixing its juice with crushed leaves of a species of balsam (Impatiens). In Nepal, the plant is fed to barren animals to help them conceive.
Begonia picta, Sundarijal, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Berberis aristata (B. chitria, B. coriaria)
English names: Indian barberry, tree turmeric.
Family: Barberry family (Berberidaceae).
Distribution: Himalaya, Sri Lanka.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, an extract from stem and roots is used for inflamed eyes, jaundice, malaria, and diarrhoea. The root bark has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties, and is useful as an antioxidant. In India, the plant is used for heart, liver, and gastric trouble, skin diseases, trachoma, diarrhoea, and malaria. It is also reported to be a mild laxative. Among the Naga people of north-eastern India, the bark is crushed, soaked in water and drunk as a tonic, antiperiodic, alterative, and antipyretic, and to treat uterus problems and jaundice. – Several other barberry species in the Himalaya are utilized medicinally.
Other usage: The berries are edible, raw or pickled. Root and berries are used for making an alcoholic drink. The bark contains tannin. Root and bark yield a yellow dye. In Nepal, the spiny branches are used as fences. Naga people tie barberry spines together in a bamboo clip, called azialangba, using them as needles for tattooing.
Flowering Indian barberry (Berberis aristata), Kali Gandaki Valley, Annapurna, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The berries of Indian barberry are red at first, turning purplish-blue or bluish-black when ripe. – Sing Gompa, Langtang National Park, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Common barberry.
Family: Barberry family (Berberidaceae).
Distribution: Native to C and W Asia. Naturalized in most of Europe.
Medicinal usage: In Ancient Egypt, the bark was used against infections – a usage which is still employed today. The plant was brought to Europe by the Moors, and during the Middle Ages it was used as a tonic, an antiseptic, and a laxative. Berries are astringent, and a drink, made from crushed fruits, is taken for sore throat.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental. The bark yields a yellow dye. Jam made from berries.
Notes: The species is an alternative host for stem rust (Puccinia graminis), which affects crops like wheat and barley, in humid and warm summers often causing huge losses. In the early twentieth century, the United States government carried out an eradication campaign, which largely eliminated common barberry, and by the early 1980s, stem rust was not a big problem. In 1999, however, a more potent type of stem rust was discovered in Africa, so planting of barberry, which is a popular ornamental, is discouraged in the U.S.
Flowering branch of common barberry (Berberis vulgaris), Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fruiting branch of common barberry, Møn, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bergenia ciliata (B. ligulata, Saxifraga ciliata)
English names: Hairy bergenia, fringe-leaved bergenia, winter begonia.
Family: Saxifrage family (Saxifragaceae).
Distribution: Montane areas from Afghanistan across the Himalaya to south-eastern Tibet.
Medicinal usage: Generally regarded as anti-inflammatory and antidiabetic and may also be good for treatment of cancer. In Nepal, juice of the plant is taken for urinary disorders, and juice of the rhizome is used for cough, colds, haemorrhoids, asthma, and urinary disorders. A paste of the rhizome is used for fever, colic, diarrhoea, and backache, and is also applied to boils. Juice of the leaves is dripped into the ears in case of earache. The Gurung tribe of Nepal drink a decoction of the rhizome for gout, and to improve digestion.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental. In Nepal, boiled flowers are pickled, and tannin is obtained from the root.
Hairy bergenia (Bergenia ciliata), growing on a rocky slope, Dharkot, Uttarakhand, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Betonica officinalis, see Stachys officinalis.
Bombax ceiba (B. malabaricum, Salmalia malabarica)
English names: Silk-cotton tree, Indian kapok tree, simal.
Family: Mallow family (Malvaceae).
Distribution: Native to Tropical Asia, southern China, and northern Australia. Cultivated elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, juice of the plant is used for headache and wounds, juice of the bark for cough, indigestion, and stomach ache. A decoction of the bark is used for fever. The young roots are used for cholera, tuberculosis, cough, urinary trouble, dysentery, and impotence. Root and gum are used for diarrhoea, dysentery, tuberculosis, influenza, wounds, and heavy menstrual bleeding. Juice of the root is used for gonorrhoea and difficulty of urinating. Powdered seeds are given for amoebic dysentery. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, silk-cotton tree is used for asthma, diarrhoea, vaginal discharge, anaemia, seminal disorders, wounds, and skin problems.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental. In several Asian countries, the flower-buds are eaten as a vegetable, or pickled. In Thailand and China, the flowers are used for soup and tea. The young root and ripe seeds are eaten roasted. The root, rich in starch, is also eaten raw. An oil is obtained from the seeds. Seed hairs are stuffed in pillows and quilts. The wood is used for boats and planks, and rope is made from the bark fibres.
Flowering silk-cotton tree (Bombax ceiba), Melamchi Pul, Helambu, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of a silk-cotton tree flower, Annamalai National Park, West Ghats, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Borage, burrage, herb of gladness, starflower.
Family: Forget-me-not family (Boraginaceae).
Distribution: Native to the Mediterranean area, but widely cultivated and naturalized in other parts of Europe, and in the Americas.
Medicinal usage: Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), who was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine), and Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) both claim that borage was the Nepenthe, mentioned in Homer, which would “cause forgetfulness”, when mixed with wine – i.e. acting as an anti-depressant.
In his Herball, English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) writes: “Pliny calls it Euphrosinum, because it maketh a man merry and joyfull: which thing also the old verse concerning borage doth testifie: ‘Ego borago, gaudia semper ago.’ (’I, borage, bring alwaies courage.’) Those of our time do use the flowers in sallads to exhilerate and make the mind glad. There be also many things made of these used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for the driving away of sorrow and increasing the joy of the minde. The leaves and floures of borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadnesse, dulnesse and melancholy, as Dioscorides and Pliny affirme. Syrup made of the floures of borage comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholy and quieteth the phrenticke and lunaticke person. The leaves eaten raw ingender good bloud, especially in those that have been lately sicke.”
Another English herbalist, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), says that it ”hath an excellent spirit to repress the fuliginous vapour of dusky melancholie.” Herbalist John Parkinson (1567-1650) commends it “to expel pensiveness and melanchollie,” while herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) finds the plant useful for ”putrid and pestilential fever, the venom of serpents, jaundice, consumption, sore throat, and rheumatism.” – English gardener and vegetarian John Evelyn (1620-1706) writes: “Sprigs of borage are of known virtue to revive the hypochrondriac and cheer the hard student.”
Not long ago, borage was used for various disorders, e.g. asthma, bronchitis, colic, cramps, diarrhoea, and also as a diuretic and blood-purifier. Today, it is used as an anti-inflammatory, while seed oil, when applied over several months, is a good remedy for various skin conditions, such as eczema. A decoction of the plant, rubbed on the hands, is utilized to treat Raynaud’s disease (‘white fingers’).
Other usage: The leaves, which have a cucumber-like smell and taste, are eaten as a vegetable, and also used in soups. In Liguria, northern Italy, borage is often an ingredient in ravioli. Leaves and flowers are excellent in salads. An essential oil is extracted from the seeds.
Notes: The generic name Borago is possibly from the Latin borra, meaning ‘short wool’ or ‘rough hair’, or from the Arabic ʾabū min al-ʿaraq, meaning ‘father of sweat’, which, like the specific name officinalis, refers to the medicinal properties of this species.
Borage (Borago officinalis) is native to the Mediterranean area. This picture is from Andalusia, Spain. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of a borage flower, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Butea monosperma (B. frondosa, Erythrina monosperma, Plaso monosperma)
English names: Flame-of-the-forest, bastard teak, parrot tree.
Family: Pea family (Fabaceae).
Distribution: Tropical Asia.
Medicinal usage: In India, the so-called Bengal kino, extracted from tannin-rich vesicles in the bark, is used for diarrhoea and wounds. In Nepal, juice of the bark is used for fever, while the powdered seeds are utilized for inflammations, and to expel intestinal worms.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental. Flowers are brought as an offering to Hindu gods. The gum, in Hindi called kamarkas, is used in certain food dishes. It is also used for tanning and dyeing. Rope, paper, and sandals are made from fibres of root and inner bark. The leaves are utilized as fodder, and to make plates and umbrellas. The flowers yield a yellow dye, the roots a red dye. An oil is obtained from the seeds. The soft wood is used for utensils and fuel.
Notes: In Sanskrit scripts, flame-of-the-forest flowers are regarded as a symbol of the arrival of spring, and their colour as the colour of love. In Gita Govinda, 12th century poet Jayadeva compares the flowers to the red nails of Kamadeva, the Hindu god of love, with which he wounds the hearts of lovers.
Flame-of-the-forest (Butea monosperma), Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, Tamil Nadu, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Sanskrit scripts, the flame-of-the-forest flower is regarded as a symbol of the arrival of spring, and its colour as the colour of love. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Calotropis gigantea (Asclepias gigantea)
English names: Giant milkweed, giant swallow-wort, crown flower.
Family: Dogbane family (Apocynaceae).
Distribution: Tropical Asia and China.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, juice of bark and root are taken for diarrhoea and dysentery. Heated leaves can relieve muscular pain. Dried leaves are smoked, the smoke blown out through the nose to relieve sinusitis. Juice of the leaves is taken for fever, and juice of young buds is dripped into the ear for earache. Powdered flowers are used for cough, colds, and asthma. The milky juice, and also a paste of the root, is applied to wounds, sprains, boils, and pimples. In Ayurvedic medicine, the root bark is regarded as a febrifuge, anthelmintic, depurative, expectorant, and laxative. The powdered root is used for asthma, bronchitis, and dyspepsia, the leaves for treatment of paralysis, painful joints, swellings, and fever. The latex is used as a purgative and an emetic.
Other usage: In India, the plant is used as an insecticide and fungicide. Bark fibres are utilized for ropes, carpets, fishing nets, and sewing thread. A fermented mixture of giant milkweed and salt is employed to remove the hair from goat skins for production of nari leather. Seed hairs are stuffed in pillows. – The flowers are widely used as decoration. It is told that Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917) wore them as a symbol of royalty, strung into leis (garlands).
Giant milkweed (Calotropis gigantea), Long Wheeler Island, Maipura River Delta, Odisha (Orissa), India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Camellia sinensis (Thea sinensis)
English name: Tea.
Family: Tea family (Theaceae).
Distribution: Probably a native of south-western China. Today widely cultivated in the Tropics and Subtropics.
Medicinal usage: Leaves of green tea are anti-inflammatory and a powerful anti-oxidant, inhibiting cancer and tumour formation and blood clots. Leaves also lower the cholesterol level in the blood, and they may be efficient in treatment of diabetes. In modern herbal medicine, tea (especially green tea) is used for numerous ailments, among these arthritis, diarrhoea, herpes, haemorrhoids, liver problems, sunburn, wounds, gall stones, and excessive gas. Green tea contains fluoride, which reduces tooth decay. Studies indicate that it may have positive effects on weight loss. The calming effect of tea drinking reduces stress and anxiety. In traditional Chinese medicine, tea, combined with other herbs, is used to treat diarrhoea and dysentery.
Other usage: The most popular drink in the world is made from tea leaves. The leaves of oolong are withered and oxidized before curling and twisting. Those of green and white teas are less oxidized, while those of black tea are more oxidized, and also fermented, which leads to a significant loss of medical properties.
Note: According to a Chinese legend, the habit of drinking tea dates back to about 2740 B.C., during the reign of the famous emperor and herbalist Shen Nong. This emperor preferred to have his water boiled before drinking it, to make sure it was clean. One day, when he and his army were travelling in a distant region of his empire, they were resting beneath a tea tree. His servant was boiling water, when some leaves from the tree accidentally fell into the pot. The drink turned brownish, but the emperor drank it anyway, finding it quite refreshing.
Tea flower (Camellia sinensis), Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tamil women, picking tea leaves in a plantation near Munnar, Kerala, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tea plantation, Taiwan. The leaves are harvested with machines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hot tea, called chai, is an immensely popular drink in India, taken with liberal amounts of milk and sugar, and often spiced with cardamom or cinnamon. Here, a street vendor in Bikaner, Rajasthan, is heating milk to make chai. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the Middle East, tea is usually taken black and strong, with lots of sugar. This picture is from Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cannabis sativa (C. indica)
English name: Hemp.
Family: Hemp family (Cannabaceae).
Distribution: Native area unknown, possibly China or the Himalaya. Cultivated almost worldwide and naturalized in many places.
Medicinal usage: Hemp has been utilized in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years, mainly as a sedative, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory, and to reduce nausea and vomiting. In Nepal, juice of the leaves is used for diarrhoea and dysentery, and a paste of the leaves is applied to wounds. Powdered seeds can expel intestinal worms. The Naga people of north-eastern India drink a decoction of the plant for stomach pain and malaria.
Other usage: Three intoxicants are obtained from the plant. The effect of bhang is relatively mild, made from soaking the leaves in water and then drinking it. Bhang is also mixed with sweets or desserts. Marihuana, called ‘pot’, or ‘grass’ (in Hindi ganja), is more potent, consisting of dried flowers and upper leaves, which are smoked, while the most potent drug, hashish (charas in Hindi), is made from resin, exuded by the flowers. This resin is mixed with tobacco and smoked.
Leaves are used in salads, and seeds are roasted and pickled. The stem fibres have been utilized for more than 10,000 years, as rope, textiles, paper, biodegradable plastic, insulation, and biofuel. The seed oil is used for cooking, lamps, lacquers, and paint. In the West, the plant is cultivated for fibres and also as game fodder.
Notes: To many Hindus, hemp is sacred, and it is utilized by e.g. saddhus (holy men) to enter a different mental level, thus getting in contact with the gods. It is also worshipped by the Rai people of eastern Nepal.
According to a Hindu legend, the god Shiva had been quarrelling with his family members and went off by himself. He found shelter from the sweltering sun in the cool shade of a tall hemp plant. Curious about this plant, he ate some of its leaves and felt so refreshed that he adopted it as his favourite food – hence one of his titles, ‘Lord of Bhang’. He brought the plant down from the Himalaya and presented it as a gift to mankind. In India, it is said: “Bhang is the Joygiver, the Skyflier, the Heavenly Guide, the Poor Man’s Heaven, the Soother of Grief.”
According to another Hindu legend, The Churning of the Milk Ocean, from the Bhagavata-Purana, the gods had become weakened and had been usurped by the asuras (demons). The gods appealed to the supreme god Vishnu for help, and he suggested that they should regain their power by drinking the miraculous amrita, the nectar of immortality, which they could obtain by churning the cosmic milk ocean, thus bringing the jar with amrita to the surface. However, Vishnu advised the other gods to treat the asuras diplomatically by suggesting them to jointly churn the ocean. When the amrita was brought to the surface, Vishnu would ensure that the gods got hold of it. To perform this stupendous task, the gods and the asuras uprooted the mountain Mandara, placing it upside down in the ocean, and coiling the giant, many-headed naga (serpent) Vasuki around it. By pulling alternately at each end of Vasuki, the mountain would act as a gigantic churn, thus bringing the pot, containing the amrita, to the surface. The churning also brought other substances to the surface, one of these being bhang.
Hemp (Cannabis sativa), flowering male plant, Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Khmer frieze in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, depicting a scene from the Hindu legend ‘The Churning of the Milk Ocean’. The monkey god Hanuman urges the other gods to pull harder on the body of the giant serpent Vasuki, which is being used to churn the ocean. According to legend, bhang was one of the nectars brought to the surface by the churning. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Several days before the important Hindu festival of Maha Shivaratri (‘Great Shiva’s Night’) is celebrated, numerous shaivits (followers of Shiva), smeared in ashes, and wearing nothing but a loincloth and rosaries, gather at the Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal – considered by many to be the most important Shiva temple in the world. During this festival, many shaivits smoke charas (hashish) to enter a different mental level, and thus get in contact with the gods. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Shepherd’s purse, shepherd’s bag, shepherd’s scrip, shepherd’s sprout, lady’s purse, witches’ pouches, rattle pouches, case-weed, pick-pocket, pick-purse, blindweed, pepper-and-salt, poor man’s pharmacettie, mother’s heart, clappedepouch.
Family: Mustard family (Brassicaceae).
Distribution: Native of West Asia and Europe, naturalized almost worldwide in temperate and subtropical areas.
Medicinal usage: English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) says that shepherd’s purse helps bleeding from wounds, both inward or outward, and continues: “If bound to the wrists, or the soles of the feet, it helps the jaundice. The herb made into poultices, helps inflammation and St. Anthony’s fire. The juice dropped into ears, heals the pains, noise and matterings thereof. A good ointment may be made of it for all wounds, especially wounds in the head.” [Today, St. Anthony’s fire is called ergotism, a very painful burning sensation in the limbs, caused by alkaloids from the ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea), which grows on cereal ears, especially rye and barley. In the Middle Ages, this disease often caused gangrene in the limbs, besides brain damage.]
A decoction of fresh shepherd’s purse has been employed for blood in the urine, haemorrhoids, chronic diarrhoea, and dysentery, and to stop nose-bleeding. It is also used for rheumatism. During World War II, the Germans used an extract of Capsella to stop bleeding on soldiers. Dried, it yields a tea which herbalists use for stopping internal bleeding of stomach, lungs, uterus, and kidneys. Its diuretic properties cause it to be much used in kidney disorders and dropsy. Externally, it can treat skin problems.
Other usage: Formerly, in Denmark, tender parts were eaten as a vegetable – which is still the case in Nepal. In the Himalaya, the seeds are employed to kill mosquito larvae. In the West, however, the seeds are considered a valuable food for cage birds.
Notes: Most of the common names, as well as the Latin name bursa-pastoris, refer to the shape of the fruits, or siliques, which are flat and triangular, resembling an old-fashioned bag or purse. An Irish name of the species, clappedepouch, refers to the long-stalked siliques. The name was given in allusion to the begging of lepers, who would ring a bell, or a clapper, receiving their alms in a cup at the end of a long pole, to avoid people being infected.
Shepherd’s-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is ubiquitous in many parts of Europe and Asia. This one grows in a crack along a sidewalk in a suburban town, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Green pepper, red pepper, chili, cayenne pepper, jalapeño, tabasco pepper, African pepper, piri-piri.
Family: Nightshade family (Solanaceae).
Distribution: Originally, Capsicum species were native to Central America and northern South America. Today, numerous varieties are cultivated in most of the world.
Medicinal usage: English botanist John Lindley (1799-1865) described Capsicum annuum in his Flora Medica, from 1838, thus: “It is employed in medicine, in combination with Cinchona in intermittent and lethargic affections, and also in atonic gout, dyspepsia accompanied by flatulence, tympanitis, paralysis, etc. Its most valuable application appears however to be in cynanche maligna (acute diphtheria) and scarlatina maligna (malignant scarlet fever), used either as a gargle or administered internally.”
The fruits are very rich in several vitamins, besides potassium, iron, magnesium, and manganese. They have antiseptic and stimulant properties, and powdered fruit is taken for indigestion and stomach disorders. They are also used for e.g. fever, headache, herpes, arthritis, Raynaud’s disease (‘white fingers’), psoriasis, and shingles. Juice of the fruit is applied to the skin to increase blood circulation, and a liniment is applied to sprains and painful joints. Cayenne pepper is used as an aphrodisiac.
Other usage: Capsicum species have been utilized as food in Central America since at least 7500 B.C. Green or red fruits are eaten fresh, fried, or pickled, or as a vegetable in dishes. Dried or pounded fruits are a very popular spice. The leaves are edible, widely used in Asian cuisines.
Note: The name chili is from chilli, the old Nahuatl name of the plant, while the name cayenne pepper stems from Cayenne, or French Guiana, from where this type was first introduced to Europe.
Field of chili plants, Lake Batur, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Mewar people, drying chili fruits in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Various types of chilies for sale, Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of chili fruits, Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Guizhou Province, China, is famous for its many varieties of prepared chilies. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Balloon vine, heart pea, love-in-a-puff.
Family: Soapberry family (Sapindaceae).
Distribution: Native to tropical and subtropical Africa & Asia. Naturalized in other parts of the world.
Medicinal usage: In Ayurvedic medicine, balloon vine is used for treatment of arthritis, inflammation, constipation, and abdominal pain. A decoction of the leaves is used for dandruff. In Nepal, juice of the plant is utilized for numerous ailments, e.g. fever, muscular swellings, sprains, dropsy, gonorrhoea, haemorrhoids, rheumatism, and asthma. A decoction of the leaves is taken for diarrhoea and dysentery. The root is used as an emetic, laxative, demulcent, stomachic, and rubefacient. Seeds are used for fever and rheumatism.
Other usage: Chepangs, a Nepalese tribe, eat the tender parts as a vegetable.
Notes: The generic name Cardiospermum, as well as the English names heart pea and love-in-a-puff, refer to the small, round seeds, which are black with a white, heart-shaped figure on them. The name balloon vine of course refers to the inflated fruits.
In New Zealand, the species is regarded as an invasive.
In this picture, a balloon vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum) has enveloped a tree-like spurge, Euphorbia antiquorum, in Bagan, Myanmar. A Buddhist pagoda is seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of balloon vine fruits and flower, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Castanopsis indica (C. macrostachya, C. subacuminata, Castanea indica)
English names: Indian chinkapin, Indian chestnut.
Family: Beech family (Fagaceae).
Distribution: Native to the Himalaya, western China, and Southeast Asia.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, juice of the bark is taken for indigestion, juice of young leaves for stomach disorder. The resin, pounded into a paste with water, is used for diarrhoea.
Other usage: Cotyledons and nuts are edible. Leaves are wrapped around tobacco and smoked like a cigar. The foliage is lopped for fodder. The wood is hard and termite-resistant. It is utilized for roof-shingles, furniture and other items, and as fuel.
Note: The spiny fruits may be a health hazard. Once, when I was walking in a forest above Pokhara, Nepal, a bunch of fruits fell from a tall Indian chinkapin tree onto my arm and got stuck in the skin. Luckily, the fruit spines are not barbed, but, nevertheless, it took some force to remove them from my arm!
Flowering Indian chinkapin (Castanopsis indica), Pokhara, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The spiny chinkapin fruits may be a health hazard (see note above). – Pokhara, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cedrus deodara (C. lebani ssp. deodara)
English names: Himalayan cedar, deodar.
Family: Pine family (Pinaceae).
Distribution: Native to Afghanistan, south-western Tibet, and western Himalaya, eastwards to western Nepal.
Medicinal usage: In Ayurvedic medicine, deodar is used for numerous ailments, including colds, flu, fever, neurological disorders, arthritis, headache, asthma, liver problems, intestinal worms, skin ailments, and infected wounds. In Nepal, the wood is boiled, until it becomes a sticky mass, which is utilized for fever, rheumatism, haemorrhoids, and lung problems. It is also applied to the forehead to relieve headache. Resin from the wood is used for wounds, skin diseases, and injured joints. The seed oil is also used for skin problems.
Other usage: Deodar is cultivated as an ornamental. It is worshipped as a sacred tree by Hindus and is often planted around temples. An essential oil is extracted from the wood and burned as incense, as is also the case with the seed oil and resin. The oil is also used as massage oil, and for soap and cosmetics. The crude oil is used as floor polish. The wood is valuable, as it is resistant to termites and fungi. For this reason, buildings made from deodar wood are often used for storage of grain and meat. The wood is also used to make furniture, carts, boats, etc.
Notes: Deodar is the national tree of Pakistan. – The specific name deodara is from Sanskrit deva (god) and dāru (tree), thus ‘tree of the gods’.
Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodara) can grow to 80 metres tall. – Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cones of Himalayan cedar are upright. – Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A fallen, disintegrated deodar female cone, and male cones with pollen, Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
These dogs have found a peaceful resting place beneath deodar trees near the Hadimba Temple, an important Hindu temple in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India. – Read more about this temple, and about Hinduism in general, on this website, see Religion: Hinduism. About dogs, see Animals: Animals as servants of Man. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Celosia argentea (C. margaritacea, C. cristata)
English names: Silver cock’s comb, feathery amaranth, quail grass.
Family: Amaranth family (Amaranthaceae).
Distribution: Native area unknown, but today found in most tropical and subtropical areas of the world.
Medicinal usage: Flowers and seeds have antibacterial properties. They are utilized in treatment of bloody stool, haemorrhoids, bleeding from uterus, leucorrhoea, fever, dysentery, jaundice, and diarrhoea. Seeds are also used for various eye diseases. Powdered seeds are regarded as an aphrodisiac. The root is used for colic, gonorrhea, and eczema. A poultice of the stem and leaves are applied to wounds, inflamed areas, and skin problems. In Sri Lanka, the leaves are used for inflammations, fever, and itching, the seeds for fever and mouth ulcers. In China, flowers and seeds are used for gastroenteritis and leucorrhoea. This species is a very effective remedy against the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis, which causes infection of the genitals. It is also used as an antidote for snake poison.
Other usage: Some varieties are cultivated as ornamentals, e.g. crested cockscomb (var. cristata). In several Asian and African countries, tender parts are eaten as a vegetable. The plant is also used for fodder, and in soap. In several African countries, it is utilized to help control growth of the parasitic witchweed (Striga), which is a pest in cereal crops.
Note: Regarded as an invasive in numerous countries, e.g. India, Japan, Ecuador (Galapagos Islands), Fiji, Micronesia, Taiwan, and United States.
Silver cock’s comb (Celosia argentea) is regarded as an invasive in Taiwan, where these pictures were taken. In the lower picture, plants with silvery inflorescences are swaying in the wind, demonstrating how the species got two of its common names, silver cock’s comb and feathery amaranth. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Chamomilla recutita, see Matricaria chamomilla.
English names: Greater celandine, tetterwort, nipplewort, swallow-wort.
Family: Poppy family (Papaveraceae).
Distribution: Native to southern Europe and parts of Asia. Naturalized in northern Europe and North America.
Medicinal usage: It is mentioned by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) as a drug plant, and it was also used during the Middle Ages. In the fourteenth century, a drink made with celandine was supposed to be good for the blood. English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) says: “the juice of the herbe is good to sharpen the sight, for it cleanseth and consumeth away slimie things that cleave about the ball of the eye and hinder the sight and especially being boiled with honey in a brasen vessell, as Dioscorides teacheth.” (Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine). – Celandine has also been used for jaundice, and in Russia it is said to have proved effective in cases of cancer.
In modern herbal medicine, it is regarded as one of the best remedies for gall and kidney stones, and also as an effective diuretic and a powerful purgative. The juice is a good remedy for skin problems like eczema and warts. As the juice is caustic, it should not get into contact with healthy skin. A decoction of the plant, mixed with potassium chloride, is applied to corns, and is also used as a hair rinse to fight dandruff.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental.
Notes: Celandine is not native to northern Europe, but was introduced by monks during the Middle Ages. The generic name Chelidonium is from the Greek chelidon (‘swallow’). Greek scientist and philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) relates that swallows take celandine flowers and place them on the eyes of their young, in case they suffer from eye infection. According to Pliny, the name refers to the fact that the plant comes into flower when the swallows arrive, and fades at their departure.
The name celandine is a corruption of the Greek word, and tetterwort refers to its use for skin problems. – Certain early botanists thought that another plant, which is today called Ranunculus ficaria, was related to greater celandine, naming it Chelidonium minus, in English ‘lesser celandine’. For some reason or other, both English names of these entirely unrelated plants stuck.
The yellow sap of this plant, together with its rotton odour, has led to many fanciful imaginations. In his book Utkast till svenska växternas naturhistoria (1867-1868), Swedish botanist C.F. Nymann (1820-1893) writes: ”As this plant is often growing in cemeteries, the common people believe that it has drawn its poignant sap from dead bodies, for which reason they regard it with a certain abhorrence.”
Both these pictures of greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) are from the island of Bornholm, Denmark, where this species is a very common escape. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Chrysanthemum parthenium, see Tanacetum parthenium.
English names: Chicory, wild succory, blue sailors, ragged sailors, blue daisy, blue dandelion, blue weed, coffee weed, cornflower, hendibeh, horseweed, bachelor’s buttons, wild endive.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: Native to Europe, North Africa and W Asia. Cultivated and naturalized in North America, Australia, China and elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: Chicory was cultivated in Ancient Egypt and was utilized medicinally from at least the 1st Century A.D. The Egyptians, as well as the Greeks and the Romans, considered the bitter leaves to be blood cleansing, and to invigorate the nerves. Other old herbalists recommended the leaves, when bruised, as a good poultice for swellings, inflammations and inflamed eyes, and that “when boiled in broth for those that have hot, weak and feeble stomachs doe strengthen the same.”
English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser (1524-1580) considered chicory a useful remedy for ague (malaria), and herbalist John Parkinson (1567-1650) found it to be a “fine, cleansing, jovial plant.” – In the 16th and 17th Centuries, followers of the Doctrine of Signatures took it for granted that the milky juice of the plant would be a good remedy for sore breasts of nursing mothers, while its bright blue flowerheads symbolized blue eyes and would thus be an effective remedy for inflammation of the eyes.
Today, herbalists recommend chicory as a stomachic and diuretic, and as a blood purifier. It also stimulates the heart and liver. The root is widely used to expel intestinal worms and other parasites.
Other usage: The Ancient Egyptians, Arabs and Romans ate the leaves as a vegetable or in salads. Today, young leaves of cultivated forms are still eaten in salads, but they are generally blanched, as this removes the bitterness of the leaves. The French call blanched leaves barbe de capuchin (‘Capuchin monk’s beard’) – a favourite winter salad. – Formerly, the dried and pounded roots were widely utilized as a substitute for coffee, but this usage has largely disappeared.
Notes: The flowerheads unfold in the morning, and until around noon they turn, always pointing toward the sun, after which they wither. A German name of the plant is Wegwarte (’waiting at the road’). A legend has it that chicory is a transformed virgin, standing at the road side, looking for her sweetheart, turning this way and that.
It has been suggested that the name succory stems from the Latin succurrere (‘to run under’), referring to its long root. However, it may be a mere corruption of chicory, from Cichorium, a word of Egyptian origin. Hendibeh is the Arabic name of a near relative, endive (C. endivia), and the specific name intybus is a corruption of this word. What a lot of corruption!
In many countries, chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a common road-side plant, here on the island of Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of chicory flowerheads, Djursland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Family: Citrus family (Rutaceae).
Distribution: The origin of most species is thought to be the Indian Subcontinent and the Far East. Today, many species are cultivated in tropical and subtropical countries around the world.
Medicinal usage: All Citrus species are an excellent source of various vitamins, especially vitamin C. In the days of Vasco da Gama (1460s – 1524) and Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521), up to 80% of the sailors on board sailing ships died of scurvy, by Sir Richard Hawkins (1562-1622) called “the plague of the Sea, and the Spoyle of Mariners.” As a preventive, captains began to bring ample provisions of vinegar, mustard, malt, and sauerkraut, which were a quite effective means to prevent outbreaks of the dreaded disease. Later, British ships were required by law to bring lemons (C. limon) or limes (C. aurantiifolia), which are even more effective against scurvy, on their journeys.
In today’s herbal medicine, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds of various Citrus species are used for e.g. colds, fever, cough, asthma, tonsillitis, and stomach disorders. Lemon peel helps relieve varicose veins. The fruit of cedrat (C. medica) is used for dysentery, juice of the rind of bitter orange (C. aurantium var. amara) for stomach problems. Dried peel of unripe fruits of ‘Buddha’s Hand’ citron (C. medica var. sarkodactylis) is taken as a tonic. An essential oil from bergamot orange (C. bergamia) is recommended for treatment of shingles. In former times, lemon juice was used as a remedy for sunburn. In southern Italy, juice of bergamot orange was utilized for malaria.
Other usage: Delicious juice is made from many species, notably orange (C. sinensis), lemon, and lime. Marmalade is produced from various species, mostly bitter orange and bergamot orange. The rind of several species contains essential oils, used in e.g. the perfume industry. In Vietnam, perfume is made from flowers of pomelo (C. maxima). An essential oil of bergamot orange is added as flavouring to two tea varieties, Earl Grey and Lady Grey, and also to various types of sweets, e.g. Turkish Delight. In Sweden and Norway, this oil is often added as flavouring to snus, a popular tobacco product. In Italy, a liqueur named Liquore al Bergamotto, is derived from bergamot. ‘Buddha’s Hand’ fruit is utilized to add fragrance to e.g. clothing. Lemon juice is used as bleach, and to remove stains. Juice of leech lime (C. hystrix) is utilized as an insecticide. Pulp of orange is used as cattle feed. Tool handles are made from pomelo wood.
Plantation of mandarins (Citrus reticulata), Orlando, Florida, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Mandarins (Citrus reticulata), which have rotted due to excessive rain, Dongshih, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Vietnam, perfume is made from flowers of pomelo (Citrus maxima). – This picture was taken in Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lemon (Citrus limon), Wadi Feiran, Sinai, Egypt. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Oranges (Citrus sinensis), Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Street vendor, cutting processed and dried pomelo (Citrus maxima) into small squares, to be used as traditional medicine, Anping, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
‘Buddha’s Hand’ citron (Citrus medica var. sarkodactylis) – a rather grotesque variety of cedrat – for sale in Lugang, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Clerodendrum infortunatum (C. viscosum, C. calycinum, C. castaneaefolium, Volkameria infortunata)
English names: Hill glorybower, Turk’s turban.
Family: Mint family (Lamiaceae).
Distribution: Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia.
Medicinal usage: In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, root and bark are used for respiratory problems, fever, cough, and asthma. The root is also used as a laxative, and to kill fly larvae in wounds. A paste of root and leaves is used for skin diseases. Juice of the leaves is used for diarrhoea, liver disorders, wounds, fever, ulcers, and swellings, and also to expel intestinal worms, and rid livestock of lice. In India, it is used for snake bites and scorpion stings. In traditional Thai medicine, leaves and root are used as a diuretic, and to treat internal infections and kidney problems. In Nepal, the juice is dripped into the eyes of cattle to treat conjunctivitis. – Several other Clerodendrum species are utilized medicinally in Asia.
Other usage: In Nepal, the leaves are used as a potherb.
Note: The specific name infortunatum was given by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), allegedly because he found the leaves of this plant rather ugly.
Hill glorybower (Clerodendrum infortunatum), Chitwan National Park, southern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Job’s tears, Christ’s tears, David’s tears, Saint Mary’s tears, tear grass, Chinese pearl barley.
Family: Grass family (Poaceae).
Distribution: Native of Southeast Asia. Cultivated elsewhere in the tropics and subtropics, and often naturalized.
Medicinal usage: The boiled root can expel intestinal worms, and the pounded seeds are used for urinary problems. In traditional Chinese medicine, Job’s tears are taken for diarrhoea, rheumatism, and bronchitis, as a febrifuge, and to promote urination.
Other usage: The seeds are edible, cooked as grain. In East and Southeast Asia, a nourishing drink is made from powdered seeds, and also an alcoholic drink. Necklaces are made from seeds of hard-shelled varieties. Leaves and stems are used for fodder.
Notes: The scientific name lacryma-jobi, as well as all the English names, refer to the tear-shaped, pearl-like seeds. In the Old Testament, Job was a pious man of great virtues, who went through much suffering, as a result of Satan challenging God, saying that he was able to make Job curse God. This made God allow Satan to test Job’s piety through various hardships. Job, knowing that he was innocent, concluded that God must be unjust, but remained faithful to him. The Book of Job, 16:20: “Mine eye poureth out tears unto God.”
At an early stage, Job’s tears were introduced to the United States, and to the Cherokee tribe, its seeds became known as ‘Cherokee corn beads’, being used for adornment since at least the time of the foundation of the Cherokee Nation (1794). During the forced removal of c. 16,000 Cherokee, in 1838, from their home lands in south-eastern U.S. to present-day Oklahoma, an estimated 4,000 Cherokee died. Legend has it that Cherokee corn beads sprang up along the various migration routes, called ‘The Trail of Tears’, or, in Cherokee, Nunna daul Isunyi (‘The Trail Where We Cried’).
Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi), naturalized in a dried-out riverbed, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Colebrookea oppositifolia (C. ternifolia, Elsholtzia oppositifolia)
English names: Woolly mint, squirrel’s tail.
Family: Mint family (Lamiaceae).
Distribution: Foothills of mountains from Pakistan across the Himalaya, east to south-western China, and south to Southeast Asia.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, juice of the root is given for epilepsy, bloody cough, and peptic ulcer. Boiled in water, the root is also drunk to expel intestinal worms. A paste of the root is applied for body pain and sprains. Juice of the bark is used for fever and indigestion. The hairy leaves are applied to wounds to stop bleeding. Juice of the leaves is applied to wounds as an antiseptic, taken for fever and headache, and also to expel worms. It is dripped into the eyes of cattle with conjunctivitis. A paste of the leaves is used for dysentery. Juice of the flower buds is used for gastric problems and sinusitis. Elsewhere, woolly mint is used for skin problems, such as ringworm.
Other usage: Foliage used for fodder, dried branches as fuel. The flowers are brought as an offering to Hindu temples.
Woolly mint (Colebrookea oppositifolia), Melamchi Pul, Helambu, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Poison hemlock, poison parsley, spotted hemlock, kex, devil’s bread, devil’s porridge.
Family: Umbellifers (Apiaceae).
Distribution: Native of the Mediterranean and W Asia. Naturalized in other parts of Europe, in the Americas, and in New Zealand.
Medicinal usage: Poison hemlock is sedative and antispasmodic, paralyzing the centres of motion. For this reason, it was recommended as an antidote to poisoning from strychnine and similar poisons. It was also prescribed for tetanus, hydrophobia, teething in children, epilepsy from dentition, cramps, etc. When inhaled, it was said to relieve cough in e.g. bronchitis and asthma, and whooping-cough. Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), who was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine), recommended this herb for external treatment of herpes. In the Middle Ages, hemlock was applied to cancerous tumours, and, mixed with betony and fennel seed, it was thought to cure rabies.
Other usage: In an old Danish medical book, herbalist Henrik Harpestræng (died 1244) says: ”If a virgin applies the juice to her breasts, they will become stiff and stay thus” (i.e. they won’t grow any bigger). Furthermore, he claims that ”applied above the penis, the juice restricts the lust for women and spoils all the semen, by which a child is born.” In another Danish herbal book, from 1546, the juice is recommended for monks and nuns, as it would cause them to behave chastely. It was also recommended for mothers, when their child was to be weaned. The juice was applied to the nipples – a rather drastic method, as the child might easily be poisoned.
Notes: Extremely poisonous. Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 B.C.), who was accused of introducing new gods and of corrupting youth, was sentenced to commit suicide by consuming hemlock juice.
In his book, Art of Simpling, English botanist William Coles (1626-1662), also called William Cole, writes: “If asses chance to feed much upon hemlock, they will fall so fast asleep that they will seeme to be dead, in so much that some thinking them to be dead indeed have flayed off their skins, yet after the hemlock had done operating they have stirred and wakened out of their sleep, to the griefe and amazement of the owners.”
This species is mentioned in the tragedy King Lear, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616):
Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With burdocks, hemlocks, nettles, cuckoo-flowers.
Poison hemlock also appears in Macbeth, in which it is exalted by three witches:
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witche’s mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark…
Furthermore, it is mentioned by Banquo, who, together with Macbeth, meets the three witches, asking them if they have:
…eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?
Originally, hemlock was called Cicuta in Latin and in several South European languages, but as this name was also applied to another poisonous umbellifer, the water-hemlock (Cicuta virosa), Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), decided to name hemlock Conium after the Greek name of the plant, koneion, from konas, to ‘whirl around’, as it causes vertigo and death when eaten. The specific name maculatum means ‘spotted’, referring to the reddish spots on the stem. According to a Christian legend, these spots represent the brand, which was applied to Cain’s brow after the killing of Abel.
The common name hemlock is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words hem (border, shore) and leác (plant). According to a fourteenth-century herbal book, there are two kinds of hemlock, one being the “grete homeloc, called ‘kex’, or ‘wode whistle’, being of no use except for poor men’s fuel, and children’s play.” The word kex either means ‘with a hollow stem’, or it may stem from a Swedish name of the plant, käx, which possibly refers to the similarity of the umbel to a primitive basket for catching fish, also called käx. Wode is Old English for ‘mad’, or ‘insane’.
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), growing among boulders along the sea front, Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
According to a Christian legend, the reddish spots on the stem of poison hemlock represent the brand, which was applied to Cain’s brow after the killing of Abel. – This picture was taken on the island of Møn, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Coriander, cilantro, Chinese parsley.
Family: Umbellifers (Apiaceae).
Distribution: Probably a native of the Mediterranean and western Asia. Cultivated in most temperate and subtropical regions and occasionally naturalized.
Medicinal usage: Has been utilized medicinally for at least 3000 years. Since the Middle Ages, it was used as a digestive and for stomach trouble, including flatulence. Other ailments traditionally treated with coriander include skin inflammation, diarrhoea, high cholesterol levels, mouth ulcers, anemia, and diabetes. Alcohol, containing coriander, is rubbed on rheumatic joints and muscles.
Other usage: All parts of the plant are edible, and the species is utilized as food over most of the world. The strongly aromatic fresh leaves are eaten as a vegetable, and the dried seeds are a very common spice, either whole or ground, especially in Indian cuisine. It is one of the main ingredients in the popular spice mixture garam masala. The root is used in Thai cuisine.
Since 1610, Carmelite friars have been making so-called Carmelite drops, a liquor, in which coriander is one of the ingredients.
In California, aphids are a serious pest in organic lettuce fields. Experiments have shown that coriander was among the species that, when planted with lettuce and allowed to flower, would attract hoverflies, the larvae of which eat up to 150 aphids per day. (Source: E. Brennan. Efficient Intercropping for Biological Control of Aphids in Transplanted Organic Lettuce, in: articles.extension.org).
Notes: According to archaeological finds in the Nahal Hemar Cave in Israel, coriander was utilized as early as 8000 B.C. It was also cultivated in Ancient Egypt, and in Greece since at least 2000 B.C.
The name Chinese parsley stems from the very popular use of this herb in Chinese cuisine, while the name cilantro is a Spanish corruption of the generic name Coriandrum, which is derived from Greek, koriannon (‘stink bug’) – a name that was probably given because of the very powerful fragrance of this plant.
Cultivated coriander (Coriandrum sativum), Zealand, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Crataegus laevigata (C. oxyacantha)
English names: Midland hawthorn, English hawthorn, mayflower, mayblossom, whitethorn, ladies’ meat, bread-and-cheese tree.
English names: Common hawthorn, single-seeded hawthorn, mayflower, mayblossom, whitethorn, ladies’ meat, bread-and-cheese tree.
Family: Rose family (Rosaceae).
Distribution: Both species are native to Europe, W Asia, and North Africa. Introduced and naturalized elsewhere, e.g. North America.
Medicinal usage: From old times, flowers and fruits have been used for fever, heart trouble, and high blood pressure. In the 1800s, an Irish physician, Dr. Green, became famous for his secret remedy for heart disease. After his death, it turned out that his tincture was based on hawthorn fruits.
Today, hawthorn is recommended as a cardiac, diuretic, astringent, and tonic. It is a useful diuretic in dropsy and kidney troubles, and also a good remedy for poor blood circulation. Research has shown that hawthorn berries can lower the blood pressure by dilating hardened and clogged arteries. Flowers and berries are also used for sore throat.
Other usage: In the old days, a liqueur was made from hawthorn berries with brandy. – Small tools and other items were carved from the hard wood, which also makes excellent fuel.
Notes: The generic name Crataegus is from the Greek kratos, meaning ‘hardness’ (of the wood). The obsolete specific name oxyacantha is from the Greek oxus (‘sharp’), and akantha (‘thorn’). The prefix haw is an old word for ‘enclosure’ or ‘hedge’, and hawthorn was formerly widely used as a hedge plant. The name whitethorn arose from the whiteness of the bark, while mayflower refers to the main blooming time of these plants. Incidentally, the first ship to bring English settlers to North America, in 1620, was named Mayflower.
Formerly, it was widely believed that hawthorn flowers bore the smell of the Great Plague of London (1665-1666), and witches were said to hide among its foliage. Others regarded the hawthorn as sacred, probably from a belief that it furnished the Crown of Thorns that Jesus was wearing at the Crucifixion.
The famous Glastonbury Thorn in Somerset, England, is a form of common hawthorn, which blooms twice a year, in winter, and again in spring, hence its name C. monogyna cv. ‘Biflora’ (meaning ‘double flowering’). This tree is associated with the introduction of Christianity in Britain, and, as legend has it, the original thorn tree sprouted from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, who, according to the four Gospels, was the person that took care of the burial of Jesus after the Crucifixion. In the Middle Ages, his name was connected with Glastonbury, where he supposedly founded the earliest Christian oratory in England.
Grassland with midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) bushes, pruned by grazing fallow deer (Dama dama), Romsø, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Flowering midland hawthorn in evening light, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fruiting midland hawthorn, Langeland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fruiting common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Møn, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Snow on twigs and thorns of a common hawthorn, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cytisus scoparius (Sarothamnus scoparius)
English names: Common broom, Scotch broom, besom.
Family: Pea family (Fabaceae).
Distribution: Europe and northern Asia. Naturalized in North America.
Medicinal usage: Formerly, green parts of the plant were used for heart trouble, and also as a diuretic and cathartic. The flowers were used for gout, while ashes of broom were used to treat dropsy. Henry VIII would take a drink, made from broom flowers, against surfeit. – English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) says: “The decoction of the twigs and tops of broom doth cleanse and open the liver, milt and kidnies”, while Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) considered a decoction of broom to be good for dropsy, jaundice, ague (malaria), gout, sciatica, and various pains of the hips and joints.
Today, broom is taken as a heart tonic.
Other usage: In the old days, buds were pickled and eaten as capers, and, before the introduction of hops, young green broom shoots were added to beer to give it more flavour and make it more intoxicating. Branches were tied together for sweeping floors (see Notes). The bark yields an excellent fibre, and also contains a considerable amount of tannin, in former times utilized for tanning leather.
Notes: Broom seeds are very poisonous.
In northern Europe and parts of North America, most common brooms are of South European origin, imported as ornamentals. They often escape, in many places becoming invasive, dispelling native vegetation. Genetically, they also pollute the original, low and creeping variety of broom, which is today very rare. In Denmark, it is only found in a few moors and dunes in western Jutland.
In the Middle Ages, broom was ascribed to possess magical powers, and witches were believed to make sticks of the thicker stems, supposedly riding on them during their hallucinogenic travels.
In Celtic mythology, Blodeuwedd (‘Flower-Face’) is a woman, made from flowers of broom, meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), and oak (Quercus robur, see elsewhere on this page).
A Christian legend has it that when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, they were passing through a growth of broom, the ripe pods of which made loud crackling sounds when spreading their seeds, hereby possibly drawing the attention of Herod’s soldiers, and causing the Virgin to curse the bushes.
The name broom is from Old English bróm, from Old High German bramo, probably meaning ‘thorny shrub’. The use of this plant for sweeping gave rise, in the 15th century, to the term broom for sweeping tools in general, replacing the Old English besema, or besom.
In Medieval Europe, the species was known as Planta genista, and it was adopted as emblem by Geoffrey V (1113-1151), Count of Anjou and later Duke of Normandy. He was married to Mathilda, daughter of King Henry I of England, and they had a son, who later became King Henry II (1133-1189). Planta genista was corrupted to Plantagenet, which became the family name of the English kings, up to Richard III (1452-1485).
Today, most common brooms (Cytisus scoparius) of northern Europe are of South European origin, imported as ornamentals. They often escape, in many places dispelling native vegetation. Once such locality is northern Bornholm, Denmark, where these pictures were taken. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Genetically, introduced forms of common broom pollute the indigenous low and creeping variety of broom, which is today very rare. In Denmark, for example, it is now only found in a few moors and dunes in western Jutland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Dactylorhiza hatagirea (Orchis graggeriana, O. latifolia var. indica)
English name: Himalayan marsh orchid.
Family: Orchid family (Orchidaceae).
Distribution: The Himalaya, from Pakistan to south-eastern Tibet.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, the root is used for soothing the mucous membranes, reducing mucus in lungs, stopping bleeding of wounds, and as a remedy for stomach disorders. In Ayurvedic medicine, juice from the root is used as a tonic, and for treating inflammation of gum and teeth. It is also highly valued as an aphrodisiac. Traditionally, it has been used for treating bone fractures.
Other usage: The root is highly nutritious. Tender parts are eaten as a vegetable.
Note: The species is protected by law, but is nevertheless severely threatened due to over-collecting. In Nepal, in 2015, the price of the dried root was about 100 US Dollars per kilogram.
Himalayan marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza hatagirea), Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Daphne bholua (D. cannabina var. bholua)
English names: Himalayan paper plant, Nepalese paper plant.
Family: Daphne family (Thymelaeaceae).
Distribution: The Himalaya, from Uttarakhand to south-western China. Also found in Bangladesh.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, juice of the root is used for fever and intestinal problems, and a decoction of the bark is also used for fever. Powdered seeds are taken for stomach ache, and also to expel intestinal worms.
Other usage: Paper and rope is made from the bark. In Nepal, leaves and bark are used as fish poison.
Note: This species comes in two distinct varieties. The lowland form is evergreen, while the high-altitude form, var. glacialis, is deciduous.
The evergreen variety of Himalayan paper plant (Daphne bholua), Hanga Tham, Ilam, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The high-altitude form of Himalayan paper plant (D. bholua var. glacialis) flowers in early spring, before the leaves unfold. – Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common thorn-apple, Jimsonweed, Jamestown weed, mad apple, devil’s apple, hell’s bells, devil’s trumpet, devil’s weed, stinkweed, devil’s snare.
Family: Nightshade family (Solanaceae).
Distribution: Native of America, probably Mexico. Naturalized in most temperate and subtropical areas of the world.
Medicinal usage: In his book Great Herball, from 1597, English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) writes that “the juice of thornapple, boiled with hog’s grease, cureth all inflammations whatsoever, all manner of burnings and scaldings, as well of fire, water, boiling lead, gunpowder, as that which comes by lightning and that in very short time, as myself have found in daily practice, to my great credit and profit.”
The Zuni, or Shiwi, as they called themselves, of New Mexico once used thorn-apple as an analgesic, to render a patient unconscious, while a broken bone was set. In traditional Chinese medicine, it was used as an anaesthesia during surgery. – In Ayurvedic medicine, smoke from burning dried leaves is inhaled to treat asthma. – Other uses include a paste of leaves and seeds, applied to wounds and boils; pounded leaves, mixed with water, applied to the head in case of headache; juice of the flowers taken for ear ache; and, in Nepal, smoke from frying seeds, inhaled to treat tooth ache. Thorn-apple can also reduce tremors in patients with Parkinson’s disease.
Other usage: Thorn-apple was widely used as a hallucinogen during sacred ceremonies by numerous native tribes all over North America, and still today, in Ethiopia, magicians and exorcists, called debtera, use it ‘to open their mind’ – i.e. to be more receptive, creative, and imaginative. In his book The Serpent and the Rainbow, from 1985, Wade Davis identified thorn-apple – in Haiti called ‘zombi cucumber’ – as an important ingredient of the concoction, which voodoo priests employed to create zombies. – In Nepal, thorn-apple leaves are mixed with rice or bread and fed to mad dogs to kill them.
Notes: The generic name Datura is from Hindi, dhatura, meaning ‘thorn-apple’. The specific name stramonium is probably from Latin strumus = nightshade, from struma, or scrofulous tumor, for which an unknown species of the nightshade family was used as a cure. The whole plant is extremely poisonous – a fact reflected in most of its popular English names. Nevertheless, in northern India, I once watched a herd of goat head straight for a growth of thorn-apples and commence eating the fruits.
The names Jimsonweed and Jamestown weed refer to Jamestown, Virginia, where British soldiers, in 1676, attempted to suppress an armed rebellion by Virginia settlers, led by Nathaniel Bacon, against the rule of Governor William Berkeley. Some of the soldiers consumed thorn-apple, and as a result they spent the following 11 days in altered mental states. In his book The History and Present State of Virginia, from 1705, Robert Beverly writes: “The James-Town weed (…) was gather’d very young for a boil’d salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll. In this frantic condition, they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves – though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after eleven days returned themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed.”
Flower and fruit of common thorn-apple (Datura stramonium), Kali Gandaki Valley, Annapurna, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Jamestown, Virginia, in 1676, settlers, led by Nathaniel Bacon, rebelled against the rule of British Governor William Berkeley. Some of the soldiers, which were attempting to suppress the rebellion, consumed thorn-apple, and as a result they spent the following 11 days in altered mental states. – This picture shows a reconstruction of Jamestown, as it probably looked in the 1600s, with a blacksmith’s tools in the foreground. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Foxglove, folk’s glove, fairies’ glove, fairy caps, fairy thimbles, gloves of Our Lady, Virgin’s glove, witches’ gloves, bloody fingers, dead men’s bells.
Family: Plantain family (Plantaginaceae).
Distribution: Native of Europe. Naturalized in Asia and North America.
Medicinal usage: Foxglove was employed by the old herbalists for various medical purposes, most of them entirely different from the valuable properties, utilized by today’s physicians. In his Cruydeboeck (herb book), Flemish physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585) prescribes foxglove boiled in wine as an expectorant, and it seems to have been in frequent use in cases, in which today’s herbalists would consider it highly dangerous.
English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) recommends it to people “who have fallen from high places,” and herbalist John Parkinson (1567-1650) speaks highly of the bruised herb and its juice, applied as an ointment to scrofulous swellings, and the leaves for cleaning old sores and ulcers. Herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) says of it: “a gentle, cleansing nature and withal very friendly to nature. The herb is familiarly and frequently used by the Italians to heal any fresh or green wound, the leaves being but bruised and bound thereon, and the juice thereof is also used in old sores, to cleanse, dry and heal them. It has been found by experience to be available for the King’s Evil, the herb bruised and applied, or an ointment made with the juice thereof, and so used. (…) I am confident that an ointment of it is one of the best remedies for a scabby head that is.” [Today, King’s Evil is known as scrofula, formerly believed to be curable by the royal touch.]
In former days, foxglove was also used for treatment of internal haemorrhage, inflammation, delirium tremens, epilepsy, and acute mania. In England, foxglove tea was traditionally taken for dropsy (fluid retention).
In 1785, English botanist, geologist, chemist, and physician William Withering (1741-1799) found that an extract of foxglove leaves would strengthen the heartbeat, and also speed up discharge of excess fluid in the body. In modern medicine, foxglove is still an important heart stimulant.
Other usage: Widely cultivated as an ornamental and often escaped.
In Denmark, in the old days, children had fun putting a flower on a finger as a thimble. It was said that if the flower didn’t break, you would have new clothes within a year. Another game was to pick flower and calyx, squeeze the flower above and then break it on your forehead.
Notes: Very poisonous, should only be used if prescribed by a physician.
All common names of foxglove refer to the flower shape. In England, in the old days, foxglove was regarded as a magical herb. The original name of the plant was folk’s glove, the glove of the ‘good folk’, or fairies, and it was believed that fairies lived in the flowers, the dark markings on the inside being their fingerprints. It was also said that fairies taught the fox how to muffle his footprints with foxglove flowers, in this way being able to surprise chickens.
A large growth of foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), escaped from cultivation, Chinook, Washington, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of foxglove flowers with raindrops, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. In the old days, it was told, fairies lived in the flowers, the dark markings on the inside being their fingerprints. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Dioscorea deltoidea (D. nepalensis, Tamus nepalensis)
English name: Nepalese yam.
Family: Yam family (Dioscoreaceae).
Distribution: Montane areas from Afghanistan across the Himalaya, east to south-western China and south to Southeast Asia.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, juice of the tuber is used for constipation, and to expel roundworms. Bulbs from the upper part of the stem are boiled and the liquid drunk for gastric problems. Juice of the bulbs are used for dysentery. Elsewhere, the tuber is used for various diseases, e.g. asthma and arthritis, and also as a contraceptive.
In America, a related species, D. villosa, is used for diverticulitis, i.e. abdominal cramps and inflammation, and also for postmenopausal vaginal dryness.
Other usage: The tuber is edible after boiling. The fresh tuber is used as fish poison. It is squeezed and mixed with water to wash clothes, and this soap is also used as a body wash to kill lice.
Notes: The genus is named after Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), who was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine).
Nepalese yam is threatened by excessive collecting.
Fruiting Nepalese yam (Dioscorea deltoidea), climbing on a species of fig tree (Ficus), Manali, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Pink lady.
Family: Melastoma family (Melastomataceae).
Distribution: Tropical Africa.
Medicinal usage: In the Bangweulu Swamps of northern Zambia, a species of Dissotis is used in the treatment of venereal diseases. Elsewhere, the leaves of Dissotis rotundifolia are used to expel intestinal worms.
Other usage: Several Dissotis species are cultivated as ornamentals.
In the Bangweulu Swamps of northern Zambia, this Dissotis species is used in the treatment of venereal diseases. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Basket fern (name of the entire genus).
Family: Polypody family (Polypodiaceae).
Distribution: From the Himalaya east to China, and thence south to Southeast Asia.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, a paste made from the rhizome of this epiphytic fern is applied to treat backache, headache, sprains, and dislocated bones. In traditional Chinese medicine, it has been utilized for e.g. deafness, tooth ache, diarrhoea, involuntary urination, bone fractures, and hair loss.
Withering leaves of Drynaria propinqua, illuminated by the sun, Marsyangdi Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Common male fern.
Family: Woodfern family (Dryopteridaceae).
Distribution: Throughout northern temperate areas.
Medicinal usage: As far back as the time of Greek scholar Theophrastos (c. 371 – c. 287 B.C.), and physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), who was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine), it was known that the rhizome of common male fern would expel intestinal worms. English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) writes: “The roots of the male fern, being taken in the weight of half an ounce, driveth forth long flat worms, as Dioscorides writeth, being drunke in mede or honied water, and more effectually if it be given with two scruples, or two third parts of a dram of scammonie, or of black hellebore: they that will use it, must first eat garlicke.”
In 1855, in Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève, XXX, p. 205, Swiss apothecary M. Peschier states that by digesting buds of common male fern in sulphuric ether, and using this tincture against tapeworms, they were killed with constant success. The pounded rhizome has the same effect. Due to the toxicity of this drug, it is only used nowadays, when alternative drugs are inadequate. A decoction of the rhizome has also been used to treat certain fungal infections.
Other usage: Various forms are cultivated as ornamentals.
Note: As the drug is very poisonous, it should only be used if prescribed by a physician.
An unusually lush growth of common male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) on former arable land, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young leaves of common male fern unfolding, popularly called ‘fiddleheads’. – Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Elsholtzia fruticosa (E. polystachya, Aphanochilus polystachya, Perilla fruticosa)
English names: Late-summer mint.
Family: Mint family (Lamiaceae).
Distribution: From Pakistan across the Himalaya to Myanmar and western China.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, juice of the root is used for headache. Several other Elsholtzia species are used medicinally in the Himalaya, e.g. for cough and colds, wounds, and scabies.
Other usage: Oil from the seeds is edible. In Nepal, powdered seeds are used as a flavouring agent in food, and a powder made from the plant is burned as incense.
Note: The genus was named in honour of Prussian naturalist Johann Sigismund Elsholtz (1623-1688).
Elsholtzia fruticosa, Marsyangdi Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Elsholtzia oppositifolia, see Colebrookea oppositifolia.
Elytrigia repens (Elymus repens, Agropyrum repens, Agropyron repens)
English names: Couch grass, twitch, quick grass, dog’s grass, quack grass, scutch grass, witch grass.
Family: Grass family (Poaceae).
Distribution: Native of Arctic and Temperate Eurasia. Naturalized in many areas, e.g. North America, where it has become invasive.
Medicinal usage: Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), who was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine), asserts that a decoction of the rhizomes is a useful remedy as a diuretic and for bladder stones. English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) writes: “Although that couch-grasse be an unwelcome guest to fields and gardens, yet his physicke virtues do recompense those hurts; for it openeth the stoppings of the liver and reins without any manifest heat.”
Formerly, a decoction of the rhizomes was taken to purify the blood in spring. In Denmark, the juice from fresh rhizomes was utilized for constipation of the liver and spleen, and a decoction of them was used for fever and gall problems. Locally, a decoction was taken daily to prevent ague (malaria), rheumatic fever, intestinal worms, and scrofula.
In former days, it was believed that the leaves would cure sick dogs. English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) says: ”If you know it [couch grass] not by this description, watch the dogs when they are sick and they will quickly lead you to it.”
Today, couch grass rhizomes are crushed and taken with water as a diuretic, and also for bladder infection, bronchitis, laryngitis, kidney stones, and prostrate problems, including benign tumours.
Other usage: In Europe, e.g. in Italy and Denmark, the sugar-containing rhizomes were collected and sold as cattle and horse feed. In Denmark, during famines, they were ground and baked as bread, and ground rhizomes were also utilized in the production of beer and alcohol. Fresh rhizomes were used in green-houses as bast, and rope was made from dried rhizomes.
Notes: The generic name Elytrigia is from the Greek eletryon (’cover’) and tryge (’corn crop’), referring to the habit of couch gras to ‘hide’ in crops. This species is really a very troublesome weed in fields and gardens, as just a tiny bit of rhizome is able to grow into an individual plant. The specific name repens means ‘creeping’ in Latin, referring to the creeping rhizome. The common name dog’s grass stems from the habit of dogs to chew its leaves in order to procure vomiting.
Couch grass (Elytrigia repens) in evening sun, growing in its natural habitat, a sandy beach. – Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of a flowering spike of couch grass, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ephedra gerardiana (E. wallichii)
English names: Gerard’s joint-pine, Gerard’s jointfir.
Ephedra intermedia (E. glauca, E. tibetica, E. persica, E. ferganensis)
English names: Persian joint-pine, Persian jointfir, Tibetan joint-pine, Tibetan jointfir.
Family: Joint-pine family (Ephedraceae).
Distribution: Gerard’s joint-pine is native to Central Asia, from Tajikistan across Tibet and the Himalaya to Bhutan, while Persian joint-pine is found in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Medicinal usage: As Ayurvedic medicine, tea from Gerard’s joint-pine is drunk for colds, cough, bronchitis, asthma, and arthritis. In Nepal, the crushed plant, mixed with water, is used for skin problems. Juice of the plant is said to stimulate the heart. It is used for respiratory infections, asthma, and hay fever, and is also given to children to control bedwetting.
In traditional Chinese medicine, Persian joint-pine – and also E. sinica and E. equisetina – are called 麻黄 (ma huang), meaning ’yellow hemp’. Their leaves are used for treatment of a large number of ailments, including fever, cardiovascular problems, nervous disorder, pulmonary diseases, and diarrhoea. They also have anti-viral properties. The root is used to reduce sweating due to weakness of the body. In Tibet, Persian joint-pine is used for liver diseases.
Other usage: Excavations in the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan suggest that Persian joint-pine, or another member of the genus, may have been a component of the Zoroastrian ritual drink haoma, which is identical to the Vedic drink soma. Drinking haoma ‘gives insight’ and makes you ‘wise’. – Joint-pine stems are used for fodder, and dry plants are collected for fuel. Goats are fond of eating the green stems.
Notes: Joint-pine species are toxic and should be used with caution. – Gerard’s joint-pine was named by Danish botanist and surgeon Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854) in honour of English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612).
Flowering Gerard’s joint-pine (Ephedra gerardiana), photographed in Langtang National Park, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Joint-pine fruits are cones with a naked ovule, containing one or two seeds, enclosed by swollen, fleshy, berry-like, red or orange bracts. – Gerard’s joint-pine, Langtang National Park, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fruiting Persian joint-pine (Ephedra intermedia), Gayk, Ladakh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Field horsetail, common horsetail, pewterwort.
Family: Horsetail family (Equisetaceae).
Distribution: Northern Temperate and Arctic Zones. Naturalized in New Zealand.
Medicinal usage: English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) says: “It is very powerful to stop bleeding, either inward or outward, the juice or the decoction being drunk, or the juice, decoction or distilled water applied outwardly. (…) It solders together the tops of green wounds and cures all ruptures in children. The decoction taken in wine helps stone and strangury; the distilled water drunk two or three times a day eases and strengthens the intestines and is effectual in a cough that comes by distillation from the head. The juice or distilled water used as a warm fomentation is of service in inflammations and breakings-out in the skin.”
In traditional Austrian medicine, field horsetail has been taken as tea, or externally for rheumatism and gout, and for disorders of the skin, kidneys, and urinary tract. It has also been used for tuberculosis and kidney stones.
In today’s herbal medicine, it is known as an excellent antioxidant, and for its anti-inflammatory, coagulant, demulcent, diuretic, and astringent properties. Its silica content may prevent tendinitis and osteoporosis. It is also regarded as beneficial to ligaments and painful lower back muscles, and it is possible that it will prevent hair loss.
In Nepal, the stem juice of a near relative, Equisetum diffusum, is used for gonorrhoea, juice of the root for urinary problems, sprains, fractures, burns, and scabies.
Other usage: In spring, buds of field horsetail are eaten as a vegetable in Japan and Korea, but all other members of the genus are toxic.
In former days, it was used to polish pewter and wood, gaining the popular name pewterwort, and also to strengthen fingernails. Due to its high content of silica, it can be used as an abrasive.
Notes: Field horsetail is a troublesome weed in fields due to the vigorous growth of its rhizome. It was introduced into New Zealand in the 1920s and has become an invasive there.
The generic name Equisetum is from the Latin equus (‘horse’), and seta, which has several meanings, e.g. ‘rough’, ‘brush’, or ‘hair’. The latter word can refer to the rough, silica-containing stems of these plants, but together with equus, the word means ’horse hair’. With a bit of imagination, a bunch of drying stems do resemble a horsetail.
Fertile spring shoots of field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) with sporangia, Funen, Denmark. – In his book Bræen (1908), Danish poet Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) writes: ”On the grey fields, beside the mole hills, horsetails had penetrated the surface, like a dead man’s fingers.” (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sterile shoots of field horsetail with dew drops, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Erythrina monosperma, see Butea monosperma.
English names: California poppy, golden poppy, California sunlight, cup of gold.
Family: Poppy family (Papaveraceae).
Distribution: Native of western United States and Mexico. Widely cultivated, and has become naturalized in several countries, e.g. Chile.
Medicinal usage: California poppy leaves were used medicinally by Native Americans. In modern herbal medicine, it regarded as a mild sedative and relaxant, suitable for children. It improves sleep quality and can prevent nightmares. It is also taken for hyper-activity, headache, migraine, depression, and nerve pain.
Other usage: Numerous varieties are cultivated as ornamentals. The seeds are used in cooking. Formerly, its pollen was used cosmetically by Native Americans.
Notes: The plant was named Eschscholzia californica in 1820 by German botanist Adelbert von Chamisso, in honour of his friend, German physician Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz, who was his colleague on the Kotzebue scientific expedition to the Pacific 1815-1818, aboard the Russian brig Rurik. – In 1903, the species became the official state flower of California.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is often found in large growths, here on a slope near Oakhurst, California, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
California poppy, Montaña de Oro State Park, California, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Gum tree, fever tree.
Family: Myrtle family (Myrtaceae).
Distribution: Extensively cultivated in most tropical and subtropical countries. Almost all species are native to Australia.
Medicinal usage: Essential oils are extracted from the leaves, used in treatment of colds, sore throat, cough, flu, fever, breathlessness, sinusitis, allergies, viral infections, bronchitis, tuberculosis, and stomach problems. The oil is added to throat lozenges, called ‘eucalyptus bonbons’, which are good against bad breath. The oil is also used by the Aborigines of Australia to treat wounds, and research has shown that it is indeed a very effective wound healer.
Other usage: Eucalyptus species are widely cultivated for their timber, which is in great demand, as it is resistant to attacks from insects. It is also used to make paper pulp. Some species are cultivated as ornamentals. The oil used against lice, and also to remove spots.
Notes: The name fever tree stems from the practice of planting eucalyptus trees in swampy, malaria-ridden areas. As their roots are able to store large quantities of water, the swamps will dry out, and the malaria-bearing mosquitos disappear.
Eucalyptus plantations are very harmful to the environment, not only because large tracts of forest have been cut down, but also because of the water-retaining properties of these trees, causing the soil to dry out.
Morning mist, enveloping a eucalyptus plantation, Nilgiri Mountains, S India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Unga tribals, chopping up a eucalyptus tree for timber and firewood, Ncheta Island, Bangweulu Swamps, Zambia. – Read more about this people elsewhere on this website, see Countries and places: Bangweulu – where water meets the sky. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Certain eucalyptus species are cultivated as ornamentals, e.g. this one in Citrusdal, South Africa, which displays a profusion of very beautiful flowers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Euphorbia royleana (Euphorbia pentagona)
English names: Royle’s spurge, Sullu spurge.
Family: Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae).
Distribution: From Pakistan across the Himalaya, east to the Guangxi Province of western China, and Taiwan.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, the boiled pith is used for stomach and gastric problems, and a paste of the leaves is applied to wounds. Juice of the leaves is used for fever, and also dripped into the ears to remove pus. The latex is applied to boils and pimples, and also used for sprains, cough, and asthma, and to expel intestinal worms. It is applied to fungi between the toes, caused by walking barefoot in water during the rainy season. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is used to treat leukaemia.
Other usage: This cactus-like spurge is sometimes cultivated as a hedge. The pith is edible, boiled and pickled. The plant is utilized as fish poison.
Notes: In some areas, this species is considered a magical plant, which can protect houses against lightning.
King Juba II (c. 50 B.C. – 19 A.D.) of Numidia (in present-day Algeria and Tunisia) had an interest in plants and often described them, including a thorny, succulent plant from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, whose latex was a powerful laxative. He named this plant Euphorbea after his Greek chief physician, Euphorbus. In 1753, Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), adopted this name, in the form Euphorbia, for the entire genus.
The specific name royleana is after British botanist John Forbes Royle (1798-1858), chiefly known for his work Illustrations of the Botany and other branches of Natural History of the Himalayan Mountains, and of the Flora of Cashmere (1839ff).
Royle’s spurge (Euphorbia royleana), growing on a dry, rocky outcrop, Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand, India. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Eyebright.
Family: Broomrape family (Orobanchaceae).
Distribution: Mainly in Northern Temperate and Arctic Zones, but also in the Southern Temperate Zone.
Medicinal usage: The usage of this plant for eye problems goes back to medieval Europe. Followers of the Doctrine of Signatures claimed that the Great God had made all plants, so that humans would recognize the usage of them. To them, the red streaks on the petals of eyebright resembled bloodshot eyes, and for this reason, this plant would be an effective remedy for eye diseases. Matthaeus Sylvaticus (1285-1342), a physician of Mantua, recommended it for disorders of the eyes, while Jervis Markham (1568?-1637), in his Countrie Farm (1616), advises people to “drinke everie morning a small draught of eyebright wine.” In the 18th Century, eyebright tea was drunk, and in Queen Elizabeth’s time a drink called ‘eyebright ale’ was produced. – English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) says that powdered eyebright, mixed with mace, “comforteth the memorie,” while another herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), recommends the following recipe for “an excellent water to clear the sight: Take of fennel, eyebright, roses, celandine, vervain, and rue, of each a handful, the liver of a goat chopt small, infuse them well in eyebright water, then distil them in an alembic, and you shall have a water will clear the sight beyond comparison.”
For once, the followers of the Doctrine of Signatures hit the nail on the head, as the plant is still recommended for conjunctivitis (‘red eyes’), infection of the eyelid, and discharge from the eyes. It is also used for indigestion, and for inflammation of the trachea. The dried herb is an ingredient in British Herbal Tobacco, which smoked is useful for chronic bronchial colds.
In Nepal, Himalayan eyebright (E. himalayica) is utilized to curb profuse menstruation, and juice of the root is applied to boils.
Notes: The generic name Euphrasia is Greek, derived from Euphrosyne (’gladness’), the name of one of the three graces who was distinguished for her joy and mirth, probably given to the plant because of its properties as a medical herb. – A popular French name for the plant is casse-lunettes, which loosely translates as ‘throw away your glasses’.
Most eyebright species (Euphrasia) are very similar, thus being very difficult to distinguish. This species grew on the island of Fanø, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Himalayan eyebright (Euphrasia himalayica), Rohtang La, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Pipal, sacred fig tree, Bodhi tree.
Family: Fig family (Moraceae).
Distribution: Native to the Indian Subcontinent, south-western China, and Southeast Asia. Widely planted elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, pipal is used for about 50 types of disorders, the bark for dysentery, diarrhoea, diabetes, nervous disorders, heavy menstrual bleeding, bone fractures, earache, glandular diseases, gonorrhoea, scabies, skin diseases, and also as a laxative; oil from the root bark for skin diseases and rheumatism; leaves for constipation; latex for warts; powdered fruit for asthma; seeds as a laxative; young shoots as a purgative.
In Nepal, the bark is used to prevent bleeding from wounds, and also for gonorrhoea, diarrhoea, dysentery, paralysis, scabies, and snakebites. The latex is used for toothache and sore gums. Juice of young leaves is dripped into aching ears. A paste of the leaves is used for skin diseases, the fruit as a laxative. – Numerous other Ficus species are utilized medicinally.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental in most warm countries of the world. – In Nepal, the bark is used for dyeing and tanning, the inner bark for binding material. The foliage is used for fodder.
Notes: It was beneath a pipal tree that Siddharta Gautama, around 500 B.C., attained nirvana (enlightenment), after which his followers called him The Buddha (‘The Enlightened One’). (See elsewhere on this website: Religion: Buddhism, and Plants: Pipal and banyan – two sacred fig trees). For this reason, pipal is sacred to Buddhists, called the Bodhi tree (‘Tree of Enlightenment’), and it is often planted around temples. It is also sacred to Hindus and Jains. Saddhus (Hindu ascetics) often meditate beneath a pipal tree.
Pipal (Ficus religiosa) belongs to a group of fig trees, called strangler figs. A pipal seed takes root high up in a tree, from where the sprouting plant sends aerial roots down to the ground. Over the years, these aerial roots wrap themselves tightly around the host tree, strangling it. It also readily grows on buildings, as shown in this photograph from Kathmandu, Nepal, where its roots are causing a small Hindu temple to crack, over the years destroying it completely. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Near present-day Bodhgaya, Bihar, India, Siddharta Gautama attained nirvana after spending 49 days in meditation beneath a pipal tree. This tree was later called the Bodhi Tree (‘Tree of Enlightenment’). – At the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, these Buddhist monks are venerating an offspring of the sacred Bodhi Tree. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Leaves of pipal are heart-shaped and long-pointed. – Pokhara, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Woodland strawberry, European strawberry, Alpine strawberry, wild strawberry, hedge strawberry.
English names: Himalayan strawberry, Indian strawberry.
Family: Rose family (Rosaceae).
Distribution: Woodland strawberry is distributed in temperate areas of Eurasia, east to Lake Baikal, and in temperate North America. It is naturalized in Chile. Himalayan strawberry is found in montane areas, from Pakistan across the Himalaya to south-western China.
Medicinal usage: Strawberries are excellent antioxidants, with a vitamin C content of about 50 milligrams per 100 grams. Both leaves and fruits of woodland strawberry were used early in herbal medicine. The fruit was considered invaluable for fever, and it was also recommended for stone. Danish herbalist Henrik Smid (c. 1495-1563) claims that lepers with “a red face and warm blood” can live for a long time, if they drink strawberry water on a daily basis, while English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) declares that strawberry is “singularly good for the healing of many ills.” Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), discovered that the berries were an effective cure for gout, and in Denmark, a poultice of the leaves were used for the same ailment.
Today, root and leaves are used for diarrhoea, and also for treating menopause problems and menstrual cramps. Tea, made from the leaves, checks dysentery. – In Nepal, juice of the root of Himalayan strawberry is taken for fever, while juice of the plant is used for inflammation of nerves and lungs, and to curb profuse menstruation. Unripe fruits are chewed to cure blemishes on the tongue. A paste of the fruit is applied to skin diseases and wounds.
Other usage: The fruits of woodland strawberry are tiny, but very tasty, while those of Himalayan strawberry are edible, but not very tasty. – Archaeological excavations suggest that woodland strawberry has been consumed by humans since the Stone Age. It was first cultivated in Ancient Persia, and seeds were later taken along the Silk Road to the Far East. In Turkey, hundreds of tons of wild fruit are harvested annually, mainly for export. – Strawberries are eaten raw, with milk or cream, or as jam. In a play, written in 1603, English poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637) says:
A pot of strawberries gathered in the wood
To mingle with your cream.
They are also used as flavouring in e.g. icecream, wine, liqueur, and sweets, and as fragrance in e.g. skin lotions.
From the leaves, a pleasant tea can be made. An old English recipe says: “Gather strawberry leaves on Lamas Eve, [August 1] press them in the distillery until the aromatick perfume thereof becomes sensible. Take a fat turkey and pluck him, and baste him, then enfold him carefully in the strawberry leaves. Then boil him in water from the well, and add rosemary, velvet flower, lavender, thistles, stinging nettles, and other sweet-smelling herbs. Add also a pinte of canary wine, and half a pound of butter and one of ginger, passed through the sieve, besides plums and stewed raisins and a little salt. Cover him with a silver dish cover.”
During World War I, the leaves were smoked as tobacco. The entire plant has been used for tanning.
Note: The word strawberry is derived from the verb to strew, in allusion to the dense tangle of the plant’s stems, creeping over the ground.
The fruits of woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) are tiny, but very tasty – as opposed to many of the cultivated varieties, which often have a quite watery taste. – Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Himalayan strawberry (Fragaria nubicola) is the most common among four strawberry species, growing in the Himalaya. – Gokyo Valley, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fruiting Himalayan strawberry, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Another Himalayan species, Fragaria daltoniana, is easily identified by its oblong fruits, which are up to 2.5 centimetres long. – Langtang National Park, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common fumitory, earth smoke.
Family: Poppy family (Papaveraceae).
Distribution: Native of Europe, western Asia, and North Africa. Naturalized in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and other places.
Medicinal usage: Traditionally, fumitory has been used to treat skin problems, such as eczema and psoriasis, and also for liver ailments, as a laxative, and as a diuretic. New research has shown that it may indeed be effective against psoriasis, and in Germany it is approved for treatment of pain in the gallbladder.
In Turkey, closely related species are used as blood purifiers and for allergy. In Nepal, F. indica is used as a diuretic, and to expel intestinal worms. Its juice is applied to wounds.
Notes: The scientific name Fumaria (and with that the English fumitory) stems from the ancient Latin appellation for the plant, fumus terrae, meaning ‘smoke of the earth’. The acrid taste of the plant would cause watery eyes, just like smoke. However, the name might refer to the fine foliage of the plant, which has been likened to ‘smoke over the ground’. The specific name officinalis refers to the medicinal properties of this species.
In the Middle Ages, fumitory was utilized to drive out demons. – It is mentioned in the tragedy King Lear, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616):
Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With burdocks, hemlocks, nettles, cuckoo-flowers.
Common fumitory (Fumaria officinalis), growing as a weed in a vegetable garden, Denmark. A black bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus) is winding up its stem. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Yellow bedstraw, Our Lady’s bedstraw, maid’s hair, cheese rennet.
Family: Bedstraw family (Rubiaceae).
Distribution: Native to Temperate Eurasia. Naturalized in North America, New Zealand, and other places.
Medicinal usage: In former times, yellow bedstraw was thought to be an efficient healer of epilepsy, hysteria, and arthritis, and it was utilized as a diuretic. English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) writes: “An ointment is prepared which is good for anointing the weary traveller.” Another herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) recommends a decoction of yellow bedstraw to stop nose-bleed and internal bleeding. In Denmark, in the 1600s, it was believed that scabies and scab could be cured with this herb.
Today, yellow bedstraw is a popular remedy for urinary problems, and for bladder and gall stones. In France, it is still being used for treatment of epilepsy.
Other usage: Flowers and roots are used for dyeing, the flowers adding yellow colour, the roots red. In Denmark, flowers are added to alcohol to give flavour and colour. In former days, yellow bedstraw was stuffed into mattresses, the coumarin of the drying plants giving a pleasant fragrance, and, as it is toxic, it would also expel fleas and lice.
A popular name of the species is cheese rennet, as the flowers are able to coagulate milk to make cheese. In his book Herbal Simples, Dr. William T. Fernie (1830-1914) writes: “The people in Cheshire, especially about Nantwich, where the best cheese is made, do use it [yellow bedstraw] in their rennet, esteeming greatly of that cheese above other made without it.”
Notes: In Norse religion, yellow bedstraw was dedicated to Frigg, goddess of knowledge, love, and marriage, who was also protector of women giving birth. It was a custom to line the childbed with this fragrant herb. When Christianity was introduced, this heathen habit was banned, but as it persisted, the Church decided to dedicate yellow bedstraw to Virgin Mary instead, claiming that this herb was lining the crib of the newborn Jesus, hence the folk name of the species, Our Lady’s bedstraw.
Dr. Fernie (see above) states that yellow bedstraw was named maid’s hair, because, during the reign of Henry VIII, “maydens did wear silken callis to keep in order their hayre, made yellow with dye.”
In his book from 1745, Carl Linnæi Öländska och Gotländska Resa förrättad År 1741, the famous Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), relates the following case of superstition from his journey to Öland and Gotland in 1741: ”As regards Galium luteum, the locals told us that it was often strewn on the floor during fiests, but always with the unfortunate result that the guests began arguing and fighting. As a physicus, I am unable to explain the reason for this, but as a logicus, I use the following syllogism [logical argumentation]: Galium is only strewn on the floor during fiests. In these parts (as in other places), people always get drunk during fiests. When people get drunk, they always start arguing and fighting. Consequently, Galium causes squabble.”
Yellow bedstraw (Galium verum) is a most variable plant, growing to a height of c. 1.2 metres. These pictures show a lush specimen from Mols, Denmark (top), and a creeping plant, growing in poor soil on the Karlevi Alvar, Öland, Sweden. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Yellow bedstraw is much utilized for dyeing. In this picture, a young man is picking plants in central Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Great yellow gentian.
Family: Gentian family (Gentianaceae).
Distribution: Montane areas of central, southern, and eastern Europe. Cultivated in eastern Europe.
Medicinal usage: The Ancient Egyptians used gentian medicinally as early as 1200 B.C., and the Greeks recommended the root for stomach and liver problems, and also for infections. In the Middle Ages, it was used for infections and as an antidote for various poisons.
The root contains one of the most bitter-tasting substances known. A few drops of gentian tincture will stimulate the function of liver and pancreas, and also increase the appetite. Herbalists also recommend it for dyspepsia and flatulence.
A near relative, Gentiana officinalis, of China, is used for a number of ailments, including malfunction of the thyroid gland, ulcers, earache, and heartburn. In Nepal, several gentian species are utilized as medicine, for e.g. cough, colds, and fever. A paste of the root of Gentianopsis paludosa is applied to wounds, and also to the forehead in case of headache.
Other usage: In certain parts of Europe, the fermented root of great yellow gentian is distilled, the product added to aperitifs and liqueurs.
Note: The name gentian derives from King Gentius, who ruled in Ancient Illyria 181-168 B.C. Allegedly, he discovered the medicinal value of the great yellow gentian.
Great yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) is very common in the canton of Valais, Switzerland. This picture is from Col de la Croix. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of great yellow gentian flowers, Säntis, Sankt Gallen, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Girardinia diversifolia (G. heterophylla, G. palmata, G. armata)
English names: Nilgiri nettle, Himalayan nettle.
Family: Nettle family (Urticaceae).
Distribution: Widespread in Africa, on Madagascar, and from Yemen eastwards across the Himalaya to Taiwan, and south to South India and Indonesia.
Medicinal usage: In Ayurvedic medicine, Nilgiri nettle is used as a diuretic and laxative, to treat headache, arthritis, rheumatism and allergy, and to expel intestinal parasites. In Nepal, the boiled root is given for gastric problems, juice of the root for constipation and to treat boils. Juice of leaves is used for fever, headache, and painful joints. Ash from the plant is applied to eczema and ringworms. In Rwanda, the species is used as an antidote for snakebites.
Other usage: Tender parts are eaten as a vegetable. Seeds are roasted and pickled. Cultivated in India for its stem fibres, supplying excellent bast, from which cloth, bags, rope, fishing nets etc. are weaved. The plant yields a blue dye. In north-eastern India, the seeds are used as fish poison.
Note: Do not touch this plant, as it has a powerful sting.
Nilgiri nettle (Girardinia diversifolia), Helambu, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hibiscus manihot, see Abelmoschus manihot.
English names: Roselle, rosella, Jamaica sorrel, Indian sorrel, Guinea sorrel, Queensland jelly plant, jelly okra, Florida cranberry.
Family: Mallow family (Malvaceae).
Distribution: Some authorities claim that roselle is a native of West Africa, others maintain that it stems from India or Southeast Asia. Today, it is cultivated worldwide in tropical and subtropical areas, the largest producers being China and Thailand.
Medicinal usage: Traditionally, roselle has been used as a diuretic and as a mild laxative. In Brazil, the root is used as a stomachic, and also as an emollient. The Naga people of north-eastern India drink an extract of the root for constipation and stomach ache, and as an emollient and carminative. The red calyx contains antocyanins, and research indicates that these substances can prevent rheumatism, diabetes, and colon cancer. Antocyanins are excellent anti-oxidants, which can subdue infections. The seeds are also a good source of anti-oxidants.
Other usage: In Senegal and other African countries, and in various Asian countries, the green leaves are eaten as a spicy vegetable. In Nepal, the calyx is eaten raw or pickled. From the calyx, jam and a red drink, called karkade, are produced. In Europe and North America, the calyx is used for food colouring. Bast is produced from the stem fibres.
Note: The name roselle is from the French, a diminutive of rose, referring to the red calyx, which, with a bit of imagination, resembles a small rose.
Freshly picked fruits of roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa), displaying the bright red calyx. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Dried fruits of roselle, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Houttuynia cordata (H. foetida, Polypara cordata, P. cochinchinensis)
English names: Heart-leaved fishwort, heartleaf, fish mint, chameleon plant, lizard-tail, bishop’s weed.
Family: Lizard-tail family (Saururaceae).
Distribution: Himalaya, southern Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, Indonesia.
Medicinal usage: In traditional Chinese medicine – where it is called 魚腥草 (‘fishy-smelling herb’) – heart-leaved fishwort is used due to its antibacterial and antiviral effects, mainly for various respiratory diseases, e.g. bronchitis and pneumonia, and also for herpes simplex and urinary tract infections. As a paste, it is applied to various skin problems. In Japan, a decoction of the dried leaves is drunk to detoxify the body and to kill harmful bacteria. In Nepal, juice of the root is used for indigestion and skin ailments, and it is dripped into the eyes in case of eye problems. Juice of the plant is applied to wounds of domestic animals to rid them of maggots and to accelerate healing. Elsewhere, it is used for diabetes, and as a diuretic.
Other usage: Tender parts and root are cooked in soups or as a vegetable, and the leaves are pickled.
Notes: Cultivated as an ornamental. In Australia and the United States, the species has become invasive in some places. The names fishwort and fish mint refer to the fishy odour of some forms of this plant.
Heart-leaved fishwort (Houttuynia cordata), Taplejung, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Hop.
Family: Hemp family (Cannabaceae).
Distribution: Native of Europe and western Asia. Widely cultivated elsewhere, naturalized in North America.
Medicinal usage: The bitter resins of the inflorescence have a soothing effect on the nervous system, and are thus taken for stress, anxiety, insomnia, and nervous indigestion, and also as a sedative. Hop juice will clean the blood and is a very effective remedy for calculus problems. Traditionally, hop flowers have been used for leprosy, tuberculosis, and dysentery. Tea, made from the flowers was taken for cramps, swellings, and hardness of the uterus.
Other usage: As early as the 9th Century, in Europe, hop was added to beer to make it keep better; only later was it used as flavouring and to make the beer stronger. For another 800 years, however, the English opposed hop as an additive to beer, calling it “a wicked weed that would spoil the taste of the drink and endanger the people.” Elsewhere in Europe, it was praised for its taste and effect.
Formerly, hop sprouts were eaten as a salad and in soups, and young buds were utilized as a spice in sauces. In times of war, the leaves were smoked as tobacco. They were also chopped to make animal feed, and sheep were fed with dried leaves in winter. Rope was made from the fibres, and on the island of Funen, Denmark, the stems were wound around each other to make strong ropes, which were used to fasten laths to rafters and also to tie straw bundles to the rafters. Door mats were also produced from the stems. Dried, they constituted an excellent fuel.
Notes: The specific name lupulus is a diminutive of the Latin lupus (wolf), referring to the strong growth of hop, which ’attacks’ and overgrows other plants. In June, when the growth is at its peak, the stem may grow up to 17 centimetres a day. On the island of Funen, Denmark, an old saying was that you were able to see this fast growth. – The English name is from the Anglo-Saxon word hoppan (’to climb’).
In June, when the growth of hop (Humulus lupulus) is at its peak, the stem may grow up to 17 centimetres a day. This one is climbing up the stem of a hollyhock (Alcea rosea) on the island of Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hop fruits are called strobiles. – Where this vigorous herb has become naturalized, it often envelops other vegetation, as here in the nature reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Black henbane, stinking nightshade, hog’s bean, Jupiter’s bean.
Family: Nightshade family (Solanaceae).
Distribution: Native of the Mediterranean and W Asia. Naturalized in almost all parts of Europe and parts of North and South America.
Medicinal usage: Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), who was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine), used henbane for pains and to procure sleep. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) declared it to be “of the nature of wine and therefore offensive to the understanding.”
English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) says: “Leaves, seeds and juice, when taken internally, cause an unquiet sleep, like unto the sleep of drunkenness, which continueth long and is deadly to the patient. To wash the feet in a decoction of henbane, as also the smelling of the flowers, causeth sleep.” Another herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), says: “The leaves of henbane do cool all hot inflammations in the eyes. (…) It also assuages the pain of the gout, the sciatica, and other pains in the joints which arise from a hot cause. And applied with vinegar to the forehead and temples, helps the headache and want of sleep in hot fevers. (…) The oil of the seed is helpful for deafness, noise and worms in the ears, being dropped therein; the juice of the herb or root doth the same. The decoction of the herb or seed, or both, kills lice in man or beast. The fume of the dried herb stalks and seeds, burned, quickly heals swellings, chilblains or kibes in the hands or feet, by holding them in the fume thereof. The remedy to help those that have taken henbane is to drink goat’s milk, honeyed water, or pine kernels, with sweet wine; or, in the absence of these, fennel seed, nettle seed, the seed of cresses, mustard or radish; as also onions or garlic taken in wine, do all help to free them from danger and restore them to their due temper again. Take notice, that this herb must never be taken inwardly; outwardly, an oil, ointment, or plaister of it is most admirable for the gout. (…) To stop toothache, it is applied to the aching side.”
Formerly, henbane was widely used in folk medicine for the production of sedatives, and also to make magic and love potions. Necklaces were made from the root, worn by children as charms to prevent fits and to cause easy teething. In Denmark, people with toothache (popularly called ‘worms in your teeth’) would inhale the vapours from boiling henbane seeds. These vapours would undoubtedly ease the pain, but the effect might just as well have been psychological, because after the treatment, the patient could see the killed ’worms’, lying between the henbane seeds in the bowl, in which they had been heated. The explanation is that the heating would burst the seed coat, exposing the white, curved germs – not unlike fly larvae. – Smoke from the burning plant was utilized for skin diseases.
The plant contains the toxic alkaloids hyoscyamine and scopolamine, which are extracted from the dried leaves. Today, this extract is used for various mental disorders and also for seasickness, anaesthesizing the organs of the inner ear. It is also used as a mild diuretic.
Other usage: Now and then, henbane has been utilized for murder, one example being an American physician, Hawley Harvey Crippen (1862-1910), who poisoned his wife with hyoscyamine and scopolamine in 1910.
During the Middle Ages, extract from the plant was a part of the famous ‘witch ointments’, which the witches applied to their naked body. The poison penetrated their skin, throwing them into an ecstasy, during which they had fantastic hallucinations. Some had the impression of being turned into an animal, others felt they were able to fly through the air. – It is thought that the priestesses of the Oracle at Delphi used burning leaves of henbane to enter an ecstasy, before stating their prophecies.
An old tradition has it that during the Middle Ages, gypsies, mercenaries, and various other travelling folk stole chickens from farms by placing a tray with burning henbane leaves in the chicken house, causing the chickens to faint and fall to the ground, without making noise.
Notes: All parts of the plant are very poisonous. The generic name Hyoscyamus is derived from the Greek words hyos and cyamos, meaning ‘hog bean’. Supposedly, pigs could eat this plant with impunity.
In Greek mythology, the dead in Hades were crowned with henbane, as they wandered hopelessly along the River Styx.
A Danish proverb, from 1682, says: “Adultery is like henbane seeds: the more you eat of it, the madder you become.”
English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) philosophizes: “I wonder how astrologers could take on them to make this an herb of Jupiter: and yet Mizaldus, a man of penetrating brain, was of that opinion as well as the rest; the herb is indeed under the dominion of Saturn and I prove it by this argument: All the herbs which delight most to grow in saturnine places are saturnine herbs. Henbane delights most to grow in saturnine places, and whole cart loads of it may be found near the places where they empty the common Jakes, and scarce a ditch to be found without it growing by it. Ergo, it is an herb of Saturn.” [A ‘saturnine place’ is an old expression, probably an allusion to gloomy or melancholy places. ‘Jake’ is an old word for toilet.]
Black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fruiting black henbane, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common St. John’s wort, perforate St. John’s wort.
Family: St. John’s wort family (Hypericaceae).
Distribution: Native of Europe, North Africa, and western Asia. Naturalized in East Asia, North and South America, and Australia. Regarded as an invasive in several countries.
Medicinal usage: During the Middle Ages, common St. John’s wort was in high esteem as a wound-healer, including burns and frostbite. It was also used for e.g. epilepsy, ague (malaria), intestinal worms, apoplexy, cholera, and, according to Danish herbalist Simon Paulli (1603-1680), for an ailment he calls chlorosis, which young girls get, “when their wedding is approaching, and they are at the mercy of their husbands.” In this situation, they often behave, as if they are ”plagued by the Devil’s possession.”
Formerly, this species was also utilized for treatment of lung disease and diarrhoea in cows, and tetanus in horses. – In today’s herbal medicine, it is used for burns, insect bites, wounds, scabies, and infections, and as a stomachic and sedative. New research has shown that it is very effective for depression, for herpes simplex, and probably also for HIV and Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, it contains chemicals which stimulate liver detoxification.
Other usage: For hundreds of years, flower buds have been added to alcohol, giving it a bitter taste and a wonderful dark red colour. It has also been utilized to dye wool, giving it a reddish or yellowish hue. Formerly, in rural Denmark, this herb was smoked as tobacco.
Notes: In former times, St. John’s wort was believed to possess magic powers, protecting against witchcraft and lightning strike. It was also able to exorcise the Devil from persons, which were possessed by him. In the old days, in Denmark, it was believed that if the cattle had acquired an ailment by grazing, where the elves were ruling, you should pick St. John’s wort on St. John’s Eve, at midnight, and feed it to the cattle.
The Latin name perforatum, as well as the English name perforate St. John’s wort, refers to the glandular dots on the leaves. Legend has it that these dots were made by the Devil, who didn’t want humans to acquire this precious herb. Therefore, he perforated the leaves with a fine needle, trying his best to make the plant wither.
As its name implies, St. John’s wort has long been associated with St. John the Baptist. In the Middle Ages, its blood-red juice symbolized the blood from the Saint’s beheading. John the Baptist had reproached King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife Herodias, hereby incurring Herodias’ wrath. Cunningly, her daughter persuaded the king to promise her anything she wanted, and, on request from her mother, she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a tray. (Mark, 6:18-28)
Common St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), Jutland, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Elecampane, scabwort, elfwort.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: Native to southern Europe, and western and central Asia. Formerly, it was widely cultivated as a medicinal plant, and it has become naturalized in northern Europe and parts of North America.
Medicinal usage: Elecampane has been used medicinally for at least 2000 years, first mentioned in Codex Constantinopolitanus in 512 A.D. English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) prescribed it for cough and lung disorders, and it was also used for tuberculosis. Even today, many herbalists consider this herb an effective remedy for lung problems, such as congested phlegm, bronchitis and emphysema (swollen alveoles). It has a beneficial effect on digestion. It is also used to expel intestinal worms and other parasites.
The very similar Inula racemosa of Central Asia is widely used as an expectorant.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental. In France and Switzerland, an extract from the root is added as flavouring to absinthe, an alcoholic drink. In the 1500s, elecampane roots were sweetened and eaten as candy in England.
Notes: The specific name helenium, from the Greek helenion, was first mentioned by Greek scholar Theophrastos (c. 371 – c. 287 B.C.), called ‘the founder of botany’. Later a physician, Nikander (c. 147-? B.C.), linked the name with Helen of Troy. One legend has it that elecampane sprang from Helen’s tears, falling on the ground, when she was abducted by Prince Paris.
To the Celts of Britain, elecampane was a sacred plant.
Where elecampane (Inula helenium) has become naturalized, it often forms large growths, as here on the island of Vorsø, Jutland, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: White jasmine, summer jasmine, poet’s jasmine, true jasmine, star jasmine, night-blooming jasmine, jessamine.
Family: Olive family (Oleaceae).
Distribution: Probably indigenous from Caucasus, eastwards through the Himalaya to south-western China. Naturalized in southern Europe, North Africa, Florida, the West Indies, and elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: Over the years, this species has been used as an aphrodisiac, a sedative, an antiseptic, antidepressant, antispasmodic, and analgesic. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is utilized for fever and conjunctivitis, and to improve immunity. In traditional Chinese medicine, the flowers are boiled to make herbal tea, used for e.g. wounds, heat stroke, fever, and urinary infection. This tea can also relieve stress and anxiety. A poultice of the flowers is used for headache and stroke.
Other usage: Due to its wonderful fragrance, white jasmine has been widely cultivated as an ornamental for thousands of years. It is mentioned as a garden plant in London by naturalist and physician William Turner (1509-1568), in his Names of Herbes (1548). From time immemorial, an essential oil from the plant has been used in the perfume industry, and as medicine.
Notes: This species is the national flower of Pakistan. – The generic name Jasminum, as well as the common name in most languages, is derived from the ancient Persian name of these plants, yasmin. The specific name officinale indicates the medicinal properties of the plant.
White jasmine (Jasminum officinale), Tirthan Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A villager from the Tirthan Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India, has decorated his woven hat with flowers of white jasmine. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Common juniper.
Family: Cypress family (Cupressaceae).
Distribution: Common juniper is the most widespread conifer in the world, found in the northern subarctic and temperate zones, south to North Africa, northern Iran, the Himalaya, Japan, and Arizona.
Medicinal usage: Traditionally, a decoction of the berries was used as an antiseptic, and oil from the cones is still today used externally for e.g. arthritis and rheumatism. New research has shown that certain substances in the berries are an effective diuretic and analgesic, they can lower the blood pressure, and they are an efficient remedy for gout and digestive disorders. Inhalation of steam from boiling berries relieves catarrh and congestion. In the old days, galls on the needles, caused by larvae of a species of gall gnat, Oligotrophus juniperinus, were used for whooping cough. Formerly, certain Native American tribes used the berries as a contraceptive.
Other usage: The cones are an ingredient in the production of gin and genever, adding the characteristic smell and taste to these drinks. They are also excellent in cooking, e.g. in meat courses and marinades. They emit an aromatic fragrance, containing up to 40% glucose and 2% essential oil.
Formerly, the branches were utilized for basket weaving, while thicker stems were used as almost imperishable staves in fences. From the tough wood, buttons, kitchen utensils and other items were carved, and an American species of juniper is still used for pencils.
When burning wood and foliage, an aromatic smoke is produced, in former times used for smoking various foods. Still today, Buddhist peoples of the Himalaya and Tibet burn fresh juniper branches as incense in temples. – In the old days, in Denmark, fresh branches were strewn on the church floor during funerals, and a juniper bush planted near the door would keep witches and ogres at bay.
In former times, among the Kashubians of northern Poland, it was a tradition, on Easter Monday, that the boys would chase the girls, whipping their legs gently with juniper twigs. Supposedly, this would make the girls interested in the boys.
Notes: There are various theories as to the origin of the generic name Juniperus. Some authorities claim that it stems from the Latin iungere (’tie together’ or ’weave’), referring to the use of branches in baskets and fences, while others maintain that it is derived from juvenis (’young’) and parere (’to produce’), referring to the fact that juniper bushes constantly are renewed by new shoots. The words gin and genever are also derived from Juniperus. The specific name communis is from the Latin, meaning ‘common’.
Read about another species of juniper, the drooping juniper (Juniperus recurva), elsewhere on this website, see Religion: Animism. A picture of black juniper (Juniperus indica) may also be found, see Plant life: Ancient and huge trees.
A fine growth of common juniper (Juniperus communis) on a moor in Jutland, Denmark. The habitus of this species varies enormously, from low and creeping bushes to slender and columnar small trees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cones of common juniper emit an aromatic fragrance, containing up to 40% glucose and 2% essential oil. These cones, photographed in Denmark, are covered in dew drops. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lawsonia inermis (L. alba)
English names: Henna tree, hina, mignonette tree, Egyptian privet.
Family: Loosestrife family (Lythraceae).
Distribution: Probably native to north-eastern Africa, Arabia, and Iran, but widely cultivated, especially in India and Pakistan.
Medicinal usage: According to Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), who was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine), chewing henna leaves is good for mouth ulcers, because of their content of tannin, and he also recommends applying a poultice of the leaves to skin inflammations and boils.
Henna is famous for its anticancer and anti-inflammatory properties, and it is commonly used in Unani and Ayurvedic medicines. The plant is used for fever, dandruff, heat stroke, leucodermia, and leprosy in early stages; bark and root for liver enlargement and jaundice; flowers for headache; a paste of the leaves for sunburn, prickly heat, rashes, bruises, burns, boils, skin diseases such as eczema and ringworm, haemorrhoids, sore throat, inflammatory swellings, leprosy, and rheumatic joint pain; seeds for dysentery; seeds and leaves for vaginal discharge and excessive menstruation; and oil from the seeds for arthritis, scabies, and hair loss.
Other usage: Because of its cooling properties, desert people of Arabia, and elsewhere, have, for millennia, been using henna juice to cool down their bodies. They noticed that the juice left marks on the skin, which led to the idea of using it to make designs for decorative purposes. In Ancient Egypt, some of the mummies were adorned with henna, and it is told that Queen Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.) also used it for decoration.
Still today, henna is widely used in Pakistan, India, North Africa, and the Middle East for decoration of skin and fingernails, and as a hair dye. It is also utilized as a natural dye in the textile industry. An oil extracted from the flowers is used in the perfume industry.
Notes: The name henna is derived from the ancient Arabic name of the plant, ḥinnā’, akin to ḥana’a (‘to become green’). The generic name Lawsonia was given by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), in honour of Scottish physician and mineralogist Isaac Lawson (1704-1747), who partly financed the first edition of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturæ.
The hands of this little girl, visiting the Hindu temple of Sri Venkateswara at Tirumalai, Andhra Pradesh, South India, have been decorated with dye, extracted from henna plants (Lawsonia inermis). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common motherwort, throw-wort, lion’s ear, lion’s tail.
Family: Mint family (Lamiaceae).
Distribution: Probably a native of Central Asia and south-eastern Europe, but widely cultivated in most parts of the world, and naturalized in many places.
Medicinal usage: Motherwort has a long history as a medical herb. Since the Middle Ages, it was used in Europe for heart palpitations and high blood pressure. English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) writes: “Divers commend it against infirmities of the heart. Moreover, the same is commended for green wounds; it is also a remedy against certain diseases in cattell, as the cough and murreine, and for that cause divers husbandmen oftentimes much desire it.” – Another herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) says: “There is no better herb to drive melancholy vapours from the heart, to strengthen it and make the mind cheerful, blithe and merry. May be kept in a syrup, or conserve, therefore the Latins call it cardiaca…. It cleanseth the chest of cold phlegm, oppressing it and killeth worms in the belly. It is of good use to warm and dry up the cold humours, to digest and disperse them that are settled in the veins, joints and sinews of the body and to help cramps and convulsions.”
In China, in the old days, motherwort was used to prevent pregnancy and to regulate menstruation, and in Europe, midwives used it for various female disorders, e.g. uterine infection – hence the name motherwort. In his delightful book All about Weeds, American botanist Edwin Spencer (1881-1964) writes: “Here’s sumpin’ you art to know,” said an old midwife to a young bride, as the two of them stood looking at a tall mint, growing by the garden fence. “This is motherwort.”
Today, motherwort is valued as a diaphoretic, antispasmodic, tonic, and nervine. As a tonic, it is taken for palpitations and irregular heartbeat, and for fever, nervousness, and delirium. It is also used to ease stomach gas. In Nepal, the juice is utilized as a diaphoretic and stomachic, and pounded leaves are applied to fungi between the toes, caused by walking barefoot in water during the rainy season.
Note: The generic name Leonurus is from the Greek, meaning ‘lion’s tail’ – which is also one of its popular English names. It is not clear, why Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), named it thus.
Cultivated common motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Siberian motherwort, honeywort.
Family: Mint family (Lamiaceae).
Distribution: Native to China, Mongolia, and Siberia. Naturalized in the Americas and elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: This herb has been used for centuries in Asia for gynaecological problems, as a diuretic, and for its relaxing and soothing effect. It invigorates the blood circulation, reduces swellings, and is also used for eye problems and high blood pressure.
Other usage: In Central and South America, this plant is utilized as a mild intoxicant, nicknamed marihuanilla (’little marihuana’).
Note: The literal translation of the Chinese name of this plant, 细叶益母草, is ‘benefit-the-mother-herb’, referring to its use for gynaecological problems. However, it must not be taken during pregnancy, as it may cause miscarriage.
White-flowered form of Siberian motherwort (Leonurus sibiricus var. albiflora), Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: White leadtree, river tamarind, white popinac.
Family: Pea family (Fabaceae).
Distribution: Native to southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, but now naturalized throughout the tropics and parts of the subtropics.
Medicinal usage: In traditional Chinese medicine, the root and seeds are used for skin problems and arthritis.
Note: White leadtree is regarded as an invasive in numerous countries, see elsewhere on this website, Nature: Invasive species.
Flowers of white leadtree (Leucaena leucocephala) are much visited by bees. The specific name is from the Greek leuko = white, and kephalos = head, referring to the flowers. – Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Seed pods of white leadtree, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Japanese climbing fern, vine-like fern.
Distribution: Native to eastern Asia, from India east to Japan, south through Southeast Asia to New Guinea. Introduced to the United States, South Africa, and Australia.
Medicinal usage: Stem, leaves, and root are much used in Chinese herbal medicine, chiefly as an invigorator of the blood circulation, but also as an anti-inflammatory in swellings and wounds, for shingles, tuberculosis, and toothache, and as a diuretic.
Note: In the south-eastern states of North America, the species has become an invasive, today regarded as an unwanted plant.
Japanese climbing fern (Lygodium japonicum) is very common in Taiwan, mostly found on eroded slopes at lower altitudes, here in the Bagua Shan Mountains. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Moneywort, twopenny grass, string-of-souvereigns, creeping loosestrife, creeping Jenny, creeping Charlie, wandering tailor, serpentaria.
Family: Primrose family (Primulaceae).
Distribution: Native all over Europe, east to the Ural Mountains, growing in open, humid areas. Naturalized in eastern United States.
Medicinal usage: For hundreds of years, fresh leaves of moneywort were being used to staunch blood and heal wounds, and the species was also utilized to treat gout. English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) tells us: “Moneywort is singularly good to stay all fluxes (…) bleeding inwardly or outwardly, and weak stomachs given to casting. It is very good for the ulcers or excoriations of the lungs.” He further says that it is also good for whooping-cough, ”being boyled with wine or honey (…) it prevaileth against that violent cough in children, commonly called the chinne-cough, but it should be chine-cough for it doth make as it were the very chine-bone to shake.” [‘To stay’ is an old expression for ‘to stop’.]
Other usage: Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) says that loosestrife, added to the hair, imparts a blond tint to it.
Notes: The generic name Lysimachia is derived from the Greek lysimakhos, of lysis (’release from’) and makhe (’strife’), thus meaning ‘to end a strife’ – which also explains the English name loosestrife. In Ancient Greece and Rome, a popular belief was that loosestrife was an effective remedy to calm down furious persons. Pliny the Elder says that if two bullocks start a fight and don’t want to be under the same yoke, you calm them down by placing loosestrife on the yoke.
The specific name nummularia, as well as a number of popular names, were given in allusion to the round leaves of this species. Many other names refer to its creeping stems. The name serpentaria refers to an old superstition that wounded snakes would place their body on top of moneywort to heal their wounds.
Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia) is easily identified by its creeping stems, round leaves, and rather large, yellow flowers. This picture is from the island of Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Matricaria chamomilla (Matricaria recutita, Chamomilla recutita)
English names: German chamomile, wild chamomile, scented mayweed.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: Native of south-eastern Europe and western Asia. Cultivated in large parts of Europe, and in North America, and Australia, often becoming naturalized.
Medicinal usage: Today, flowerheads of German chamomile are collected and dried to be used as tea, which is a very efficient remedy for colds, sore throat, mouth ulcers, stomach ache, and colic. It is used for many other problems, such as allergies, diverticulitis (abdominal pain), fungal infections, insomnia, and heartburn, and also as a diuretic and a diaphoretic. Chamomile soothes inflammation, cramps, and menstrual pain. Externally, it is used for skin problems, e.g. eczema, and for ulcers and burns, and a tincture is used to keep biting insects at bay.
In former days, it was used for many other diseases, such as bladder stones, flatulence, chest pain, tooth ache, bite of a mad dog, ‘heated brain’ (migraine?), bad nerves, etc.
Other usage: An essential oil, derived from the flowers, is utilized cosmetically. – In the old days, boys would smoke the dried flowers as tobacco. If you rinsed your hair in chamomile water, it would get a sheen. Chamomile and wormwood was added to beer to make it keep. (The honour probably belongs to wormwood, while chamomile might have added fragrance.)
Notes: In the old days, in Denmark, a number of superstitions were connected with chamomile. When a woman passed a growth of chamomile, she had to make a curtsy twice. On Midsummer’s Eve, the girls would adorn their chamber with chamomile flowers, and on the island of Falster, it was placed among the plates on their rack. On Sunday morning, chamomile flowers were burned to spread fragrance in the living room. In the 1600s, on 24th of June, chamomile and burdock were placed several places in the house as protection against the poison, which in the evening would surge up from the earth.
The generic name Matricaria is from the Latin matricis (’mother’s life’, i.e. the womb). Formerly, this genus name was also applied to another plant, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium, see elsewhere on this page), by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), regarded as a species of chamomile. In Ancient Rome, feverfew was used for uterus problems. The specific name chamomilla (and with that the English chamomile) is from the Greek chamaimelon, meaning ‘earth-apple’, referring to the apple-like scent of German chamomile.
Cultivated German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Melia azadirachta, see Azadirachta indica.
Nasturtium officinale (N. nasturtium-aquaticum, Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum, Sisymbrium nasturtium-aquaticum)
English names: Common watercress, brown cress, brooklime, scurvy-grass.
Family: Mustard family (Brassicaceae).
Distribution: Native to Temperate Eurasia and North Africa, but widely cultivated and often naturalized.
Medicinal usage: This species, and its near relative, narrow-fruited watercress (N. microphyllum), are very rich in vitamin C and were formerly much utilized to prevent outbreaks of the feared disease scurvy (see Citrus). They were also used for tuberculosis, paralysis, epilepsy, and constipation.
Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos (c. 460-370 B.C.) considered watercress a digestive stimulant, and also prescribed it for cough. English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) states that a lotion, made from bruised leaves or juice will free the face from blotches, spots, and blemishes. In Denmark, in the 1600s, fresh leaves were added to wine, and this decoction was utilized to rinse the teeth, ”removing filthiness, and resetting loose teeth.” Leaves, boiled in wine, were taken for painful urination.
In modern herbal medicine, Nasturtium species are regarded as important antioxidants, lowering the risk of cancer. They act as a diuretic, and also benefit the liver function. They are also used for colds, bronchitis, catarrh, gingivitis, and shingles. Taken in large quantities, watercress acts as a purgative.
Other usage: Widely used in salads and as a vegetable. It is much valued in cold countries, as it is an evergreen and can be harvested most of the year. In Ancient Rome, the plant was cultivated in irrigated ponds, a practice, which today takes place in numerous countries around the world. Seeds are ground and used as mustard.
Note: The name scurvy-grass refers to its usage as a remedy to prevent scurvy, while the specific name officinale indicates the medicinal properties of the plant.
Common watercress (Nasturtium officinale), growing in a small stream in the Modi Khola Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Woman with wild foods, collected in the forest: watercress and young ferns. – Chitre, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Sacred lotus, Indian lotus, bean-of-India, Egyptian bean.
Distribution: From Iran through the Indian Subcontinent, east to southern China, Taiwan, and Japan, through Southeast Asia, Malaysia, and Indonesia to New Guinea and northern Australia.
Medicinal usage: The rhizome, leaves, and seeds are widely used in traditional Indian and Oriental medicine for treatment of numerous ailments. Leaves are used against vomiting of blood, nose-bleeding, and blood in the urine, flowers are used for diarrhea, cholera, fever, and intense thirst, and rhizomes have diuretic, anti-diabetic, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Other usage: All parts of the plant are edible, in particular rhizome and seeds. Flowers are cultivated as ornamentals.
Notes: The lotus, called padma, is an ancient sacred symbol in the four main Indian religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. It is associated with the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, Lakshmi, and Saraswati, Vishnu often being described as the ‘Lotus-eyed One’. The lotus flower spouts from his navel, while he assumes the Yoga Nidra position, and it uncovers Brahma, creator of the World, sitting in lotus position. To Buddhists, the lotus is seen as a symbol of purity in a dirty world. Despite often growing in muddy water, the plant produces a wonderful flower. A widely used Buddhist mantra is Om Mani Padme Hum, which loosely translates as ‘Hail Jewel in the Lotus Flower’, the jewel, naturally, being The Buddha.
Read more about the various Indian religions on this website, see Religion.
A large growth of sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), near Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Flower, fruit, and leaf of sacred lotus, near Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Despite often growing in muddy water, the lotus produces a wonderful flower. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The lotus flower sprouts from Vishnu’s navel, while he assumes the Yoga Nidra position. This picture shows a Khmer rock carving in the Stung Kbal Spean river bed, near Siem Reap, Cambodia, depicting the reclining Vishnu, and a woman with lotus flowers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
White-breasted waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus), walking on lotus leaves, Tissa Wewa Lake, southern Sri Lanka. – Read more about animal life around Tissa Wewa on this website, see Travel episodes: Sri Lanka 1982-1983 – The elephant charmer. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Neopicrorhiza kurrooa, see Picrorhiza kurrooa.
English name: Olive tree.
Family: Olive family (Oleaceae).
Distribution: Native around the Mediterranean Sea. Widely cultivated in other subtropical areas.
Medicinal usage: Since biblical times, olive oil has been used to soften and beautify the skin, and it is also a good remedy against dry hair. When taken daily, it may protect against heart disease, and it may also lower the cholesterol level in the blood. New research has shown that it may prevent stroke, breast and colon cancer, arthritis, gout, and migraine. Warm oil, dripped into the ear, can relieve earache. The oil is also used as a laxative. An infusion of the leaves is taken for infections, colds, fever, flu, meningitis, herpes, shingles, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diarrhoea. It is also applied to wounds and psoriasis.
Other usage: Olive trees have been cultivated for more than 3000 years because of the excellent edible oil, extracted from the fruit flesh and seeds. The timber is used for carving and turning.
Notes: The Latin name of the olive tree, Olea, is the origin of the word ‘oil’.
Olive trees can live for more than 2000 years. Some specimens in the Gethsemane Garden, beneath the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, were young trees, when Jesus lived in this area.
According to the Old Testament, Moses made a decree that people in charge of tending the olive groves were excepted from doing military service.
In Greek mythology, Athene was the goddess of war, but also protector of cities. She vied with the god of the seas, Poseidon, who was going to be the tutelary deity of a newly established town at the Saronian Bay. Poseidon let a spring well forth, but unfortunately it was salty. Athene created the olive tree, and the population of the town elected her. In her honour, the town was named Athens, and groves of olive trees were planted around it.
Olive trees (Olea europaea) can live for more than 2000 years. This ancient, gnarled tree was photographed on the Lassithi Plain, Crete. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Olive flowers are very small. This picture shows a flowering olive tree near Pamukkale, Turkey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Trader, selling olives and olive oil, Mudanya, north-western Turkey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Orchis, see Dactylorhiza.
English name: Ginseng.
Family: Ivy family (Araliaceae).
Distribution: The genus Panax comprises 12 species, American ginseng (P. quinquefolius), which is found in eastern North America, and 11 species in eastern Asia (China, Korea, eastern Siberia, the Himalaya, and Vietnam).
Medicinal usage: For medical usage, the most popular species are Chinese ginseng (P. ginseng) and American ginseng. The first use of ginseng in Chinese medicine dates back to the famous classic herbal book 神農本草經 (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing), which was written c. 200 A.D., its origin being attributed to the famous emperor and herbalist Shen Nong, who ruled about 2750 B.C. In this book, it is said: “Ginseng is a tonic to the five viscera, quieting the animal spirits, stabilizing the soul, preventing fear, expelling the vicious energies, brightening the eye, improving vision (…) and prolonging life.”
Today, ginseng is mainly taken for its restorative qualities, improving a poor immune system, increasing physical endurance, and treating chronic infection, diabetes, headache from exhaustion, depression, and, taken with Ginkgo biloba, dementia. It is also widely regarded as an excellent aphrodisiac, being a good remedy for erectile dysfunction, again taken with Ginkgo.
American ginseng was used by several Native American tribes for e.g. headache, ear ache, fever, stomach problems, and female infertility, and also as an aphrodisiac. Creeks used it for lung problems, the Chippewa people to prolong the life of a dying person.
Naga people of north-eastern India dry and grind roots of Himalayan ginseng (P. pseudoginseng), taking the powder orally to treat heart problems, diabetes, cancer, tuberculosis, and ulcers, and also as an aphrodisiac.
Other usage: Naga people eat the leaves of Himalayan ginseng as a vegetable. – Among several Native American tribes, American ginseng was regarded as a magic herb. Creeks would carry the root to ward off evil spirits.
Notes: Today, Chinese ginseng and American ginseng are both extremely rare in the wild, having been seriously over-harvested. American ginseng may even be extinct in the wild state. Both species, however, are widely cultivated, and, therefore, not at risk of becoming extinct.
The name ginseng is a corruption of the Chinese word 人參 (ren shen), meaning ‘man-root’, in allusion to the root of Chinese ginseng, which resembles a human torso with two legs (see photo).
Ginseng root, probably from American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), sold as Chinese medicine, price US$ 110 per pound. – Chinatown, Flushing, Long Island, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fruiting Himalayan ginseng (Panax pseudoginseng), Rolwaling Valley, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Perilla fruticosa, see Elsholtzia fruticosa.
Petasites hybridus (Tussilago hybrida)
English names: Common butterbur, lagwort, umbrella plant, bog rhubarb, flapperdock, blatterdock, capdockin, bogshorns, butterdock, plague flower.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: Native to southern Europe and western Asia. Naturalized in northern Europe and North America.
Medicinal usage: For more than 2000 years, butterbur has been used to treat a variety of ailments, including fever, cough, lung diseases, spasms, and pains. A former name of this plant was plague flower, as it was believed to be one of the few helpful remedies for the dreaded disease. In his book A niewe Herball (1578), English botanist and antiquary Henry Lyte (1529?-1607) calls it “a soveraigne medicine against the plague,” and English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) writes: “The roots dried and beaten to powder and drunke in wine is a soveraigne medicine against the plague and pestilent fevers, because it provoketh sweat and driveth from the heart all venim and evill heate; it killeth worms. The powder of the roots cureth all naughty filthy ulcers, if it be strewed therein.”
Herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) says: “It is a great strengthener of the heart and cheerer of the vital spirits. (…) if the powder thereof be taken in wine, it also resisteth the force of any other poison. (…) The decoction of the root in wine is singularly good for those that wheeze much or are shortwinded. (…) The powder of the root taketh away all spots and blemishes of the skin.”
Butterbur was also regarded as anti-allergenic and anti-inflammatory. Fresh leaves were applied to burns. The juice, mixed with pigeon dung, was used against sunburn and freckles.
Today, butterbur extract is used to prevent migraine and to treat allergic rhinitis (inflammation of the inside of the nose).
Other usage: In former times, the root was chewed, as it was thought to protect against ‘bad air’ (such as bad breath).
In his book The British Flora (1838), botanist William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) writes: “The early flowering of this rank weed induces the Swedish farmers to plant it near their beehives.”
In England, the seeds have been used for love divination. They had to be sowed by a young, unmarried woman half an hour before sunrise on a Friday morning, in a lonesome place, and she must strew the seeds gradually on the grass, saying these words:
I sow, I sow!
Then, my own dear,
Come here, come here,
And mow and mow!
The seed being scattered, she will see her future husband mowing with a scythe a short distance from her.
Notes: Extract of the fresh plant, but not the purified extract, is toxic to the liver.
The species has both male and female plants, and female plants were given the name Tussilago hybrida by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), as he thought they were a hybrid between the male plants and white butterbur (Petasites albus). In northern Europe, female plants are very rare, and almost all populations are clones of male plants.
The name Petasites is from the Greek petasos, meaning ’broad-brimmed hat’, like the common name umbrella plant referring to the very large leaves, growing to one metre across. These leaves appear in two of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, The Ugly Duckling and The Happy Family. The name butterbur supposedly stems from the habit of using the large leaves to wrap butter in during hot weather, while another popular name, lagwort, refers to the late appearance of the leaves, which do not usually unfold, until the flowers have faded. ‘Dock’ is a term applied to various plants with large leaves, here used in the popular names flapperdock, blatterdock, and butterdock.
In northern Europe, female plants of common butterbur (Petasites hybridus) are very rare, and almost all populations are clones of male plants. – This picture is from Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Leaves of common butterbur can grow to one metre across, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Peucedanum graveolens, see Anethum graveolens.
Picrorhiza kurrooa (Neopicrorhiza kurrooa)
English name: Black hellebore.
Family: Plantain family (Plantaginaceae).
Distribution: Western Himalaya, from Pakistan to Uttarakhand.
Medicinal usage: For thousands of years, the rhizome has been used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine for digestive problems, jaundice, fever, allergy, asthma, skin problems, dysentery, and diarrhoea.
Notes: By the 1990s, the species had been harvested to near-extinction. In 1997, it was banned from international trade and is today a protected species. However, illegal collecting still takes place.
The generic name Picrorhiza is from the Greek picros (‘bitter’) and rhiza (‘root’). The specific name kurrooa is derived from karu, the Punjabi name of the plant, which also means bitter.
One of the characteristics of black hellebore (Picrorhiza kurrooa) is the long stamens, which are several times longer than the corolla. – Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pinus roxburghii (P. longifolia)
English names: Chir pine, long-leaved pine.
Pinus wallichiana (P. excelsa, P. nepalensis)
English name: Blue pine.
Family: Pine family (Pinaceae).
Distribution: Both species are found in montane areas from Afghanistan across the Himalaya to south-eastern Tibet, blue pine also in south-western China.
Medicinal usage: In Ayurvedic medicine, the leaves of chir pine are used as a diuretic, the oil for rheumatic ailments, the resin for inflammations and various skin problems. In Nepal, the resin of chir pine is used for gastric problems, and also applied to cuts and wounds. The Tamang people of Nepal make tea from the resin of chir pine and drink it for cough and chest problems. A similar tea of blue pine is used for wounds.
Other usage: The seeds are roasted and eaten. In Nepal, honey dew from aphids living on the needles is eaten as candy. The wood is used for timber and furniture, and also to make charcoal. It yields turpentine. Paper, soap, cosmetics, paint, varnish, rubber, polish, and bangles are made from the resin. Tannin from the bark is used for dyeing. – Among the Tamang people of Nepal, blue pine is used for worship in temples.
The bark of chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) is thick and deeply fissured. – Helambu, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tapping resin from the trunk of a chir pine, Sairopa, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Forest of blue pine (Pinus wallichiana), growing on a steep, rocky slope in the Marsyangdi Valley, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The cones of blue pine are much longer than those of chir pine, to 25 cm, while its needles are much shorter. – Langtang National Park, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Plaso monosperma, see Butea monosperma.
Podophyllum, see Sinopodophyllum.
Polypara, see Houttuynia cordata.
English name: Common purslane.
Family: Purslane family (Portulacaceae).
Distribution: Today almost cosmopolitan. Possibly native to the Middle East or India, but introduced by Man elsewhere at an early stage, and present in North America in pre-Columbian times.
Medicinal usage: In Ancient Rome, the healing properties of purslane were so highly esteemed that naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) advised wearing the plant as an amulet to expel all evil. Today, purslane is recommended for treatment of abnormal uterine bleeding. It is antibacterial and antiscorbutic, and is regarded as a diuretic and a febrifuge. A poultice of the leaves is applied to burns, skin diseases, and insect stings. Juice of the leaves is used for earaches. The seeds are utilized as a vermifuge.
Other usage: In Europe, eaten as a vegetable since Antiquity, and also by native Americans in pre-Columbian times. Young leaves are excellent in salads. Seeds are ground into a powder and mixed with cereals in bread, pancakes etc. Ash of the burned plant is used as a substitute for salt.
Note: Greek scholar Theophrastos (c. 371 – c. 287 B.C.) mentions this plant, which he calls andrakhne, stating that it must be sown in April.
Common purslane (Portulaca oleracea), growing among flagstones, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Cowslip, key flower, Herb Peter, Our Lady’s keys, palsy wort.
Family: Primrose family (Primulaceae).
Distribution: Temperate Eurasia.
Medicinal usage: Cowslip has been used medicinally for hundreds of years, e.g. by the Celtic druids. It was utilized as a treatment for rheumatism, paralysis, spasms, and cramps, hence its popular name palsy wort. An oil, extracted from the flowers, was used to treat bruises.
Today, it is recommended for treating hyper-activity and sleeplessness, especially in children. Dried flowers and leaves are used for tea, a fine remedy for restlessness and insomnia. Flowers and root are used as a diaphoretic and diuretic, and as an expectorant for treating bronchitis, laryngitis, fever, cough, and flu.
Other usage: In former days, the fragrant flowers were used to flavour wine and vinegar, and young leaves were eaten as salad.
English herbalist William Turner (1508-1568) mentions the alleged quality of cowslip to banish freckles and wrinkles: ”Some weomen, we find, sprinkle ye floures of cowslip wt whyte wine and after still it and wash their faces wt that water to drive wrinkles away and to make them fayre in the eyes of the worlde, rather than in the eyes of God, whom they are not afrayd to offend.” This belief probably stemmed from the ‘freckles’ on the cowslip petals. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, Our Lord had put these freckles on the flowers, signifying to people that they could be used to remove freckles.
Notes: The generic as well as the specific name refer to the early flowering of cowslip, primula being a diminutive of prima (’first’), whereas veris is the genitive case of ver (’spring’). The name cowslip is interpreted in various ways. According to some authorities, it is a corruption of the Old English word cuslyppe, meaning ‘cow dung’. This probably refers to the favoured habitat of this species, namely dry slopes, grazed by cattle. Others claim that cowslip is a corruption of ‘cow’s leek’, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word leac, meaning ‘plant’.
The names ‘key flower’ and ‘Herb Peter’ refer to the inflorescence, resembling a bunch of keys, which was the emblem of St. Peter. According to legend, St. Peter heard that some people were trying to enter heaven by the back door, instead of the front gates, which were guarded by him. Hurrying towards the back door, he dropped his keys, which took root and became cowslips. German names of the species include Echte Schlüsselblume, meaning ‘true key flower’, and Himmelsschlüssel, meaning ‘keys of heaven’.
In Norse mythology, the flower was dedicated to Freya, the Key Virgin, a goddess associated with love, beauty, and fertility. When the heathens converted to Christianity, the plant was instead dedicated to Virgin Mary, hence the popular name ‘Our Lady’s keys’.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), a mischievous puck, or spirit, Robin Goodfellow, meets a fairy, asking her what she is doing. She says:
And I serve the fairy queen
To dew her orbs upon the green,
The cowslips tall her pensioners be,
In their gold coats spots you see,
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their saviours,
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
Modified into today’s English:
I serve the fairy queen,
Adding dew drops to her flowers in the grass.
The tall cowslips are her servants.
In their golden coats you can see spots.
Those are rubies, gifts from the fairies.
Their sweet smell comes from those freckles.
Now I must go to find some dewdrops,
And hang a pearl earring on every cowslip flower.
Read about other primrose species elsewhere on this website, see Plants: Primroses.
Cowslip (Primula veris) in morning light, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
“In their gold coats spots you see, those be rubies, fairy favours.” – Cowslip, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common self-heal, heal-all, woundwort, carpenter’s herb.
Family: Mint family (Lamiaceae).
Distribution: Probably a native of Temperate Eurasia and North Africa, but widely naturalized, especially in North America, where it is found from Newfoundland south to Florida, and across the continent.
Medicinal usage: English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) writes: “There is not a better wound herbe in the world than that of Self-Heale (…) for this very herbe, without the mixture of any other ingredient (…) will be brought into the form of a salve, which will heal any green wounde, even in the first intention, after a very wonderful manner. The decoction of Prunell, made with wine and water, doth join together and make whole and sound all wounds, both inward and outward.” – Another herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), says: “Self-Heal whereby when you are hurt, you may heal yourself. It is an especial herb for inward or outward wounds.”
English botanist William Coles (1626–1662), also called William Cole, writes in Adam in Eden, or Nature’s Paradise. The History of Plants, Herbs, Flowers (1657): “(…) Brunella, from Brunellen, which is a name given unto it by the Germans, because it cureth that inflammation of the mouth which they call ‘die Breuen’.” (Cole was mistaken, as the German name of the plant is Braunelle, and the inflammation, which is not in the mouth, but in the throat, is called Bräune).
Today, self-heal is still used for wounds and quinsy.
Notes: The generic name, formerly spelt Brunella, is from the German name of the plant, Braunelle, referring to the usage of the plant against quinsy (in German Bräune).
In his delightful book All about Weeds, American botanist Edwin Spencer (1881-1964) writes: “It is a strange plant in that one seldom finds it in abundance anywhere, and yet it is found everywhere. A man, who had spent seven years in Japan, and who had lived on nearly every island in the archipelago, said that he never failed to find this little plant wherever he went, and that although he had been in many nations of the world he had never entered one, where Prunella was not present to greet him – not many plants, but always enough to attract his attention.”
In former days, common self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) was a very common field weed, but today you only occasionally come across large growths, such as this one in the Bluntau Valley, Salzburg, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of common self-heal, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Prunus amygdalus (P. dulcis)
English name: Almond tree.
Family: Rose family (Rosaceae).
Distribution: Native to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkestan. Widely cultivated around the Mediterranean, in Central Asia, California, and elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: Almond is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. It reduces the risk of cancer, dementia, and Alzheimer, lowers cholesterol levels in the blood, and is an aid in weight loss. It is used for chapped lips, and also as a mild laxative. Formerly, it was taken as an aphrodisiac.
Other usage: Seeds of sweet almond (P. amygdalus var. dulcis) are edible and delicious. They are used in cookies, desserts, Mughal curries, and to make syrup. They contain up to 50% oil, utilized as edible oil and in the production of marzipan. The oil, and the residues after pressing, are used in the cosmetic industry.
Notes: Bitter almond (P. amygdalus var. amara) contains amygdalin, a glucoside. When ingested, this glucoside is split into three substances: glucose, bitter oil, and the highly toxic Prussic acid. Fatal dosage of Prussic acid is c. 1 mg/kg body weight, so ingestion of many bitter almonds can be risky. Sweet almonds, however, contain very little amygdalin.
In the Hebrew Tanakh, the almond was a symbol of promise due to its early flowering. In the Christian Bible, it is mentioned ten times, beginning with Genesis, 43:11, where it is described as “among the best of fruits.” According to legend, the rod of Aaron bore sweet almonds on one side and bitter on the other; if the Israelites followed the Lord, the sweet almonds would ripen, but if they were to forsake the path of the Lord, the bitter ones would predominate.
The generic name Prunus is from the Greek prounos (plum tree), while amygdalus, from the Greek amygdalos, is the classical name of the almond tree.
Flowering almond tree (Prunus amygdalus), Mezzouna, Tunisia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Genesis, 43:11, almond is described as “among the best of fruits.” – Fruiting almond tree, Gaucin, Andalusia, Spain. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Wild cherry, morello.
English name: Sour cherry.
Family: Rose family (Rosaceae).
Distribution: The native area of wild cherry was probably from France across Europe to Caucasus, while that of sour cherry probably was the Near East. Both species are now cultivated in numerous countries around the world.
Medicinal usage: A traditional advice says that cherries are a good remedy for gout, and, in fact, a modern Norwegian experiment has shown that cherries do indeed speed up excretion of uric acid. The level of uric acid in the blood of ten healthy women fell about a fifth after ingestion of cherries. The dark red colour of sour cherries and red morellos stems from antocyanins, and research indicates that these substances can prevent rheumatism, diabetes, and colon cancer. Antocyanins are also good anti-oxidants, which can subdue infections.
Other usage: The delicious fruits are an ingredience in countless cakes and desserts, and much utilized to make jam and wine. A kind of liqueur is made from an extract of berries and crushed stones. The wood is very durable, utilized for many items, e.g. furniture, violins, and pipes, and formerly also for parts of windmill machinery. The leaves were used for tea, and in war times they were crushed to make a substitute for tobacco.
Danish herbalist Simon Paulli (1603-1680) states that young girls apply cherry resin to a piece of cloth, moisten it in water and rub their curly hair with it, to avoid it becoming dishevelled.
Notes: Bark, leaves, and stones contain amygdalin (see Prunus amygdalus above).
The English name cherry – like e.g. the German Kirsch and the Italian cerasa – is from the Latin cerasus, which was adopted from the Greek kerasos, the ancient Greek name of the cherry tree. Cerasus was also the ancient Roman name of the modern town Giresun, situated on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, from where cherries during the Roman Era were exported to Rome. The specific name avium, from the Latin avis (‘bird’), relates to the fact that various bird species love cherries.
In his book Det tabte Land (’The Lost Country’, from 1919), Danish poet Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) describes the cherry tree in this way: ”Each tree is like a white-clad cupola, full of coolness, sweetness, and sunshine, the entire tree a single sound of all the humming, dizzy bees – a wonder of light, a sphere of bliss.” – This picture shows a profusion of flowers on a wild cherry tree (Prunus avium), Halskov Vænge, Falster, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fruits, called morellos, of a cultivated form of wild cherry (Prunus avium). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Autumn foliage of cherry trees is a lovely yellow. This kitten is sitting on a swing, surrounded by fallen leaves from a large morello tree. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pueraria montana ssp. lobata
English names: Kudzu, Japanese arrowroot.
Family: Pea family (Fabaceae).
Distribution: Native to southern China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, New Guinea, and the Pacific. Introduced elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: Kudzu, in Chinese gé gēn, is widely used in traditional medicine for e.g. measles, headache, dizziness, tinnitus, dysentery, diarrhoea, colds, fever, and stiff back and neck. Root, flowers, and leaves are excellent antioxidants. In Japan, an herbal drink is made from the powdered root.
Other usage: Kudzu has been used for erosion control, especially in the United States. In Brazil and other places, it is utilized as a soil improver due to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in its root. It is also used for grazing, especially by goats. The root contains starch and has been used for food in East Asia for hundreds of years. A fine, grapefruit-tasting jelly is made from the flowers. The stems fibers are used for making baskets, clothes, and paper. In southern U.S., kudzu is utilized to make compost, soap, and lotions.
Notes: The species is regarded as a serious invasive in the United States and New Zealand, and in the latter country it has been declared an ‘unwanted organism’.
Kudzu (Pueraria montana ssp. lobata), photographed in Taiwan, where it is a native. The lower picture shows its furry seed pods. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Pomegranate.
Family: Loosestrife family (Lythraceae).
Distribution: Probably native to Iran, eastwards to western Himalaya, but is widely cultivated, and has become naturalized around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East.
Medicinal usage: Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) recommended pomegranate root bark to expel tapeworms – an efficient, but nauseating method. Juice and rind are anti-inflammatory, having a high content of anti-oxidants. Pomegranate is probably an efficient remedy against breast, colon, and prostate cancer. The leaves, which have antibacterial properties, are applied to wounds. In Ayurvedic medicine, the bitter rind is used to treat dysentery, and in the West for diarrhoea.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental.
Pomegranate juice is very refreshing. It is also added to the alcoholic drinks Grenadine and Campari, adding a bright red colour and a bitter taste.
In Morocco, an extract of unripe fruits is used for tanning leather goods.
Notes: The word pomegranate is derived from the French pomme (‘apple’), and the Italian granata (‘maroon’).
In Greek mythology, King Peleus was about to marry the beautiful sea nymph Thetis, but, unfortunately, they forgot to invite the goddess of strife, Eris, to their wedding. As a revenge, Eris let a golden ‘apple’ (in reality, a pomegranate, as the edible apple was unknown in Ancient Greece) roll in among the guests. In the fruit shell, she had carved: “For the most beautiful one.” Three of the goddesses, Hera, Athene, and Aphrodite, began quarreling about the ownership of this title, and Zeus referred them to Prince Paris of Troy. The three goddesses went to Troy, each promising Paris a reward, if he chose her: Hera promised him power, Athene fame and wisdom, and Aphrodite the most beautiful woman. He chose the latter – hereby indirectly causing the long siege of Troy, related in Homer’s poem Iliad.
Pomegranate also appears in Christian mythology. Genesis, Chapter 3, 1-7: ”Now the serpent (…) said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” – The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” – “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food (…) and she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”
In northern Europe, the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is often called ’apple’, but this must be a mistake, as the edible apple was unknown around the Mediterranean, when Genesis was written. Today, pomegranate is considered to be a more likely candidate.
Flowering pomegranate (Punica granatum), Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pomegranates for sale, Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pyrethrum parthenium, see Tanacetum parthenium.
Pyrus aucuparia, see Sorbus aucuparia.
English names: Common oak, English oak, pedunculate oak.
English names: Sessile oak, Cornish oak, durmast oak.
English name: White oak.
Family: Beech family (Fagaceae).
Distribution: Common oak and sessile oak are both native to most of Europe, and further east through Turkey to the Caucasus and northern Iran. White oak is found in central and eastern North America, from southern Canada south through Maine and Minnesota to Texas and Florida.
Medicinal usage: In former days, a decoction of the astringent oak bark and leaves was utilized for treating countless ailments, e.g. diarrhoea, frostbite, haemorrhoids, rashes, epilepsy, coughing blood, poisoning, hair loss, volvulus, tuberculosis, and throat infections, to mention but a few. A poultice of fresh leaves was applied to wounds.
Other usage: All three species are cultivated as ornamentals. Oaks are very important timber trees, utilized for e.g. boats, furniture, musical instruments, and casks for storage of wine and liqueur, and in former days also for houses and ships. The astringent bark is excellent for tanning. In the old days, acorns were ground and roasted as a substitute for coffee, and they were a most important food for domestic animals, especially pigs, which were roaming the forests in search of them.
Notes: In large parts of Europe, the oak was a sacred tree, dedicated to the highest gods; in Ancient Greece to Zeus, in Rome to Jupiter, in Norse religion to Thor, the god of thunder, and in Celtic religion to Dagda, god of manliness, fertility, and wisdom. Celtic druids often performed their rituals in sacred oak groves, especially worshipping the mistletoes (Viscum album, see elsewhere on this page), growing on the trees.
In Celtic mythology, Blodeuwedd (‘Flower-Face’) is a woman, made from flowers of oak, meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), and broom (Cytisus scoparius, see elsewhere on this page).
The scientific name of the genus, Quercus, probably stems from the name of the Lithuanian god of thunder, Perkunas. The word oak is from the Anglo-Saxon ek, in ancient Germanic aik, of uncertain origin and meaning.
Pictures of other oak species are found elsewhere on this website, see Plants: Ancient and huge trees.
The common oak (Quercus robur) can grow to an impressive size. This ancient tree north of Copenhagen, Denmark, has a circumference of c. 10.3 metres, thus being among the three largest oaks of the country. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ancient sessile oak (Quercus petraea), Lake Almind, Silkeborg, Denmark. This species can be told from the common oak by its darker, shiny, less indented leaves. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common oak has long-stalked acorns, while sessile oak, as its name implies, has sessile acorns. – Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fallen acorns of white oak (Quercus alba), Massachusetts, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Castor oil plant, castor bean, Palm of Christ.
Family: Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae).
Distribution: Castor oil plant is probably indigenous to the Middle East and north-eastern Africa. It has been widely cultivated elsewhere for thousands of years. Today, it is a widespread weed in almost all tropical and subtropical areas.
Medicinal usage: Research has shown that this species possesses anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antipyretic, anti-asthmatic, and antihistamine properties. In Nepal, the plant is utilized for numerous ailments. Juice of the root is used for skin problems, diarrhoea and dysentery, and as a purgative. Powder from the dried root is used for jaundice and nervous disorders. A paste of the bark is applied to cuts and wounds. A poultice of the leaves is applied to treat boils and rheumatism, and also to the forehead to relieve fever and headache. A paste of the flowers is applied to infected wounds. Oil from the seeds is used for haemorrhoids, liver problems, rheumatism, diarrhoea, gout, and skin diseases, such as ringworm. Cotyledons are given to infants to expel intestinal worms, and a paste of them is used for scabies and gout.
The Naga people of north-eastern India apply leaves to the forehead to relieve headache, and a paste of the leaves is applied as a poultice on boils and pimples. As an antidote, seeds are roasted and eaten, and as a purgative they are mixed with seed husks of Rhus simialata. – In the Nepal lowland, women eat one cotyledon per day as a contraceptive.
In former days, the seed oil was used as a powerful laxative.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental. Bodo and Naga tribals of India feed the leaves to larvae of the eri silkmoth (Samia cynthia ssp. ricini). An extract of the plant is used as insecticide. Necklaces and bracelets are made from the seeds. In Nepal, the seeds are fed to mad dogs to kill them. The seed oil is an effective engine lubricant. In Ancient Egypt, where it has been cultivated for at least 6,000 years, the seed oil was used for lamps. The dried plant is utilized as fuel, and Naga people use it as fertilizer.
Notes: The seeds are very poisonous, but after pressing, the oil is not toxic, as the poison stays in the residue. The plant produces an abundance of pollen and is regarded as extremely allergenic.
The generic name Ricinus is Latin for ‘tick’, referring to the seed, which resembles certain species of ticks. The name Palm of Christ refers to the similarity between Christ and this plant: As the belief in Christ can help psychological problems, Ricinus oil is able to cure a variety of physical ailments.
Castor oil plants (Ricinus communis), Taichung, Taiwan. The upper picture shows a plant with a young red leaf and an inflorescence with red female flowers above and white male flowers below. In the lower picture, female flowers are visited by a honey bee. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rorippa, see Nasturtium.
English names: Rue, Herb of Grace, Herb of Repentance.
Family: Citrus family (Rutaceae).
Distribution: Probably native to the Balkans and Ukraine. It was cultivated in other parts of Europe as early as the 10th Century, today almost worldwide.
Medicinal usage: Rue was much used by the Ancients. Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos (c. 460-370 B.C.) recommended it, and it was a major ingredient of an antidote to poison, used by Mithridates VI of Pontus (134-63 B.C.). Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) stated that rue made the eye sight sharp and clear, especially when the vision had become dim through over-exertion of the eyes, and painters of his time would devour a great quantity of it. In the Middle Ages, monks who were copying manuscripts in dim light would also use it.
Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on wellness, which was based on the تقويم الصحة (Taqwīm as‑siḥḥah, or ‘Maintenance of Health’), an Arab medical treatise, written by a Christian physician, Ibn Buṭlān (died 1068), states that rue has the following properties: “Its nature is warm and dry in the third degree. Its optimum is when grown near a fig tree. Its medical usage is that it sharpens the eyesight and dissipates flatulence. Its dangers are that it augments the sperm and dampens the desire for coitus. This can be neutralized by consuming foods that multiply the sperm.” [The expression “grown near a fig tree” alludes to the fact that rue prefers to grow in slightly shady places.]
In Denmark, in the 1400s, leaves of rue and laurel were crushed and mixed with earthworms and vinegar, and this ointment was applied to the forehead to treat headache. In the 1500s, a mixture of crushed rue and dog shit was applied to bubos (plague boils). In 1625, Pietro Piperno, a Neapolitan physician, recommended rue for epilepsy and vertigo, and if you were suffering from the former, you should wear this herb around your neck. English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) writes: “If a man be anointed with the juice of rue, the poison of wolf’s bane, mushrooms, or todestooles, the biting of serpents, stinging of scorpions, spiders, bees, hornets and wasps will not hurt him.” – Another English herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), recommends an ointment of rue for sciatica and pains in the joints, and the juice for “the shaking fits of agues [malaria], to take a draught before the fit comes.” He also says that ”the juice thereof warmed in a pomegranate shell or rind, and dropped into the ears, helps the pains of them. The juice of it and fennel, with a little honey, and the gall of a cock put thereunto, helps the dimness of the eyesight.” In Denmark, in the early 1800s, a mixture of rue and honey was applied to the umbilicus to expel intestinal worms.
In today’s herbal medicine, rue is considered to be stimulating and antispasmodic, and is often employed, in form of a warm infusion, as an efficient remedy for menstrual flow. It is also used for headache connected with over-exertion, rheumatism, sprains, gall bladder problems, hysteria, cough, colic, and flatulence. Externally, an ointment of bruised leaves will ease the severe pain of sciatica. A strong decoction of the plant, when applied to the chest, is useful for chronic bronchitis.
Formerly, the leaves were used by farmers to treat croup in poultry, and also various cattle diseases.
Other usage: In many parts of Europe, during the Middle Ages, rue was considered a powerful defence against witches, and it was often used in spells. Later, judges would carry rue to protect them from contagious ‘jail fever’ (typhoid). – An old word says that rue-water, sprinkled in the house, would rid it of fleas.
Rue was widely used in Ancient Roman and Middle East cuisines, and today leaves and berries are an important ingredient in the Ethiopian cuisine. Rue is used as a flavouring in e.g. Greek, Croatian, and Italian cuisines, and it was once also used as flavouring in beer and vinegar. Porridge can be made from the seeds.
Formerly, at the ceremony usually preceding the Sunday High Mass, the holy water was sprinkled from brushes made of rue – hence its names Herb of Grace and Herb of Repentance.
Today, the species is widely cultivated as an ornamental. Cats dislike its smell and therefore avoid it, so if you dislike cats, plant rue in your garden! It is also used as an insect repellent, and in South India it is recommended as a snake repellent.
Notes: The generic name Ruta is from the Greek reuo (’to set free’), in allusion to the herb being an effective remedy for various diseases.
In Hamlet, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), rue is one of the flowers distributed by the mad Ophelia:
There’s fennel for you, and columbines,
There’s rue for you; and here’s some for me,
We may call it Herb-Grace o’ Sundays.
O, you must wear your rue with a difference…
In Richard III, Shakespeare again refers to rue:
Here, in this place,
I’ll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace;
Rue, even for ruth, shall shortly here be seen,
In the remembrance of a weeping queen.
Rue is a national herb of Lithuania and is often referred to in local folk songs as an attribute of young girls, associated with virginity and maidenhood. Only virgins could wear a rue at their wedding – a symbol of their purity. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruta_graveolens)
Cultivated common rue (Ruta graveolens), Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Salmalia malabarica, see Bombax ceiba.
English names: Common elder, black elder, pipe tree, bore tree.
Family: Moschatel family (Adoxaceae).
Distribution: Native to Europe and North Africa, east to Caucasus. Naturalized in North America.
Medicinal usage: Elder is highly esteemed for its medicinal properties. English herbalist John Evelyn (1620-1706) writes in praise of it: “If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness, or wounds.” Flowers and fruits are taken as tea or soup against sore throat, colds, flu, and fever, and as a diuretic. They are also an effective remedy for allergy and hay-fever.
In former days, the green bark of young branches was used for skin problems, and also as a laxative. Elderflower-water was used as a skin tonic.
Supposedly, sheep with foot-rot will be cured, when they eat bark and young foliage of elder.
Other usage: Elder is widely used for dyeing, the root and older bark yielding black, the leaves green, and the berries blue and purple. Wine is made from the berries.
When crushed, the leaves give off an unpleasant smell, supposedly warding off harmful insects. In the old days, gardeners would sprinkle a decoction of the leaves over young plants, and coachmen would tie a whisk of leaves to the mane of their horses to keep flies away. They were also used by farmers to drive away mice and moles.
The white and hard wood is used for turned items, and also to make fences. In an old rhyme, it is said:
An eldern stake and a black thorn ether [hedge]
Will make a hedge to last for ever.
Notes: The generic name Sambucus is from the Greek, sambuca, the name of an ancient string instrument of Asian origin, the wood of elder presumably used in its construction. This is puzzling, as you would expect instruments made of elder to be wind instruments, such as pan flutes. The name elder is from Anglo-Saxon, aeld, meaning ’fire’ – the hollow stems were used to kindle a fire. The popular names ‘pipe tree’ and ’bore tree’ stems from the habit of removing the soft pit of elder branches to make pipes. The same procedure would make pop-guns, popular among small boys. English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) writes: ”It is needless to write any description of this [the elder], since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree for the elder.”
A common medieval belief was that Judas hanged himself on an elder after betraying Jesus. In his Vision of Piers Plowman, medieval poet William Langland (c. 1332-1386) says:
Judas he japed with Jewen silver
And sithen an eller hanged hymselve.
It is quite puzzling that the smallish elder was believed to be the gallows for the traitor. One would think that it had to be a larger tree. However, Sir John Mandeville (1300-1371) was shown the “tree of eldre that Judas henge himself upon, for despeyr that he hadde, when he solde and betrayed oure Lord.” English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) discards this choice, declaring that the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) is ”the tree whereon Judas did hange himselfe.”
Another belief was that the cross, on which Jesus was crucified, was made of elder. An old rhyme runs thus:
Bour tree – bour tree: crooked rong
Never straight and never strong;
Ever bush and never tree
Since our Lord was nailed on thee.
Due to these old traditions, the elder became a symbol of sorrow and death.
In Denmark, and also in other countries, the elder was connected with magic. In it lived Hyldemor (’elder-tree mother’), who watched over it. If somebody cut down the tree, they would be haunted by her. In The Book of Herbs, Lady Rosalind Northcote (1873-1950) writes: ”There is a tradition that once when a child was put in a cradle of elder-wood, Hylde-Moer came and pulled it by the legs and would give it no peace, till it was lifted out. Permission to cut elder wood must always be asked first, and not until Hylde-Moer has given consent by keeping silence, may the chopping begin.”
A widespread popular belief was that the elder would ward off evil and protect from witches, and green elder branches were buried in graves to protect the dead from evil spirits. In Denmark, it was believed that if you were standing under an elder on Midsummer Eve, you would see the King of Elves ride by, attended by his retinue.
Flowering common elder (Sambucus nigra), displaying a profusion of flowers, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close–up of an inflorescence of common elder, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fruits of common elder, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Soapwort, latherwort, bouncing bet, sweet Betty, wild sweet William, fuller’s herb, hedge pink, Boston pink, lady-at-the-gate, mock-gilliflower.
Family: Carnation family (Caryophyllaceae).
Distribution: The native area of soapwort is probably the Middle East, but it has been commonly cultivated in Europe and North America for hundreds of years, now being widely naturalized, especially along roads and railways.
Medicinal usage: Formerly, soapwort was widely used in folk medicine, as a tonic, a diaphoretic, and a laxative, for rheumatism, and for jaundice and other visceral problems. A decoction was applied to itchy skin. It was also used to induce sneezing. In the old days, it was used for venereal diseases, when mercury had failed. Today, it is used for respiratory problems, such as bronchitis and laryngitis.
In his excellent book The Green Pharmacy, American botanist and herbalist James A. Duke (1929-2017) recommends the juice of soapwort as the best remedy, if you have been into contact with certain plants, which contain the toxic urushiol, e.g. Toxicodendron species, such as poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac, and also in parts of the mango tree (Mangifera indica). Simply smear the soapwort juice over the affected area. (A picture of poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is found elsewhere on this website, see: In praise of the colour red).
Incidentally, around 1900, on the island of Lolland, Denmark, a decoction of soapwort root was utilized to treat injuries from fire.
Other usage: Soapwort contains saponin, which was formerly used as lather. In the Middle Ages, the soapy liquid was utilized in wool mills to degrease and thicken woolen cloth, a process known as ‘fulling’, hence the popular name fuller’s herb. Despite being slightly toxic, the species is used as a culinary ingredient in preparing tahini, and in the Middle East, the root is used as an additive when making a popular sweet, halva. Added when brewing beer, it creates plenty of foam, the so-called ‘beer head’.
Notes: The generic name Saponaria is derived from the Latin sapo, meaning soap, which, like two of its common names, soapwort and latherwort, refers to its usage as lather. The specific name officinalis indicates its medicinal properties.
In her book Nature’s Garden, published in 1900, American historian and writer Neltje Blanchan de Graff Doubleday (1865-1918) writes about the occurrence of soapwort (or ‘bouncing bet’, as she calls it) in North America: “A stout, buxom, exhuberantly healthy lassie among flowers is bouncing bet, who long ago escaped from gardens, whither she was brought from Europe, and ran wild beyond colonial farms to roadsides, along which she has travelled over nearly our entire area.” In parts of the United States, it is considered a pest, which outcompetes native vegetation.
Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) often forms large growths, as here in southern Zealand, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sarothamnus scoparius, see Cytisus scoparius.
Saxifraga ciliata, see Bergenia ciliata.
English name: Saw palmetto.
Family: Palm family (Arecaceae).
Distribution: Atlantic coast of North America, from Texas through Florida to South Carolina.
Medicinal usage: Saw palmetto fruits have expectorant and soothing properties, and traditionally they have been taken for sore throat, cough, colds, bronchitis, and asthma. Research indicates that they are a good remedy for impotence. The fruits have also been used for migraine headache, chronic pelvic pain, bladder problems, and prostate cancer, but new research has not confirmed that the species is effective in treating any of these medical conditions. It may, however, be effective for treatment of benign enlargement of the prostate.
Formerly, the fruit was used by the Seminoles and the Bahamians to treat fish poisoning. It was also taken as an aphrodisiac.
Other usage: In pre-Columbian North America, saw palmetto fibres were widely traded. The leaves are still used for thatching by several indigenous peoples. The fruit is edible and nutritious and was collected for food by several native tribes.
Notes: Saw palmetto is extremely slow-growing, and some plants in Florida may be 500-700 years old.
The generic name Serenoa honours Sereno Watson (1826-1892), who joined the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel as botanist. From 1867 to 1872, this survey conducted field work in western United States. Later he became curator of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University. – The English name saw palmetto refers to the numerous sharp spines on the leaf-stalk.
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: White mustard.
Family: Mustard family (Brassicaceae).
Distribution: Native of the Mediterranean and West Asia. It has been introduced to numerous other countries, in many places become naturalized.
Medicinal usage: In his book Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, English gardener and vegetarian John Evelyn (1620-1706) writes: ”When in the leaf, mustard, especially in young seedling plants, is of incomparable effect to quicken and revive the spirits, strengthening the memory, expelling heaviness, (…) besides being an approved antiscorbutic.”
Today, white mustard is regarded as an emetic and a diuretic. It is also used for treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, and sciatica, for hypothyroidism, and for Raynaud’s disease (‘white fingers’). A paste of the seeds is applied to the skin to increase blood circulation.
Other usage: Cultivated as an oil plant. A mild mustard is produced from the seeds, more pungent mustards coming from the seeds of black mustard (Brassica nigra). Young leaves can be used as salad (compare Evelyn above).
Siliques of white mustard (Sinapis alba), cultivated in Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Old-fashioned method of producing mustard, by rolling a heavy stone ball over the seeds. – Melstedgård Agricultural Museum, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sinopodophyllum hexandrum (S. emodi, Podophyllum hexandrum, P. emodi)
English names: Asian may-apple, Himalayan may-apple, Indian may-apple, Chinese mandrake.
Family: Barberry family (Berberidaceae).
Distribution: Afghanistan, the Himalaya, Tibet, and western China.
Medicinal usage: This species, especially root and fruit, is anti-inflammatory and purgative, and it promotes the discharge of bile. The root is also used for rheumatism. The plant contains podophyllin, which interferes with cell division, thus being able to prevent growth of cancer cells. It has been used with success in treatment of ovarian cancer.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental. The fruit is edible when fully ripe, but toxic when unripe.
Notes: This species is extremely poisonous. Over-exploitation for medicinal purposes has endangered this plant. It is now a protected species, but illegal collecting is still taking place.
The generic name Sinopodophyllum is derived from the Latin sino (Chinese), and the Greek poús (foot) and phýllo (leaf), thus ‘Chinese foot-leaf’, referring to the large and broad leaves. The English name may-apple refers to the early flowering of a related American species, Podophyllum peltatum.
Asian may-apple (Sinopodophyllum hexandrum), its leaves still not fully unfolded, photographed in early June (top); with fruits, photographed in September (bottom). – Both pictures were taken at Langshisa, Langtang National Park, Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sisymbrium, see Nasturtium.
English names: Black nightshade, garden nightshade, garden huckleberry, hound’s berry, petty morel, duscle, wonder berry.
Family: Nightshade family (Solanaceae).
Distribution: Native of central and southern Europe. Naturalized in most parts of the world.
Medicinal usage: In traditional European folk medicine, black nightshade was used for inflammation, gout, swelled testicles, and ulcers. In former times, Arabs would apply crushed leaves to reduce pain and inflammation. Today, it is used as a diuretic, and for fever, colds, and cough.
In Nepal, black nightshade is used as a laxative, febrifuge, stimulant, and tonic, and for headache, painful joints, enlargement of the liver, haemorrhoids, dysentery, fever, and wounds, and the ripe fruit is used for diarrhoea, eye problems, and rabies. Juice of the leaves is used for dysentery, and it also makes a good mouth wash for ulcers. In Chinese medicine, it is used for fever, inflammation and cancer, and also as a diuretic. Among the Naga people of north-eastern India, an extract of the plant is used to relieve muscular pain, and a paste from it is applied to the skin to relieve stings from nettles and bees. Leaves and fruits are used for malaria, high blood pressure, and bladder infection. – In the Himalaya, the plant is regarded as an aphrodisiac.
In the United States, crushed leaves of black nightshade are applied to sunburns, and in the Amazon, a related species is used for all kinds of burns.
Other usage: Some subspecies of black nightshade contain a toxic alkaloid, solanin, but the content varies tremendously between the subspecies, and non-toxic forms are eaten as a vegetable in several Asian countries. In former times, non-toxic forms were also eaten as spinach around the Mediterranean. Ripe berries are eaten raw in several African and Asian countries.
Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum), Rueilli, Taiwan. The red flowers in the background are a species of balsam, Impatiens walleriana. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sorbus aucuparia (Pyrus aucuparia)
English names: Rowan, mountain ash.
Family: Rose family (Rosaceae).
Distribution: Native to Europe and W Asia.
Medicinal usage: As the content of vitamin C in rowan fruits is high, they were formerly taken to prevent scurvy. They were also utilized for e.g. diarrhoea, arthritis, and dysentery, and the bark was used for malaria. In modern herbal medicine, they are used for sore throat and laryngitis, and, due to their astringent properties, as a remedy for haemorrhoids and strangury. A decoction of the bark is given for diarrhoea and leucorrhoea (vaginal discharge).
Other usage: Over time, the wood of rowan has been utilized for many purposes. North of Copenhagen, Denmark, remains of a funnel-shaped cup, carved from rowan wood, has been found, dating back to the Stone Age (c. 5400-3900 B.C.), and from the Bronze Age, vessels have been found, with sticks of rowan wood stuck through the ears. Since the, the wood has been used for e.g. planks, chariots, wheel spokes, bridles, and pipes, the bark for tanning and dyeing, giving a reddish-brown colour. The fruits make an excellent jelly. Formerly, they were also used in Northern Europe to produce a strong spirit and wine, and the Welsh made beer from them.
Notes: The fruits are spread by birds, and sometimes seeds sprout in straw roofs or atop pruned trees. These epiphytes are called flying-rowan, and they were formerly believed to possess magical powers. In his book The Golden Bough (1890), Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer (1854-1941) writes that they were supposed to be “exceedingly effective against witchcraft: since it does not grow on the ground, witches have no power over it. If it is to have its full effect, it must be cut on Ascension Day.” Wearing a necklace of rowan berries would protect women against influence of witches. It was also a custom to tie twigs of rowan over stable doors to protect livestock from evil spirits.
The name mountain ash stems from the similarity of rowan leaves to the leaves of ash (Fraxinus excelsior).
In his book Myter VI: Pisangen (1932), Danish poet Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) describes rowan in this way: ”The loveliest tree, no fragrance is like a flowering rowan after rain – cool, sweet, tasty, the most beautiful breath in the world.”
Flowering rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), Fanø, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Free-standing rowan trees produce a profusion of fruits. – Öland, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Stachys officinalis (Stachys betonica, Betonica officinalis)
English names: Purple betony, wood betony, bishop’s wort.
Family: Mint family (Lamiaceae).
Distribution: Indigenous to Eurasia and North Africa, but widely cultivated elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: Betony was held in high esteem by the Greeks as well as the Romans. Greek-Roman botanist Antonius Musa (64-14 B.C.), chief physician to Emperor Augustus, maintained that it was a certain cure for no less than 47 diseases. An old Italian proverb says: “Sell your coat and buy betony,” while a Spanish proverb says: “He has as many virtues as betony.”
English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) tells us that it “preserveth the lives and bodies of men from the danger of epidemical diseases. It helpeth those that loathe and cannot digest their food.” He proceeds to say that the herb cures jaundice, palsy, convulsions, gout, dropsy, and head troubles, and that ”the powder mixed with honey is no less available for all sorts of colds or cough, wheezing, of shortness of breath and consumption,” and “the decoction made with mead and pennyroyal is good for putrid agues” [malaria]. Taken with wine it is good as a vermifuge, ”and also removes obstructions of the spleen and liver (…) gargled in the mouth easeth the toothache (…) It is a cure for the bites of mad dogs (…) A dram of the powder taken with a little honey in some vinegar is good for refreshing those that are wearied by travel. It stayeth bleeding at the nose and mouth, and helpeth those that spit blood, and is good for those that have a rupture and are bruised. The green herb bruised, or the juice, applied to any inward hurt, or outward wound in body or head will quickly heal and close it up. It will draw forth any broken bone or splinter, thorn or other thing gotten into the flesh, also healeth old sores or ulcers and boils.” [‘Stayeth’ is an old expression for ‘to stop’.]
In modern herbal medicine, an infusion is recommended for anxiety, headache, dizziness, and nerve pain.
Other usage: Formerly, the leaves were used to dye wool yellow.
Notes: The specific name officinalis indicates the medicinal properties of this plant. According to Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.), an earlier name of betony was Vettonica, named after the Vettones, a people living in Spain, who used it as herbal medicine. Modern authorities, however, claim that the word is from the Celtic bew (’head’) and ton (’good’), referring to its usage against headache.
In Ancient Rome, and during the Middle Ages, betony was regarded as a magic herb. Antonius Musa (see above) found betony effective against sorcery, and an Anglo-Saxon herbal recommends its use to prevent “frightful nocturnal goblins and terrible sights and dreams.” It was planted in churchyards and hung about the neck as an amulet or charm. Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) says that betony would protect “those that carried it about them,” being ”good against fearful visions” and an effective means of ”driving away devils and despair.”
In the Middle Ages, it was said that if you place a ring of fresh betony around adders, they dare not creep over it, but will fight and lash their tail, until they die. It was also claimed that stags, if wounded with a dart, will search out betony and be cured upon eating it. In the 1600s, it was told that if you had been bewitched by a woman, so that you could not love any other woman, you could drink pulverized betony and pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) with water, distilled on balm (Melissa officinalis), and hang a magnet on your naked chest. It was also said that betony water was able to make a drunken man sober – but you were not supposed to use this method more than twice a year.
Large growth of purple betony (Stachys officinalis), Col de la Madelaine, French Alps. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of purple betony, Col du Soulor, French Pyrenees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Marsh woundwort, clown’s woundwort, all-heal, marsh hedge-nettle.
Family: Mint family (Lamiaceae).
Distribution: Native to temperate Eurasia. Naturalized in North America.
Medicinal usage: Since the Middle Ages, this plant had a great reputation as a vulnerary, testified by two of its old folk names, all-heal and woundwort. English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) strongly recommended it in his Great Herball, saying that in Kent he accidentally heard of a countryman who had cut himself severely with a scythe, and had bound a quantity of this herb, bruised with grease and ”laid upon in manner of a poultice” over the wound, which healed in a week, though it would ”have required forty daies with balsam itself.” Gerard continues: ”I saw the wound and offered to heal the same for charietie, which he refused, saying I could not heal it so well as himself – a clownish answer, I confesse, without any thanks for my good-will: whereupon I have named it ’clown’s woundwort’.” Later, Gerard ”cured many grievous wounds, and some mortale, with the same herbe.”
In modern herbal medicine, woundwort is employed for its antiseptic and antispasmodic properties, relieving gout, cramp and pains in the joints and vertigo. Fresh juice of the leaves is made into a syrup and taken internally to stop haemorrhages, dysentery, etc.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental. The roots are edible and nutritious. In former times, they were used in bread.
Marsh woundwort (Stachys palustris), Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of an inflorescence of marsh woundwort, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Stellera chamaejasme (S. bodinieri, Wikstroemia chamaejasme)
Family: Daphne family (Thymelaeaceae).
Distribution: Central Asia.
Medicinal usage: In Nepal, a decoction of the root is applied to aching joints, a decoction of the bark to sprains. In traditional Chinese medicine, the root is used for treatment of tumours, and to destroy internal parasites, expel water retention, and clear phlegm. It is also a traditional remedy for treatment of asthma and skin problems.
Other usage: Paper and twine are made from the root.
Note: The specific name chamaejasme is from the Greek, chamai, meaning ‘low’, or ‘near the ground’, and jasme, ‘jasmine’, in allusion to its jasmine-like flowers.
Stellera chamaejasme, Muktinath, Mustang, C Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common comfrey, boneset, knitbone, knitback, bruisewort, blackwort, ass ear, slippery-root.
Family: Forget-me-not family (Boraginaceae).
Distribution: Native to parts of Temperate Eurasia. It has become naturalized in North America, Japan, and Australia.
Medicinal usage: The healing properties of comfrey have been known for hundreds of years. English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) writes: “A salve, concocted from the fresh herb, will certainly tend to promote the healing of bruised and broken parts.” Another herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), says: “Comfrey restrains spitting of blood. The root boiled in water or wine and the decoction drank, heals inward hurts, bruises, wounds and ulcers of the lungs, and causes the phlegm that oppresses him to be casily spit forth…. A syrup made there of is very effectual in (…) outward wounds or sores in the fleshy or sinewy parts of the body, and to abate the fits of agues [malaria] and to allay the sharpness of humours. A decoction of the leaves is good for those purposes, but not so effectual as the roots. The roots being outwardly applied cure fresh wounds or cuts immediately, being bruised and laid thereto; and is specially good for ruptures and broken bones, so powerful to consolidate and knit together that if they be boiled with dissevered pieces of flesh in a pot, it will join them together again.”
Today, an ointment of comfrey root is used as a very effective remedy for bruises, sprains, and minor fractions, stimulating tissue repair. It is also used for haemorrhoids, varicose veins and ulcers, and for heartburn and dandruff. – In some parts of Ireland, comfrey is eaten as a cure for defective circulation and poverty of blood.
Other usage: In England, comfrey roots, together with chichory and dandelion roots, were formerly used to make substitute coffee.
Notes: Comfrey ointment should not be applied to open wounds, only along the margins. – The generic name Symphytum is from the Greek symphyo (’to make grow together’) and phyton (’plant’), like its common names comfrey (from the French conserve), boneset, knitbone, knitback, and bruisewort referring to its bone- and bruise-healing properties. The specific name officinale also refers to its medicinal properties.
Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale), West-Friesland, Holland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tamus nepalensis, see Dioscorea deltoidea.
Tanacetum parthenium (Chrysanthemum parthenium, Pyrethrum parthenium)
English names: Feverfew, featherfew, featherfoil, flirtwort, bachelor’s button, bride’s button.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: A native of south-eastern Europe, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Widely cultivated, has become naturalized in most of Europe, North America, Chile, and elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), who was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine), wrote that feverfew is anti-inflammatory. In Ancient Rome, it was used for uterus problems – and also for foetus expulsion!
Since the Middle Ages, the plant has been used for e.g. migraine headaches, fever, uterus problems, tooth ache, hysteria, nervousness, depression, dropsy, arthritis, constipation and other digestive disorders, and as a carminative.
Today, it is mostly used for migraine headache, but also for allergies and irregular menstruation. Taken with sugar or honey, it is supposedly good for coughs and difficulty of breathing.
Other usage: Formerly, feverfew was used to keep bees and other stinging insects at bay, and it was placed between clothes, not only for this purpose, but also to spread fragrance. – In Denmark, in the old days, it was used as a spice in soups, on omelettes, etc. It was also utilized for tanning.
Today, feverfew is widely cultivated as an ornamental.
Notes: In former days, feverfew was regarded as a magic plant. It was said that if the milk, cream, or butter had become bewitched, you should apply juice of the plant to the cow’s udder. If a girl, who was not a virgin, smelled the plant, she would have a strong urge to urinate. A pregnant woman, smelling the plant, would give birth to a red-haired child. It was also widely believed that if you planted feverfew around your home, it would purify the air and ward off disease.
The obsolete generic name Pyrethrum is from the Greek pyr (’fire’), referring to the hot-tasting root, while the common name feverfew is a corruption of the Latin febrifugia (‘fever-reducing’). Featherfew and featherfoil are further corruptions of feverfew.
Incidentally, a coffin in Faarevejle Church in Denmark, which reputedly contained the remains of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell (c. 1534-1578), also contained feverfew flowers. (Later, it was proved that the man in the coffin could not be the Earl of Bothwell.)
At an early stage, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), which is a native of south-eastern Europe, Turkey, and the Caucasus, was cultivated elsewhere for its medicinal properties, and also as as an ornamental. The upper picture shows a plant, growing in a natural habitat in north-western Turkey, the lower one a cultivated specimen in Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Taraxacum officinale (T. vulgare, T. densleonis)
English names: Dandelion, lion’s tooth, cankerwort, milk-witch, Irish daisy, monks-head, priest’s-crown, blowball, puff-ball, face-clock, pee-a-bed, wet-a-bed, swine’s snout, and many others.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: Native of the Northern Hemisphere. Naturalized elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: Dandelion was first mentioned as a medicinal herb by Arabian physicians in the 10th or 11th Century, who called it a sort of wild endive (see Cichorium intybus elsewhere on this page), under the name of tharakhchakon, which was corrupted to Taraxacum.
In today’s herbal medicine, the fresh leaves are used as a diuretic, for kidney and liver disorders, for dyspepsia, and as a mild laxative. Research indicates that dandelion may prevent osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease, and it is effective in treatment of bronchitis and pneumonia. A strong decoction is used for stone and gravel.
Among the Tamang people of Nepal, a decoction of the leaves is drunk to cure body ache. Elsewhere in Nepal, juice of the root is given for stomach disorders.
A near relative, Mongolian dandelion (Taraxacum mongolicum), is utilized in Chinese herbal medicine for a number of ailments, such as tonsillitis, jaundice, urinary dysfunction, red and swollen eyes, and sores, especially breast and intestinal boils. It also promotes lactation.
Other usage: Young leaves have a high content of vitamin C and are used in salads, and they may also be boiled as a vegetable or in soups. In Wales, the two-year-old root is chopped up and mixed with the leaves in salads. In Berkshire and Worcestershire, and in Scandinavia, wine is made from the flowers. The root is dried and pounded to make substitute coffee.
Girls often make garlands of the flowering stems, placing them around their hair, and a popular game among children as well as adults is to try blowing off the seeds of a flowerhead, all at once.
Notes: Apomictic reproduction is very common in dandelion, resulting in hundreds of micro-species.
The obsolete specific name densleonis, as well as the common name lion’s tooth, refer to the serrated leaves of some micro-species. In French, densleonis became dent de lion, in English corrupted to dandelion. The present specific name officinale refers to its medicinal properties. The names monks-head and priest’s-crown were commonly used in the Middle Ages, an allusion to the naked flower disc, which resembles a monk’s or a Catholic priest’s shorn head. The names pee-a-bed and wet-a-bed (and the French name piss-en-lit) refer to its diuretic properties, while blowball refers to the popular game of blowing off the seeds.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), growing along a road, Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This little boy is trying to blow off the seeds of a dandelion flowerhead, all at once. Formerly, all kinds of divinations were connected with the ability to blow off the seeds. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Thea sinensis, see Camellia sinensis.
English names: Small-leaved lime, small-leaved linden.
Tilia × europaea
English names: Common lime, common linden.
Family: Mallow family (Malvaceae).
Distribution: Small-leaved lime is native to most of Europe, east to central Russia and the Caucasus. Common lime, a natural hybrid between small-leaved lime and large-leaved lime (T. platyphyllos), occuring in the wild in Europe at scattered localities, but widely cultivated elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: Traditionally, tea made from linden flowers, and oil from the wood, were taken to treat e.g. headache, colds, cough, fever, infections, epilepsy, stomach trouble, gravel, high blood pressure, and as a diuretic, and as a sedative in cases of anxiety and insomnia. The bark was used for e.g. infections and burns.
Other usage: In Denmark, a boat from the Bronze Age, made from linden wood, has been excavated. Over time, the wood has been utilized for countless other purposes, e.g. to make wagons, furniture, eating utensils, musical instruments, and artificial limbs, and it also gives excellent charcoal for drawing. A cup, made from linden bark, has been found in a Danish Bronze Age grave, and later the bark was used as an ingrediens in e.g. lacquerware and paper. The inner bark, called bast, was utilized as far back as the Bronze Age, as evidenced by several grave finds. Over time, this bast has been used for many purposes, e.g. for production of baskets, rope, and mats. (Today, most bast is extracted from various species of palms of the genus Raphia.) In Russia, linden bast is still widely used for various purposes, e.g. to make bast shoes.
Due to their content of essential oils, linden flowers emit a powerful fragrance, and tea made from dried flowers is a popular drink in many countries, in France called tilleul, in Italy tiglio, and in the Unites States basswood tea. The flowers supply excellent honey, and during the Middle Ages, many linden trees were planted around monasteries and castles for the sake of the honey.
Notes: The generic name Tilia is from the Greek tilos (’fibre’), referring to the use of the bark as bast. The specific name cordata is from the Latin cor, which is the genitive case of cordis (’heart’), referring to the shape of the leaves. The word small-leaved indicates that the leaves of this species are rather small, only 4-8 centimetres long.
In prehistoric times, the linden tree was sacred to many Germanic and Slavic tribes. In the Norse religion, the tree was dedicated to Odin’s wife Frigg, goddess of wisdom and foreknowledge. – Later, the linden tree was worshipped as a symbol of knowledge, often planted in the centre of the village, where the elders would meet to discuss various issues.
Avenue of common linden (Tilia x europaea) in evening light, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Autumn foliage of linden species is of a warm yellow colour. This picture shows an avenue of common linden, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Small-leaved linden (Tilia cordata), Halltorps Hage, Öland, Sweden. Fruits of linden species are supplied with a ‘propeller’, which, in windy weather, can transport the fruit a considerable distance from the mother plant. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Purple trillium, red trillium, birthroot, bethroot, squawroot, wake-robin, stinking Benjamin.
Distribution: Eastern North America, from Quebec south to North Carolina.
Medicinal usage: In the Appalachian Mountains, native tribes used the dried root to treat post-partum haemorrhage and excessive menstrual flow. Some tribes also considered the root an effective aphrodisiac. The boiled root can be used to treat dysentery and diarrhoea. – Other species of this genus are used for respiratory problems, such as cough, bronchitis, and asthma, and for fever.
Other usage: Cultivated as an ornamental. – Some witches regard purple trillium as a magic herb.
Notes: The generic name Trillium was given by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), in allusion to the tripartite leaves of the genus. The names squawroot and birthroot, and a corruption of the latter, bethroot, refer to the usage of the root for post-partum haemorrhage and excessive menstrual flow. (The word squaw is of Algonquian origin, meaning ‘woman’.) The name wake-robin was given in allusion to the early flowering of this species, at about the time, when the first American robins (Turdus migratorius) would return from their southern wintering areas. The name stinking Benjamin refers to the unpleasant smell of the plant, a bit like rotting meat.
Purple trillium (Trillium erectum), Shu Swamp, Long Island, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Colt’s-foot, coughwort, horse-hoof, ass’s foot, bull’s foot.
Family: Composites (Asteraceae).
Distribution: Native of Temperate Eurasia and North Africa. Naturalized in North and South America.
Medicinal usage: Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), who was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine), and Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) both recommend inhaling smoke from burning colt’s-foot leaves for cough. Pliny further recommends that the smoke is drawn into the mouth through a reed and swallowed, sipping a little wine between each inhalation. To derive the full benefit from it, it had to be burnt on cypress charcoal.
Still today, herbal tea, made from the dried leaves, is regarded as an excellent remedy against coughs, catarrh, wheeziness, asthma, and chronic bronchitis, but as the species contains poisonous alkaloids, it should not be taken during pregnancy and while breast-feeding. Today, however, certain cultivated varieties are non-toxic.
Other usage: In former days, in Denmark, young leaves were eaten as a vegetable. They were mixed with tobacco, and also utilized for dyeing, in Jutland to dye black, on the Faroe Islands green. An old habit was to line your bed with the leaves to drive away fleas and lice. – In England, an herbal sweet, called coltsfoot rock, contains colt’s-foot leaves. Hopefully, the non-toxic varieties are used in the production of this candy.
Notes: The scientific name Tussilago, from the Latin tussis (’to cough’), as well as the common name coughwort, refer to the usage of the leaves. The names colt’s-foot and horse-hoof refer to the shape of the leaves. An old name for the plant was Filius ante patrem (‘the son before the father’), an allusion to the flowers appearing long before the leaves.
In The Song of the Colt’s-foot Fairy, English poet and artist Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973) says:
The winds of March are keen and cold,
I fear them not, for I am bold.
I wait not for my leaves to grow,
They follow after: they are slow.
My yellow blooms are brave and bright,
I greet the spring with all my might.
These pictures show colt’s foot (Tussilago farfara), growing in natural habitats of this species, a landslide in the Marsyangdi Valley, central Nepal (top), and a clayey spring at the base of a chalk cliff, Møns Klint, Denmark. Otherwise, it is a very common weed in water-logged, clayey fields. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tussilago hybrida, see Petasites hybridus.
Urtica dioica (including U. himalayensis and U. ardens)
English names: Common nettle, stinging nettle.
Family: Nettle family (Urticaceae).
Distribution: Native area unknown, probably Eurasia. Today found in most parts of the world.
Medicinal usage: The old herbalists recommended nettle for a number of diseases, among these jaundice, tuberculosis, ague (malaria), dysentery, frostbite, stone and gravel, rheumatism, and gout. Seeds, taken inwardly, would be helpful for stings or bites of venomous creatures and mad dogs, and as an antidote to poisoning by hemlock (see Conium maculatum elsewhere on this page), henbane (see Hyoscyamus niger), and nightshade (see Solanum nigrum). People suffering from arthritis would utilize the curious practice of urtication – thrashing the affected limbs with fresh nettles, which, according to one wise woman in Denmark, would “awaken the nerve ends”. – For stimulating hair growth, the old herbalists recommended combing the hair daily with nettle juice.
New research has shown that nettle root is an efficient remedy for enlarged prostate. Nettle leaves are diuretic, blood-cleansing, anti-inflammatory, and anti-allergenic. They are used for a huge number of ailments, such as nasal and respiratory problems (including asthma, bronchitis, and even tuberculosis), for bladder infections, gingivitis, sciatica, laryngitis, and hives. Persons, suffering from multiple sclerosis, may relieve the pain by flailing themselves with fresh nettles. Due to their high content of iron and vitamin C, the leaves are a good remedy for anaemia. Nettle tea is considered to be helpful against rheumatism, arthritis, and gout.
Among the Tamang people of Nepal, a paste of the root and leaves is taken orally for bone fracture. Elsewhere in Nepal, a decoction of the root is taken for asthma, cough and colds. A paste of the root is applied to dog bites. Juice of the root, or a paste of the fruits, is applied to dislocated bones. Juice of the stem is taken for fever, and a decoction of the leaves to treat jaundice and menstrual disorders.
If you are stung by a nettle, the juice of dock (Rumex), applied to the affected area, will afford instant relief. An old rhyme says:
Nettle in, dock out.
Dock rub nettle out!
Nettle sting may also be cured by rubbing the part with leaves of rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis), mint (Mentha), or sage (Salvia officinalis).
Other usage: Formerly, cloth was made from the stem fibres, from the finest texture down to the coarsest, such as sailcloth, sacking, cordage, and fishing nets. As cotton became fashion, nettle fibres went out of use. However, during World War I, in Germany and Austria, nettle fibres had a come-back. In 1915, 1300 tons of this material was collected in Germany, increasing to 2700 tons in 1916.
Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) complained of the little attention paid to the nettle in England, saying: ”In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other species of linen.” – As Campbell says, nettle makes a fine potherb, and it is still a popular ingredient in herbal soups. In rural areas of Nepal, nettles are an important food. Everywhere, they are of considerable value as fodder for cattle, sheep, pigs, geese, and chickens.
A decoction of nettle yields a beautiful and permanent green dye, used in Russia for woollen goods.
Notes: An old legend has it that if nettle is planted near beehives, it will drive away frogs. [Supposedly, in those days, it was believed that frogs, or maybe toads, would eat bees?]
Nettle is mentioned in the tragedy King Lear, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616):
Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With burdocks, hemlocks, nettles, cuckoo-flowers.
The generic name Urtica is from the Latin uro (‘to burn’), referring to the stinging hairs. The word nettle is from the Old Saxon word netila, to ‘twist’ or to ‘weave’, referring to the usage of the fibres.
Common nettle (Urtica dioica), Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This little boy is picking top shoots of common nettle to be used in soup. – Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Valeriana jatamansii (V. wallichii, V. spica, V. villosa)
English name: Jatamansi valerian.
Family: Valerian family (Valerianaceae).
Distribution: Montane areas, from Afghanistan across the Himalaya to western China.
Medicinal usage: In traditional Indian medicine, this species is used for fever, blood and liver ailments, eye diseases, hysteria, hypochondria, and nervous disorder. A paste of the root is applied to wounds, and also to the forehead to relieve headache. In Nepal, a paste of the plant is applied to boils. The root is used for hysteria, insomnia, rheumatism, cholera, nausea, and pimples.
In the West, a related species, V. officinalis, is used for treating various ailments, e.g. heart trouble, high blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, and hives.
Other usage: The root and rhizome contain an essential oil, used as incense.
Notes: The species is threatened due to excessive collecting.
The specific name jatamansii is a compound word, consisting of two parts. Jata refers to a hairstyle with matted and entwined hair, sometimes rolled up on the crown of the head, as it is worn by the Hindu god Shiva, and by Hindu ascetics, sadhus. The part mansi means ‘meat’, referring to the fibrousness of the root of a related species, the spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi), which is likened to the ‘strings’ of meat. Spikenard was a sacred plant in Ancient India.
Jatamansi valerian (Valeriana jatamansii), Dharkot, Uttarakhand, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Great mullein, bullock’s lungwort, clown’s lungwort, torches, Our Lady’s candle, Our Lady’s flannel, Adam’s flannel, velvet dock, blanket herb, velvet plant, rag paper, beggar’s blanket, cuddy’s lungs, duffle, feltwort, fluffweed, hare’s beard, old man’s flannel, wild ice-leaf, candlewick plant, Aaron’s rod, golden rod, Jupiter’s staff, Jacob’s staff, Peter’s staff, shepherd’s staff, shepherd’s clubs, beggar’s stalk, hag’s taper.
Family: Figwort family (Scrophulariaceae).
Distribution: Native of Temperate Eurasia. Naturalized in North America.
Medicinal usage: Formerly, mullein was used for numerous ailments, among these cough, colds, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, constipation, ague (malaria), haemorrhoids, dysentery, colic, catarrh, hernia, and tooth ache. Crushed leaves in vinegar was applied to burns.
In his book Adam in Eden, or Nature’s Paradise. The History of Plants, Herbs, Flowers (1657), English botanist William Coles (1626-1662), also called William Cole, says that: “Husbandmen of Kent do give it their cattle against the cough of the lungs, and I, therefore, mention it because cattle are also in some sort to be provided for in their diseases.”
Today, mullein juice, made from boiled flowers, is used for a number of respiratory problems, such as bronchitis, asthma, laryngitis, flu, cough, and colds. Its astringent properties make it useful for bleeding of the lungs and bowels, and for diarrhoea. A poultice of the leaves is used for haemorrhoids. Mullein oil is anti-inflammatory.
In Nepal, a poultice of the root is applied to muscular swellings and wounds. Mixed with local liqueur it is taken for diarrhoea. A paste of the plant is employed to treat asthma, lung problems, cough, and constipation.
Other usage: In the old days, the long spikes were dried and dipped in tallow to make torches, hence its popular name torches. When dry, the down on leaves and stem makes excellent tinder, and before the introduction of cotton it was used for lamp wicks, hence the name candlewick plant.
The seeds are slightly narcotic, formerly being used for fishing in Europe, a usage that is still practiced in Nepal.
In former days, in Denmark, it was a common belief that root and flowers of mullein were able to drive away rats and mice, and the seeds were utilized to poison mice. – The flowers can be used for dyeing, giving a yellow hue.
Notes: In Europe, as well as in Asia, the power of driving away evil spirits was ascribed to mullein.
English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) remarks: “There be some who think that this herbe being but carryed about one, doth help the falling sickness, especially the leaves of the plant which have not yet borne flowers, and gathered when the sun is in Virgo and the moon in Aries, which thing notwithstanding is vaine and superstitious.” [‘Falling sickness’ is an old expression for epilepsy.]
The generic name Verbascum is probably a corruption of barbascum, from the Latin barba (‘beard’), in allusion to the shaggy foliage. The specific name thapsus was first used by Greek scholar Theophrastos (c. 371-287 B.C.), in the form thapsos, for an unknown plant, growing in the Greek town of Thapsos, Sicily.
In The Popular Names of British Plants, Richard Chandler Prior (1809-1902) states that the word mullein was moleyn in Anglo-Saxon, and malen in Old French, derived from the Latin malandrium, i.e. the malanders, or leprosy, and continues: “The term malandre became also applied to diseases of cattle, to lung diseases among the rest, and the plant being used as a remedy, acquired its names of mullein and bullock’s lungwort.”
The names Aaron’s rod, Jacob’s staff, and others, refer to the long spikes. Presumably, the person naming the plant Aaron’s rod, found that the spike resembled the rod used by Aaron, brother of Moses, when he performed miracles in Egypt. – According to legend, witches used lamps and candles with mullein wicks, giving rise to the name hag’s taper, although ‘hag’ may be derived from Anglo-Saxon haege or hage (‘hedge’), perhaps implying that the long spike resembled a tall candle, growing in the hedge – hence the name Our Lady’s candle. In his book, A niewe Herball (1578), English botanist and antiquary Henry Lyte (1529?-1607) tells us that the “whole toppe, with its pleasant yellow floures, sheweth like to a wax candle or taper, cunningly wrought.”
Herbalist John Parkinson (1567-1650) says: “Verbascum is called of the Latines candela regia, and candelaria, because the elder age used the stalks dipped in suet to burne, whether at funeralls or otherwise.” The name clown’s lung wort refers to its use as a remedy for chest problems, while wild ice-leaf presumably refers to the greyish leaves, shining like ice, when the sunlight is at a certain angle. ‘Dock’ is a term applied to various plants with large leaves, in this case in the name velvet dock.
Great mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common vervain, herb of grace, holy herb, enchanter’s plant.
Family: Vervain family (Verbenaceae).
Distribution: Native to central Europe and the Mediterranean. Naturalized in North America.
Medicinal usage: Vervain tea is taken for headache, migraine, nausea, urinary tract infection, and menstrual irregularities, and also for anxiety and nervous tension. It is an excellent remedy for poor appetite and has been used successfully to treat anorexia nervosa. It is also an effective diuretic, and it is said to improve liver and gall bladder functions.
Other usage: For thousands of years, vervain was regarded as a magic and mysterious herb. In Ancient Egypt, it was dedicated to the goddess Isis, who was the patroness of nature and magic. In Rome, vervain was used as an altar plant, and to Celtic druids it was an ingredient in their sacred purifying water.
A Christian legend has it that vervain stopped the bleeding of Jesus’ wounds. In the Middle Ages, people wore necklaces of fresh plants for good luck, and it was thought that it would protect them against snakebites and headache. If you rubbed it on your skin, while reciting a secret spell, your wishes would be granted. A vervain plant in the home would protect it against lightning.
In Nimphidia, the Court of Faery, from 1627, English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) writes:
Therewith her vervain and her dill,
That hindereth witches of their will.
Notes: The names Verbena and vervain are explained in various ways. According to one authority, Verbena is derived from the Latin verber, meaning rod or stick. Thus, it seems, Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), gave the plant the name Verbena in allusion to its stiff, rod-like branches and stem. Others claim that Verbena is from the Latin verbena, the Roman name of altar plants. A third source claims that it stems from a Celtic word, ferfaen, meaning ‘to drive away stones’ – it was thought that the plant was an effective remedy for kidney stones. The specific name officinalis refers to the medicinal properties of this species.
Common vervain (Verbena officinalis), Roncal, Navarra, Spain. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Vernicia montana (Aleurites montana, A. cordata)
English name: Mu oil tree.
Family: Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae).
Distribution: India, Indochina, southern China, and Taiwan.
Medicinal usage: Despite the toxic properties of the mu oil tree, parts of it is used in traditional Chinese medicine as an emetic and an anti-inflammatory, and as a vermifuge. The seed oil is a strong purgative and is also used for treatment of wounds, burns, and parasitic skin diseases. It is a component of nearly all Chinese plasters. An extract from the fruit is antibacterial.
Other usage: Mu oil tree is valued for its seed oil, called abrasin oil or Chinese wood oil. Because of its similarity to tung oil, which is extracted from a near relative, the tung oil tree (Vernicia fordii), the oils from the two species are often treated together as ‘tung oil’. Traditionally, this oil is utilized to manufacture paints, Chinese black ink, and lamp oil, for waterproofing cloth and paper, and for caulking and painting ships. It was also formerly used for insulating electric wires. (Source: Protabase – Plant Resources of Tropical Africa – prota.org)
In the 1200s, Venetian explorer Marco Polo wrote: “The Chinese take lime and chopped hemp, and these they knead together with a certain wood-oil; and when the three are thoroughly amalgamated they hold like any glue, and with this mixture they paint their ships. The wood-oil is derived from a tree called tong-shu.”
Today, the main usage of the oil is in the production of paint and ink, while low-quality oil is processed into soap or linoleum. Growing environmental awareness has led to an increased usage of the oil from both species as a lining in food, beverage, and medicine containers. After extraction of the oil, the press cake is a good fertilizer, but as it is poisonous, it cannot be used as animal feed (see Notes).
Notes: All parts of the mu oil tree are poisonous, including fruit and seeds. Ingesting the seeds causes severe abdominal cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea. Animals, e.g. cattle, horses, and chickens, which have eaten the leaves or seed cake, may get bleeding diarrhea, and in severe cases they become emaciated and die.
More pictures of the mu oil tree are found elsewhere on this website, see Plants: When the tong tree is flowering.
In Taiwan, in April-May, the mu oil tree (Vernicia montana) displays a profusion of white flowers. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fallen mu oil tree flowers cover the ground as a delicate white carpet. – Sanyi, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The fruits of the mu oil tree are wrinkled, whereas those of its near relative, the tung oil tree (Vernicia fordii), are smooth. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Heath speedwell, common speedwell, common gypsyweed, Paul’s betony.
English names: Brooklime, water pimpernel, becky leaves, cow cress, horse cress, housewell, limpwort, water-pumpy, well-ink.
Family: Plantain family (Plantaginaceae).
Distribution: Heath speedwell is native to Europe and Asia Minor, naturalized in North America. Brooklime is native to Temperate Eurasia and North Africa, naturalized elsewhere.
Medicinal usage: Formerly, heath speedwell was highly esteemed for treatment of numerous ailments, e.g. congestion, haemorrhage, neurological disorders, infections of the throat, and heart trouble, and as a diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, and tonic. It is told that the gout of Emperor Charles V of Spain and Rome (1500-1558) was much relieved due to the use of this herb.
The tea-like smell of the plant led to its use as a tea substitute in 19th-century France, where it was called thé d’Europe. This tea is still taken today for cough and catarrh and is also an effective remedy for wounds and skin problems. Research has shown that heath speedwell contains a glycoside, aucuboside, which is thought to be anti-inflammatory.
In former days, brooklime was used for many ailments, including tuberculoses, swellings, and gout. The leaves were applied to bruises and burns. Juice from the plant was taken to prevent scurvy. In Denmark, in the 1400s, a sick midwife was advised to eat brooklime, boiled in pig fat.
Other usage: Formerly, heath speedwell was highly esteemed as a substitute for Chinese tea. Brookwell is excellent in salads and was previously eaten in winter and spring, when green vegetables were scarce. During wars between Denmark and Sweden in the 1600s, this species contributed significantly to the nourishment of the Danes.
Heath speedwell, boiled in sulfuric acid, can be used for dyeing, giving black colour.
In Denmark, it seems that speedwell species were formerly used to generate abortions.
Notes: The generic name Veronica probably refers to the Biblical Veronica, who, according to legend, wiped the face of Jesus on his way to Golgotha. The flowers supposedly resemble the markings left on the cloth which was used. The specific name officinalis refers to the medicinal properties of heath speedwell, while beccabunga probably is derived from the German name of brooklime, Bachbunge, from bach (‘brook’) and bunge (‘bunch’), referring to the fact that this species often grows abundantly in brooks. Another source claims that the name is from the Flemish beckpunge, meaning ‘smarting mouth’, referring to the pungent leaves, which were formerly eaten in salads.
The name speedwell is from Old English, meaning ‘to thrive’, referring to the vigorous growth of many Veronica species. Regarding the popular name Paul’s betony, British botanist Adams observes: “It is almost incredible how much confusion and mistake has arisen about these terms. [i.e. Betonica] With respect to the Betonica of Paul of Ægina, the most probable opinion is (…) that it was either the Veronica officinalis, common male speedwell, or the V. serpyllifolia, smooth speedwell.” Paulus Aegineta (c. 625-690), in English Paul of Aegina, was a Byzantine Greek physician, who wrote a medical encyclopedia.
In his book The Popular Names of British Plants, Richard Chandler Prior (1809-1902) states that the name brooklime stems from the fact that this plant often grows in mud of brooks. The Anglo-Saxon word lime is from the Latin limus (‘mud’). In Anglo-Saxon days, houses were built of sun-dried mud, and only later was the word lime applied to the calcareous stone of which mortar is now made. The names cow cress and horse cress are derogatory terms for brooklime, indicating its inferiority as a medical plant to watercress (Nasturtium officinale).
Heath speedwell (Veronica officinalis), Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Brooklime (Veronica beccabunga), Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Wild pansy, heartsease, love-lies-bleeding, love-in-idleness, live-in-idleness, loving idol, cuddle me, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, meet-me-in-the-entry, kiss-her-in-the-buttery, three-faces-under-a-hood, kit-run-in-the-fields, pink-o’-the-eye, godfathers and godmothers, stepmother, pink-eyed-John, bouncing bet, flower o’luce, bird’s eye, bullweed.
Family: Violet family (Violaceae).
Distribution: Temperate Eurasia and North Africa. Naturalized in North America.
Medicinal usage: English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) states: “It is good, as the later physicians write, for such as are sick of ague, especially children and infants, whose convulsions and fits of the falling sickness it is thought to cure. It is commended against inflammation of the lungs and chest, and against scabs and itchings of the whole body and healeth ulcers.” [Ague is an old word for malaria, and ‘falling sickness’ is an old expression for epilepsy.] The flowers were used for heart diseases, giving rise to the popular name heartsease, and the plant was employed as a demulcent and an expectorant.
Today, certain species of Viola, among these V. tricolor, are used for their strong anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties. They are also an excellent remedy for colds and bronchitis, and for various skin problems, such as eczema and psoriasis. The root and seeds are emetic and purgative.
Other usage: Large-flowered hybrid forms of wild pansy are cultivated as ornamentals. – In Denmark, the plant has been used for dyeing, yielding a green hue.
Notes: The name pansy is from the French pensée, meaning ‘thought’ – the plant was regarded as a symbol of remembrance. The name heartsease, as mentioned above, refers to its former use for heart problems, but may also stem from its usage in love potions. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Titania is the proud fairy queen, married to Oberon. They engage in a quarrel, whereupon Oberon orders his servant, Puck, to feed Titania a love potion, containing pansy, among other ingredients, which makes her fall in love with Nick Bottom, a weaver, who, for the occasion, has been given the head of a donkey by Puck.
Several of the common names of wild pansy refer to its multi-coloured petals. The name stepmother, used in e.g. Denmark (stedmoderblomst) and Germany (Stiefmütterchen), stems from a fanciful reference to the flower, supposed to represent a stepmother, sitting on a stool with a dish of porridge with a blob of butter (the yellow-eyed petal), feeding her own daughters (the two more colourful petals nearby), but not her stepchildren (the two dull-coloured petals furthest away).
Wild pansy (Viola tricolor), Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common mistletoe, birdlime.
Family: Mistletoe family (Viscaceae).
Distribution: Temperate and subtropical Eurasia; North Africa.
Medicinal usage: Traditionally, mistletoe has been used for internal haemorrhage, insomnia, tinnitus, apoplexy, and epilepsy. Formerly, in Sweden, persons afflicted with epilepsy would carry a knife with a mistletoe handle to ward off fits.
Today, it is used for high blood pressure, and as a nervine, antispasmodic, and tonic. New research seems to indicate that it may benefit people with cancer. – In Nepal, a paste of the plant is used for bruises, wounds, boils, sprains, and dislocated bones. Juice of the bark is applied to muscular swellings.
Other usage: In Nepal, the ripe fruits are eaten, but elsewhere they are considered to be toxic. In Croatia, mistletoe is an ingredient in a local liqueur, named biska.
Formerly, in its entire area of distribution, birdlime was made from the gluey berries, utilized to catch thrushes and other small birds – a practice still taking place in the Middle East and the Himalaya. Soap was produced from the berries in the 1800s.
Notes: In Brittany, the plant is called Herbe de la Croix. According to an old legend, the Cross of Christ was made from its wood – which caused it to be degraded to a parasite. – To the Celtic druids, mistletoes, growing on the sacred oak trees, possessed the power of the oaks, and they formed a part of their religious rituals. Mistletoes were only collected when the druids had visions, directing them to seek it. Carrying mistletoe branches, young men would walk around, announcing the coming of the new year. This custom was probably taken over by the British, and even after the introduction of Christianity it was preserved in a different form. On New Year’s Eve, branches of mistletoe were cut, adorned with fruits and brightly coloured ribbons, and hung from a beam at midnight, after which young men would lead young maidens beneath the mistletoe and wish them Happy New Year with a kiss.
In Norse mythology, the god of love, Balder, son of Odin and Frigg, was troubled by ominous dreams, so his mother made all living and inanimate things swear that they would not harm him. The other gods tested the oath by shooting arrows and hurling stones at him, but he remained unscathed. However, Frigg had neglected to ask the mistletoe. This was noted by the evil and cunning Loke, who made an arrow from it and persuaded Balder’s blind brother Höðer to fire it at him, killing him.
Common mistletoe (Viscum album), growing on poplar trees, near Le Blanc, France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Volkameria infortunata, see Clerodendrum infortunatum.
Wikstroemia chamaejasme, see Stellera chamaejasme.
English name: Ginger.
Family: Ginger family (Zingiberaceae).
Distribution: Probably a native of the Indian Subcontinent. It is no longer found in the wild.
Medicinal usage: In China and India, the usage of ginger as medicine goes back over 5000 years. In Ayurvedic texts, it is called “a universal great medicine”, and an old Indian proverb says that “everything good is found in ginger.” According to traditional Chinese medicine, it “restores devastated yang” and “expels cold.”
Today, ginger is probably the most popular medicinal herb in the world. Its main usage is boosting the immune system, stimulating blood circulation and the digestive system, and treating colds, cough, fever, flu, nausea, vomiting, and morning-sickness during pregnancy. However, it is useful for numerous other ailments, including indigestion, angina, depression, dizziness, sciatica, Raynaud’s disease (‘white fingers’), ulcers, arthritis, chronic fatigue, hives, dandruff, and travel sickness.
Other usage: Ginger was imported to Europe very early and was used extensively by the Romans, but almost disappeared from Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire. By the 11th Century, however, ginger was again a widespread European commodity, when, among other uses, it was added as flavouring to buttermilk. Its use in food became much more widespread, when the Arabs and other Muslims began expanding their empires. In the 1500s, the Spaniards brought ginger to Jamaica, where they established plantations, and during the following centuries, plantations were established in most hot countries.
Today, the rhizome is widely used as a spice, especially in Asian cuisines. From the tender young rhizome, a variety of products are made, e.g. pickles, candied ginger, ginger wine, and ginger cakes.
It is told that Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) invented the gingerbread man, which became a popular Christmas treat. – An old English recipe says: “Gather strawberry leaves on Lamas Eve, [August 1] press them in the distillery until the aromatick perfume thereof becomes sensible. Take a fat turkey and pluck him, and baste him, then enfold him carefully in the strawberry leaves. Then boil him in water from the well, and add rosemary, velvet flower, lavender, thistles, stinging nettles, and other sweet-smelling herbs. Add also a pinte of canary wine, and half a pound of butter and one of ginger, passed through the sieve, besides plums and stewed raisins and a little salt. Cover him with a silver dish cover.”
Notes: Ginger is cultivated in most tropical and subtropical countries. In 2013, the total world production was 2.1 million tons.
The generic name Zingiber, and also the common name ginger, is from the Greek zingiberis, from an Indian word, singabera, which was probably adapted from an ancient Dravidian name of the spice in the South Indian languages Tamil and Malayalam, inchi-ver. The specific name officinale indicates the medicinal properties of the plant.
Freshly harvested rhizomes of ginger (Zingiber officinale), Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Indian jujube, ber, Chinese date, Chinee apple.
Family: Buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae).
Distribution: Indian jujube is probably a native of India and Southeast Asia, but has been widely cultivated for more than 4000 years. Today it is naturalized in numerous countries, from southern Africa across the Middle East to China, and also in Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Medicinal usage: The fruit is taken for various lung ailments, cough, fever, indigestion, and gall bladder problems. The dried fruit is a mild laxative. The seeds are sedative, used for diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, and dysentery. A poultice of bark, fruits or seeds is applied to wounds and rheumatic areas. A poultice of the leaves is applied for liver problems, asthma, and fever. A decoction of the root is given for fever, to expel tapeworms, and to increase menstrual flow.
Other usage: The fruit is tasty, eaten dried, candied, pickled, and as so-called ber butter, and also taken as a beverage. It is very rich in vitamin C, second only to guava (Psidium guajava). Ripe fruits are dried in the sun, ground, and kept for out-of-season. In Ethiopia, the fruits are used as fish poison. The flowers yield honey. The wood is hard and yields excellent timber, used as well lining, and for boats, tools, and legs for bedsteads. It is also used as firewood and makes good charcoal. In certain African countries, the thorny shrubs are made into corral fences to protect livestock. The seed oil can be utilized as excellent biodiesel.
Note: The species is invasive in northern Australia, where it has become a serious threat to the environment.
Fruiting Indian jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana), Bagan, Myanmar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Boys, selling jujube berries along the road, Sibi, Baluchistan, Pakistan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Drying jujube fruits, Myanmar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English names: Common puffball, warted puffball, gem-studded puffball, Devil’s snuff-box.
Calvatia gigantea (Langermannia gigantea)
English name: Giant puffball.
Distribution: Cosmopolitan; giant puffball, however, only in temperate regions.
Medicinal usage: Formerly, the spores, or the fungus itself, was applied to wounds as a styptic. It was sucked into the nose to stop nosebleeds, and also applied to frostbite and to raw skin on the feet. In an old Danish book, it is said: “Formerly, most soldiers knew of this treatment, when they on their long marches, in burning summer heat, had been sunburned and gotten patches of raw skin.”
Puffballs have also been utilized as painkillers, for stomach ache, and to reduce swelling, fever, and cough.
In Schleswig, northern Germany, the spores were formerly used to treat diarrhoea in calves.
Other usage: Most puffballs are edible when young, but with little taste. Common puffball is reported to have a higher content of protein than most other fungi.
Notes: The generic name Lycoperdon is from the Greek lykos (’wolf’) and perdon (‘to fart’), i.e. ‘wolf-fart’, referring to the puff of spores, emitted when you press the mature puffball.
In former days, in Denmark, it was believed that adders were living in puffballs, and that children could become blind, if the spores blew into their eyes.
Common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) is also called warted puffball or gem-studded puffball, both names referring to the crystal-like projections on the surface. – Møn, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) produces hundreds of thousands of spores. – Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Cockroaches.
Distribution: Almost worldwide.
Medicinal usage: In traditional Chinese medicine, cockroaches are used against a number of ailments, such as abdominal problems, stroke, and bone fractions, and also as an anti-ageing agent. An ethnic minority in the Yunnan Province used cockroaches to treat open wounds. New research has shown that these animals contain at least nine different antibacterial substances, and one substance is able to kill AIDS virus.
Other usage: For hundreds of years, cockroaches have been utilized as food in northern China. A cream, containing e.g. intestines of cockroaches, is applied by Chinese women to their skin to keep it young.
Note: In China, a booming industry is producing skin cream and medicine from millions of cockroaches, kept in captivity.
Cockroach in a bathroom, Bontoc, Luzon, Philippines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Deer.
Distribution: Eurasia, NW Africa, and the Americas. Red deer (Cervus elaphus) has been introduced to New Zealand.
Medicinal usage: In traditional Chinese medicine, deer antlers in velvet are utilized for various ailments, such as joint and bone problems, and calcium deficiency, and also as a growth tonic for children, as a remedy against old age, and as an aphrodisiac. – Deer penis is reported to have important therapeutic properties. It is sliced into small pieces, roasted, and dried in the sun. In former days, in Taiwan, women were reported to consume deer penis during pregnancy, as they believed it would make the mother and child stronger. The Ancient Mayans were also known to roast deer penis, and Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos (c. 460-370 B.C.) recommended it as an aphrodisiac.
Other usage: In their entire area of distribution, deer are hunted for their delicious meat, and the antlers are valued as trophies. Deer penis is eaten as a delicacy in certain Chinese restaurants.
Notes: In several countries, deer are kept in captivity for production of velvet antler, the largest suppliers being New Zealand with 450-500 tons annually, mostly from red deer (Cervus elaphus), and China with about 400 tons annually, mostly from sika deer (Cervus nippon). – Many deer species and subspecies are threatened due to excessive hunting, combined with habitat loss.
Poster, announcing traditional Chinese medicine for sale: deer antlers and bear gall bladders. – Lhasa, Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Deer antlers in velvet for sale, Kowloon, Hong Kong. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sambar deer (Cervus unicolor), grazing on succulent water plants in a lake, Ranthambhor National Park, Rajasthan, India. A grey heron (Ardea cinerea) is using its back as a lookout post. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Roe buck (Capreolus capreolus), crossing a pond in Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female and immature mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), Point Reyes National Seashore, California, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Spotted deer stag (Axis axis) drinking at a waterhole, together with a peafowl (Pavo cristatus), Sariska National Park, Rajasthan, India. A rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) is sitting on its back. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Centipedes.
Distribution: Almost worldwide.
Medicinal usage: Used in traditional Chinese medicine for e.g. tetanus, seizures, headache, cancer, and snakebite. It is also employed to treat wounds and serious skin problems.
Note: In traditional Chinese medicine, centipedes are called ’heavenly dragons’. However, the medicine from them is very poisonous and should be used with caution.
This centipede, c. 20 centimetres long, was found in a limestone cave in Niah National Park, Sarawak, Borneo. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Cicadas.
Distribution: Almost worldwide.
Medicinal usage: In Chinese traditional medicine, cicada moults are used for treatment of a number of ailments, e.g. fever, swollen eyes, sore throat, measles, spasms, tetanus, itching caused by rubella, and also to remove nebula.
Cicada, clinging to a tree trunk, Sun-Moon Lake, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cocoon, or moult, of a cicada, still sitting on the tree, Chingshuian Recreation Area, Taiwan. – These moults are widely used in Chinese folk medicine. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Tokay gecko.
Distribution: Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Philippines, Indonesia, Melanesia.
Medicinal usage: In Chinese medicine, tokay geckos are used for various ailments and diseases, e.g. stroke, paralysis, arthritis, impotence, premature ejaculation, frequent urination, nocturnal urination, and emaciation. New research has shown that it has a positive effect on malignant tumours, especially in the digestive system.
Notes: Formerly, in China, it was believed that the urine of tokay gecko was deadly poisonous. If a pregnant woman consumed it, she was certain to deliver a boy. As tokay geckos mate for a very long time, it was believed that consuming it would cure impotency. – Today, the species is threatened due to over-collection and habitat loss. – In the United States, it has been introduced to the Florida Keys, where it has become invasive.
Tokay gecko (Gekko gecko) on a house wall, Mindoro, Philippines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tokay geckos, conserved in spirits, for sale, Wuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang, China. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Musk deer.
Distribution: Central Asia, Siberia, China, Himalaya.
Medicinal usage: Musk, produced from the musk gland of the male musk deer, has been utilized in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for more than 5,000 years. It is estimated that musk is currently being used in as many as 400 Chinese and Korean traditional remedies, employed in treatment of disorders of the nervous system, blood circulation, heart, and lungs. The musk is also reported to possess anti-inflammatory, antihistaminic, stimulating, and sedative properties. In India, it has been used as an aphrodisiac for thousands of years.
Other usage: The musk has been widely used in the perfume industry for thousands of years.
Notes: In 747, armies of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the First Tibetan Empire, ruled by Songtsan Gampo (c. 604-650), clashed on the banks of the famous Oxus River – now called Amu Darya – in what is today the Wakhan Corridor of north-eastern Afghanistan. The outcome of this battle would decide, which empire was in control of the route, leading through the Kingdom of Bolor, and over the Darkot Pass (4703 m) into the Indus Valley – an important branch on the ancient trading route of Central Asia, the Silk Road. Who controlled this pass, controlled the export of musk glands from the north-western part of the Indian Subcontinent – a commodity, which was worth 30 times its weight in silver. Incidentally, the Chinese army won the battle.
Several musk deer species are threatened due to excessive hunting of the males. According to TRAFFIC, which is monitoring international wildlife trade, and WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature), 17,000-20,000 musk deer males are killed annually, in Russia alone, to supply the illegal trade in glands. (Source: National Geographic News, 2004.)
This male Himalayan musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster) is enjoying his meal of old-man’s-beard lichens (Usnea), which have fallen to the forest floor. The picture was taken in the Khumbu area, E Nepal, where this species is fairly common and rather confiding, as the local Sherpas, who are Buddhists, do not harm any wild animals. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Tiger.
Family: Cats (Felidae).
Distribution: Tropical Asia, China, Russia (Ussuriland).
Medicinal usage: For more than a thousand years, tiger parts have been utilized in traditional Chinese medicine; the claws as a sedative for insomnia; the teeth for fever; the fat for leprosy and rheumatism; the nose skin for wounds; the bones for rheumatism and arthritis, dysentery, headache, and stiffness or paralysis of lower back and legs; the eyeballs for epilepsy and malaria; the tail for skin diseases; the bile for meningitis in children; the whiskers for tooth ache; the brain for laziness and pimples; the penis for usage in love potions, and as an aphrodisiac; the faeces for boils and haemorrhoids, and to cure alcoholism.
Western medical experts tend to discount all claims of any curative power in tiger bone, and it is well known that aspirin contains similar properties and produces many of the same results as tiger prescriptions in patients. Despite this, in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and in Chinatowns across Europe and North America, Chinese medical shops do a steady trade in ‘tiger wine’, tiger powder, tiger balm, and tiger pills. Many Asian communities believe that tiger bone, taken as powder or in ’tiger wine’, soothes rheumatic pain and cures ulcers, malaria, and burns. (Source: www.tigersincrisis.com/traditional_medicine.htm)
Notes: The tiger is critically endangered due to excessive trophy hunting in the 1900s, and widespread poaching today, combined with habitat loss. The total world population may be less than 5,000. According to TRAFFIC, which is monitoring international wildlife trade, a minimum of 1,590 tigers were seized by officials between January 2000 and April 2014, feeding the illegal wildlife trade. (Source: WWF – Worldwide Fund for Nature, 2016.)
These two tigers (Panthera tigris) enjoy a cooling dip in a waterhole on a hot day in May, Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young tiger, well camouflaged in golden grass, Ranthambhor National Park, Rajasthan, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Rhinos.
Distribution: East & South Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Indonesia.
Medicinal usage: Rhino parts have been used as ingredients in traditional Asian medicine for at least 2000 years. Virtually every part of the animal is used: the horn for reducing fever and spasms; the skin for skin diseases; the penis as an aphrodisiac; the bones to treat bone disorders; the blood “as a tonic for women who are suffering from menstrual problems.” – In China, powdered horn is regarded as an aphrodisiac. However, chemical analyses have not revealed any active ingredients to suggest that the remedy could be effective in this respect. (Source: J. Still, 2003: Use of animal products in traditional Chinese medicine. In: Complementary Therapies in Medicine). In fact, western medical experts tend to discount all claims of any curative power in rhino horn. It is well known that aspirin contains similar properties and produces many of the same results as rhino prescriptions in patients.
Other usage: Formerly, rhino horn was used for adorning dagger sheaths in Yemen – a practice which may still take place.
Notes: Asian rhino horns are more highly prized than African rhino horns, as consumers believe that their smaller size means that they are more concentrated, and therefore more potent.
All five species of rhino are critically endangered due to widespread poaching, in Asia also due to habitat loss.
Greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis), Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This bull black rhino (Diceros bicornis) is sniffing a tuft of grass, into which a female has urinated, baring its lips in a posture, called flehmen. The inhaled air passes a special sensing organ, which is able to detect whether the female is in heat. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
English name: Bears.
Distribution: Europe, Asia, North and South America, Arctic.
Medicinal usage: Bear gall bladders are much utilized in Chinese traditional medicine for treatment of skin problems and severe cases of red and swollen eyes, and also for clearing the eyesight, removing toxins and parasites from the body, alleviating spasms, increasing release of bile, improving absorption of vitamin D and calcium, and reducing fever, swellings, and pain.
Other usage: Bear paw soup is considered a delicacy among many Asian peoples, e.g. in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, supposedly giving the consumer the power and virility of a bear. One bowl of bear paw soup may cost as much as 1000 US$. Bear meat is also regarded as a delicacy in these societies.
Notes: Due to illegal hunting, bears have disappeared, or become very rare, in many areas, e.g. Europe, Southeast Asia, Korea, China, and Taiwan. Many bears are kept in captivity to supply the various markets. In South Korea, for instance, only around ten Asian black bears, or moon bears (Ursus thibetanus), live in the wild, while c. 1600 are kept in captivity, often under horrible conditions. These captive bears are often killed in the most cruel and horrendous ways, and that this practice is illegal does not seem to deter consumers.
As numbers dwindled in other areas, the attention of poachers, in the 1990s, shifted to western North America, which houses a large number of brown bears (Ursus arctos) and American black bears (U. americanus). Since then, numerous bears have been illegally collected here, intended for Asian societies in American cities, to be served as bear paw soup, or for production of traditional medicine.
Today, five of the eight bear species are endangered.
Poster, announcing traditional Chinese medicine for sale: bear gall bladders and deer antlers. – Lhasa, Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bear gall bladders are much utilized in Chinese traditional medicine. – This picture shows Asian black bear, or moon bear (Ursus thibetanus), photographed in Chengdu Zoo, Sichuan Province, China. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female American black bear (Ursus americanus) with a cub, Sequoia National Park, Sierra Nevada, California, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This young sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) was confiscated from poachers and is now kept in captivity, until it is old enough to be released in nature. – Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah, Borneo. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded January 2016)