In times before synthesised chemicals and drugs, fast food, blister-packs, and hybridised plants that produce large yields per acre, knowing which plants could feed you or heal you was an essential part of the life cycle. Indeed, many of the species we think of as 'wild' plants or flowers were cultivated as part of fulfilling that need for sustenance and medication.|
If you take a look at our on-line article about Victorian Gardens you can see how gardeners of their day expected to provide much of their food from the garden plot; becoming almost self-sufficient in the vegetable department.
So what of those 'wild' plants we mentioned? Well some of the ones we consider to be 'weeds' had a practical use. Common Sorrel and Fat Hen were used as vegetables, as were Hops on occasion [particularly by the Romans it is said]. The roots of Sweet Cicely were a subsititue for parsnips while Silverweed was sometimes grown for the source of flour that its dried and milled roots could provide. The seeds of Fat Hen and Corn-Spurrey were sometimes used as a grain and in meal.
Alhough barely edible, Wild Parsnips were part of the diet - their almost woody rootstock a far cry from the fleshy modern counterpart - a similar story to carrots and their wild equivalent. Of the same plant family, the stems of Common [or Garden] Angelica were eaten in salads, although the plant is best known in its 'candied' form and as a drink flavouring.
In salads you could expect to find Borage, aniseed-scented Sweet Cicely, the acidic tasting leaves of Common Sorrel, Common Cornsalad, Hedge Mustard and even Hops. Alexanders were a common winter pot-herb, while Ramsons [Wild Garlic] and Garlic Mustard were used to flavour soups and put in stews.
When making cheese, Lady's Bedstraw was an alternative curdling agent to rennet. If you brewed ale in medieval times you might expect to add Mugwort, Wood Avens or Ground-Ivy for flavouring. Woodruff was also added to wines and drinks. Still on the beverages side, Chicory - grown as a vegetable too - was a coffee substitute and is still grown today for the same purpose.
GARDEN MEDICINE CABINET
On the medicinal front it seems that almost every wild plant has been tried as a cure at some stage in Man's history, and probably not to great effect in many cases and possibly to the detriment of patients in others. Today, homeopathic medicine draws largely on the use of plants - many of them cultivars of 'wild' plants found in our countryside - - while mainstream medicines frequently contain synthetic derivatives of active ingredients found in the plants used by herbalists over the centuries.
In the old days the sap of Sun Spurge and Greater Celandine were used to cure warts, the latter also for clearing ringworm. Colt's-foot, Great Mullein, Mallow, Meadow Vetchling, Comfrey and Selfheal became constituents of cough remedies and medicines. Agrimony was a recommended cold relief, and Common Centuary for the relief of fever. If you were anaemic the latter was also recommended. For headaches you might reach for the bark of a Willow which contains the basic constituent of aspirin - salicylic acid.
In addition to their efficacious effects in coughs, Comfrey and Selfheal were commonly used for cuts and wounds. Other 'wound-herbs' included Goldenrod, St. John's Wort and Saw-wort, with Shepherd's Purse, Bugle and Periwinkle aiding the staunching of bleeding. The disinfectant and diuretic properties of Wintergreen made it useful in treating wounds and kidney infections.
For treating arthritis and rheumatism there was Bryony, although Ground Elder (equally regarded as a pot-herb), was employed - as it was in poultice form for the treatment of gout. Indeed, the familiar name for Ground Elder was 'Goutweed'.
In the fight against Vitamin C deficiency our forbears had Scuvygrass which is rich in the vitamin. Tormentil was an answer to mouth infections, Melitot for sore eyes, and Common Valerian to cure insomnia and as a sedative. Scabious, as its name suggests, was used to treat scabies, and Common Figwort (and the leaves of Common Ivy too), in poultice form for skin complaints.
Many of the wild plants which line our hedgerows and fields had highly practical household uses too. Broom was turned into 'brooms'. There were dye plants, such as Green Alkanet which gave a reddish dye, Weld that produced a bright yellow dye, and Woad a bright blue.
Instead of a bar of soap or bottle of liquid detergent, you might crush some Soapwort stems when washing your clothes. Natural air-fresheners came in the form of Woodruff and, once dried, Meadowsweet, which was strewn on your floors.
Our forbears also knew about the insecticidal properties of the plants aound them. Tansy was placed with meat, or rubbed on it, as a fly repellant. And Fleabane, as the name suggests, would be employed around the home to deal with bothersome fleas which hung round the person and clothes before washing became fashionable.
One final and curious household usage was that of Butterbar, the large leaves of which were wrapped around butter in the days before paper and, these days, plastic tubs.
The history of our wild plants is a fascinating one and extensive; particularly in the field of medicine where herbs and plants have been used for centuries. And next time you're scouring the hedgerows and field borders you will no doubt come across a flower or two which have some historical past.
If you're interested in wild food books then Wild Food School has books and details of many of Britain's edible wild plants and how to use them.