Medicinal and culinary plants

The term 'medicinal' is used here for a plant that has been, or still is, grown or gathered for healing or relieving pain or other symptoms of illness, even if modern science has not confirmed that the plant is effective or has a recognised mode of action. The emphasis is on the plant and its function in past and present habitats.

The panel shows samples of medicinals and their products: left from top, Rosa rugosa hips and jam, foxglove flowers, mixed herbs, lungwort leaf, and right, aspirin (originally sourced from meadowsweet), opium poppy latex (source of codeine), vervain 'tea' and aconite flowers.

Introduction, habitats, status

The contribution of plants to the relief of suffering is undoubted. Medicinal plants have certainly been recognised and used for at least 5000 years in many parts of the world. Both meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and willow (Salix species), containing salicylates, have been used since the neolithic to reduce fever and pain, before aspirin was synthesised. Similarly, the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) in Asia is an ancient source of the pain-killer, codeine.

Many medicinal and culinary herbs are by nature plants of open and disturbed habitats. Whether native or introduced, they have taken up residence in fields, waysides and waste ground. In some parts of Europe, hemlock, nightshades, henbane, and thorn apple can sometimes be seen cohabiting with crops in fields, though not welcomed there by farmers. Medicinal plants may have been reduced in abundance and distribution by the intense cultivation of croplands and the general tidying of urban spaces, but  most of those listed below can still be found in northern Britain in 'the wild' or as escapes from cultivation. Some are common even, but tend to be unshowy, and insignificant in the landscape, so are not noticed.

Medicinal plants may be more distinctive for their names, particularly the worts, which can indicate their intended target - for example, lungwort, woundwort, pilewort, nipplewort and stitchwort - but perhaps not the mugwort and madwort. Likewise the names scurvy-grass, deadly nightshade, lemon balm and henbane suggest something of the power of each plant. Town markets in many european countries, particularly in the east, still display large selections of wild medicinal herbs. They are rarely gathered and sold here, yet medicinal plants are still part of the heritage of our agricultural and urban landscapes.

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Medicinals grouped by plant family

The carrot, daisy and dead-nettle plant families contribute many of the the medicinal and culinary herbs used in temperate Europe. The borage, nightshade and mallow families make up much of the rest.  

Dead-nettle family Lamiaceae (previously Labiatae).  Often seen in fields, hedgerows or the edges of woods are betony Stachys officinalis, woundworts of the genus Stachys, selfheal Prunella vulgaris, the red and white dead-nettles Lamium purpureum and Lamium album, bugle Ajuga reptans and hemp-nettles of the genus Galeopsis. Then there are the many, mostly cultivated but of long standing, culinary and beverage herbs - the origanums, thymes, mints, rosemaries, sages and the highly scented, lemon balm Melissa officinalis.

Carrot family Apiaceae (Umbelliferae).  Waysides, field corners and shady wood-margins might harbour wild angelica Angelica sylvestris, hemlock Conium maculatum (poisonous, though not common here), sweet cicely Myrrhis odorata (common on country lanes where it scents the air with aniseed in late spring) and possibly sanicle Sanicula europaea. Closer to cultivation are lovage Levisticum officinale, fennel Foeniculum vulgare, and also herbs such as the chervil and caraway and the massive architectural wonder of the garden angelica Angelica archangelica.

Daisy family Asteraceae (Compositae). Perhaps the easiest to find among all the families, still common are coltsfoot Tussilago farfara, dandelion Taraxacum, feverfew Tanacetum parthenium, mugwort Artemesia vulgaris, nipplewort Lapsana communis, tansy Tanacetum vulgare, yarrow Achillea millefolium, the greater burdock Arctium lappa, chicory Cichorium intybus and wormwood Artemesia absinthium (mostly in gardens).

Cabbage family Brassicaceae (Cruciferae) mainly used as foods, but among medicinal herbs are dame's violet Hesperis matronalis, garlic mustard Alliaria petiolata, scurvy-grass Cochlearia officinalis and one of the commonest weeds, shepherd's purse Capsella bursa-pastoris.

Borage family Boraginaceae. Still not rare are the bugloss Anchusa arvensis, lungwort, Pulmonaria officinalis, common comfrey Symphytum officinale, and viper's bugloss Echium vulgare (stunning floral spike), while the madwort Asperugo procumbens still lives in Angus. Alkanet Anchusa officinalis is perhaps grown in gardens more for its dye.

Nightshade family Solanaceae. Fewer species but potent and often poisonous: black nightshade Solanum nigrum, bittersweet Solanum dulcamara, henbane Hyoscyamus niger (rare now), deadly nightshade Atropa belladonna (unlikely to be found in the north), and the thorn apple Datura stramonium (rare).

Mallow family Malvaceae. Grown also as garden plants for colour and form: marsh mallow Althaea officinalis, common mallow Malva sylvestris, musk mallow Malva moschata.

Poppy family Papaveraceae. The field poppy Papaver rhoeas is common, the greater celandine Chelidonium majus less so while the opium poppy Papaver somniferum is mostly a garden escape in the north.

Other plant families Important medicinal plants include the lesser celandine or pilewort Ranunculus ficaria (buttercup), the yellow flag Iris pseudacorus (iris), wild garlic Allium ursinum (lily) meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria (rose), orpine Sedum telephium (stonecrop) and foxglove Digitalis purpurea (figwort family). The berries are considered separately on the 5000 years web site.

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Medicinals in the Living Field garden and surrounds

The Living Field is encouraging or providing a refuge for many of these medicinal species in its garden and in parts of the farm. A list of those growing in the summer of 2010, and an indication of their uses, will be available from this page.

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Sources and references

Anderson EF. 1993. Plants and people of the Golden Triangle: ethnobotany of the hill tribes of northern Thailand. Dioscorides Press (Timber Press) / Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, Thailand. 279 pages. ISBN 974-704-748-9

Grigson G. 1958. The Englishman's flora. Paperback published 1975 by Paladin, St Albans, UK. 542 pages.

Hutchinson J. 1955. British wild flowers. Volumes I and II. (Pelican) Penguin Books. 947 pages.

Ranson F. 1949. British herbs. (Pelican) Penguin Books. 203 pages.

Stace C. 1997 New flora of the British Isles, second edition.Cambridge university Press. 1130 pages. ISBN 0 52158933 5 (plastic covers)

Thirsk J. 1997. Alternative agriculture. A history from the Black Death to the present day. Oxford University Press. 365 pages. ISBN 0-19-820662-3

Web sites and databases 

The Plants For A Future web site has a searchable database on plants with medicinal, culinary and other uses.

Contact for this page: Geoff Squire

[Page began 12 June 2010.  Last revision 30 August 2010]

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