A particularly strong herb, celandine was helpful in treating cases of liver dysfunction, but was used with caution. It was also useful in the treatment of gallstones, inflammations of the gallbladder, jaundice, hepatitis and bilious headaches. Fresh celandine juice was said to rid the bearer of warts and corns when applied topically, but care was taken as it could cause skin irritation.
This plant was also used to improve eyesight, in particular the removal of the whitish opaque spots on the eye called 'kennings'. However, since celandine is so acrid, this treatment would be quite painful; but eyesight is key to the origin of this herb's name. Chelidon is the Greek word for swallow, and the plant was named Chelidonium as swallows used the plant to reinforce the eyesight of their young.
Ramsons were widely used in the Highlands to treat kidney stones. A tea made from the leaves could be drunk as a tonic, which cleansed and strengthened the blood. The leaves were also included in poultices for drawing out pus, and its anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties made it ideal for treating wounds and infections. It could also be included in salads and soups, or cooked as a vegetable. It was most effective when used fresh.
When a patient was in distress, valerian was used. It acts to sedate the central nervous system, and provided great relief in cases of anxiety, panic, distress and insomnia. It also has a relaxing action on smooth muscles of the bowel and blood vessels, making it very useful for treating cases of stress-related irritable bowel syndrome and hypertension.
When valerian was included in love sachets, it was said to bring calm to an argument. It was also said to ward off evil—the Greeks traditionally hung a sprig of valerian under a window for this purpose.
Those with heart conditions could make good use of Lily of the Valley. It was said to regulate and strengthen a weak and unstable heart, which made it vital in the treatment of cardiac debility and dropsy. However, Lily of the Valley's effectiveness on heart function comes from its cardiac glycosides, which are extremely toxic. Only a trained professional could administer this potentially deadly plant.
On a lighter note, the flowers produce the aromatic oil farnesol, giving the plant its wonderful sweet scent. It is said that the nightingale is drawn into the woodlands to find a mate due to this luring perfume, and it is also a traditional flower to have at weddings.
If a patient had been hitting the Rhenish and whisky hard for years, turmeric could have had great healing powers. Turmeric has a detoxifying and regenerative effect on the liver, increasing the volume and excretion of bile, which made it useful in treating liver and gallbladder diseases.
Turmeric originated from South India and was used for thousands of years in Siddha medicine. It made its way to Scotland via members of the British East India Company. It is included in Culpeper's Complete Herbal, first published in 1652.
We all know garlic, the chef's best friend, and its most common side effect: bad breath. The sulfurous compounds in garlic are responsible for its notorious smell, but were once associated with its many healing properties. It is an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-parasitic and anti-viral medicine, which made it a valuable remedy for a wide range of infections. It was also alleged to have cardiovascular properties, helping to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
The cloves were eaten regularly to maintain healthy immunity or used at higher doses in the form of a decoction (a liquor made from concentrating the essence of the plant) or tincture. The Egyptians gave garlic to the pyramid workers and the Romans gave it to their soldiers in order to boost strength.
After a battle with the Redcoats or a lashing from the whip, comfrey was essential. Comfrey increases cell division, making it a rapid healer of both flesh and bone. In fact, it was called "knitbone" for this very reason. Comfrey was also said to heal ulcers and reduce bleeding from the stomach, throat, bowels, bladder, and lungs.
The plant has two parts: root and leaves. The leaves were used to remedy respiratory and urinary tract problems, and also assisted with inflammation of the sinuses and a dry cough. The root was more suited to the digestive system and bone healing. For the latter, the root was used in a poultice and applied to the affected area. If the skin was broken, the wound was cleaned thoroughly before application, as comfrey's quick healing action could lock in infection before the body had time to eradicate it. It could be combined with marigold, an anti-bacterial and anti-microbial herb, to avoid this problem.
For cases of congestive heart failure (dropsy), foxglove could be used. However, only a highly skilled healer could administer it. The entire plant is poisonous, but it was also seen as a very powerful medicine, stimulating the vagus nerve to slow the heart rate. This, in turn, enabled a larger volume of blood to be pumped, strengthening myocardial contractions.
It was used very sparingly, and as a last resort, due to its potency and the variation in its toxicity. Different plants are stronger than others and can easily give rise to poisoning. The juice of the foxglove is highly poisonous and children should be kept far away from it.
Digestive and colic mixtures were made with peppermint, due to its relaxant effect on the bowels and its ability to ease cramps and tension. It also helped clear the sinuses in both oral and inhaled preparations, and was used as an anti-nausea preparation. Drinking the hot tea encouraged sweating, which could shorten the length of cold or flu.
Peppermint has a long history in purification spells. It was said that placing the fresh herb on an altar would attract good spirits to assist in ritual or magic, and that placed beneath a pillow it could offer a glimpse of the future in one's dreams. Last but not least, according to natural philosopher Pliny, peppermint excited love and could be used as an aphrodisiac.
For colic-like pains in the digestive tract and gallbladder, belladonna was most useful. It was used as an anti-spasmodic, suppressing muscle spasms and bringing sweet relief to the patient. It was also said to reduce excessive perspiration, which could alleviate menopausal sweats.
However, only qualified medical herbalists could prescribe it, as it is highly poisonous. Today, it is more commonly known by the names Deadly Nightshade, Banewort and Devil's Berry, and there have been tales of tragic deaths related to the plant.
Ladies of ancient Rome used the juice in eye drops to dilate the pupils, which was thought to increase attractiveness. In fact, that's where the name belladonna comes from.
A member of the mint family, pennyroyal has many similarities to peppermint. In small doses it could help with gas and bloating, encourage sweating, and ease the symptoms of colds, colic and indigestion. But its more famous, and most controversial, use was to bring on menstruation and/or cause a miscarriage.
These emmenagogic properties were only achieved with a dose that was close to a toxic level for the patient, and therefore it was very dangerous to administer. The oil is an irritant, toxic to both the liver and kidneys, and should be avoided at all costs during pregnancy.
Pennyroyal placed in the shoe was said to prevent weariness and strengthen travelers. It was also thought to be an herb of peace that could ward off evil if worn by an individual or added to a room spray.
The many healing powers of white willow bark made it a treasured addition to any apothecary. White willow bark was used as an analgesic and an anti-inflammatory drug, alleviating the symptoms of rheumatism, osteoarthritis, gout, headaches, diarrhea and dysentery. If the patient had a fever, white willow bark could reduce or break it.
White willow bark also had more mystical properties. The leaves were used to attract love, while the leaves, bark and wood were used in healing spells. The wood was used to make magical wands dedicated to moon magic, and a witch's broom was traditionally bound with a willow branch.
When someone had a little too much haggis, fennel could help relieve the trapped wind and indigestion that came from overindulgence. A half-teaspoon of the seeds would be steeped in a cup of boiling water and left to infuse for 10-15 minutes. Drinking one to two cups per day, especially after meals, was said to aid digestion.
This herb can also be safely consumed by nursing mothers and infants, and was traditionally used to increase milk supply when breast-feeding. The beneficial effects were then passed through to the baby and could ease windy colic. When not breast-feeding, one to two teaspoons of the cooled tea mixture were said to settle colic. And if someone required a diuretic, fennel was a soothing way to increase the flow of urine.
When the women in the village were experiencing cramps from their monthly cycle, vervain would make a healer a welcome sight. It was ideal for lifting the spirits, reducing cramps and easing anxiety...a perfect remedy for that most troublesome time. It was also used as an anti-depressant, with its bitter action said to encourage liver function, which in turn balanced the hormones.
Additionally, vervain was appropriate to treat jaundice and inflammations of the gallbladder. And, as it increased milk supply, it was said to ease (or keep at bay) feelings of depression after the birth of a baby. It was even used to build up the immune system, a beneficial restorative after an illness such as flu.