(Includes Butter Dock (Rumex longifolius), Curled Dock (Rumex crispus) and Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius). Every child knows that:
Nettle out, dock in.
Dock remove the nettle sting.
One of the Wiltshire variants runs:
Out 'ettle In dock.
Dock shall have a new smock 'Ettle shan't
Ha' narn (or narrun) (Goddard). While Irish versions of the charm are:
Dock, dock, you cure me and I'll cure you or:
Dockin, dockin sting nettle or again:
Dockin, dockin, in and out,
Take the sting of the nettle out (Logan).
There is a suggestion that the skin had to be whipped with the dock leaf while the words were recited (Palmer. 1985), but usually placing a dock leaf on the spot stung, or rubbing it was enough. There is nothing extraordinary about the charm, for docks have been used for skin troubles for a very long time. Dock tea, for instance, is an old remedy for boils (Fernie), while Blackfoot Indians made a poultice of the leaves of Curly Dock to apply to the boil. (Johnston). And the condition was treated in East Anglia by drinking an infusion of the seed of Broad-leaved Dock
(V G Hatfield). Gypsies use a decoction of the sliced root taken in elderberry wine to dispel a spring rash (Vesey-Fitzgerald), or you could just rub the dock leaves on (Tongue). Cornish people even treated shingles with a liquid made from dock and bramble leaves (Courtney). We find the leaves being applied to burns and scalds, and for dressing blisters (Fernie). In the Hebrides, dock roots were boiled with a little butter and applied on a bandage to a burn (Shaw). And a dock leaf applied to the forehead will get rid of a headache, too (V G Hatfield).
In the Fen country of East Anglia a root of Broad-leaved Dock tied across the thighs was a cure for the ague (Porter. 1969), though it was probably regarded more of a preventative than a cure. Scrofula, too, was dealt with in Ireland with dock among other plants (Wilde. 1890). Curled Dock, too, has been used for scrofulous conditions (Grieve. 1931). A dock leaf poultice was an Irish treatment for what they called "sore leg". The procedure was to remove the central stem of the leaves, and then to warm the leaves at the fire before applying them. This poultice was also believed to be useful for cleaning out a wound (Logan).
An Irish superstition, obviously homeopathic in origin, was to tie the seeds to a woman's left arm, to prevent her being barren (Wilde. 1902). There was a divination game associated apparently with Butter Dock. Then seeds had to be sown by a young unmarried woman half an hour before sunrise on a Friday morning, in some lonely place. She had to strew the seeds gradually on the ground, while saying:
Then, my own dear,
Come here, come here,
She would see her future husband moving with a scythe (Halliwell. 1869). The name Butter Dock arises from the use of the leaves in which to wrap butter. In fact, any of the large-leaved docks would have been used for that.
Cushy Cows is a name for Broad-leaved Dock from the northern counties of England and the Scottish Border country, given when the dock is in seed. Children "milk" the seeded stems by drawing the stalks through their fingers. The name comes from the call to the cows to get them back at milking time, and is repeated at the start of a milking charm rhyme quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes - "Cushy cow, bonny".
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