Eyesight

An infusion of IVY leaves was still in use in Fifeshire during the 20th century as an eye lotion (Rorie) -interesting, for Gerard recommended the same usage four hundred years ago - "the leaves laid in steepe in water for a day and a nights space helpe sore and smarting waterish eies, if they be washed and bathed with the water wherein they have been infused". Even more interesting is the fact that in homeopathy, a tincture of the young leaves is used to treat cataracts to this day (Schauenberg & Paris). Lady Gregory recorded a belief from the west of Ireland that "a cure can be made for bad eyes from the ivy that grows on a white-thorn bush". A note in Cockayne, acknowledging Pliny, mentioned the use of an amulet of chamacela, which could be either SPURGE LAUREL (Daphne ¡aureola) or LADY LAUREL Daphne mezereum), to cure pearl (albryo), which is probably cataract, in the eyes, "if the plant is gathered before sunrise, and the purpose outspoken". AGRIMONY tea is another eye lotion for the cure and prevention of cataract, and HEMLOCK was used too. A leechdom for "a Pynn and Webb", which was an earlier term for the condition, was quoted as "take a handful of hemlock and ye white of an egg and a little bay salt altogether very fine and lay it to ye pulce of ye arme on ye contrary side ..." (Gutch & Peacock). Red ochre was another ingredient in a similar salve from Suffolk, which was applied to the good eye, not the sore one (Porter. 1974), or, as an earlier leechdom quoted, to the left wrist, and vice versa (Jobson). Buchan congratulated himself on curing a cataract "by giving the patient purges with calomel, keeping a poultuice of fresh hemlock upon the eye, and a perpetual blister on the neck".

GROUND IVY has been famous as an eye medicine. A leechdom for eyestrain from as early as AngloSaxon times required it to be boiled in sour beer, and the result used to bathe the eyes (Cockayne), and similar eye recipes are to be found in herbals from that time onwards. The medieval Welsh text known as the Physicians of Myddfai has: "for inflamed eyes. Take the juice of Ground Ivy, and woman's milk, equal parts of each. Strain through fine linen, and put a drop in the painful eye". An example from folk medicine comes from Dorset, and requires an ointment made from the herb (Dacombe). A Warwickshire remedy is to take a large handful of the plant, just cover it with water, and simmer for about 20 minutes, strain it, and use the liquid to bathe the eyes (Vickery. 1995). Wiltshire has a much more localised remedy, in which water taken from a well in Cley Hill, Warminster, was used to boil ground ivy, as a remedy for weak eyes. The water had a popular reputation as only being valuable for bathing the eyes, and ground ivy had a separate reputation for the same thing (Manley). There is even a story of a fighting cock that got wounded in the eye. Its owner chewed a leaf or two of the herb, and spat the juice in the damaged eye to make it heal quickly! (Palaiseul).

Dragons and snakes were wont to use FENNEL to restore their eyesight; it was Topsell (1607) who first wrote of the natural history of dragons, and it was his opinion that "their sight many times grows weak and feeble, and they renew and recover it by rubbing their eyes against fennel or else by eating it". With a precedent like this, no wonder that the belief arose that "to repair a man's sight that is dim, nothing better than fennel could be found" (Hulme). Already, by the 15th century century, a recipe "for itching and web in the eye" had been recorded (Dawson) - "take the juice of fennel-roots and put it in the sun in a brazen vessel 12 days; and then put it in his eyes in the manner of a collyrium", and in 1542 Boorde could write "the roots of Fenell soden tender, and made in a succade, is good for the lungs and for the syght". A popular rhyme of the time ran:

Of Fennell, roses, vervain, rue and celandine

Is made a water good to cleere the sight of eine

In the 18th century, Pomet mentioned the distilled water from fresh fennel as "excellent for taking away inflammations of the Eyes". The medicine travelled to America - in Maine (Beck), an infusion of fennel seed is still a domestic remedy for eye trouble. Longfellow remembered the belief, too:

The fennel, with its yellow flowers,

In an earlier age than ours

Was gifted with the wondrous powers

Lost vision to restore.

RUE is quoted in the rhyme given above, and it has always been supposed that it has a potent effect upon the eyes (Pliny said that painters and sculptors mixed some rue with their food to keep their sight from deteriorating (Baumann). An Arabian writer on eye diseases, Ali ibn Isa, in the 10th century, used a mixture of rue and honey to prevent the development of a cataract (Gifford). The Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius prescribed rue, "well pounded", laid to the eye, and for "dimness of eyes" it was apparently only a matter of eating rue leaves, or taking them in wine (Cockayne). Gerard continued the recommendation, prescribing rue to be applied with honey and fennel for "dim eies". A mild infusion is still in use as an eyebath and for eye troubles, including cataract (Hatfield). Rue, of course, enjoyed a great reputation against the evil eye, and the claim has been made that it can actually bestow second sight! (MacCulloch. 1911). LESSER CELANDINE is another plant mentioned in the popular rhyme quoted above. It was Pliny who was responsible for the legend that seeks to account for the name celandine, which was Khelidonion in Greek, from khelidon, the swallow, perpetuated in the generic name of the GREATER CELANDINE, Chelidonium, which, by the way, belongs to a totally different family, which was no barrier to the use of this "greater" plant's use in all sorts of ways for sore eyes and other eye complaints. The birds used the plant, he says, to restore their sight. An infusion of the flowers was used in Norfolk to treat sore eyes that accompany measles (V G Hatfield. 1994). CLUBMOSS, in Cornwall, was considered good against all diseases of the eyes, if it was gathered properly. It had to be done on the third day of the moon, when the new moon was seen for the first time. Show the moon the knife with which the moss for the charm was to be cut, and repeat:

As Christ healed the issue of blood,

So I bid thee begone:

An infusion of RIBWORT PLANTAIN leaves has been used for conjunctivitis, as an eyewash (Wickham). So has GREAT PLANTAIN juice (Gerard). Pennant, in Scotland, reported that the flowers were thought to be a remedy for "ophthalmia". SCARLET PIMPERNEL has various "eye" names bestowed upon it. Adder's Eye, for example (Grigson. 1955), or Ox-eye, and Bird's Eye, and a few others as well. These may have some bearing on the medicinal use of pimpernel for eye complaints, in which the usage may well be an example of the doctrine of signatures. The plant was certainly in use for eye diseases. QUINCE, too, has played its part. A decoction of the pips can be applied to inflamed eyes, and it is sometimes added to more usual lotions. From Anglo-Saxon times, there was some belief in YARROW's efficacy against cataract, which Cockayne translates "mistiness of the eyes". The leechdom was for equal quantities of betony, celandine and yarrow juice mixed together, and then applied to the eyes. Yarrow was still being used in the15th century, though the leechdom had become a little more exotic - "for the white that overgroweth the apple of the eyes. Take flowers of yarrow and stamp them with woman's milk, and put it in the eyes, and it shall heal them" (Dawson). Burning MARJORAM and inhaling the smoke was a Moroccan cure for coughs, and the same procedure was reckoned good for eye diseases. There was another way, though. A stalk of marjoram would be lit and the eye regions touched with the glowing tip (Westermarck).

CLARY is one of the more important plants used for eye troubles. Whatever 'Clary' means, it is not Clear-eye, though the latter has been used as a vernacular name and as a book name, with justification, for the seeds swell up when put into water, and become mucilaginous. These can then be put like drops into the eye, to cleanse it (Grigson. 1955). As Gerard said, "the seed of Clarie poudered, finely scarced [sieved, that is] and mixed with hony, taketh away the dim-nesse of the eies, and cleareth the sight". Long before his time, though, the seed was being used as an eye salve, and not only the seed, for the leaves are prescribed in a 15th century leechdom, which runs, "for the pearl in the eye [cataract?], and the web: take the leaf of Oculus Christi [a common medieval name for Clary], peeled downward, and hyssop, with a leaf of sage: and drink the juice of these three days, first and last" (Dawson. 1934). How anything taken internally in those days could ever affect the eyesight is not revealed! DAISY must be included here by its very name, which is "day's eye" ( OE daeges eage), for it closes its petals at night. But never mind that - with this name, it must be good for sore eyes. We certainly find that a decoction of the flowers boiled down was used in Ireland as an eyewash (Wilde. 1890), or the boiled flowers themselves could be dabbed on sore eyes (O'Farrell). Pennant noted that in Scotland "flowers of daisies were thought to be remedies for the ophthalmia". The Meskwaki Indian name for WAHOO (Euonymus atropurpureus) means "weak-eye tree", and they used it for just that. The inner bark was steeped, to make a solution with which to bathe eyes, and a tea was made from the root bark for the same purpose (H H Smith. 1928).

The herbal of Rufinus, dealing with WORMWOOD, has "confortat et caput et visum clarificat" (Thorn-dike). Both of these usages appear again in English, in the Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius (Cockayne), and later, in a 15th century leechdom: "... the juice of wormwood oft drunk with honey cleareth a man's sight, and if it be put in his eyes, it doth away the redness and the web that is in his eyes" (Dawson). Gerard's comment is terse: "it is applied . to dim eies". And much later on, we find Wesley recommending: "Eyes inflam'd . Wormwood tips with the Yolk of an Egg. This will hardly fail". Long before Wesley's time, though, egg and wormwood were being prescribed - "wormwood newly stamped, with the white of an egg, and laid over the eyes, takes away the blood and redness thereof, of what humour soever it come" (Lupton). MELILOT is another plant whose juice was used as an eye lotion, or as eye-drops (Schauenberg & Paris). The yellow latex of MEXICAN POPPY has been used for eye problems. It is worth noting that the generic name of this plant, Argemone, is derived from argema, the Greek word for cataract (Whittle & Cook).

DEADLY NIGHTSHADE provides the drug atropine, and is used by oculists to dilate the pupils for the examination and treatment of eye diseases. It is said that Deadly Nightshade's other name, Belladona was given because of its use on the Continent as a cosmetic, to make the eyes sparkle (Brownlow).

MARIGOLD water was for a long time a favourite for inflamed eyes (Rohde. 1936). Even just looking at the flowers was thought to help failing eyesight (Page. 1978). "The floures and leaves of Marigolds being distilled, and the water dropped into red and watery eies cureth the inflammation, and taketh away the paine ..." (Gerard). It appears, too, in a manuscript recipe of about 1600 for an "unguent to annoynt under the eyelids, and upon the eyelids, eveninge and morninge; but especially when you ... finde your sight not perfect. Take one pint (of) sallet oyle, and put it into a viall glass, but first wash it with rose-water, and marygold flower water, the flowers to be gathered towards the East. Wash it till the oyle come white; then put it into the glasse, and then put thereto the budds of holyocke, the flowers of marygold, the flowers or toppes of wilde time, the budds of young hazle, and the time must be gathered neare the side of a hill where fayries use to be, and the grasse of a fayrie throne there. All these put into the oyle into the glasse, and sett it to dissolve three dayes in the sunne, and then keepe it for thy use ..." (Halliwell. 1845). An extract from SNOWDROP bulbs has been used to treat glaucoma (Conway).

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