Wound Herbs

GARLIC has always been used as an antiseptic, though its original use relied on the Doctrine of Signatures, its signature being the shape of its leaf. The word garlic is OE garleac, where 'gar' means spear, a recognition of the "taper-leaved" or spear shaped outline. So it soon became used to combat wounds inflicted by spears (Storms). This use as a wound herb, for which there are sound medical reasons, continued into the 20th century. It has always been applied externally as an antiseptic, and during World War 1 the raw juice was put on sterilized swabs to apply to wounds to prevent their turning septic. LEEKS too, surprisingly, enjoyed early reputation as a wound herb. A Middle English medical treatise claimed that, with salt, they "helpe a wounde to close some" (I B Jones), and the Physicians of Myddfai included a prescription "to restrain bleeding from recent wounds". TUTSAN owes its inclusion here to the doctrine of signatures. The dark red juice that exudes from the bruised capsules is taken as representing human blood (they say in Hampshire that it originated from the blood of slaughtered Danes). Actually, the leaves do have antiseptic properties, and were certainly used to cover flesh wounds before bandaging became common (Genders. 1991). GROUNDSEL seems as unlikely as garlic to be a wound herb. But in early times, viz AngloSaxon version of Apuleius, it was recommended for wounds, pounded "with old lard, lay it to the wounds" (Cockayne). Gerard repeated the recommendation, this time quoting Dioscorides, who apparently said that "with the fine pouder of Frankincense, it healeth wounds in the sinues". Cockayne also described a wound salve to include groundsel, as well as ribwort, yarrow and githrife. They had all to be pounded together, boiled in butter, and squeezed through a cloth There are other, later, leechdoms, using groundsel for the healing of wounds. RIBWORT

PLANTAIN, mentioned above, is a wound herb in its own right: "Plantain ribbed, that heals the reaper's wounds". The leaves are simply applied to the cut, and are used that way in Ireland (Moloney), Scotland (Beith), and there is a record from India, too (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk). A refinement to the technique is the traditional Irish remedy for stopping bleeding from a cut, which is to chew the plant before applying it (O'Toole). The earlier herbalists were keen to use RED DEADNETTLE for wounds. From the 15th century: "to heal wounds full of blood. Stamp red nettle in a mortar with red vinegar, and lay on the wound: and it shall do away the blood and cleanse the wound" (Dawson. 1934). This is in fact an old remedy for "stopping the effusion of blood" (Pratt),as Hill, in the 18th century, was still recommending such a cure: "the decoction is good for flooding, bleedings at the nose, spitting of blood, or any kind of haemorrhage. It also stops blood, bruised and applied outwardly".

There was a belief that ASH wood, provided it was cut at certain holy seasons, was incorruptible, and so would heal wounds (Kelly); hence Aubrey, even if the moment does not agree with "holy seasons": "to staunch bleeding, cut an ash of one, two or three years' growth, at the very hour and minute of the sun's entering Taurus: a chip of this applied will stop it". James II's nosebleed was staunched in this way in 1688, so it was claimed.

COMFREY, though its reputation rests on its use for knitting fractures, is good to use on cuts and bruises. The standard Irish method to ease the pain is simply to apply a poultice of the roots. But elsewhere, things are not so simple. The purple-flowered variety is for a man, and the white for a woman. Gypsies too refer to the purple kind as male and the white female, but it has to be male flowers that are good for a woman, and female for a man (Boswell). In the Isle of Man, it was said that the leaves, one side rough and the other smooth, would heal a wound if put on in the right order, by first drawing and cleaning it, and then healing (Killip) Another so-called consound is GOLDEN ROD (Beith), but often used for wounds. Gypsies take an ointment made with the fresh leaves to heal wounds and sores (Vesey-Fitzgerald). Martin also records this use in Lewis, Outer Hebrides, and before that, Gerard, who said that "it is extolled above all other herbes for the stopping of blood in bleeding wounds ...". HARTSTONGUE leaves have been used, both in Wales and in Scotland for a wound application (C P Johnson), and TANSY has been used in Ireland. The method was to boil it in unsalted butter, strain and keep for later use (Maloney). ADDER'S TONGUE leaves, when pressed, produce a green oil, sometimes known as Green Oil for Charity, considered by the older herbalists as a balsam for green wounds, and often called Green Adder ointment, still to be bought in the 20th century, but of ancient origin (Savage).

SANICLE has been a wound herb for a very long time (the name is from Latin sanare, to heal.) These days it is usually prescribed as a compress made from the roots (W A R Thomson. 1978), but in earlier times it was taken internally, as a "wound drink". A 15th century wound drink was made from Sanicle, yarrow and bugle, pounded, and given with wine. "This is the vertu of this drynke: bugle holdith the wound open, mylfoyle [yarrow] clenseth the wound, sanycle helith it". But it was emphasised that sanicle must not be given for wounds in the head, or a broken skull, for fear of killing the patient (Grigson. 1955). The tincture of MARIGOLDS is used as a wound application (Flück), though the leaf itself would do just as well; it stops bleeding quickly, and just wrapping a leaf round a cut finger is quite effective for a surface cut, but never for a deep one (Painter & Power). GOOSE-GRASS is traditionally used to soothe wounds and ulcers (Schauenberg & Paris). The juice of OX-EYE boiled with honey was applied externally for wounds in Scotland (Beith), and the bruised plant of BITING STONECROP was also used (Flück), as was PELLITORY-OF-THE-WALL, since ancient Greek times (Baumann). Oil of BALM is useful for drying up sores and wounds (Gordon. 1977). It is certainly a wound herb in the Balkans - balm, the leaves of centaury, and the dust of a live coal, all pounded together (Kemp). The flower or leaf infusion of CENTAURY is a useful wash for wounds and sores, for it is strongly antiseptic (Conway). This is also used as a wound salve in the Balkans (Kemp). AGRIMONY is another plant with a reputation for healing wounds -"... sod in red wine, wherewith if wounds be washed, it cleanseth all filth and corruption from it. And the leaves . beaten or stamped, and tied on wounds that be ill joined, or knit together, by and by doth open them" (Lupton). GREAT BURNET is another plant with a reputation for staunching blood, both internal and external. Its generic name, Sanguisorba, Latin sanguis, blood, pronounces its suitability for the task, and it was called Bloodwort (Clair) in English, too. "Burnet is a singular good herb for wounds . it stauncheth bleeding and therefore it was named Sanguisorba, as well inwardly taken as outwardly applied ." (Gerard), in other words it dealt with wounds as well as haemorrhages. It was so used in Chinese medicine, too (Geng Junying). Cornish practice required GROUND IVY leaves as a wound salve -just bind the leaves on to the wound (Deane & Shaw). Another long-standing wound herb is MEADOW CRANESBILL, and it was used in the Highlands of Scotland to stop the bleeding after a tooth had been pulled out (Fairweather). Another Cranesbill, better known as HERB ROBERT, is a wound herb, too. But this may very well be an example of doctrine of signatures, for the whole plant has a red look about it, particularly the stems and the fading leaves.

YARROW occupies a special place among the wound herbs. The very name of the genus, Achillea, suggests it, for this refers to Achilles, the first discoverer of the properties of the plant (though there are some who say it was not Achilles at all, but a doctor named Achillo (Le Strange)). Gerard, though, subscribed to the orthodox view. As he wrote, "this plant Achillea is thought to be the very same wherewith Achilles cured the wounds of his soldiers ...". Whether it really was the same plant is doubtful, but it is still said that yarrow was always carried by the Greek and Roman armies (A W Hatfield), and the name Soldier's Woundwort is a witness to this. Certainly, the belief in yarrow as a wound herb continued into modern times. The leaves were simply applied, as a kind of poultice. Various North American Indian peoples used it this way. The Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius has, in Cockayne's translation "for wounds which are made with iron (ad vulnera ferrofacta), pound with grease; lay it to the wounds". Interestingly, the Karok Indians of California also used this plant for arrow or gunshot wounds, in the same way. PRIMROSE leaves were often used on cuts. "Primrose leaves stamped and laid on the place that bleedeth stancheth the blood", said Lupton, and Culpeper agreed "of the leaves of primrose is made as fine a salve to heal wounds as any that I know". The leaves, rubbed on a cut are still being used by men working in the fields (Hampshire FWI), and ointments are made by boiling flowers and young leaves in lard, to heal cuts and chapped hands. Cuts were until quite recently treated both in Ireland and Scotland by binding on a TOBACCO leaf to stop the bleeding and to heal it (Egan).

GOATWEED (Ageratum conyzoides) is much used in Africa and Asia to help the healing of wounds. The Mano of Liberia, for example, simply squeeze the juice directly into the wound (Harley). American Indians had a number of resources to stay bleeding, SMOOTH SUMACH (Rhus glabra) was one. They made a styptic wash from the boiled fruit to check bleeding (Sanford), especially to stop bleeding after childbirth (Corlet). The powdered seeds would also have been applied to wounds (Lloyd). The Maori used the resin of RIMU (Dacrydium cupressinum), a New Zealand conifer, to stop the flow of blood from a wound, and a lotion for bathing wounds was made by cutting the bark into pieces and boiling them in water (C Macdonald).

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