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Introduction to Herb Simples

The art of Simpling is as old with us as our British hills. It aims at curing common ailments with simple remedies culled from the soil, or got from home resources near at hand.

Since the days of the Anglo-Saxons such remedies have been chiefly herbal; insomuch that the word "drug" came originally from their verb drigan, to dry, as applied to medicinal plants.

These primitive Simplers were guided in their choice of herbs partly by watching animals who sought them out for self-cure, and partly by discovering for themselves the sensible properties of the plants as revealed by their odor and taste; also by their supposed resemblance to those diseases which nature meant them to heal.

John Evelyn relates in his Acetaria (1725) that "one Signor Faquinto, physician to Queen Anne (mother to the beloved martyr, Charles the First), and formerly physician to one of the Popes, observing scurvy and dropsy to be the epidemical and dominant diseases of this nation, went himself into the hundreds of Essex, reputed the most unhealthy county of this island, and used to follow the sheep and cattle on purpose to observe what plants they chiefly fed upon; and of these Simples he composed an excellent electuary of marvelous effects against these same obnoxious infirmities." Also, in like manner, it was noticed by others that "the dog, if out of condition, would seek for certain grasses of an emetic or purgative sort; sheep and cows, when ill, would devour curative plants; an animal suffering from rheumatism would remain as much as it could in the sunshine; and creatures infested by parasites would roll themselves frequently in the dust." Again, William Coles in his Nature's Paradise, or, Art of Simpling (1657), wrote thus: "Though sin and Sathan have plunged mankind into an ocean of infirmities, jet the mercy of God, which is over all His works, maketh grass to grow upon the mountains, and Herbs for the use of men; and hath not only stamped upon them a distinct forme, but also given them particular signatures, whereby a man may read even in legible characters the use of them."

The present manual of our native Herbal Simples seeks rather to justify their uses on the sound basis of accurate chemical analysis, and precise elementary research. Hitherto medicinal herbs have come down to us from early times as possessing only a traditional value, and as exercising merely empirical effects. Their selection has been commended solely by a shrewd discernment, and by the practice of successive centuries. But to-day a closer analysis in the laboratory, and skilled provings by experts have resolved the several plants into their component parts, and have chemically determined the medicinal nature of these parts, both singly and collectively. So that the study and practice of curative British herbs may now fairly take rank as an exact science, and may command the full confidence of the sick for supplying trustworthy aid and succor in their times of bodily need.

Scientific reasons which are self-convincing may be readily adduced for prescribing all our best known native herbal medicines. Among them the Elder, Parsley, Peppermint, and Watercress may be taken as familiar examples of this leading fact. Almost from time immemorial in England a "rob" made from the juice of Elderberries simmered and thickened with sugar, or mulled Elder wine concocted from the fruit, with raisins, sugar, and spices, has been a popular remedy in this country, if taken hot at bedtime, for a recent cold, or for a sore throat. But only of late has chemistry explained that Elderberries furnish "viburnic acid," which induces sweating, and is specially curative of inflammatory bronchial soreness. So likewise Parsley, besides being a favorite pot herb, and a garnish for cold meats, has been long popular in rural districts as a tea for catarrh of the bladder or kidneys; whilst the bruised leaves have been extolled as a poultice for swellings and open sores. At the same time, a saying about the herb has commonly prevailed that it "brings death to men, and salvation to women." Not, however, until recently has it been learnt that the sweet-smelling plant yields what chemists call "apiol," or Parsley-Camphor, which, when given in moderation, exercises a quieting influence on the main sensific centers of life--the head and the spine. Thereby any feverish irritability of the urinary organs inflicted by cold, or other nervous shock, would be subordinately allayed. Thus likewise the Parsley-Camphor (whilst serving, when applied externally, to usefully stimulate indolent wounds) proves especially beneficial for female irregularities of the womb, as was first shown by certain French doctors in 1849.

Again, with respect to Peppermint, its cordial water, or its lozenges taken as a confection, have been popular from the days of our grandmothers for the relief of colic in the bowels, or for the stomach-ache of flatulent indigestion. But this practice has obtained simply because the pungent herb was found to diffuse grateful aromatic warmth within the stomach and bowels, whilst promoting the expulsion of wind; whereas we now know that an active principle "menthol" contained in the plant, and which may be extracted from it as a camphoraceous oil, possesses in a marked degree antiseptic and sedative properties which are chemically hostile to putrescence, and preventive of dyspeptic fermentation.

Lastly, the Watercress has for many years held credit with the common people for curing scurvy and its allied ailments; while its juices have been further esteemed as of especial use in arresting tubercular consumption of the lungs; and yet it has remained for recent analysis to show that the Watercress is chemically rich in "antiscorbutic salts," which tend to destroy the germs of tubercular disease, and which strike at the root of scurvy generally. These salts and remedial principles are "sulphur," "iodine," "potash," "phosphatic earths," and a particular volatile essential oil known as "sulphocyanide of allyl," which is almost identical with the essential oil of White Mustard.

Moreover, many of the chief Herbal Simples indigenous to Great Britain are further entitled for a still stronger reason to the fullest confidence of both doctor and patient. It has been found that when taken experimentally in varying quantities by healthy provers, many single medicines will produce symptoms precisely according with those of definite recognized maladies; and the same herbs, if administered curatively, in doses sufficiently small to avoid producing their toxical effects, will speedily and surely restore the patient to health by dispelling the said maladies. Good instances of such homologous cures are afforded by the common Buttercup, the wild Pansy, and the Sundew of our boggy marshes. It is widely known that the field Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus), when pulled from the ground, and carried in the palm of the hand, will redden and inflame the skin by the acrimony of its juices; or, if the bruised leaves are applied to any part they will excite a blistering of the outer cuticle, with a discharge of watery fluid from numerous small vesicles, whilst the tissues beneath become red, hot, and swollen; and these combined symptoms precisely represent "shingles," a painful skin disease given to arise from a depraved state of the bodily system, and from a faulty supply of nervous force. These shingles appear as a crop of sore angry blisters, which commonly surround the walls of the chest either in part or entirely; and modern medicine teaches that a medicinal tincture of the Buttercup, if taken in small doses, and applied, will promptly and effectively cure the same troublesome ailment; whilst it will further serve to banish a neuralgic or rheumatic stitch occurring in the side from any other cause.

And so with respect to the Wild Pansy (Viola tricolor), we read in Hahnemann's commentary on the proved plant: "The Pansy Violet excites certain cutaneous eruptions about the head and face, a hard thick scab being formed, which is cracked here and there, and from which a tenacious yellow matter exudes, and hardens into a substance like gum." This is an accurate picture of the diseased state seen often affecting the scalp of unhealthy children, as milk-crust, or, when aggravated, as a disfiguring eczema, and concerning the same Dr. Hughes of Brighton, in his authoritative modern treatise, says, "I have rarely needed any other medicine than the Viola tricolor for curing milk-crust, which is the plague of children," and "I have given it in the adult for recent impetigo (a similar disease of the skin), with very satisfactory results."

Finally, the Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), which is a common little plant growing on our bogs, and marshy places, is found to act in the same double fashion of cause or cure according to the quantity taken, or administered. Farmers well know that this small herb when devoured by sheep in their pasturage will bring about a violent chronic cough, with waste of substance: whilst the Sundew when given experimentally to cats has been found to stud the surface of their lungs with morbid tubercular matter, though this is a form of disease to which cats are not otherwise liable. In like manner healthy human provers have become hoarse of voice through taking the plant, and troubled with a severe cough, accompanied with the expectoration of abundant yellow mucus, just as in tubercular mischief beginning at the windpipe. Meantime it has been well demonstrated (by Dr. Curie, and others) that at the onset of pulmonary consumption in the human subject a cure may nearly always be brought about, or the symptoms materially improved, by giving the tincture of Sundew throughout several weeks from four to twenty drops in the twenty-four hours. And it has further become an established fact that the same tincture will serve with remarkable success to allay the troublesome spasms of Whooping Cough in its second stage, if given in small doses, repeated several times a day.

From these several examples, therefore, which are easy to be understood, we may fairly conclude that positive remedial actions are equally exercised by other Herbal Simples, both because of their chemical constituents and by reason of their curing in many cases according to the known law of medicinal correspondence.

Until of late no such an assured position could be rightly claimed by our native herbs, though pretensions in their favour have been widely popular since early English times. Indeed, Herbal physic has engaged the attention of many authors from the primitive days of Dioscorides (A.D. 60) to those of Elizabethan Gerard, whose exhaustive and delightful volume published in 1587 has remained ever since in paramount favour with the English people. Its quaint fascinating style, and its queer astrological notions, together with its admirable woodcuts of the plants described, have combined to make this comprehensive Herbal a standing favorite even to the present day.

Gerard had a large physic-garden near his house in Old Bourne (Holborn), and there is in the British Museum a letter drawn up by his hand asking Lord Burghley, his patron, to advise the establishment by the University of Cambridge in their grounds of a Simpling Herbarium. Nevertheless, we are now told (H. Lee, 1883) that Gerard's "ponderous book is little more than a translation of Dodonoeus, from which comparatively un-read author whole chapters have been taken verbatim without acknowledgment."

No English work on herbs and plants is met with prior to the sixteenth century. In 1552 all books on astronomy and geography were ordered to be destroyed, because supposed to be infected with magic. And it is more than probable that any publications extant at that time on the virtues of herbs (then associated by many persons with witchcraft), underwent the same fate. In like manner King Hezekiah long ago "fearing lest the Herbals of Solomon should come into profane hands, caused them to be burned," as we learn from that "loyal and godly herbalist," Robert Turner.

During the reigns of Edward the Sixth and Mary, Dr. William Bulleyn ranked high as a physician and botanist. He wrote the first Boke of Simples, which remains among the most interesting literary productions of that era as a record of his acuteness and learning. It advocates the exclusive employment of our native herbal medicines. Again, Nicholas Culpeper, "student in physics," whose name is still a household word with many a plain thinking English person, published in 1652, for the benefit of the Commonwealth, his "Compleat Method whereby a man may cure himself being sick, for threepence charge, with such things only as grow in England, they being most fit for English bodies." Likewise in 1696 the Honorable Richard Boyle, F.R.S., published "A Collection of Choice, Safe, and Simple English Remedies, easily prepared, very useful in families, and fitted for the service of country people."

Once more, the noted John Wesley gave to the world in 1769 an admirable little treatise on Primitive Physic, or an Easy and Natural Method for Curing most Diseases; the medicines on which he chiefly relied being our native plants. For asthma, he advised the sufferer to "live a fortnight on boiled Carrots only"; for "baldness, to wash the head with a decoction of Boxwood"; for "blood-spitting to drink the juice of Nettles"; for "an open cancer, to take freely of Clivers, or Goosegrass, whilst covering the sore with the bruised leaves of this herb"; and for an ague, to swallow at stated times "six middling pills of Cobweb."

In Wesley's day tradition only, with shrewd guesses and close observation, led him to prescribe these remedies. But now we have learnt by patient chemical research that the Wild Carrot possesses a particular volatile oil, which promotes copious expectoration for the relief of asthmatic cough; that the Nettle is endowed in its stinging hairs with "formic acid," which avails to arrest bleeding; that Boxwood yields "buxine," a specific stimulant to those nerves of supply which command the hair bulbs; that Goosegrass or Clivers is of astringent benefit in cancer, because of its "tannic," "citric," and "rubichloric acids"; and that the Spider's Web is of real curative value in ague, because it affords an albuminous principle "allied to and isomeric with quinine."

Long before this middle era in medicine, during quite primitive British times, the name and office of "Leeches" were familiar to the people as the first doctors of physic; and their parabilia or "accessibles" were worts from the field and the garden; so that when the Saxons obtained possession of Britain, they found it already cultivated and improved by what the Romans knew of agriculture and of vegetable productions. Hence it had happened that Rue, Hyssop, Fennel, Mustard, Elecampane, Southernwood, Celandine, Radish, Cummin, Onion, Lupin, Chervil, Fleur de Luce, Flax (probably), Rosemary, Savory, Lovage, Parsley, Coriander, Alexanders, or Olusatrum, the black pot herb, Savin, and other useful herbs, were already of common growth for kitchen uses, or for medicinal purposes.

And as a remarkable incidental fact antiquity has bequeathed to us the legend, that goats were always exceptionally wise in the choice of these wholesome herbs; that they are, indeed, the herbalists among quadrupeds, and known to be "cunning in simples." From which notion has grown the idea that they are physicians among their kind, and that their odor is wholesome to the animals of the farmyard generally. So that in deference, unknowingly, to this superstition, it still happens that a single Nanny or a Betty is freakishly maintained in many a modern farmyard, living at ease, rather than put to any real use, or kept for any particular purpose of service. But in case of stables on fire, he or she will face the flames to make good an escape, and then the horses will follow.

It was through chewing the beans of Mocha, and becoming stupefied thereby, that unsuspicious goats first drew the attention of Mahomedan monks to the wonderful properties of the Coffee berry.

Next, coming down to the first part of the present century, we find that purveyors of medicinal and savory herbs then wandered over the whole of England in quest of such useful simples as were in constant demand at most houses for the medicine-chest, the store-closet, or the toilet-table. These rustic practitioners of the healing art were known as "green men," who carried with them their portable apparatus for distilling essences, and for preparing their herbal extracts. In token of their having formerly officiated in this capacity, there may yet be seen in London and elsewhere about the country, taverns bearing the curious sign of "The Green Man and (his) Still."

It is told of a certain French writer not long since, that whilst complacently describing our British manners customs, he gravely translated this legend of the into "L'homme vert, et tranquil."

Passing on finally to our own times at the close of the nineteenth century, we are able now-a-days, as has been already said, to avail ourselves of precise chemical research by apparatus far in advance of the untutored herbalist's still. He prepared his medicaments and his fragrant essences, merely as a mechanical art, and without pretending to fathom their method of physical action. But the skilled expert of to-day resolves his herbal simples into their ultimate elements by exact analysis in the laboratory, and has learnt to attach its proper medicinal virtue to each of these curative principles. It has thus come about that Herbal Physic under competent guidance, if pursued with intelligent care, is at length a reliable science of fixed methods, and crowned with sure results.

Moreover, in this happy way is at last vindicated the infinite superiority felt instinctively by our forefathers of home-grown herbs over foreign and far-fetched drugs; a superiority long since expressed by Ovid with classic felicity in the passage:

"AEtas cui facimus _aurea_ nomen,
Fructibus arbuteis, et humus quas educat herbis
Fortunata fuit." Metamorphos., Lib. XV.

"Happy the age, to which we moderns give
The name of 'golden,' when men chose to live
On woodland fruits; and for their medicines took
Herbs from the field, and simples from the brook."

or, as epitomised in the time-worn Latin adage:

"Qui potest mederi simplicibus frustra quaerit composita."

"If simple herbs suffice to cure,
'Tis vain to compound drugs endure."

In the following pages our leading Herbal Simples are reviewed alphabetically; whilst, to ensure accuracy, the genus and species of each plant are particularized.

Most of these herbs may be gathered fresh in their proper season by persons who have acquired a knowledge of their parts, and who live in districts where such plants are to be found growing; and to other persons who inhabit towns, or who have no practical acquaintance with Botany, great facilities are now given by our principal druggists for obtaining from their stores concentrated fresh juices of the chief herbal simples.

Again, certain preparations of plants used only for their specific curative methods are to be got exclusively from the Homoeopathic chemist, unless gathered at first hand. These, not being officinal, fail to find a place on the shelves of the ordinary Pharmaceutical druggist. Nevertheless, when suitably employed, they are of singular efficacy in curing the maladies to which they stand akin by the law of similar. For convenience of distinction here, the symbol H. will follow such particular preparations, which number in all some seventy-five of the simples described. At the same time any of the more common extracts, juices, and tinctures (or the proper parts of the plants for making these several medicaments), may be readily purchased at the shop of every leading druggist.

It has not been thought expedient to include among the Simples for homely uses of cure such powerfully poisonous plants as Monkshood (Aconite), Deadly Nightshade (Belladonna), Foxglove (Digitalis), Hemlock or Henbane (except for some outward uses), and the like dangerous herbs, these being beyond the province of domestic medicine, whilst only to be administered under the advice and guidance of a qualified prescriber.

The chief purpose held in view has been to reconsider those safe and sound herbal curative remedies and medicines which were formerly most in vogue as homely simples, whether to be taken or to be outwardly applied. And the main object has been to show with what confidence their uses may be now resumed, or retained under the guidance of modern chemical teachings, and of precise scientific provings. This question equally applies, whether the Simples be employed as auxiliaries by the physician in attendance, or are welcomed for prompt service in a household emergency as ready at hand when the doctor cannot be immediately had.

Moreover, such a Manual as the present of approved Herbal Remedies need not by any means be disparaged by the busy practitioner, when his customary medicines seem to be out of place, or are beyond speedy reach; it being well known that a sick person is always ready to accept with eagerness plain assistant remedies sensibly advised from the garden, the store-closet, the spice-box, or the field.

"Of simple medicines, and their powers to cure,
A wise physician makes his knowledge sure;
Else I or the household in his healing art
He stands ill-fitted to take useful part."

So said Oribasus (freely translated) as long ago as the fourth century, in classic terms prophetic of later times, Simplicium medicamentorum et facultatum quoe in eis insunt cognitio ita necessaria est ut sine e?emo rite medicari queat.

But after all has been said and done, none the less must it be finally acknowledged in the pathetic utterance of King Alfred's Anglo-Saxon proverb, Nis no wurt woxen on woode ne on felde, per enure mage be lif uphelden.

"No wort is waxen in wood or wold,
Which may for ever man's life uphold."

Neither to be discovered in the quaint Herbals of primitive times, nor to be learnt by the advanced chemical knowledge of modern plant lore, is there any panacea for all the ills to which our flesh is heir, or an elixir of life, which can secure for us a perpetual immunity from sickness. Contra vim mortis nullum medicamentum in hortis, says the rueful Latin distich:

"No healing herb can conquer death,
And so for always give us breath."

To sum up which humiliating conclusion good George Herbert has put the matter thus with epigrammatic conciseness:

"St. Luke was a saint and a physician, yet he is dead!"

But none the less bravely we may still take comfort each in his mortal frailty, because of the hopeful promise preached to men long since by the son of Sirach, "A faithful friend is the Medicine of life; they that fear the Lord shall find Him."

The Primitive Simplers presented here show the way of life in other generations, it is not suggested or recommended trying them yourself.

Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, by William Thomas Fernie, 1897

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