At midsummer, the summer solstice, the countryside is bejewelled by our native wild flowers and herbs. Along the roadsides, brightening the hedgerows, flowers are everywhere – a blend of yellow, white, red, blue, green, pink and many shades in between. Today many of these plants are considered weeds but somebody said, truthfully, that a weed is a plant whose use has been forgotten. Take the dandelion, for example. This charming bright plant is full of goodness – the leaves can be eaten in a salad, the flowers used to make fritters, and the root, dried, can be ground into a coffee-like drink; the fluffy seed heads were used by children everywhere to tell the time. The number of puffs it took to blow away the seeds was the number of hours.
Before the advent of scientific medicine, herbs were used to cure many illnesses. Around St. John’s Day, June 24, was the most popular time to collect healing herbs. St. John’s wort (hypericum perforatum) was gathered for medicinal purposes and many held that it must be gathered on St. John’s Eve. Other herbs gathered at this season had special virtues; an 18th century medical work prescribes for a child who gets fits or spasms while asleep – ‘An Lus Mór agus an fothrom do bhaint idir dhá fhéil San Seáin agus a mbruith in uisce tri teorann, a chur i mbuidéal agus a choimeád go mbeadh ocáid agat leo’ – ‘foxglove and figwort to be gathered between the two feasts of St. John, boiled in the water of three boundaries, bottled and kept until required’.
St. John’s wort, with its bright yellow flowers and red sap, was linked in European folklore to the feast of St. John and midsummer, and was believed to provide powerful protection against evil influences. It was also one of the most important herbs in European medicine. There are several types of St. John’s wort but the one most widely used is Perforate St. John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum, in Irish, ‘Lus na Maighdhine Muire’ (the plant of the Virgin Mary). Alternative names for the plant are ‘Allas Mhuire’ (Mary’s sweat), ‘Luibh Eoin Bhaiste’ (the plant of St. John the Baptist) and ‘Lus Cholm Cille’ (the plant of St. Colmcille).
It was considered one of the seven Irish herbs that nothing natural or supernatural could injure. The others were vervain, speedwell, eyebright, mallow, yarrow and self-heal.
Mugwort was considered one of the most important herbs in traditional medicine, especially for female complaints and nervous afflictions. This gave it the reputation as a powerful magical plant effective in protecting against all harmful influences. Its scientific name is ‘Artemisia vulgaris’ and in Irish ‘Mongach Meascra’ (‘mongach’, something with a mane, ‘meascra’, tangled). It is also known as ‘Lus an tSeanduine’ (the old Man’s herb) and ‘Liathlus Mór’ (the big grey plant). Mugwort was traditionally believed to have strong powers of protection against evil. It was known in Europe as ‘Mater Herbarum’ (Mother of Herbs) and was associated with the festival of St. John. In Ireland mugwort was held over St. John’s bonfires in County Cork and then hung in the dwelling houses and byres. Mugwort was said to protect the traveller against tiredness, sunstroke, wild animals and evil spirits. Mugwort was also highly regarded in the Classical world and the Latin name ‘Artemisia’ derives from the Greek goddess, ‘Artemis’, the moon goddess who presided over birth. This is a reference to the use of mugwort for ailments around childbirth. It was also used in traditional herbal medicine against palsy, fits, epilepsy and nervous afflictions. Mugwort’s aromatic leaves were believed to have the power to repel midges and the name mugwort is said to mean ‘midge-plant’ in old English. However, another theory holds that ‘mug’ is a reference to its use in flavouring beer and other drinks before the advent of hops.
A similar plant is Wormwood, ‘Artemisia absinthium’, in Irish ‘Mormónta’. In West Cork it was known as ‘barramóta’. It was very common on Heir Island when I was a young boy – a strong astringent smell I will never forget. It was used as an insecticide and placed under mattresses to kill fleas. Famous for its bitter taste, it is the principal ingredient in the French drink absinthe. In Scotland it was known as ‘Lus an tSeanduine’ – old person’s herb, because its strong smell was used to prevent faintness and weariness and to keep old people awake in church.
We have all heard that a four-leaved clover is lucky, but the ‘hungry-grass’ was quite the opposite and very unlucky indeed for anyone who stood on it. ‘Hungry grass’ cannot be distinguished from other kinds of grass. It is supposed to grow on the spot where some poor person died of starvation in famine times, and when you step on it you suffer the pangs of hunger. Older people carried a bread crust in their pocket as a precaution for the smallest morsel of bread banished the hunger.
There were many other wild plants with peculiar properties and uses. In damp places, such as marshes or river banks, the Irish Spurge grows in great yellow-green clumps. Its juice was used to remove warts, but it also had a sinister use – poisoning fish. People filled a canvas bag with spurge, pounded the sack until the contents were beaten into a juicy pulp and then dropped into the river. The result was that every fish – eels, trout and salmon and so on, came floating dead to surface for hundreds of yards downstream. The purpose must have been to anger the local landlord, who in the past ‘owned’ the fishing rights to the rivers.
When men went to the bog or the hill they were often asked to bring back a bunch of heather, used by the womenfolk as brooms and scrapers. The ‘long heather’ was made into brooms and the shorter stiff heather was used for its colour and fragrance. White heather was also considered lucky.
Many of the wild plants were used in folk cures but only a few were considered as food. Many of the older people ate a dish of boiled nettles three times in May when the nettles were young and green. This was for health reasons because nettles are a renowned blood purifier. ‘Praiseach Bhuí’ (charlock) was gathered and boiled for food in bad times.
Some wild fruits were eaten. The favourite was the ‘fraochán’, the blue whortleberry, that grew in profusion in the bogs. The blackberry, the crab-apple, the sloe and the hazelnut were gathered and eaten. Blackberries, in particular, were used for making jam. In places sloes, elderberries and other wild fruit were used to make home-made wine. One of the most beautiful sights of autumn is the glowing red clumps of rowan berries. These were left for the birds.
Several plants were highly regarded as food for fowl and small animals. Chickweed, groundsel and the big purple thistle were chopped up and added to the hens’ food.
Children played games with some of the plants – blowing dandelions ‘clocks’, catching bees in the ‘fairy thimbles’ of the foxglove, making ‘boats’ from ‘feileastram’ (wild iris). Little boys made whips and ‘bastúns’ (small whips) of the long soft rushes which grew in marshy places. In earlier times before oil lamps, the pith of the rushes was used to made candlewicks and rushlights. Rushes were also used for cattle bedding and rough thatching.
Thistles, the old people said, grew only on good land. A story was told of a blind man who set out to make a match for his daughter with the son of a farmer, who tried to mislead the blind man on the question of the worth of the farm. The blind man and his servant boy came riding into the farm and when they dismounted, the boy was told to tether the horses to two big thistles. ‘But sir, there isn’t a thistle in the field’, said the boy. ‘If that’s the way, we might as well be shortening the road home for we have no business with land that won’t grow a thistle’. This, of course, happened at a time when most marriages were arranged by the parents of the couple getting married.
Wild plants were used to dye wool and linen yarn. The roots of spurge gave black, flag iris roots- a grey-blue colour, briar roots a dark grey. An expert could get a clear yellow from heather. Whitethorn leaves made a dark blue and alder leaves a dark green. The blossoms of furze and of buachalán buí (ragwort) made various shades of brown and dull yellow.
Ferns were burned and the ashes used in making soap; washing with fern soap was said to be very good for the complexion. The ‘mismín’ (wild mint) and ‘rileog’ (bog myrtle) were put with clothes and linen to keep the moths away and they gave the cloth a pleasant smell. Dandelion leaves were used to make a sort of tea.
Many other plants too had their uses, as food or drink, as medicines, as material for various things. Nowadays all such things come from the shops, but rural life is so much less interesting for the loss of the old knowledge of plants and their uses.