As a child, I was always given swede and brown sugar at the first sign of a cough. An old recipe passed down by my gran, it tasted not unpleasant but I was never sure it did any good. Yet, like most of these old country remedies, there was possibly more to it than just a sweet, soothing syrup.
The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants aims to give some scientific backing to the use of healing plants and shows that many of these traditional remedies have some substance. Lavender, for example, has long been used for aiding sleep and now studies have shown it “reduces alertness and memory, while improving general contentment”.
Often the clue to a medicinal plant’s uses lies in the name: lemon balm is a traditional remedy for stress; self-heal was made into a poultice to help wounds heal; feverfew was used to combat fevers and pain.
Running through the plants in alphabetical order, the authors give the scientific and common names, traditional uses, often quoting herbalists such as Culpepper and Gerard, and a brief overview of modern research results, some of which validate the old remedies, while others just give the compounds discovered that might suggest a possible health use.
With 35,000 plants worldwide having a medicinal use, there has naturally been some selection. The list has been limited to those with a long history of use to treat a range of complaints and, where possible, to have been subjected to some scientific research. Those that are well-known to pharmaceutical companies – such as foxglove and yew – have been left out.
And there are some surprises: who would have known that the diminutive wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa, has antibacterial properties, or that the teasel, Dipsacus inermis, is being studied for possible use in treating cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.
In fact, the range is wide from trees, shrubs and perennials to those that we usually consider weeds, such as nettles, couch grass and cleavers or goosegrass. Unfortunately, there is little scientific proof that the traditional use of horsetail, Equisetum arvense, for a range of medicinal uses is valid so I won’t be able to make millions from the plants infesting my garden.
The book has been produced by the world famous Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and written by Jason Irving, a forager and qualified herbalist, Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes, a registered pharmacist and chartered chemist, and Professor Monique Simmonds, Deputy Director of Science at Kew.
Yet this is far more than just an encyclopaedia of scientific fact. Beautifully illustrated with botanical drawings it is an easy read with occasional tips on cultivation, and more in-depth sections including the history of herbals, traditional medicine – records date back almost 5,000 years in China – and the importance of plant conservation.
For those interested in producing their own ointments and syrups, there are recipes for making remedies, including fennel tincture, marshmallow lozenges and passionflower sleep tea.
They are, we are assured, easy so long as you have “basic cooking skills” while the equipment required is “the same as those used in jam making”.
Remedies should be used in small amounts and their effects assessed before another dose to ensure there is no allergic reaction. Labelling is essential. As we are warned: “it is very easy to forget what that strange smelling liquid is at the back of your cupboard!”
• The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants, An A-Z of Healing Plants and Home Remedies by Monique Simmonds, Melanie-Jayne Howes and Jason Irving, is priced at £14.99 RRP and published by Frances Lincoln. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)
• Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.
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