Herbal Lore

on Monday, 09 November 2015. Posted in Traditions and Folklore

In times gone by, the Rev. W. Zapprell Allan of Broad Chalke claimed that there was no wise woman better than Old Dame Zargett with her knowledge of herbs and simples.

The most highly regarded of all the herbs were hellebore, rosemary, lavender, sage, comfrey, rue, wormwood, marjoram and vervain, with verbena, mint and chamomile following close on their heels. Kathleen Wiltshire, long-term resident of All Cannings, lists almost 60 in her book ‘Wiltshire Folklore’, available at WSHC, and I have listed just a few for you here.

Betony was the one herb not to be without. It is a woodland plant with purple-red flowers that bloom from June to September and, excepting the roots, the whole plant is of good use. ‘Sell your coat and buy betony’ is an old Wiltshire saying. It was said to have still surpassed modern drugs during WWII being especially helpful for the burns of RAF pilots.

I don’t know about you, but I usually try to avoid brambles, especially when picking blackberries, but they were very good at easing scalds. Just dip nine leaves in water and apply to the wound whilst repeating a chant three times to each leaf:

‘Three ladies came from the east,

One brought fire, and two brought frost,

Out with the fire, and in with the frost,

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy ghost,


The bramble was considered to be a sacred plant, in the same vein as the rowan and oak. Brambles could also be used as a cure for whooping-cough if they were forming an arch with the tip of the arch sending down a new root. Initially the treatment was just to crawl under the arch, but it was later modified, usually by repeating the process nine times on nine consecutive days.

Fleabane does what it says on the tin! It was burnt to drive out fleas and other insects from the straw used on floors in rooms.

Hawthorne was used for drawing thorn and blisters out of the skin. The wine or tea made from the blossom and berries was noted as a good heart tonic; also beneficial for asthma sufferers. It was thought in Wiltshire that to bring in mayblossom from the Hawthorn would bring on a death if it was used for decoration and so it had a reputation for bad luck. Wiltshire children used to eat hawthorn leaves which they called ‘bread and cheese’, although it is not clear if this was done through choice!

The trusty onion was used as a country cure for colds, in a soup with hot milk. It was also thought that it could deter a snake, and a raw onion was often carried in case of attack, although it may have deterred more than just the snakes! Kathleen was informed that a bee-keeper from Great Bedwyn would always use onion juice to ease a bee or wasp sting – an old bee-keeper’s remedy.

Parsley originally came from Greece. It is known as the most magical of plants, and has associations with the Devil. It had to be planted on a Good Friday, when four times what was needed was sown as the Devil required his share. A rising moon was a must… and woe betide anyone who tried to take a cutting or move a parsley plant – it should never, ever be transplanted. Kathleen recalled the ‘horror of an old Wiltshire woman when I asked for a root of her flourishing parsley bed.’ It is known to be a digestive aid and also helps bring down a temperature. The Earl of Radnor was mentioning parsley in a letter of 1 November 1808, promising to despatch some seeds from Longford Castle which were suitable to grow in Tobago. A lease of 20 July 1764 contained a rather appropriate name for one of the parties relating to a cottage and garden at the lower end of High Street, Malmesbury – Parsley alias Garlick, William, gardener!

Sage, originally native to the Mediterranean, was renowned for aiding sore throats if mixed with honey and vinegar, but it was also said that the flowers were useful for ‘helping the memory, warming and quickening the senses.’ Rubbing your teeth with the leaves could also help whiten them. Sage is thought to be an anti-inflammatory, and is useful for the general treatment of wounds. Local folklore also has it that ‘sage will prosper when the master is well’ with John Evelyn agreeing that ‘’Tis a plant indeed with so many and wonderful properties as that the assiduous use of it is said to render men immortal.’

Although ivy was also considered unlucky to bring indoors, cups made of ivy wood were reported to have curative effects, curing whooping cough or sobering up a drunken man.

Richard Jefferies noted in his publication ‘Fields and Hedgerows’ that spring was the time that most use was made of herbs like gorse blossom tea. ‘One cottage wife exclaimed that she had no patience with women so ignorant that they did not know how to use herbs, as wood-sage or wood-betony.’ He noted that many gardens included holy thistle, good to protect against inflammation, which they put much faith in.

Doctress Neil was arriving in Cirencester in circa 1794, reportedly able to cure a good number of ailments. She would be available to speak to people at certain times the Crown Inn.

This advertisement of her skills was discovered in a set of papers relating to a dispute between John Gleed and John Peapall of Somerford Keynes, the back having been used as letter paper. (Ref: WSA 946/16).

Julie Davis

Local Studies Assistant


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