Design a site like this with WordPress.com
Get started

Medicinal Plants and Healing Herbs

Plants once played an important role in the traditional medicine of rural Brittany, being employed in a wide variety of remedies to treat all manner of ailments. Most of the tried and tested herbal recipes were tightly guarded secrets only handed down within the family unit. Fortunately, many of the old remedies were captured for posterity by forward thinking people keen to ensure the knowledge that had sustained generations of Bretons was not lost forever in the march to the modern world.

The folk remedies recorded below were noted in use in the eastern part of the region at the very end of the 19th century and do not, as far as I have been able, repeat any of the treatments and cures detailed in previous posts which predominantly focused on the healers of western Brittany.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

Popular treatments for childhood maladies contained many of the same ingredients brought to bear against sickness in adults. A cure for colic was said to lie in the film of fat that sometimes adhered to the lids of cooking pots in which pork had been boiled; the greasy lid was pressed against the stomach of the patient to affect a cure.  When colic was complicated with diarrhoea, an infusion of Knotweed in hot water was drunk as a curative. Soot from the patient’s own hearth was mixed with sweetened fresh cow’s milk and drunk every night, for a week, to treat intestinal worms in children or else the patient was made to sleep on a mattress made of Male Fern plants.

One remedy recommended against croup called for the child’s neck to be surrounded by a poultice made from a mixture of goose dung, Celery, white Peppercorns and white wine vinegar. Sadly, there is no record of how long this peculiar necklace needed to be worn in order to be effective. A three or six day treatment was advised for those battling whooping cough; the patient needed to drink a cup of freshly drawn mare’s milk in the morning before breakfast. Another wholesome remedy to treat the same ailment recommended drinking hot milk in which pulverised Hazelnuts had been boiled.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

The treatment of epilepsy in children ranged from some kind of fumigation where the patient inhaled the smoke blown up their nose by someone smoking a pipe of Tobacco, to drinking a herbal tea made from water macerated with Peony roots and Pyrethrum flowers.

Tobacco also featured in a remarkable treatment for ringworm in children; a treatment that began with shaving all the hair from the patient’s head. It was then necessary to crush Houseleek and Elderberry root in a bowl of curdled milk, to which was added a piece of Tobacco leaf; the concoction was then allowed to marinate overnight. The child’s head was thoroughly washed each morning and night before being completely coated with the prepared ointment; healing was thought complete after a month of such treatment.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

To cure a headache, it was recommended for the patient to cover their head with a heavy cloth and to hold their head, for as long as possible, over a cauldron in which Hayseeds were boiled in water. If Hayseeds were unavailable, Ground-Ivy was believed just as effective. A similar head covering was used to treat toothache but it was necessary for the patient to open their mouth to the steam that rose from the pot in which quartz stones were boiled in vinegar. Toothache was also said to have been relieved by rubbing the back of the ear nearest the troublesome tooth with the sap of Petty Spurge or Milk Weed. If a tooth required extracting, the application of Asparagus root to the diseased tooth was thought to prevent the patient suffering any pain during the procedure.

For earaches, the oily sap of the inflorescences found on Field Elm was applied directly into the ear but relief was also said to be granted to those who used the sap of Ash branches in the same manner. Ear ailments in infants were usually treated with a few drops of milk, expressed directly into the affected ear by a nursing mother.

Inflamed and sore throats were cured by drinking very hot cider in which butter had been melted, or else a draught of cow’s milk in which Laurel leaves had been boiled. Others recommended applying to the throat a poultice made from mashed Potatoes that had been cooked in the ashes of the hearth. One of the old cures for tonsillitis recommended that the sufferer slept with the sock removed from their left foot wrapped around their neck; the sock needed to be filled with ash warm from the grate to be effective. However, this treatment was said to have been dangerous for girls who had reached puberty.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

Two leaves of Greater Periwinkle, chewed until only the fibres remained, were said to immediately stop a nosebleed. Other remedies were slightly more invasive as one called for the tender leaves taken from the top of the Nettle to be rolled into balls and pushed into the patient’s nostrils; another cure recommended that the nostrils be stuffed with Puffball spores instead. Forcefully squeezing the little finger of the patient’s left hand was also claimed to be an effective way of stopping nosebleeds, as was immersing their hand into very cold water.

Eye ailments were popularly cured by eye washes with water that had been macerated with Elder flowers but only on condition that these flowers had been collected between the two Sundays of Corpus Christi. Ophthalmia and other eye inflammations in adults were also treated with an eye wash of hot water in which Greater Plantain leaves had been boiled. Styes were said removed by the application of raw veal or else passing a gold ring over them.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

Clear vision was assured to those that passed over their eyelids a freshly laid and still warm chicken egg or those that washed their eyes with the milk in which the Scarlet Pimpernel had been boiled. Meanwhile, patients suffering with bloodshot eyes were recommended to pound the stem of Robert’s Grass together with some coarse salt and apply the compound as a poultice on the wrist of the arm opposite the affected eye; a procedure that needed to be repeated each night for three consecutive days in order to be effective.

To refresh and purify one’s blood, it was recommended that Chervil, Cress, Fumitory, Sorrel and Ryegrass be pounded together. The juice of this herbal concoction was added to a little water and drunk every morning, before breakfast, for nine consecutive days. Another remedy, called for the roots of Catchweed, Curly Dock and Dandelion to be macerated in water before being boiled until half the water had evaporated. A cup of the remaining broth was drunk every morning before breakfast; a process repeated daily until the volume of blood that one wanted refreshed had been drunk.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

Those suffering from oedema were advised to split a living rooster in half, with a single axe blow, and to wrap the bleeding carcass around the swollen ankles. For those afflicted with sore feet, more pleasant remedies were suggested; a foot bath of hot water mixed with either crushed Mustard seeds or those of the Greater Celandine. Corns and calluses on the feet were cured by the direct application of a cut Leek, although a foot bath consisting of crushed Garlic and Houseleek leaves macerated in vinegar was claimed an equally effective remedy.

Severe bruising was mostly treated with the direct application of a poultice made from a compound of coarse salt and Vervain or Verbena that had been pounded together into a thick paste.  Alternatively, an equally efficacious poultice was said to be made from pounding a lichen known as Tree Lungwort or Pulmonary Moss with the white of a chicken’s egg.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

As the name would suggest, Pilewort or Lesser Celandine was used in a number of treatments for haemorrhoids. In one, the roots of the plant were placed in a small cloth bag that was attached to the bottom of the patient’s shirt; the plant’s proximity to the seat of the discomfort was believed enough to begin the healing process. Another treatment called for the plant’s sap to be mixed with a little lard and applied to the affected area as an ointment.

Two other plants were also popularly used to treat this same affliction; the sap of Houseleek leaves, mixed with boiled lard, was applied directly as an ointment but a treatment involving Water Hemlock also called for a certain degree of ritual. In this instance, the highly toxic plant was thoroughly washed in running water before its tubers were pounded and mixed with some lard. The resulting compound was then slowly boiled over the embers in a new earthenware pot thus creating an ointment that was described as most effective.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

Menstrual complications were often treated with poultices made from Tree Moss that were applied to the body near to the kidneys, or else a poultice made of boiled Parsley was applied to the patient’s stomach. The stomach was also the preferred location for a poultice of boiled Pellitory, also known as Bottle Grass, which was applied there to ease those suffering from urine retention; the water in which the plant had been boiled also needed to be drunk by the patient in order for the cure to be effective. Drinking herbal teas made from an infusion of Chicory and Peony roots was said to bring relief from constipation.

The remedies recommended for treating burn victims seem to have varied from healer to healer but the most popular called for the burn to be covered with a grated Potato or for the afflicted part of the body to be immersed in cow’s milk that had been churned; care being taken to ensure the milk was renewed as soon as it seemed hot. Another by-product of the cow was also acclaimed effective in treating burns but only if it was very fresh. To that end, it was said necessary to be ready to receive, in a sack, a delivery of freshly expelled dung which was then quickly applied to the burn or, if a hand or a foot had been burned, the affected limb was plunged directly into the sack.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

One practice used by some local healers to treat burns involved ritual magic rather than practical medicine and was noted in eastern Brittany as late as 1938. Here, the healer took a cup of water and, having wet their fingers in it, drew the sign of the cross above the burn, while reciting a charm invoking Saint Lawrence, the third century Christian martyr who died upon a gridiron and whose feast day is observed on 10 August. The ritual was not complete until the healer then blew on the burn. In the west of the region, it was Saint Barbara, another late third century martyr tortured by fire, who was invoked.

Numerous remedies were noted for dealing with minor cuts and wounds here. For instance, a pinch of snuff tobacco was sprinkled liberally on the cut, or else cobwebs taken from working millstones were used. When applied as a poultice, the leaves of the Ribwort Plantain, also known as Saint Joseph’s Herb or Five-Seam Grass, were also believed to quickly heal cuts; an attribute shared with a poultice made from the pounded leaves and stems of the Nettle.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

Deep cuts were treated with an application of Lily leaves that had been soaked in brandy, or else Geranium leaves, wrapped in cobwebs, were placed on the cuts as a sort of bandage. Another remedy for healing wounds called for the leaves of the Greater Mullein and Mallow plants to be boiled with a handful of bran. The wound was then washed with this water before being covered with a poultice made from the boiled compound. It was said necessary to renew this procedure every morning until healing was visibly complete.

Uncomfortably painful leg ulcers were managed by the direct application of a plaster made-up of a compound created by boiling together a mixture of wax, Olive oil and resin. This plaster needed to be changed twice a day for the first week but only daily thereafter and was regarded a certain cure for even the most stubborn ulcer.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

Disorders affecting the skin must once have been quite commonplace if the number and varieties of cures provide any indication upon which to form a judgement. Eczema and skin lesions were treated with the direct application of Goundsel leaves or else a plaster made from Greater Celandine, known as the Grass of Saint-Clair or Witches’ Milk, which had been pounded with coarse salt to form a thick paste. Similarly, soot taken from a hearth where only wood had been burned was mixed with andouille (a sausage made on the farms from pig intestines) fat and applied to the affected skin. An alternative remedy advised boiling the soot in the milk that had escaped from the churn when butter was beaten and applying this compound as a poultice.

To treat the skin infection known as erysipelas or Saint Anthony’s Fire it was necessary to fumigate the affected skin with Elderberry bark before applying a poultice made from the crushed flowers of the same tree used for the fumigation. However, a poultice made from Common Duckweed was also believed to cure the same complaint. The skin/nail infection whose clinical name is paronychia was treated by placing the infected finger or toe into a fresh chicken egg that was sat in boiled water or else by putting the digit into very hot fatty broth. Marseille soap, resin and cow’s milk were then boiled together to create an ointment that was applied to the infected part before bed. Alternatively, the leaves of Wall Pennywort, also known as the Navel of Venus, boiled with pork fat and breadcrumbs were also pounded together to make a suitable ointment.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

Chestnuts boiled in water and pounded into a paste were applied as a hot poultice to treat chilblains, whereas dry, cracked skin was treated with a very basic ointment made-up only of barely formed butter. The old healers also even carried recipes for removing freckles. One such remedy called for a freshly made Buckwheat pancake to be placed on a plate; it was then necessary to rub the face with the condensated water droplets, known as pancake sweat, that had formed under the hot pancake. Another, simpler, treatment required the face to be rubbed with a paste made from the pounded leaves and the flowers of the Cowslip.

In this region, two quite different beverages were once recommended in the fight against a fever. One called for the patient to drink a cup of white wine that had been infused with Privet leaves or the bark of the Willow. However, another remedy called for a chicken’s gizzard to be thoroughly washed and left to dry-out by the fireside. Once fully dried, the gizzard was ground into something resembling a powder which was then added to a cup of white wine and drunk twice a day.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

Drinking an infusion made from Mallow flowers or Quackgrass boiled in spring water was believed a most effective treatment against the common cold. Similarly, drinking cow’s milk in which the leaves of the small fern known as Wall Capillary or Maidenhair Spleenwort had been boiled was also recommended. The water that had been used to boil Ground-Ivy, also known as Saint-John’s Belt, was another efficacious treatment but only if some Oats had first been boiled in the same cooking pot.

We know from the sheer volume of extant folk medicine cures for rheumatism and joint pain that such ailments must have once greatly troubled the people of Brittany. In some areas, sufferers were advised to beat the afflicted limbs with Nettles but other remedies required the patient to induce sweating by covering themselves with a blanket and branches of Birch that had been heated in a bread oven that had just baked bread. Sleeping on a mattress made of Ferns was also believed to relieve sufferers of their pain, especially if, during the day, their skin also remained in contact with the leaves of the Broadleaf Plantain; sewn inside their shirt for such a purpose.  

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

To treat the pain caused by a blow or a fall, Burdock leaves were heated on a skillet before being mixed with lard which was then rubbed into the affected part of the patient’s body. Although another remedy claimed that the most effective cure was for the patient to drink a bottle of white wine which had been infused with six small branches of Myrtle. The annoying pain caused by a side-stitch was believed cured by the direct application of hot Oatmeal that contained the white of a chicken’s egg.

Those believed to have suffered a stroke could be assured a cure if they caught and killed a mole; the little creature was bled and the resultant blood then applied to the affected parts of the patient’s body. Other unusual treatments included drinking an infusion of Knotgrass in water in expectation of being cured of dysentery. Or a treatment for rabies that advised making a compound of Dog Roses, powdered Walnuts and chicken eggs; applying half this raw omelette directly to the bite, the patient ate the other half in hope of a cure. The treatment for those suffering from night sweats called for the patient to wear a bag or stocking around their neck when going to bed; the stocking was filled with Meadow Saffron, also known as Naked Lady or Dog Killer, bulbs; the one part of the plant that is not highly toxic.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

Many treatments for warts were noted here; from the simple to the dangerous. One remedy called for the patient to bite their own warts before breakfast each morning for a week. Another called for the offending warts to be rubbed by the patient in the morning, on an empty stomach, with Buckwheat leaves or with the juice from the stem of the Greater Celandine. Similarly, the milky sap of the Fig tree, the mucus of a de-shelled snail, the halves of an Apple picked from a tree ordinarily used for making cider or the toxic sap of the Spurge were all also claimed to provide effective cures for warts. However, the most infallible remedy was said to have been provided by the application of the rag that had been used to clean the bread oven.

To prove the old adage of yesterday’s healers that we carry about us the remedies that can cure our ills, one treatment for insect bites here recommended that the patient should cover the bite mark with their own ear wax. However, the juices exuded from the leaves of the Ribwort Plantain were also regarded as an effective treatment against all manner of bites and stings. The aggravating wounds caused by skin punctures from thorns were treated with an ointment made from a handful of Ground-Ivy, pounded with a small spoonful of butter, lard and resin into a paste that was heated over a fire before being directly applied to the skin.

medical plants - herbal remedies
.

The most effective cure against the bite of the viper, the region’s only poisonous snake, was believed to be to be offered by the head of the culprit itself. If one could capture the snake that had bitten you and crushed its head against the bite, one was thought cured immediately. However, it was said that although cured, you would always feel unwell and even experience a swelling of the skin, each year on the anniversary of the attack.

While we may have abandoned the old natural remedies that long served our ancestors so well, the use of plants for their medicinal qualities is being revisited today by homeopathic practitioners and multi-billion dollar corporations alike; fresh eyes re-discovering old knowledge for new generations.

Advertisement

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

197 thoughts on “Medicinal Plants and Healing Herbs

  1. It would be great if some of these old remedies turned out to be efficacious. My Nana cured my poisoned toe with a hot bread poultice. I think the poultice brought it to a head and she lanced it, draining the pus out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds a good one – thank you for sharing it! I do not recall many remedies featuring bread, so, this is a great addition! 🙂

      I like to think some of the old remedies had ‘something’ to them. Hey, if your Nana’s treatment worked perhaps some of these others did too! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can believe the willow and white wine being used for treatment of fevers: willow contains salicylic compounds which are an ingredient of aspirin and help with pain relief and bring down body temperature.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Looks like that Ogham reading came in handy for something, huh? 😉

        I imagine the wine made it easier to take, too.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve paused this month due to the festivities, but I had completed the second set (aicme hÚath) in the first week of this month. Will pick up again in January. 😁

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, yes – some were clearly arrived at after long years testing and I can see the sense in keeping the throat warm. What I still don’t get is the risk to young women but perhaps there was once some link that has since been lost to us. 🤔

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: