Potent herbs that hug the hedgerows

MEADOWSWEET, meadow maid, lady or queen of the meadow - the old names for Filipendula ulmaria speak of meadows as they used to…

MEADOWSWEET, meadow maid, lady or queen of the meadow - the old names for Filipendula ulmaria speak of meadows as they used to be, moist and flowery.

Now, drained and raked and sown with one green grass, meadows are no place for medieval strewing herbs, and meadowsweet is banished to the damper margins. In the west, as airgead luachra, the silver rush, meadow sweet laps the back roads in a creamy bubble bath, stabbed with spires of purple loosest rife.

This spring and summer have found me more than usually aware of the flowers in their seasons the successive domination of the roadsides by one plant or another. Seeking good shots for some programmes on herbal medicine, I have noted sometimes gasped at thrilling white tides of ox eye daisies, whole carillons of fox glove bells massed along the banks and verges.

The sheer profusion of some potent herbs (known to me chiefly as pictures on packets from the healthfood shop) has been a revelation. Valerian, for example, a favourite soother, grows in astonishing, if local, abundance, its pink flowers towering up at marshes and streamsides.


But other medicinal herbs I assumed would be "everywhere" proved surprisingly camera shy. One was burdock, prime ingredient of a good many herbal infusions. I wanted a big, bushy plant with plenty of burs on it and found it - rather touchingly - beside the playground wall of a long deserted national school on a road through the mountains.

It took another long detour to find comfrey flowering in the wild - a lovely thicket of it, buzzing with bumble bees, at the side of a road near Killucan, Co Meath. It has long puzzled me that a herb once so relied upon for the poulticing of wounds and bruises and broken bones - lus na gcnamh mbriste - should have become so scarce in the countryside.

One obvious reason was pointed out to me by Mairin Ui Chonchubhair, whose new Flora Chorca Dhuibhne matches folk history to botany. Unless comfrey was protected in gardens, it could not survive the grazing by every roaming ass and cow.

She took me to a little garden almost on the cliffs of Dun Chaoin, to show me comfrey with creamy coloured flowers, rather than the more common pink or purple. It was planted there by Meini Dunlevy, the Blasket nurse whose knowledge of folk cures, noted down years ago, helped to enrich the research for Mairin's Flora. The white comfrey was once the "official" plant of herbalists, but all have the stout root, rich in mucilage and allantoin, that makes such a sticky and healing compress or ointment.

Comfrey has made itself at home in rather more corners of my garden than I had intended. Some of it is the wild, wayside kind; more of it the big leaved "Russian" comfrey bred for composting. For bumps or bruises or bumper crops, it is certainly one of Europe's more extraordinary plants.

And now I am looking with a new eye at plants native to the acre and pushed aside as nuisances or worse: nettle, centaury, tormentil, plantain so many humble weeds of the fields with powers to flush you out, calm the heart, heal the skin. Even cleavers - horrid goosegrass turns out, in the right hands, to be a great stimulant to one's lymphatic system in draining out toxins and wastes.

And all so gently, say the medical herbalists. Meadowsweet is actually their aspirin: the first salicylic acid was produced from its flower buds, at a time when spirea was part of its botanical name. It exemplifies their principle that the whole plant adds up to much more than all the constituent chemicals broken down; it balances one action with another. Meadowsweet works like aspirin without harming the stomach, as a diuretic dandelion makes you pee but replaces the potassium and so on, in herb after herb.

Meadowsweet time is also the season of the umbelliferae - whose wayside plants with flat white heads or domes or lacy umbels, all so exasperating to remember, one from another. And yet, once fixed in the mind and eye (and nose) there is no ways that yarrow, say, could be contused with wild carrot, or hogweed with angelica.

I am coming to have great respect for yarrow, in anticipation, as it were - having heard from a west Kerry farmer what "the week" has done for his arthritis. A notable accordionist, this man, but he slowly became too crippled with lumps in his fingers and knees to stir out anywhere or play a note.

A steady consumption of yarrow tea, drunk early every morning on an empty stomach, has dissolved away the lumps and restored him to suppleness and music. He is out now, harvesting bunch after bunch of the plant to hang up to dry in his dark and airy barn. None of this would surprise the herbalist: yarrow's anti inflammatory properties are well confirmed.

To make the farmer's potion, cut up eight whole flowering plants (but leave the roots in the ground, undisturbed) and simmer them slowly for half an hour in a quart of water or more. Strain off the liquid and keep it in a jug in the fridge; drink it two hours before breakfast.

One word of warning if you decide to follow suit: roadside umbellifers can soak up the lead from traffic fumes: roam a bit further. You can also grow your own yarrow from seed: either gathered in the wild, or, more lazily, in the catalogue from Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Road, Kelvedon. Essex, CO59PG.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author