It happens every summer. I think Jimmy Buffet said it best in Margaritaville: “I blew out my flip-flop, stepped on a pop top, cut my heel, had to cruise on back home.” Just when you’re having fun, enjoying the warm weather – ouch! – you step on a piece of glass, get a sliver in your thumb, stung by a bee, or hit in the head with a volleyball. The perils of summer are endless, especially if you wander around barefoot like I do. I hate shoes.
So, what’s the remedy to that nasty beach glass? Margaritas? Nope. Weeds – and I don’t mean pot (the ancient Irish didn’t have that either) – common weeds. This time, we’ll take a look at herbal remedies the Gaels used to care for wounds and other common afflictions, like burns, bruises, swellings, bites, skin irritation, and nosebleeds.
The source we’ll explore is Botanalogia Universalis Hibernica, penned by John K’Eogh and published in Cork in 1735. Not exactly an ancient work. It is, however, undoubtedly based on centuries-old herbal lore, passed down from generation to generation. K’Eogh’s General Irish Herbal is invaluable since it was the first herbal published devoted to Irish plants, although it does include many non-native species, like lavender, sage, and rosemary, just to name a few. All the plants I mention here are native to Ireland or naturalized very early on and, therefore, were probably used for hundreds or thousands of years.
Ok, say you’re an ancient Gael, enjoying a stroll down the beach on a fine summer’s evening when you step on a broken bit of shell. You bleed profusely and it hurts like hell. What to do? After limping back home, the healer might use the bruised leaves of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) to stop the bleeding and prevent inflammation. Woad (Isatis tinctoria) was also good for stopping or preventing blood loss. To prevent infection, a concoction of soapwort (Saponaria), or sopewort, as it’s listed in K’Eogh’s, might be used to cleanse the wound before it’s bandaged.
Now that you’re patched up and your wound’s healed nicely, you decide to pick bilberries with your sweetheart on another fine day. It’s warm; you’re getting hot and bothered. She throws off her wrap, you strip off your tunic, and…you come home sunburnt. What to do?
Once again, the healer might roll up his/her sleeves and prepare, this time, a poultice of tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), which was supposedly good for itchy, irritated skin and sunburn. Or the healer might have pounded the leaves of colt’s foot (Tussilago farfara) with honey and applied it to your skin.
That night, you and your sweetheart, slathered now in soothing, albeit sticky, ointment, gather around the bonfire to roast freshly caught rabbit on a stick. Laughing and jesting with your sword-brothers, you carelessly drop your skewer into the fire. You quickly rush to retrieve it when – ouch! – you’ve suddenly burnt your thumb. What to do?
Back you go to the healer. You’re hoping for a poultice of St. John’s wort (Hypericum) or one made of the leaves of mullein (Verbascum thapsus), but the healer applies an ointment of fresh butter, chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), and goose dung. Your sweetheart wants nothing more to do with you that night and turns in early.
Fully recovered from your wounds, you enjoy a hunt with your sword-brothers in the woods. It’s getting dark, so you take a shortcut home through the bog and are instantly eaten by midges. The healer also notices that your hounds have fleas. What to do?
With a sigh, the healer makes an ointment of oil mixed with the leaves of marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), but she could just as easily have used wild parsnip (Peucedanum sativum). She makes a bath of fleabane leaves (Pulicaria dysenterica) and throws the dogs in.
The next day, feeling much better, you join in a game of hurling, but, not being very good at the game, you get wacked in the nose with the ball. You spout blood. What to do?
By now the healer is very tired of seeing your face in her doorway. After she gestures you to a seat, she tilts your head back and shoves moss up your nostrils to stop the nosebleed. But it’s no ordinary moss. It’s a special kind she found growing on a dead man’s skull. According to K’Eogh, “This has a binding quality, is good for stopping nosebleeds and other haemorrhages” (1991, p. 105).
In the morning, when your friends call for you to join them in a swim, you pull the blankets over your head and feign a stomach ache.
Mabey, R. (1997). Flora britannica. London: Chatto & Windus.
Scott, M. (ed.). (1991). An Irish herbal: Botanalogia universalis hibernica. Dublin: Anna Livia Press.
Webb, D.A., Parnell, J., & Doogue, D. (1996). An Irish flora. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, Ltd.