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Widecombe History Group Talk April 2000

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Widecombe History Group Talk on the Folklore and Medicinal Uses of Plants on Dartmoor


Talk by Colin Ridgers on the folklore and medicinal uses of plants on Dartmoor in July 2000.

Colin gave us a very interesting talk and slide show about the plants and flowers that can be found in and around Dartmoor, mentioning their medicinal uses and their connection with folklore, legend and myth.

He began by saying that years ago there was no National Health Scheme and many people were poor, so the use of natural cures was developed of necessity, and of course handed down through the generations. The use of plants and their extracts go back thousands of years and on Dartmoor some 2000 years B.C. when the hut circles that remain for us to see today were occupied, those occupants must have depended on such cures.

Some of those who practiced this ‘art’ were considered witches, and in 1588 two men, Culpepper and Gerard, wrote books on the subject to record their uses and the associated folklore attributed to many of our plants still in use in the 16th century, and they too were looked upon with suspicion. Now some herbal medicines are viewed with enthusiasm, and their practitioners are appreciated by many patients.

He then showed slides to identify the plants he was discussing, their uses and connections. He mentioned the various peoples, Neolithic, Mesolithic, Bronze Age etc.

Their stone artifacts still remain, Standing Stones, Cistveans, Stone Rows and Round Houses. Right through to the Middle Ages these remedies were in common use. Colin then showed slides of some of those plants and they are listed below.

  • Rowan. (Mountain Ash) - used to ward off witches and evil spirits, sometimes hung above the door to a house, also on wells to conserve the quality of the water.
  • Gorse (Furze) - used as a dye and the bushes were a wonderful place to dry your washing.
  • Dodder (its long red tendrils seen on heather and gorse, sometimes known as Hell Wind or Devil’s Guts) - used for kidney and spleen complaints.
  • Bracken - used as bedding for cattle - its new leaves used to cause abortions, in pregnant women and animals.
  • Heath Milkwort (white, blue or dark blue) - reputed to increase ‘mother’s milk’ and good for chesty coughs, and to purify the blood.
  • Tormentil ( a small yellow flower) - flowers from April to October - juices from its roots will help gum infections.
  • Whortleberry - used as a dye and for perfume - a cure for diarrhea and dysentery.
  • Foxgloves - early herbalists c1500’s thought of it as useless for medicine. Not until the 1700’s did doctors realise that it did have benefits for heart problems, while being poisonous it did contained digitalis. It was at this time that plants started to get their Latin names - digitalis purpurea.
  • Lousewort - got its name because people thought it gave animals lice!
  • Sundew - believed to help cure ‘corns’, now found to contain antibiotics.
  • Marsh St John’s Wort - used for wounds and ridding the place of ghosts.
  • Marsh Buttercup - associated with begging by wounded soldiers. They would make their wounds look worse by scratching the place with a limpet shell and then rub the sap into the wound - Very Painful - do not try it, it inflamed the wound. For them it meant that benefactors gave a little more generously because of their condition!!
  • Stinging Nettle - the use of the dried stems to make early form of fabric during 1500’s, and the formic acid in the plant was thought to help cure rheumatism.
  • Dead Nettle ( White Arch Angel) - also used as a vegetable.
  • Horse Tail - an evolved remnant of the early ‘tree-ferns’, treat wounds and cuts.
  • Ramsons (Wild Garlic) - digestive problems were cured by eating it.
  • Blackthorn - the sap of the green sloes used as a purgative and for cholic.
  • Teasel - used by fullers in the cloth industry - the water collected from where the leaf joins the stalk was used as a cosmetic and for cleansing of the feet.
  • Lady’s Mantle - dual purpose - used to help conception by drinking an infusion for 20 days and also for the treatment of deep wounds.
  • Penny-wort ( Kidneywort) - to ease the effect of kidney stones and outwardly pimples and heat rash.
  • English Stone Crop - a peppery flavour on food and for the treatment of ulcers. Folklore says that planted on one's roof it warded off thunderstorms.
  • Scabius - to treat snakebite and wasp or bee stings. Taken for chest infections.
  • Dog Violet - the crushed flowers taken with water would help the quinsy and diseases of the lungs.
  • Marsh Violet - the leaves were used in salads.
  • Yellow Flag - the powdered roots would stop meat from ‘going off’. Also used to reduce body odours.
  • Litchen (named Crockle) - this lichen found on granite reputed to resemble the shape of lungs, when powdered would help breathing and infections of the human lung! Also reputed to cure asthma.
  • Cyclamen - the juice would stop bread from going sour.
  • Ragged Robin - folklore - was used to foretell ones future mate - lovers tryst!
  • Heath Speedwell (Veronica beccabunga) - Veronica may well have been dedicated to the Saint of that name said to have wiped Christ’s face on his way to the cross. The bruised leaves when applied with barley meal to watery eyes will cure them, and for fluxes and all sorts of hemorrhages.
  • Elderflower - used to produce various drinks, both flowers and fruit used for wine. Powdered flowers when sniffed up the nose cleared the head.
  • Wild Raspberry (Hindberry) - eaten by deer - cleans teeth and stops vomiting.
  • Early Purple Orchid - in early Greece used to foretell the sex of an unborn child. If the man eat the larger tuber boys would be produced, if women eat the smaller tubers girls would ensue.
  • Marsh Orchid -
  • Butterfly Orchid - the only orchid pollinated by bees at night - the resulting honey is an aphrodisiac.

Colin was thanked for his talk and during question time some more folklore, relating to plants, their uses, names and properties were offered up. i.e.:-

  • Redshank - dialect name ‘ass-smart’, this is due its use as a laxative or purgative.
  • Elderflower - the flowers were often dried and stored to use during the year for making medicinal drinks and a soothing solution for bathing ulcerated wounds. The fruit also of value for drinks, still used as a source of Vitamin C.
  • Blackthorn - the ripe fruit used for drinks - sloe gin!
  • Stinging Nettle - further discussion from the floor mentioned - stinging nettle tea, and its use as a vegetable (likened unto spinach or greens (cabbage)).
  • Dandelion - leaves used for salads.
  • Bracken - can be very dangerous if consumed by livestock, particularly when withered as it smells like hay and cattle are then tempted to eat it.
  • Herbal Teas - have become very popular.
  • Yew - there has recently been an interest into the possibility that yew may contain an aid to cure cancer.
  • Sphagnum Moss - Used and collected by the young of this parish for the dressing of wounds during World War I, the shell outside the Church House was presented to the parish in recognition of their support.

The possibility that many more natural cures may well come to light in the future. Just outside the backdoor may be a wonder just waiting to be discovered!

A vote of thanks was accorded to Colin.

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