The Working of Herbs, Part 2: Take One Herbal Recipe

By Anne Stobart

In the first post of this series, I flagged up some problems in finding out how herbs might work in a medicinal recipe. The question of medicinal herbs and their historical efficacy is a rather difficult area.[1] Through study of one recipe, I hope to provide pointers to useful sources, to indicate their relevance and to suggest caution where appropriate. Any recipe would work, but the one I have chosen is of particular interest because it has cropped up several times in my study of the late seventeenth-century recipe collections of a Devon household.

A water for After throwes

The receit of the water for affter Throwes.
The receit of the water for affter Throwes.

Take two hanfull of Isope [hyssop] two of peneroyall and two hanfull of Groundsell one handfull of wild mints two hanfulls of balme: These hearbs Cleane pickt and Sume fare water put upun all these hearbs togeather wash them Claine [‘and lay them in’ crossed out] then lay them in a pott or Earthen vessell: Shred these hearbs and put them in a quart of Spring water and let them lye in the water for a day and a night: then still the hearbes and water togather in a rose still then let the Glass bottle stand in the Sume Sinnce two Months Close Stopped from andy Ayre it Makes the water mush better. [2]

We will have to assume for this discussion that these plants are correctly identified as hyssop, pennyroyal, groundsel, wild mint and balm–although plant identification is another uncertain factor in considering recipes! Ideally we need to know:

  • the seventeenth-century indications for these plants.
  • the key constituents.
  • the likely physiological actions of these constituents.
  • the potential combinations of herbs in a preparation.
  • the dosage and its likely effects in the body.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)

My first step is to explore Internet sources using hyssop as an example.The Internet brings a wealth of information, but finding out about a particular medicinal herb can be frustrating. This problem is worse if you seek a ‘historical’ source. Many sites readily repeat information about ‘traditional’ uses without reference to sources. For example, numerous sites claim that hyssop has been used for millennia and dates back to the Bible. If you search for ‘herbal medicine hyssop’ in Google, you are likely to draw up Wikipedia, Mrs Grieve’s herbal, commercial websites offering herbal medicines and medical databases.

Relatively few of these sites give accurate historical background. However, a reasonable starting point is Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, which still provides more detail than most sources on medicinal constituents, actions, uses and preparations.[3] First published in 1931, the book is good value as a secondhand hard copy purchase and provides succinct information on many plants. Grieve draws on a variety of classical to early modern sources for constituents, medicinal actions and uses. But… A Modern Herbal needs considerable updating.

A more recent publication from Tobyn et al. follows selected herbs in texts from Dioscorides onwards, including hyssop, and provides details of therapeutic use with constituents and clinical research evidence.[4] Although limited to 27 plants, this text has a useful overview of relevant authors from classical to modern times.

Internet searching can be confusing if you are looking for reliable sources on historical use of plants and their consituents and medicinal actions. In my next two posts, I will outline some qualities and indications of the herbs in this recipe and the benefits of locating a good quality herb monograph.

Notes

[1] For example: John K. Crellin, ‘Revisiting Eve’s Herbs: Reflections on Therapeutic Outcomes’, In Herbs and Healers from the Ancient Mediterranean through the Medieval West: Essays in Honour of John M Riddle, edited by Anne Van Arsdall and Timothy Graham (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012, pp.307-27).

[2] ‘The Right Honorable The Lady Receipt Booke Anno Dom 1690’, p.82, Ugbrooke House, Chudleigh, Devon. My thanks to Lord and Lady Clifford for permission to access their private archive.

[3] Maud Grieve, A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folklore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. First 1931 ed. (London: Penguin, 1980).

[4] Graeme Tobyn, Alison Denham, and Margaret Whitelegg, The Western Herbal Tradition: 2000 Years of Medicinal Plant Knowledge (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/ Elsevier, 2010).


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