Locating Traditional Plant Knowledge in Household Recipes: Part 4

By Anne Stobart

This is the last of four posts about my investigation into traditionally used native (folkloric) plants in medicinal seventeenth-century recipes. In the first two posts (here and here) I looked at the most frequently appearing plants and some differences in recipe indications in print and manuscript contexts. In my third post I discussed some less frequent plant ingredients. In this post I want to flag up some factors which might have affected the inclusion of these plants in remedies. The ideas presented here draw on the chapter on the nature of medicinal ingredients in my forthcoming book Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England.[1]

Views of simples versus exotics

Knowledge of native plants in traditional use may have been regarded by some in the seventeenth century as less than worthy, and Rebecca Laroche notes that the word ‘simples’ was removed by John Parkinson in the title of Theatrum Botanicum (previously the ‘Garden of Simples’).[2] Patrick Wallis describes substantial increases in seventeenth-century medicinal imports, showing that the use of ‘exotics’ was widespread. [3] So it might not be so surprising if native plants appeared somewhat less often in medicinal recipes. If knowledge about such plants was passed on orally then perhaps we might not expect to see any of them in medicinal recipes. However, when I looked at the occurrence of forty common native plants in my database of seventeenth-century recipes I found variable numbers. Thus, some native plants that were also known in the scholarly tradition were almost as common as spices, while others, especially acrid plants, were far less common, particularly in the later seventeenth century.

Fewer recipes for external use in the later seventeenth century?

Another factor affecting the likelihood of a native plant appearing in a recipe might have been the changing nature of recipe preparations: from recipes for external use such as plasters and ointments to those for internal use such as drinks. I compared the numbers of internal and external preparations in my database of 6500 recipes. Such an analysis has to be tentative as the dating of recipes is not always accurate. In the first half of the seventeenth century, they split almost evenly: the printed recipes favoured external preparations at 56% of all recipes, a little more than external preparations in the household recipes at 49%. However, in the second half of the seventeenth century, the balance shifted noticeably towards internal preparations in both household and printed recipes. The proportion of external preparations decreased to to nearly 42% in printed books, and less than 38% of recipes in household collections. It is possible that this shift  could have contributed to less frequent inclusion of some native plants.

Figure 1. Elder flower and leaf (Sambucus nigra)
Figure 1. Elder flower and leaf (Sambucus nigra)






Interest in simples

Conversely, some native traditional plants did reappear towards the latter half of the seventeenth century. An example is elder (Sambucus nigra) (Figure 1), a frequently mentioned ingredient in the King’s evil recipes collected by the Boscawen family in Cornwall. Earlier in the century elder was listed in recipes for burns and sores as well as plague and ague remedies. By the later half of the seventeenth century, use was  recommended by friends and lay advisers for the KIng’s evil.[4] Another suggested recipe contained foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) (Figure 2) as a simple:

Figure 2. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
Figure 2. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

An Excelent Medicine for the Kings Evill

Take of the flowers of fox gloves and infuse them in Butter soe long in an oven as may be Convenient to sooke out the vertue of the said flowers then take the butter of and anoynt the plate and the thinn Cloth that is to be applyed and soe Contynnue to dresse it by Anoynting the Cloth as is usuall in a Scald. [5]

Interest in simples was also promoted by Helmontian physicians, and the powers of purified remedies provided strong advertising claims by commercial remedy sellers.[6]


Understanding the knowledge and use of traditional native plants in seventeenth-century medicinal recipes is not straightforward. Many of these plants were included in external preparations which were declining in the seventeenth century. Yet, towards the early eighteenth century some native plants were reappearing in favour both in recipes and as simples.

[1] Anne Stobart, Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

[2] Rebecca Laroche, Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550-1650 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p.151.

[3] Patrick Wallis, ‘Exotic Drugs and English Medicine: England’s Drug Trade, c. 1550–c. 1800’. Social History of Medicine 25, no. 1 (2012): 20–46.

[4] Anne Stobart, ‘”Lett Her Refrain from All Hott Spices”: Medicinal Recipes and Advice in the Treatment of the King’s Evil in Seventeenth-Century South-West England’. In Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550-1800, edited by Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell, 203-24. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.

[5] Fortescue of Castle Hill papers, 1262M/FC/7. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre, item 18.

[6] David B. Haycock, ‘A Thing Ridiculous’? Chemical Medicines and the Prolongation of Human Life in Seventeenth-Century England (London: London School of Economics, 2006), p. 23.

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