All posts by Anne Stobart

Anne Stobart is a clinical herbal practitioner based in South West England. She is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Exeter. Until 2010, she was Director of Programmes for Complementary Health Sciences at Middlesex University, London. Her research interests range from sustainable herbal medicine to the history and historiography of domestic medicine. Anne helps to co-ordinate the Herbal History Research Network. Her publications include Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine (2014) and Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (2016). Currently, Anne is developing a sustainable medicinal tree project at Holt Wood in Devon, UK.

Locating traditional plant knowledge in household recipes: Part 3

By Anne Stobart

I have been following up my interest as a medical herbalist/historical researcher in native plants in medicinal recipes. This is my third post about plants with longstanding traditional uses and their inclusion as ingredients in early modern medicinal recipes. I have been looking at how frequently some native plants appeared in my database of seventeenth-century English medicinal recipes, both in print and household collections. This investigation formed part of my work for a book on seventeenth-century household medicine. It seems that the relationship between household recipes and traditionally used native plants is complex. My first post looked at several plants popular in recipes that drew on both folklore and classical traditions, plantain and betony. In my second post I considered other folklore plants, such as mint, coltsfoot and harts tongue, and differences between printed and household recipe collections. In this third post I explore some traditionally used native plants which rarely appeared as recipe ingredients.

 So which native plants were not so readily found in seventeenth-century medicinal recipes?

Figure 1: Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
 Altogether I sampled the frequency of forty plants in 6500 recipes. These forty plants have folklore records indicating longstanding use in more than one part of the UK [1], and so I have described them as ‘folkloric’ or traditionally used. Of course, there are many plants in folklore so I aimed to select those that could be readily found in meadows, hedges or woodland edges throughout the UK. I discovered that there were at least five of my plant selection that were very much under-represented in both household manuscript and printed recipes. The plants with six or fewer mentions in the recipe database were buttercup (Ranunculus species (spp)), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria: Figure 1), pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris: Figure 2) and willow (Salix spp).
Figure 2: Pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris)
Figure 2: Pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris)


External uses

The few recipes that contained these plants were mainly for external preparations. Some of the plants, especially buttercup and lesser celandine (also known as pilewort) are extremely acrid, with pungent taste or smell and ‘biting’ to the skin. They have had longstanding use as counter-irritants, applied externally to the skin, and thought to help with treating disease in deeper or nearby parts. [2] Foxglove also has a tradition of external use for ‘scrofulous swellings’ and sores by being applied as juice or bruised leaves, though, somewhat unusually,  a recipe in The Choice Manual (London, 1653) for ‘an itch, or any foule scabs’ recommends the sufferer to take the herb both externally and internally.

An excellent Receipt for an Itch, or any foule Scabs. Take Fox gloves, and boyle a handful of them in posset drink, and drink of it a draught at night, and in the morning, then boyle a good quantity of the Fox gloves in fair running water, and annoint the places that are sore with that water. [3]

Some recipes for external use identified particular locations on the body for application.  For example, the printed recipe in The Poor-Mans Physician and Chyrurgion provided ‘An Unguent for the Piles’, and instructed ‘Boyl in fresh butter Pilewort and Elder leaves or buds till it be a Salve, make it yellow with Saffron and use it’.[4] And willow was used for the hair in an  ‘An ointment to make hair grow’ which instructed ‘Take willow leaves, seeth them in oyle, and annoint the bare place, and hair will grow’. This recipe was included in Gervase Markham’s English Housewife (1631) and was later repeated in Natura Exenterata (1655) in the mid-seventeenth century.[5]

Medical practitioner’s views

Not only were some traditionally used native plants infrequently found in seventeenth-century recipes, but they were also described by one medical practitioner as insignificant in the early eighteenth century. The physician, John Quincy, in Pharmacopoeia Officinalis (1730 edition), wrote that the lesser celandine is ‘hardly ever used in Medicine’. He was dismissive of foxglove, saying that ‘the present Practice takes no notice of it’.  Of the several kinds of willow he considered that ‘none of them have any credit in the present Pharmacy’ (Figure 3) although he acknowledged that willow was given a place in the ‘new Catalogue’ of the College’.[6]

Figure 3. John Quincy, Pharmacopoea Officinalis (1730), p. 22.
Figure 3. John Quincy, Pharmacopoea Officinalis (1730), p. 22.

But, not everyone shared Quincy’s views that these native plants lacked medicinal value, and in my next and final post on traditional plant knowledge  I will consider some variations in perceptions of native plants in the seventeenth century.



[1] The 40 plants were selected from David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2004). The full listing appears in my forthcoming book Anne Stobart, Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

[2] M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal. 1931 ed. (London: Penguin, 1980), p. 149, 181, 323; JI Wand-Tetley, ‘Historical Methods of Counter-Irritation’. Rheumatology 3, no. 3 (1956): 90-98.

[3] Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653), p. 10.

[4] Lancelot Coelson, The Poor-Mans Physician and Chyrurgion (London: Printed by A.M. for S. Miller, 1656), p. 131.

[5] Natura Exenterata, or Nature Unbowelled by the Most Exquisite Anatomizers of Her (London: Printed for H. Twiford, G. Bedell and N. Ekins, 1655), p. 31 and Gervase Markham, The English House-Wife (London: Printed by Nicholas Okes for John Harison, 1631), p. 21.

[6] John Quincy, Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea, 8th ed. (London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730), pp. 130, 131, 225.

Locating traditional plant knowledge, Part 2

By Anne Stobart

Recently, I have been looking at plant ingredients in medicinal recipes of seventeenth-century England. In my last post I wrote about the 40 native plants I am considering, especially plantain and betony (Locating traditional plant knowledge Part 1). All of the 40 plants have well-established records of folklore use (orally transmitted) in the British Isles, based on Allen and Hatfield’s, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition. I counted frequency of occurrence in my database of approximately 6,500 recipes drawn from seventeenth-century English household manuscripts and printed books. I found that, alongside plantain and betony, the most frequent top ten of these native plants in recipes were mint, mallow, comfrey, elder, hart’s tongue, coltsfoot, mugwort and Saint Johns wort, the latter appearing over 50 times. How did print and manuscript recipes compare?  Well, it is complicated…


In my last post I considered several drying and soothing plants, but another group of plants used were those that provided some warming action. Of all of the most frequently occurring folkloric plants, perhaps mint (Mentha spp.) falls most readily into this group. Mint appeared as often in recipes in printed books as in manuscripts. However, the indications for mint in recipes might have differed between the learned and folkloric traditions. In the learned tradition, John Quincy in Pharmacopoeia Officinalis (1730) saw mint, in all its various varieties, as a ‘great Strengthener of the Stomach’ and noted the herb’s ‘fragrant Scent’. John Pechey in his Compleat Herbal (1694) noted additional uses, which may well have been of relevance in the domestic context, of relief for ‘Hardness of the Breasts… dissolves Curdl’d Milk’ and also the distilled water in use to ‘cure the Gripes in Children’. In folklore, according to Allen and Hatfield, the digestive use of mint was secondary to its principal use in colds and coughs.[1] In the recipes mint was widely used in cordial and distilled waters, accounting for over a third of the occurrences, as well as women’s complaints such as lack of conception and childbirth and was also used for disorders relating to the head such as melancholy and palsy. So mint did not appear to draw on the most common folklore uses to account for its popularity in recipes.


Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) (Wikipedia)
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) (Wikipedia)

Some plants were much more likely to appear in a household manuscript recipe than a printed recipe, such as coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) and hart’s tongue (Asplenium scolopendrium) (Figure 1). Coltsfoot was known for diverse uses including soothing effects, both aiding healing of wounds and reducing inflammation of various kinds. Coltsfoot made a decoction ‘smooth and healing’, and Allen and Hatfield confirm widespread folklore use of coltsfoot for coughs and colds. This was shown in the indications of the recipes in both manuscript and print from throughout the seventeenth century, where coltsfoot was consistently mentioned in recipes for coughs, colds and related conditions.[2] This plant did have continuity in terms of indications in both print and manuscript recipes.


Hart's tongue (Asplenium scolopendrium)
Hart’s tongue (Asplenium scolopendrium)

There was less agreement on the uses of hart’s tongue which appeared over twice as often in household manuscript recipes compared to printed recipes. Hart’s tongue was dismissed by Quincy in his note on a related species, Spleenwort, where he observed ‘neither much in use’. Yet Allen and Hatfield show the widespread use in the West of the British Isles of this plant, hart’s tongue, for a diversity of conditions including coughs and colds, and skin eruptions.[3] Another possible reason for the popularity of hart’s tongue came from Pechey who noted the use of the plant for ‘Mother-fits and Convulsions’ taken in small beer, posset drink or as a conserve.[4] Thus hart’s tongue might have been sought more often in household recipes for commonly experienced womens’ and children’s conditions. In actuality, the extra numbers of household recipes with hart’s tongue were mostly for rickets.

It’s complicated…

Tracking both learned and folklore knowledge of medicinal plants in recipes is fraught with problems, and it is especially interesting to see differences between print and manuscript recipe ingredients, since there was so much interchange between books and handwritten collections. Allen and Hatfield discuss the role of classically-sourced herbals in displacing local plant knowledge.[5] Perhaps we need to consider how recipes figured in this displacement. In my next post I aim to consider some native plants that did not feature in the recipes!

[1] John Quincy. Pharmacopoeia Officinalis and Extemporanea, 8th ed. (London: J. Osborn and T. Longman,1730), p. 101; David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2004), pp. 237-8; John Pechey, The Compleat Herbal of Physical Plants Containing All Such English and Foreign Herbs, Shrubs and Trees, as Are Used in Physick and Surgery (London, 1694) p. 130.

[2] Graeme Tobyn, Alison Denham and Margaret Whitelegg. The Western Herbal Tradition: 2000 Years of Medicinal Plant Knowledge. (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/ Elsevier, 2010) 317-22.

[3] Allen and Hatfield, pp. 60-1; Quincy, p. 98.

[4] Pechey, p. 98.

[5] Allen and Hatfield, p. 15.

Locating traditional plant knowledge in household recipes

By Anne Stobart

I have been revisiting my database of seventeenth-century medicinal recipes to look at plant ingredients and their sources. It is striking how spices and other imported items were frequent ingredients in medicinal recipes, both in household collections and printed texts. For example, cinnamon occurs 226 times in 3604 printed recipes, about 6.3% of all recipes. Sugar appears over twice as often. I wanted to investigate the extent to which household remedies might include plants recognised and obtained from the wild. This raised questions for me to do with the intertwining of different traditions of classical sources and folklore in plant knowledge. A starting point would be to look at the frequency of some key folklore plants appearing as recipe ingredients.

A major element of folklore tradition is its orality, but this is notably hard to document and identify key plants.[1] I used Allen and Hatfield’s Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, an excellent text that evaluates the sources available on the folklore of plants, avoiding the historical focus on herbals and received wisdom passed down from classical Mediterranean sources–what we tend to define as the ‘learned’ tradition.[2] Based on Allen and Hatfield, I identified a selection of some forty medicinal plants, all known for having widespread past use in the British Isles independently of the classical sources. To avoid my own confusion with words such as ‘tradition’ and ‘folklore’ I have called these plants ‘folkloric’.

I looked at the number of occurrences of each of the folkloric plants in manuscript and printed medicinal recipes. The average (mean) frequency of a folkloric plant was about seventy-five mentions in either manuscript or printed recipes, which was more frequent than plants in general (appearing an average of forty-seven times each).

Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) (Wikipedia)
Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) (Wikipedia)

However, the figures vary considerably for certain individual plants. Plantain (Plantago spp.) occurred very frequently. It appeared 224 times in the printed recipes, but was included in manuscript recipes slightly less often. This is comparable to the frequency for cinnamon. But if only recipes from named people are considered, the proportion of those including cinnamon increases and the proportion including plantain decreases.

Both ribwort (Plantago lanceolata, Figure 1) and greater plantain (P. major) are widespread. In folklore tradition, according to Allen and Hatfield, plantain is considered a great ‘wound healer’ due to its ability to stop bleeding and used for wounds, rashes, stings and other skin complaints. In the learned tradition, according to Gerard’s herbal, plantain was reckoned moderately cooling and drying. Quincy later described plantain as ‘a great Cooler, and stopper of Fluxes, particularly of Blood, whether from the Nose, Mouth or Uterus’.[3] Plantain was much favoured as a distilled water and twenty-four of the manuscript recipes and thirty-two of the printed recipes were for plantain water.

Figure 2: Betony (Stachys officinalis) (Wikipedia)
Figure 2: Betony (Stachys officinalis) (Wikipedia)

The next most frequent plant from the folkloric list was Betony (Stachys officinalis, Figure 2), appearing 282 times in all, about equally in print and manuscript. Though something of a cure-all, the records of folk use for betony, according to Allen and Hatfield, may partly arise from confusion with a other herbs including speedwell (Veronica spp., Figure 3, seems hard to confuse though?). Gerard’s herbal lists Betony as hot and dry. This plant was also favoured as a distilled water with other herbs in a number of plague and cure-all waters. Quincy, too, notes possible confusions of Betony with other plants, and that it is ‘accounted a great Dryer’ especially for ‘rheums’ and wounds affecting the head, thus also having a humoral action of clearing phlegm.[4]

Speedwell (Veronica spp.) (Wikipedia)
Speedwell (Veronica spp.) (Wikipedia)

The main folkloric use of these plants was for their drying effects to dispel unwanted fluids from bleeding wounds to phlegm. In addition these herbs were either cooling and soothing for irritated conditions from skin problems to irritating coughs (plantain), or heating and stimulating for the stomach and head (betony).

Finding the high frequency of occurrence of plantain and betony might be consistent with use in both folklore and classical traditions. Whether these uses are distinguishable needs further work! In my next post, I will look at other folkloric plants that featured more or less frequently in the recipe database.

[1] Bonnie B. O’Connor and David J. Hufford, “Understanding Folk Medicine”. In Healing Logics: Culture and Medicine in Modern Belief Systems, edited by Erica Brady, (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2001), pp.13-35.

[2] David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2004).

[3] Allen and Hatfield, p.247; John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (London: Printed by Adam Islip Ioice Norton and Richard Whitakers, 1633), p.107; John Quincy, Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea, 8th ed. (London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730), p.98.

[4] Allen and Hatfield, pp.212-3; Gerard, p.160; Quincy, pp.72-3.

The Working of Herbs, Part 8: A Protocol for Evaluating Herbal Efficacy

By Anne Stobart

In a series of posts I have explored how we can know whether herbs might have really worked. It seems quite a while since the first post where I raised some historiographical questions (Part 1). In this eighth and last post of the series I want to conclude with (a) an overview of whether the herbs in a selected recipe might have had some efficacy and (b) a protocol for how historical researchers can approach the question of ‘Did the herbs work?’.

Did the herbs work in this recipe?

The recipe I originally picked to consider is the ‘water for affter Throwes’ (Part 2) which was much copied in a privately held seventeenth-century household recipe collection in South Devon (see Figure 1). A ‘throw’ is a ‘violent spasm or pang’, while ‘throwes’ refers to ‘labour-pangs’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Thus the ‘after throwes’ may have meant pains related to the expulsion of the placenta through uterine contraction, a normal part of childbirth (usually within 15–30 minutes of giving birth), or may have been related to more general pains in the hours following birth.

Figure 1. A water for affter Throwes (Lord and Lady Clifford recipe collection, 1689, in private archive, South Devon).
Figure 1. A water for affter Throwes (Lord and Lady Clifford recipe collection, 1689, in private archive, South Devon).

So back to my original question about this particular recipe, as to whether the herbs would have had any effect? This recipe for the ‘after throws’ contained five plants (hyssop, wild mint, groundsel, pennyroyal and balm). The historical indications (Part 3) for most of these plants are based on warming qualities, and longstanding use of several of the plants in women’s conditions including promoting the ‘courses’ (menstruation) and in childbirth-related contexts.

Based on today’s knowledge of constituents and their effects, this combination of herbs provides for a number of possible actions including both stimulant and anti-spasmodic effects on the uterus. The aromatic distilled herbal constituents would include terpenes to provide both antispasmodic relief (from the pains of afterbirth) and uterine stimulation (to help ensure that the contents of the womb are expelled after childbirth). Thus, this combination of herbs might not have a single effect but provides for several relevant and, at first sight, apparently opposite actions (antispasmodic and stimulant). However, it is likely that stimulating more effective uterine expulsion could help to reduce pains after birth, so the overall effect would be the intended one. Such herbal combinations, with a diverse range of therapeutic effects, appear often both in modern and historical contexts.

So the herbs in this recipe could have been effective. However, this effect would depend on the dose given. One version of this recipe indicates that it was made to be given as a drink (‘giue a gill of this water milke warme with some sugar, in it to the patient before sleepe after deliuery being laid in bed first’, Figure 1). Some therapeutic effect is possible since a ‘gill’ is a quarter of a pint (around 150 ml) though it is not feasible to gauge this accurately.

How to approach the question ‘Did the herbs work?’: A draft protocol for considering herbal efficacy

Herbal medicines in a variety of containers] Tacuini sanitatis Elluchasem Elimithar medici de Baldath, de sex rebus non naturalibus, Joannem Schottum, 1531 p. 111. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Figure 2. [Herbal medicines in a variety of containers] Tacuini sanitatis Elluchasem Elimithar medici de Baldath, de sex rebus non naturalibus, Joannem Schottum, 1531, p. 111. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
I have argued that further understanding of  the way in which particular herbs might work can be assisted by use of good quality herbal monographs (Part 4) which identify constituents and herbal actions (Part 5 and Part 6). Additional considerations are the many ways in which a recipe might be prepared (Part 7) and dosage (this post, Part 8). My posts have dipped into a few examples – so much more could be said!

Overall, the protocol which I have followed involves the following steps:

(1) Clarify the recipe purpose and identify the recipe ingredients (including species and parts of plants)

(2) Identify sources for contemporary indications for the plants (for example based on printed herbals or medical advice books)

(3) Locate reliable modern sources on the plant constituents and actions (such as a referenced monograph)

(4) Consider the extraction processes and form of preparation, possible interaction of herbs, and the dosage (if known)

(5) Summarise the contemporary understanding of the plants alongside their potential efficacy according to best scientific evidence.

An assessment of (3) and (4), evaluating the herbal constituents and actions as well as the form of preparation, could be assisted by linking up with a clinical herbal practitioner. I hope that such partnerships can be further developed so that we are more able to understand potential efficacy. Of course, even if we understand today that the medicinal herbs might have been efficacious, this does not provide evidence that the recipe was used!


I started out on this series of posts to think through how we can use today’s knowledge about plants in interpreting the past. It bothered me that much information on herbs is so readily repeated without adequate referencing of sources. I hope that I have made some useful suggestions in these posts about how to find and use reliable sources. I would welcome queries and the thoughts of others on the ‘Working of Herbs’.