Ireland is home to many beautiful trees, plants and grasses. In times gone by plants and trees played an enormous part in the daily lives of people, being used for food, medicine and magic. Plants were revered and given magical status.
The amazing author Niall MacCoitir has produced several books on Irish flora & fauna. His research has discovered tales and superstitions associated with plants in ancient Ireland that really demonstrate the high value and power plants held to our ancestors.
With the assistance of the wonderful people of The Collins Press in Cork we are delighted to bring you a selection of our favourite bits from this book, Irish Wild plants, published in 2008, ISBN -13:978-1905172696.
This book and others are now avaiable from our shop.
Mallow (Malva sylvestris)
Mallow was widespread across Ireland and was valued for its calming and soothing properties and in folk medicine it was used for curing sprains, sores and inflammations. Mallow was used in Europe as food and medicine since earliest times. It was once used to create the sweets marshmallow. Using the roots, the English and French, created a confectioners paste which was used to soothe sore throats and coughs. In folk medicine the leaves and roots were pounded and mixed with lard to produce an ointment. In parts of Ireland it was used for urinary complaints and in Kerry it was used as a cleansing tonic. There are several varieties of “wild” Mallow as well as cultivated ones and all grow really well in Irish gardens. With flowers ranging from white to dark purple these tall plants with their papery flowers are a welcome sight in any herbalists or cottage garden.
Vervain (Verbena officinalis)
A very magical plant it protected from witchcraft and promoted positive influences. In Ireland Vervain was considered to be the best plant for protecting cattle against witchcraft. An ointment of Vervain was thought to have the power to dispel fevers, prevent diseases, eradicate poisons and to be an antidote to serpents. Druids were said to use it in their ceremonies and vows were made by its means. The druids held Vervain, Meadowsweet and Water-mint as their most sacred plants. Vervain contains as substance that is similar to quinine and drinking Vervain juice was said to protect from nightmares. Vervain can be seen gracing the roadsides of Leitrim and Sligo and their wispy flowering stems are a welcome sight in spring.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum)
Believed to be a most powerful herb across Europe and associated with the feast of St. John (23rd June) St. John’s wort was considered to have the power to expel demons and it was given to children on St. John’s Eve to avert sickness. Nowadays it is best known for its effectiveness against depression but amongst other things it was traditionally used for bladder problems, dysentery, jaundice, repertory complaints and in Ireland it was used to staunch the flow of bloods from cuts and scratches. Once established this herb is tall with beautiful star shaped flowers. Bright and cheerful it should be a permanent fixture in any herbalist’s garden.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Widely used in love divination, Yarrow with its aromatic leaves and flowers was a favourite plant for love charms and for protection against disease and evil. Used to staunch bleeding and for curing many ailments yarrow was an important herb throughout Europe. The romans called it “the military herb” as it was widely used on the battlefield. Leaves placed in the nostrils was said to cure a nosebleed, and drunk as a tea it was said to cure coughs, colds and fevers because it was reputed to induce sweating. A friend of ours once told us that horses should eat yarrow for protection also. Easily grown and a great plant for groundcover, yarrow is an excellent plant for those gardens with weed problems. It can be mown and trampled all year long and will return in spring more vigorous than ever.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
With a reputation as an important herb across Europe, Mugwort was used for nervous disorders and female complaints. Known as Mother of Herbs, it too was associated with the Feast of St. john (23rd June) being burnt over bonfires for protection against ghosts. Mugwort was also used to treat palsy, fits, epilepsy and other nervous afflictions. It was once used to flavour beer and other drinks before the arrival of hops. Mugwort grows really well in Ireland, and can reach great heights in one season; it makes a great addition to a cottage or wild garden adding structure and with silvery green foliage creates a great backdrop to the wonderful pinks of mallow.
Great Mullein (Verbascum)
With bright spires of yellow flowers and soft furry leaves, Mullein is a most striking plant. The nuts were said to cure toothache and mullein was said to protect cattle from sickness and sorcery. The soft leaves were placed in shoes to protect feet and in old times the leaves were dried to make wicks. Its yellow flowers were said to enhance blond hair when rubbed in wet hair and was used as a hair conditioner in roman times. A tonic of the leaves boiled in milk and drunk was said to cure consumption and in Ireland was grown until recent times as a cure for coughs and bronchitis. Mullein is a most statuesque plant and looks wonderful against a south facing wall, it is easily grown and will return year on year.
An ancient herb, the Greeks recommended it against snakebites, poor sight, loss of memory and liver complaints. The Anglo-Saxons used it to help ward off evil spirits and poison. A tea made from it was used as a mild tonic and stimulant. In Derry it was used to treat scurvy and to heal old ulcers. It can also be used as a yellow dye (flowers).
Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris)
Widespread across Ireland this pretty creeping plant with its purple flowers is one of our favourite plants. Traditionally used to treat wounds, it was also used for heart complaints and was widely known as “heartsease” across Ireland. In Mayo a tea was made from it and was used for a weak heart or palpitations. Children who were said to be “fairy struck” were treated with self-heal and it was widely believed to cure consumption and fevers. Self-heal is, like yarrow, a great creeping plant in the fight against weeds! It grows really well in Irish soils and it is an excellent addition to the Irish herbal garden.
Once again we would like to thank everyone at The Collins Press, Cork, for allowing us to reprint.