Britain’s herbal heritage: Folklore and a kernel of truth

A homespun pharmacopeia was once more than simple folklore, as Mark Greener shows


Folklore often contains kernels of truth. In 1568, for example, gardeners in England began cultivating Goat’s Rue (Galega officinalis). First recorded in the wild in 1640, Goat’s Rue (also called French Lilac or Italian Fitch) is now a common wildflower.1 Healers soon started using Goat’s Rue to treat, for instance, plague, worms, snake bites and St Vitus dance.1,2

The herbal compiled by Nicholas Culpeper, first published in 1653, suggested using Goat’s Rue for symptoms we now know arise from type-2 diabetes.2 Some 200 years later scientists realised that Goat’s Rue is rich in a chemical called guanidine, which lowers blood sugar levels.2 In 1929, scientists chemically modified guanidine to create metformin, which remains the most commonly prescribed drug for type-2 diabetes.1

Goat’s Rue isn’t the only wild flower to yield a medicine that remains on pharmacist’s shelves. About 1250, Welsh physicians used ointments containing foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) to alleviate headaches and spasms. In the 16th and 17th centuries, England physicians used foxglove as an expectorant and emetic as well as to treat epilepsy, goitre, obstruction of the lung and tuberculosis.3,4 Foxglove became more than a footnote in medical history when, in 1775, Birmingham physician William Withering learnt of a remedy for dropsy: a build-up of fluid – typically in the feet, legs, or ankles – often caused by some types of heart disease.

“I was told [the remedy] had long been kept a secret by an old woman in Shropshire, who had sometimes made cures after the more regular practitioners had failed”, Withering recounted in An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medical Uses, published in 1785. The old woman’s secret remedy, which contained at least 20 different herbs, caused “violent vomiting and purging”. Withering, a keen botanist, realised “that the active herb could be no other than the foxglove”.3 Today, thousands of people take chemicals derived from the foxglove to treat heart disease.

Ancient Egyptian scrolls from about 1500 BCE suggests using tjeret (willow) to treat non-specific aches and pains.5 Millennia later, in the 1740s, Horace Walpole wrote that malaria – Italian for bad air – visited Rome each summer. Walpole introduced ‘malaria’ into English.6 But ague, the British term, was a well-known risk each summer and harvest time in the marshes and coasts of Kent, Essex, Norfolk and Somerset. Farmworkers moved north following the harvest and in the 18th century malaria reached the Scottish Borders, Aberdeen and Inverness.6

In 1763, the Reverend Edward Stone, an Oxfordshire clergyman, reported to the Royal Society that willow bark was a “powerful” astringent that was and “very efficacious” in alleviating fever and shivering, malaria’s hallmark symptoms. Stone left the willow bark to dry outside a baker’s oven for 3 months. He then pounded and sifted the dry bark into a powder.5

In 1828, the German scientist Johann Buchner refined the active ingredient in willow bark into yellow crystals, which he named Salicin (after Salix, the Latin name for willow). Ten years later, Raffaele Piria, an Italian chemist, produced a stronger compound from the crystals, which he named salicylic acid.5 In 1897, Felix Hoffmann, a German researcher, manipulated the salicylic acid extracted from dry meadowsweet leaves, producing a chemical called acetylsalicylic acid. The brand name of the new drug reflected the ‘acetyl’ chemical group Hoffmann added to salicylic acid and the Latin name for meadowsweet ‘Spiraea’. They called the new medicine Aspirin.5

But our herbal heritage contains a warning: never take herbs without advice from a doctor, pharmacist or medical herbalist. Several herbs, such as St John’s wort, can cause potentially serious interactions with conventional medicines.7 Some people almost died from the side effects of traditional medicines. In February 1685, the Dublin Philosophical Society heard that a 40-year-old woman experienced “a violent vomit” lasting for more than two days after drinking a foxglove infusion. She also experienced heart palpitations.4

In about 1776, Withering was asked to see a travelling tradesman who was gravely ill. The tradesman’s wife had stewed a large handful of foxglove leaves in half-a-pint of water to treat her husband’s asthma. He swallowed the entire draft – and “narrowly escaped with his life”. As Withering noted “This good woman knew the medicine of her country, but not the dose of it.”8

Many of the traditional remedies probably acted as placebos. But some really worked and formed the basis of some drugs we still use today. Our herbal heritage shows that folklore often contains kernels of truth. But folk traditions generally and an appreciation of Britain’s herbal heritage in particular are dying out. I can’t but help wonder what knowledge and even what treatments we’ve lost.


  1. Hadden, D R. ‘Goat’s rue – French lilac – Italian fitch – Spanish sainfoin: Gallega officinalis and metformin: the Edinburgh connection’. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 2005;35:258-260
  2. Bailey, C and Day, C. ‘Metformin: Its botanical background’. Practical Diabetes International 2004;21:115-117
  3. Wray, S, Eisner, D A, and Allen, D G. ‘Two hundred years of the foxglove’ Medical History (Supplement) 1985;132-150
  4. Logan, P. Irish Country Cures. Appletree Press, Belfast 1981, p. 7-8.
  5. Desborough, M J R and Keeling, D M. ‘The aspirin story – from willow to wonder drug’. British Journal of Haematology 2017;177:674-683
  6. Honigsbaum, M. The Fever Trail, London: Macmillian 2001
  7. Borse SP, Singh DP, and Nivsarkar M. ‘Understanding the relevance of herb–drug interaction studies with special focus on interplays: A prerequisite for integrative medicine’. Porto Biomedical Journal 2019;4:e15
  8. Burchell, HB. ‘Digitalis poisoning: Historical and forensic aspects’. Journal of the American College of Cardiology 1983;1:506-516

Published in NE’s Pan-Demiotic 2 (July 2020), pp23-24