Thursday, 9 October 2014

Book Review Medicinal plants in folk tradition: an ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland Reviewed by Jeff Aronson

Med Hist. Apr 1, 2005; 49(2): 230–231.
PMCID: PMC1088232

Book Review

Medicinal plants in folk tradition: an ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland
Reviewed by Jeff Aronson
David E Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield.
Medicinal plants in folk tradition: an ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland.
Portland, OR, and Cambridge: Timber Press. 2004, pp. 431, illus., £22.50 (hardback 0-88192-638-8).
Anyone wanting to know the folkloric uses of a British plant would probably consult one of the standard herbals: John Gerard's Herball or Generall historie of plantes (1597), John Parkinson's Theatrum botanicum (1640), Nicholas Culpeper's Complete herbal and English physician enlarged (1681), William Salmon's Botanologia: the English herbal (1710), Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious herbal (1737), William Withering's Botanical arrangement of British plants (1787–92), or Mrs M Grieve's Modern herbal (1931), my favourite. But they might be misled, for those herbalists generally derived their information from Greek and Latin herbals, such as those of Dioscorides and Apuleius Platonicus, ignoring information relevant to the British Isles; about a half of the plants included by Gerard, for example, are not native to Britain.
For the last seventeen years David Allen has been following a different path altogether, seeking out information about the uses of herbs in Britain and Ireland from purely local sources. And at last, with the help of Gabrielle Hatfield, he has produced the work of scholarship that his many years of labour promised.
The results confirm two views that I have long held: that folkloric medicinal uses of herbs do not reflect their true pharmacological properties, except occasionally by chance, and that the more indications a plant is said to have the less likely it is that any of them is actually beneficial. This does not bode well for ethnopharmacologists interested in finding new therapeutic uses for plants. For example, we find here ten remedies for gout, including Bryonia dioica (white bryony), Sambucus nigra (elder), Tanacetum vulgare (tansy), and Verbena officinalis (vervain), none of which is efficacious, to my knowledge. But Colchicum autumnale, the source of colchicine, is listed for measles, jaundice, and the procurement of abortion, not gout. Herbs used to treat cancers include Chelidonium majus (greater celandine), Conium maculatum (hemlock), Rumex acetosa (sorrel), and Taraxacum officinale (dandelion), but not Vinca major, which contains powerful anti-cancer drugs. Vinca is listed, however, as being useful for cuts and bruises, nosebleeds and toothache, hysteria and nightmares, colic and cramp. Don't try it at home, is my advice.
Now a pharmacologist, disappointed with the effects of these remedies, might not be tempted to investigate the list of nearly thirty plants supposedly useful for asthma, including Allium ursinum (ramson), Inula helenium (elecampane), and Verbascum thapsus (great mullein). But if so he would miss a gem. For the list includes Datura stramonium (thorn apple), the source of an anticholinergic drug that is beneficial in asthma. The remedies with real effects often stand out in having only one major recognized use. Consider Claviceps purpurea (ergot), the rye-infecting fungus that causes smooth muscle contraction. It has only one credited action, a tonic effect on the uterus, used, as its twentieth-century counterparts were, to procure abortions, to induce or speed the progress of labour, and to stop postpartum bleeding.
Occasionally, however, a real action is hidden among a gallimaufry of distracting indications. Dandelion, for example, or pissabed, is a diuretic, but its other uses, mostly in Ireland, are among the most diverse in the book, including coughs and colds, jaundice, stomach upsets, rheumatism, cuts and sprains, broken bones, thrush, headaches, diabetes, anaemia, and in Tipperary “every disease”.
The many alternative common names of these plants have been omitted, although to be fair this spares us some inordinately long lists. More important is the omission of maps showing how the uses of the plants vary from region to region, one of the major fascinations of this work. Perhaps there is another volume to come—an atlas of British and Irish herbs.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press