Once upon a time, if you were ill, what did you use for medicine?  In fact, how did the residents of North Duffield protect themselves from Fairies and Witches?   How did they ward off bad luck, evil spirits or lunacy; how did they encourage broken bones to mend or cure sagging bosoms? How did they dye their clothes, tan leather or flavour food?

In those days, there was no religion, no National Health Service, no Doctors Surgeries; no pills or medicines as we know them today. You could not pick up the telephone and order an ambulance- they had not been invented. There were no supermarkets or dress shops. They had to catch or pick their own food, make their own weapons and houses and make monuments to the sun and the moon to appease the spirits and ensure a good crop or a successful hunt.

So what has that got to do with Fairies, Witches and Whooping Cough? Well, for centuries, perhaps thousands of years, man has turned to plants to answer, or try to answer all these w questions.

We know now that some of these remedies actually worked: for example the salicylic acid in willow bark was known for at least 4,000 years to cure aches and pains and inflammation. We know it now as the common aspirin and used by the million to this very day.

None of the plants that are described in the following lists are rare-they are all wildflowers and plants that can be found in your back garden or in the fields or verges roundabout.


COMMON SORREL (rumex acetosa) was used as a salad plant as was CHICKWEED (stellaria media). DANDELION heads(taraxacum officinale) and BURDOCK seeds(Actium minus) were and still are used to flavour a drink popular with children; BLACK MUSTARD (brassica nigra) and RAPE, grown widely in this area for its oil, were used to make mustard and GARLIC MUSTARD (allialaria pettiolata), seen in every verge and hedgerow, was used to make a garlic flavoured condiment.

COMMON RESTHARROW (ononis repens) is a member of the liquorice family and the roots were chewed by children but worryingly was also used to treat kidney disorders, to clear up ulcers and mixed with wine for gallstones; MEADOWSWEET(filipendula ulmaria) was used to flavour mead. WOOD AVENS (geum urbanum) was used for flavouring beer. COMMON STINGING NETTLES (urtica dioica) can be boiled and used as vegetables or turned into a tasty soup; nettles were used as a form of self-torture by monks as they thrashed themselves and the Romans believed nettle-stings cured rheumatism. CLEAVERS or the sticky goosegrass(gallium aparine) can be roasted for a coffee substitute or used as a vegetable in soup as well as being a cure for scurvy.

MALLOW(malva sylvestris) is a very versatile flower; it has been used as a root vegetable since at least the 8thC BC, used to dispel hangovers “after orgies”, the sap dissolved with water was used to ease aches and pains, the leaves to draw out wasp stings, and as a potion to calm an ardent lover.

SOAPWORT (saponaria officinalis), was a soap substitute as it foams with water.


WELD(reseda luteola) contains yellow dye and TORMENTIL(potentilla erecta) contains red dye in the roots and can also be used for tanning leather as can the juice of  PURPLE LOOSESTRIFE(lythrum salicaria)


SELF HEAL(prunella vulgaris) for centuries has been used as a cure-all but also said to relieve sore throats; FOXGLOVE(digitalis purpurea) has been used for heart conditions for centuries and is still used to make a very common drug, digoxin, also used for heart patients; EYEBRIGHT (euphrasia officinalis) used to clear the eyesight; COMMON VALERIAN (valariana officinalis) is said to cure hysteria; COLTSFOOT(tussilago farfara) is believed to cure coughs;  MEADOW BUTTERCUP(ranunculus acris) if worn in a bag around the neck was said to cure lunacy; COMMON POPPY(poppy(papaver rhoeas) said to cure aches and pains, gout and St Anthony’s Fire (an unpleasant infection of the skin) and a syrup from petals was said to calm a restless child-since opium comes from some poppies, this might just work! GREATER STITCHWORT(stellaria holostea) was a cure for broken bones  and when prepared with acorns cured stitch; HERB ROBERTt(geranium robertianum) was used to staunch the flow of blood from a wound; RED CLOVER(trifolium pratense)-the petals were used to treat whooping cough , make a potent wine and the rare, four-leaved clover was used to ward off witches and warlocks, plus the roots were claimed to have cured a man bitten by a dog; TUTSAN(hypericumandrosaemum) the leaves, when laid on open wounds, will help them to heal(this has real substance in fact as the leaves have antiseptic qualities and, although the leaves have no scent, when cut and dried have a sweet smell that lasts for up to four years. The common DOG ROSE(rosa canina) which can be seen in almost every hedgerow, apart from being very pretty, grows seed pods called hips from which a soothing linctus , rich in vitamin C, can still be bought in shops. The hips have little hairs inside, which children  have used as ‘itchy backs’ for hundreds of years by placing them downs the back of girls dresses! The flower of the dog rose was also used by Henry VII, who adopted it as the emblem of the Tudors and ,of course, of England itself. The PRIMROSE(primula vulgaris), from which a concoction was used to  treat gout and rheumatism and a love potion was made from the flowers was also the wild version from which came an amazing range of domesticated garden flowers.

The pretty SCARLET PIMPERNEL(anagallis arvensis) is said to cure madness and dispel melancholy and COMMON CENTAURY(centaurium erythtaea) was used to clear up freckles and skin blemishes. KIDNEY VETCH(anthyllis vulneraria)was used to cure kidney disease. The list of plants used for medicinal purposes is endless and such remedies may well have been handed down from generation to generation over many thousands of years.


Before I leave the subject of plants, some surprising claims for some of them, may well raise a few eyebrows.

The TEASEL (dipsacus fullonum) has been used to ‘card’ or comb wool prior to spinning for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and were still in use until the Industrial Revolution brought mechanisation to the spinning industry. PROCUMBENT PEARLWORT (sagina procumbens) that bane of all gardeners with a name that belies it’s insignificant looking appearance but spreads like wildfire, was once hung in doorways as protection from fairies and hung on bulls’ front hooves which then protected the cow with which he mated, their offspring and the milk produced and all who drank it from coming to harm. Sorrell, mentioned above, was known to remove ink-stains and stinging nettles stems, in the Bronze Age, 4000 years ago, were woven into clothing and were also used in Scotland right up to the 20th C to make table-cloths and bed-linen. YELLOW ARCHANGEL (lamiastrum galeobdolon) or yellow dead-nettle is said to ward off evil spirits and spells; wood avens (Geum urbanum) when carried on the person, may well have protected the bearer from wild beasts and the roots were used as a fly repellent.

 The well-known plant, LADIES MANTLE (alchemilla vulgaris)-its Latin name gives a clue- dew from the leaves was used by Alchemists in experiments to make gold from common metal; its common name refers to the cloak worn by the Virgin Mary as the plant has been used traditionally to treat women’s ailments. In particular, it has been used to restore women’s breasts to their former shape and size (I know where there is some- er ladies mantle not sagging breasts………although………).

When I was a little boy, the stalks of cow parsley were used as pea shooters and the ‘peas’ were the unopened flowers of the hawthorn as both came to maturity at the same time of year. Must say, the stalks tasted evil but, it seems, were not poisonous! And I am sure that every child is aware that the burrs of burdock and the arrow-like heads of vernal grass attach to and work their way into hair and clothing and are the very devil to remove.

And so ends a necessarily brief visit into the world of potions, poultices and folklore-or perhaps these medicines really worked. Perhaps, if you really believed, if there was no other alternative, then the ‘placebo-effect’ would come into play. After all, we know that many of these remedies had some substance of truth as they are still in use today having been given an air of respectability by Doctors and Chemists who still use them.

I must, however, warn those inclined to rush out looking for ladies mantle or mallow that there are more modern remedies for their respective conditions which will, in all probability, do a better job.

Brian Elsey