Myths About Herbs
Herbal remedies and superstitions have always been closely linked. This was understandable when science wasn’t sufficiently advanced to explain why one plant could be harmful and another growing close by could cure ill health. Even though it was known before the birth of Christ that illness was not simply ‘the will of God’ or the result of supernatural power, but something natural that could often be relieved or cured, superstition and myths have long been believed as readily as proven facts.
In the sixteenth century, Gerard a learned and respected herbalist, claimed to have seen barnacle geese hatching from a tree and in the seventeenth century, the Doctrine of signatures was considered established fact. This ‘science’ relied on the appearance of a plant to show it’s medical benefit. Pulmonaria was thought to look like a diseased lung, so thought to cure lung problems and given the common name lungwort. Plants with heart or kidney shaped leaves were believed to cure those organs. Coincidentally, the plant was occasionally helpful in connection with the problem indicated, but more frequently it wasn’t.
Understandably when new plants were introduced into a country, the possible uses of these were at first unknown or misunderstood. In some places, particularly Britain, tomatoes were considered an aphrodisiac, runner beans were considered inedible and grown purely as ornamentals and smoke from tobacco leaves was thought to be beneficial to the lungs.
Ignorance played a part in perpetuating such myths, but there were other reasons. Those who believed that the geese were plants could eat them with a clear conscience on religious fast days. Landowners were happy enough that yew trees were confined to churchyards so that the devils living in them couldn’t cause mischief as this meant that any of their straying cattle wouldn’t be poisoned through eating the trees.
Gradually, monks and other learned people wrote down the remedies used by ordinary people and improved and refined them until they were as effective as possible. For generations, recipes and methods were handed down through families usually by word of mouth. As science and medicine progressed, traditional herbal remedies fell out of fashion. Because…