I often read aboout her in my favorite fantasy tales, and I've always admired her:
The wisewoman or midwife, the good witch who cures all ills with herbal potions, enhanced with a dollop of magic - or not, as the case may be.
Willow bark tea and basilicum powder, lemon balm and comfrey roots, they must not be absent from the local herbwoman's inventory. Neither must eye of newt and the occasional bat wing potion, though those are not the topic of this blog. Here, we will focus on medicinal plants which play a role in the real world as well as in fiction.
Herbal cures have a long tradition, having served to cure sickness and injuries long before the advent of antibiotics and other chemically manufactured drugs.
Interestingly, as resistances to antibiotics mount and more and more people refuse to accept adverse side effects of chemical drugs as inevitable, phytomedicine has seen a revival in recent years.
This blog will bring you portrayals of herbs and their real and mythological properties, as well as recipes for ointments, teas and tinctures made from healing herbs. (*)
And, when I can find them, there will be snippets from stories where those herbs are mentioned.
I am always on the lookout for more stories that mention herbwomen and their cures, as well as other stories in which herbal medicine is mentioned. If you find such stories, please let me know via my contact form or send me an email.
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Let's pay another visit to Healer Keisha from Mercedes Lackey's novel Owlsight, whom we already met once before when discussing the healing qualities of wormwood. Keisha, as the village healer with a neat kitchen garden, has many healing herbs at hand. In the following snippet, she's treating a little boy who'd been in a fight with the village bully and is now sporting a bleeding nose and a black eye:
Her bit of advice had certainly silenced the child anyway; he seemed to be pondering it as they waited for his nose to stop bleeding. When Keisha judged that it had been long enough, she had him sit up and cautiously took the rag away from his nose. There was no further leakage, so she got up and mixed him a quick potion; chamomile for the ache in his eye and nose, mash-mallow and mint to counter any tummy upset from swallowing blood, and honey and allspice to make it into a treat.
So will this potion work as Keisha intends?
As for soothing an upset stomach - be it from swallowing too much blood or from the tension caused by the fight the boy has been through - the potion will certainly do that. Not only marshmallow and mint, but also chamomile, are all effective remedy for treating stomach upsets and other intestinal problems. Whether chamomile will also help with the boy's aching nose is doubtful, though it does have a calming effect on the psyche, so it might soothe away his upset - and with it, the pain.
Lavender is a very old household remedy, used for everything from perfuming linen to cleansing the air in a sickroom. The herb contains essential oils, which give it its characteristic fragrance. Lavender essential oil, like most essential oils, has antibiotic and antiviral properties, and it works as an anti-inflammatory and soothing agent when applied to skin injuries and burns. Inhaled, lavender's fragrance can soothe a headache away as well as calm anxieties and promote a good night's sleep.
Lavender water, either in the form of a tisane or as a hydrolate, which is a by-product of the distillation process in which lavender essential oil is produced, has many of the same healing properties as the herb's essential oil. Historically, lavender water was often used in sickrooms, both to cleanse the air and to comfort the sufferer, as described in the following snippet from Georgette Heyer's novel "Lady of Quality". Lady Annis has contracted influenza, and is being tended by her old nurse:
"Do you lie quiet now till I come back, and don't get into the high fidgets, fancying the house will fall down just because you're knocked up with all the trouble you've had, and mean to recruit your strength by staying in bed today, because it won't!" She sprinkled lavender-water lavishly over the pillow, drenched a handkerchief with it, which she tenderly wiped across Miss Wychwood's burning forehead, assured her that she would be as right as a trivet before the cat had time to lick her ear, and hurried away, first to send the page-boy scurrying down the hill with an urgent message to Dr. Tidmarsh, and then to inform Lady Wychwood, who had not yet left her room, that Miss Annis was laid up, and that she had sent for the doctor. "I don't doubt it's nothing worse than the influenza, my lady, but she's in a raging fever!" she said bluntly.
In modern medicine, St. John's wort is used increasingly often as a treatment for mild-to-moderate depression since it has fewer side effects than traditional anti-depressants. If there's a little weasely voice inside your brain, constantly telling you you're worthless - taking St. John's wort as an anti-depressant may help you fight off that only-too-real monster. (*)
In fantasy stories, the herb wards off more tangible (if fictional) monsters. Take for example this snippet from Fire Touched by Patricia Briggs, where the main character Mercy Thompson is attacked by a troll:
It was probably coincidence that I remembered the essential oil that Zack had shoved into my pocket as soon as I touched the walking stick. I pulled it out of my pocket and saw at a glance that Zack had gotten it right, grabbed the Rest Well and not any of the other oils that I'd bought. The Rest Well had been mostly St. John's wort. [..]
For lack of any better idea, or any more time to fuss, I swept my hand out from left to right, scattering the liquid in front of me in a rough semicircle. [..]
I narrowed my eyes at the troll and thought, Bring it. The troll, so close that I could feel his breath, stepped on the pavement where I'd dropped the essential oils and staggered back as if he'd hit a wall.
There are quite a few sources confirming the effectiveness of St. John's wort against fairies (or the Fae, as they're called in Brigg's Mercy Thompson series), as well as several others that claim the herb as a defense against other magical creatures, or the blights and illnesses they may cause.
Usually, though, the herb itself is used, either by ingesting it or by putting a living or dried plant onto window sills or hanging it over a door. Mercy in the above snippet is lucky: The herb's magical properties have apparently survived the distillation process that created the essential oil she's using against her otherworldly attacker.
As mentioned in previous posts, herbal medicine -- be it the traditional, experience-based herbalism or the evidence-based phytotherapy -- has seen a revival in recent years. From alleviating depression, to strengthening the immune system, to fighting antibiotics-resistant bacteria: Herbal remedies are much sought after.
So let's see what the real world is doing with regard to the herbwoman's traditional remedies.
While many questions are still open concerning both the ingredients and healing virtues of medicinal plants, efforts are being made to research such plants and establish an evidence-based approach to herbal medicine.
Here are some medicinal plants from the herbwoman's medicine cabinet whose healing properties have been confirmed by long experience and/or modern science:
To treat heart disorders the local herb witch will prescribe a tincture made from Hawthorn (Crataegus) leaves and flowers. The herb supports the circulatory and respiratory system, and in modern medicine is used to strengthen the heart, and even to treat mild-to-moderate heart failure. Historically, Hawthorn berries were also used for these indications, so our imaginary village healer may also prescribe a potion or syrup made of the plant's red fruit.
As an antidote for mushroom poisoning, and to cleanse and protect the liver, a village healer should always have Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) seeds at hand. Milk thistle is the only effective antidote for death cap (Amanita phalloides) poisoning, and modern studies suggest (though do not prove conclusively) that the herb may support the liver's natural regeneration, making it the herbwoman's go-to remedy not only to treat poisoning, but also to fight yellow fever and other liver problems.
Let's take a look at this snippet from Owlsight by Mercedes Lackey. Healer Keisha is being interrupted in the middle of decanting an herbal potion:
Keisha Alder ignored her sister Shandi's continued calls; she was in the middle of a job she had no intention of cutting short. The sharp smell of vinegar filled Keisha's workshop, but she was so inured to it that it hardly even stung her nose. Shandi could wait long enough for Keisha to finish decanting her bruise potion, staining out the bits of wormwood with a fine net of cheesecloth. Keisha wrinkled her nose a little as the smell of vinegar intensified; the books said to use wine for the potion, but she had found that vinegar worked just as well, and there was no mistaking it for something drinkable - unless your taste in wine was really wretched. A cloth steeped in this dark-brown liquid and bandaged against a bruise eased the pain and made the bruise itself heal much more quickly than it would on its own, so despite the odor the potion was much in demand.
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is better known for its healing properties where digestive disorders are concerned, but it has traditionally been used in poultices and salves to treat bruises and insect bites. It contains tanning and bittering agents, which have astringent effect and stimulate the blood flow, which could account for its healing properties where contusions are concerned.
A medicinal plant's healing agents are usually extracted via alcoholic or oleaginous solutions, but vinegar also serves to extract most alcohol soluble ingredients, so Lackey's paragraph above is correct in that aspect, as well. The reference to using vinegar so the potion would be undrinkable probably refers to the fact that wormwood contains thujone, which can be toxic in high dosages. It may induce miscarriage and harm a nursing infant.
The once-popular drink absinthe contained a high percentage of wormwood, and was said to cause hallucinations, resulting in the spirit being banned in many countries in the early nineteen hundreds. The ban has since been rescinded, though only if the thujone is below a certain threshold.
Welcome to the Herbwoman's Arts blog!
Let's dive right in and start as we intend to continue - with the portrait of a medicinal plant that is quite famous for its healing qualities: The willow.
Whether it's a regency romance or a fantacy novel - the willow tree's bark is often found in the pages of a novel. It alleviates fevers and head colds, it cures a headache, and eases rheumatic complaints. In fantasy novels it also serves as a pain killer for superficial battle wounds.
It does all those things in real life, too.
Willow bark contains salicin, which the body breaks down into salicylic acid when ingested. Salicylic acid in turn is a close relative of acetylsalicylic acid, the main ingredient of aspirin, and has a very similar effect on the human body.
In addition to salicin, willow bark contains other, less well-researched substances. The whole cocktail of ingredients combines to an herbal remedy which has most of the positive effects of aspirin without the undesirable side effects its chemically processed sibling causes.
Modern phytotherapy uses willow bark extract to treat rheumatic complaints, arthritis, and gout, in addition to its traditional use as a pain killer and for fever reduction.
Here's what the University of Maryland Medical School has to say about willow bark:
Some studies show willow is as effective as aspirin for reducing pain and inflammation (but not fever), and at a much lower dose. Scientists think that may be due to other compounds in the herb. More research is needed.
(*) Please do not try this at home!
While I've done my best to research my facts, none of the remedies described here, be they fictional or real,
are safe to try out without professional supervision by a physician.