I've often met 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.
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.