Hatfield's Herbal: The Curious Stories of Britain's Wild Plants

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9780141025148: Hatfield's Herbal: The Curious Stories of Britain's Wild Plants

Outlining the history and uses of over 150 British plants, this book offers a history of what life was once like, an illustrated, evocative guide to our native plants and an argument as to why we should appreciate the riches we already have.

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About the Author:

Hatfield is Wingate Scholar and Honorary Research Associate at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The following are extracts from three of the 150 descriptions of British plants in Gabrielle Hatfield's Hatfield’s Herbal

Birch (Betula species)
The birch is native throughout Britain, forming open woodland on light soil. It is sometimes called the ‘lady of the forest’ and is one of our most graceful trees. Yet traditionally, in Somerset for example, the birch is regarded as evil; it is from this tree that witches cut their brooms, and the birch is often associated with death, as in the ballad [quoted above]. Yet, conversely, birch has protective powers and has been used to decorate houses, churches and streets, especially at Rogationtide, an ancient country festival held to bless fields and crops. In Hereford, a maypole was made each May Day from a decorated birch sapling and it was placed against the byres to protect the animals over the coming year.

Devil’s bit (Succisa pratensis)
This pretty, little early-summer flower of heathland has a strange, thick root that ends abruptly and is supposed, according to legend, to have been bitten off by the devil, who was angry because the plant had such medicinal value for mankind.

Certainly, in official medicine, the list of ailments treated with devil’s bit, or devil’s bit scabious, is a long one, and includes wounds and skin conditions. Culpeper in 1653 writes: ‘The herb or the root (all that the devil hath left of it) being boiled in wine and drank is very powerful against the plague … poisons also, and the bitings of venomous beasts.

In folk medicine, the plant has been used to treat dog bites: the wound was bathed in water in which the plant had been steeped, then devil’s bit leaves were placed on the wound to complete the healing.

It seems that the chant could enable them to summon a brownie-like being who would do their household chores for them. At the other end of Britain, though, in Cornwall, if a child picked devil’s bit, the devil would come to their bedside.

Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
The raspberry is native throughout Britain, growing especially in damp woodland. One of its older names is ‘hindberry’, meaning ‘the berry eaten by deer in the woods’. In some places it has escaped from cultivation. Its attractive, white flowers resemble those of the bramble, but its prickles are not as tough or as large as those of the blackberry. Raspberry leaves have a characteristic coating of dense, white hairs.

Modern medical herbalists still recommend taking raspberry leaf-tea in the last ten weeks of pregnancy to encourage easy labour. The same infusion is also prescribed for diarrhoea, as an eyewash for conjunctivitis and as a cleanser for ulcers. Dreaming of raspberries is said to be a good omen for a love affair.

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