Monday, 11 April 2011

Herbs of the Highlands & Islands

22 February 2011

Duncan Ross came down from his walled herb garden at Poyntzfield to lead us through a exploration of the native plants and herbs grown, collected and used in the Scottish Highlands & Islands.

Indigenous cultures have always used herbs that are either on their doorstep, along the shores or deep in woodlands to create medicines, cures and preventatives.  The Highlands embody that practice and have developed a rich cornucopia of herbs and herbal lore that has been passed down the ages to our generation, primarily through an oral tradition. However, works such as Martin Martin’s “Description of the Western Isle of Scotland” (1703) and Alexander Carmichael’s volumes of “Carmina Gadelic” contain refereneces to both medicinal and culinary use of wild herbs. More recent research and work has seen the publication of works such as Healing Threads, by Mary Beith (Polygon, 1995), The Scots Herbal, by Tess Darwin (Mercat Press, 1996), and Flora Celtica by Bridgewater & Milligan (Birlinn, 2004).  The National Library of Scotland also holds a huge repository of books and archives, from individual Herbals, to snippets noted down by travellers, doctors and cooks alike such as Scotland’s first printed recipe book, “Mrs. McLintock’s Receipts for Cookery and Pastry-Work” (1736).

The Gaelic herbal tradition was one of primarily of prevention as much as cure, and there are numerous references to herbs that will fortify and strengthen the system as well as those to adress ailments, injuries and illness. The herbs and formulations vary from south to north based on local habitats, resources and cultural traditions, but there are a surprising number used across the country and even those that are similar to Scandinavian herbal medicines.  Mediterranean plants were brought in, and of course doctors were sent to the Continent for training from the early 12th century, but  more interesting still is the fact that certain Scottish indigenous species, such as Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea) were collected, sold and venerated by Greeks and Arabs from ancient times.  A testament to the trading and selling acumen of the ancient Scots, I'd vouch.

Duncan’s own nursery grows over 100 native and naturalised herbs, all listed by their Latin name, common English name and Gaelic name.  This helps to identify plants across different landscapes and cultures and to understand what they were traditionally used for, what they looked like, or where they were found. Some key Gaelic indicators are:

Slan = health
Slainte math = good health
Lus = plant

We looked at:

Baldmoney (Meum anthamanticum) = Muilceann (scented head)
A herbaceous perennial Found in the central Highlands and south-western areas in old undisturbed pastures and wayside habitats. It was primarily used in a culinary sense before the introduction of Mediterranean herbs to spice up Scottish food.

Bearberry (Arctostaphyllos uva-ursi) = Grainnseag (grain like berry)
 An evergreen perennial growing in dry stony places at high altitude, it is tough enough to withstand severe weather conditions and be happy – a true Scot!. The berry is actually not very pleasant, having a dry mealy flavour, but the leaves were used (by Native Americans at least) to treat urinary infections – a tradition that has since passed into European lore.

Blaeberry/ Bilberry / Whortleberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) = Braoileag (berry)
Native to Britain this berry prefers acidic upland moors and open woodlands. Highly concentrated in vitamin C, it can help to reduce blood sugar levels, relieve stomach problems, clear throat and mouth infections and improve eyesight. Traditionally the purple berries were also used to dye wool and of course make delicious pies.The French make a ‘sirop’ from the berries (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and in Provence add this to local Cotes du Rhone to make a ‘Miru” – delicious!

Bogbean/ March Trefoil (Menyanthes trifolata) = Tri Bhilean (three-leaved)
I guess we know it has three leaves…Bogbean grows in the calm, clear water – usually lochs. It is an excellent bitter tonic that improves digestion, purifies the blood and fights sinusitis, eczema and arthritis.  It was also used in the past to flavour beer and to make ‘herbal’ cigarettes….hmmm.

Lesser Burdock (Arctium minus) = Bramasag (burr-head)
As the Gaelic says, this biennial plant releases burrs which attach themselves to clothing (and dogs), and were the inspiration for Velcro. It is used in both western and oriental medicine with the roots/seed used as a detoxicant to help reduce infections and address skin problems. It is also combined with Dandelion to create a traditional soft drink. The root oil extract is good for improving hair and scalp. Increasingly burdock is grown as a root vegetable in western USA due to influence of Asian (primarily Japanese) tradition.

Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus) = Oidhreag “beauty and elegance”
A native of the Scottish Highlands, Cloudberry grows at altitude, literally thriving in the clouds above the tree-line. It loves the moist, peaty soils and can survive the harsh sub-arctic conditions (and very little sunshine) very well. A small creeping herbaceous perennial, it likes to grow in and around heater and sphagnum moss.. The fruit looks like a raspberry, but is vaired in colour from red to orange and cream.  It is often made into a jelly – a great favourite of Scandinavians (and Canadians too)

Bog Myrtle/ Sweet Gale (Myrica gale) = Rideag
A deciduous shrub native to northern Europe, Scotland and Ireland that grows happily in  moist/damp acidic soil.  Bog Myrtle has been used for centuries to deter insects (you can wear it behind your ears to fight midges), added to bedding, placed amongst linen and as an old fashioned ‘strewing herb’. It has also been used to flavour beer and to dye fabric. The seeds are highly aromatic, oily and contain a wax traditionally used in Highland candles. The scent however is soporific and, when combined with lavender and hops, will surely send you straight to sleep.

Common Centaury (Centaurium erythraea) Ceud-bhileach (hundred leaves)
Common grassland flowering biennial that is found throughout Britain. The whole plant is harvested just at point of flowering and then used fresh or dried to create a bitter tonic as a tea or in a tincture. Traditionally used to stimulate the appetite and digestion, it also helps to clean related organs. It was also added to whiskey on Uist  - to make a “wee tincture” no doubt!

Cranberry (Vaccinium oxyciccus) = Muileag (frog berry)
This is the European cranberry, as opposed to the American cranberry,  a small evergreen creeping shrub that likes the company of moist sphagnum bogs in upland areas. The fruit has traditionally been made into jams and jellies, but is also good for treating urinary tract infections and tastes good in soft drinks.

Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) = Dearcan feannaig (crow’s berry)
A common, native evergreen shrub found growing along the sea, by sand dunes, and rocky places, but also upland places of acidic soil. It has ben used as a food source in northern climes for centuries as the berries are prolific a thirst quenching drink that is high in vitamin C and good for keeping coughs and colds at bay.

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) = Creamh (chew)
Quite a common herbaceous perennial that grows in shaded, moist woodlands throughout Europe. Known since Stone Age times for its health giving and medicinal properties, it comes to life at the very beginning of Spring when all fresh greens are welcomed and relished and much needed.

Hart’s Tongue (Asplenium scolopendirum) = Greamh mac feidh (wild boars’ plant)
This was known as” one of the five great capillary herbs” from ancient Greek times when it was used as an astringent to treat dysentery and diarrhoea.  In the Highlands the leaves were used in ointments for burns and scalds, in more recent times it is combined with Golden Seal to treat diabetes. It is very scarce in the wild and harvesting is restricted.

Wild Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) = Cas-fa-chrann (twisted around tree)
A beloved flowering vine, indigenous to Britain, that thrives in hedgerows across the land. Wreaths of honeysuckle, rowan and ivy were hung over doors to mark special occasions and the sweet juice that can be sucked from the base of the flower on a warm summer’s day is a reminder of childhood pleasures.

Juniper (Juniperus communis) = Aiteal (to pierce)
Juniper trees are native to the north of Scotland where they used to be very widespread – less so now due loss of natural habitats, but sill often found in ancient gardens and estates.  The berries have been used medicinally and as culinary ‘spice’ from pre-historic times. They are used to flavour drinks, cheese pates, and burning the wood and branches acts as a purifier.  The oil is used in modern day aromatherapy as a detoxifier and rejuvenator for rheumatism, arthritis and skin disorders

Wild Marjoram /Scots Oregano (Origanum vulgare)= Lus-Marsalaidh
The wild marjoram that grows in Scotland is part of a large genus of many species that have been used for millennia for food, aroma and medicine.  Originally a native of the Mediterranean, it grows happily up to the north of Scotland besides rivers, on well drained soils and in sunny sites. The flavour is different to those growing in southern climes, but still just as delicious.  Leaves are used fresh in all sorts of cooking, flowers used as garnish and when dried as a tea. The oil is used in aromatherapy for muscular aches and pains, sprains, rheumatism and stress.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) = Crios Chuchulainn (Chuchulinn’s belt)
A native plant known since ancient times as a cure fro relieving headaches and for calming nerves – aspirin was derived from the salicylic acid it produces. It was also used traditionally to flavour Mead, and the leaf and flowers can be used on external sores and ulcers.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)  = Groban or Liath lus (grey plant)
This is commonly found in the lowlands of Britain, often in wayside places.  It has been used over centuries to help keep away disease and for repelling insects.  It was a sacred Druidical herb and has a reputation for promoting psychic ability – place it under your pillow to have sweet dreams.

Oyster Plant (Mertensia maritime)
This lovely shingle loving, foreshore plant grows naturally on the north and west coasts of Scotland and along the facing shores of Northern Ireland and Cumbria. It has succulent green leaves that add an oyster flavour to salad.

Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea) = Lus nan laoch (plant of the Hero or Champion)
Growing high on the sea cliffs of northern and western Scotland, it is also found from Iceland to Scandinavia and Siberia where is originally is from. The medicinal effects from the root (fresh or dried) are used to increase mental and physical endurance, increase resistance to altitude, reduce depression anaemia and infections.

Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum) = Cuillion-traghad (seashore holly)
Growing along the sand dues of the west coast of Scotland, this small thistle-like pernniel has blue shiny leaves and powder blue flowers in late summer. Traditionally it was candied, but today is used to combat cystitis and urethritis.

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) = Slan lus (healing plant)
This well know wild flower has been used by herbalist forever.  In the Hebrides the leaves were blended into an ointment with Golden Rod and butter to help heal wounds. The leaves were used on their own to treat mouth ulcers and sore throats, and a bruised leaf will help stem the flow of blood if cut or bruised. The Chinese use it for fevers, headaches, high blood pressure and liver problems.

Tormentil (Potentilla erecta or tormentilla) = Braonan fruich (earth nut of the heather)
A common ‘root’ herb of the Highlands, Britain and Europe, the plant is a herbaceous perennial with small buttercup-like flowers, found growing happily amongst the heather.  The root is red-brown and is very astringent.  It can be used fresh as a decoction, or dried and powdered to make an internal remedy for diarrhoea and other alimentary problems. It helps to prevent gum disease, sore throats, sore lips, and mouth ulcers.

Common Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) = Lus nan tri bhilean (three-leaved plant)
Growing predominately in marshlands or on waysides verges, Valerian is a herbaceous perennial of the Highlands, Britain and north west Europe. It has divided leaves and profuse pink-white flowers that hoverflies love. The roots are used in herbalists’ medicine as a calming agent for nerves, stress, headaches and insomnia, but its use should be carefully monitored and measured

Vetch / Wild Liquorice (Lathyrus monanaus/linifolius) = Carmeal (dig-enjoy)
A Scots Highland herb, Bitter, Mountain or Tuberous Vetch has been in regular use in the past and is now enjoying something of a renaissance. It was used in Roman times and in the late Mideval period – the dried root being roasted for its mild liquorice flavour to create a drink or keep the appetite satisfied on long journies. It was also used to flavour whiskey and it has stimulating properties.

Both Kew Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh are engaged in a project to preserve the herbal heritage of Scotland by honouring and remembering the knowledge and wisdom of the previous generations.  We have embarked upon a task to collect stories, knowledge and skills from the older generation in order to retain and re-lean these things. This is an ongoing project across all the gardens  - form more information or to contribute to the knolwedge base, contact Kew Gardens.


Sara said...

Pictures coming soon!

Anonymous said...

I realize this post is a few years old, but I am curious to know more about the herbs grown and found in the Southern Uplands. I have been writing a series of novels set in this region, and one of the characters is very skilled in the use of herbs -- especially for healing purposes. However, I live in Alabama, and know little about herbs even from my own region. This post discusses herbs from the highlands and islands and their uses. Are most of these also found in southern Scotland?
Thanks! Carey Jenkins

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