My friend recently said nervously to me, “Are you sure it’s safe to eat these?”  when I gave her some barks and roots to make into a tincture.  

“I’d rather take medicine,” she demurred. ‘They’re safer.”

Uhm, modern Western medicine has its origins in barks, roots, seeds, flowers and leaves.

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My youngest child grew up on an island a long way from the beloved South Downs and New Forest of my youth.  The year before, I was here in autumn with my niece, my big brother’s daughter, who knew the names of all the plants and mushrooms in the New Forest. She was like a forest nymph.

Not so my daughter.

“Do you know about the Rufus Stone?” I asked.

She: “No, who’s he?”

She doesn’t really enjoy walking in the forest, foraging for wild mushrooms, swinging off trees, making up games.

“Owwww,” she howled. “I’ve been stabbed by nettles.”

Well, actually, they were brambles, but she couldn’t tell the difference.

My big brother stepped in. He gently touched a delicate white bloom with his fingers. Though the flower was nondescript and tatty, it had its own beauty in my brother’s hand.  “If a plant has thorns, then most likely it’s a rose,” he said in his rich gentle voice.

“Mum said those are crabapples,” she retorted.

“No, they are memorial roses.” (rosa luciae)

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And these are crabapples:

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On the stream, we found a lone foxglove, also known as digitalis.  She shrank back in fear, for digitalis has a reputation as a killer: it increases cardiac output. But for the same reason, it is also used as a drug for cardiac congestion.

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The interesting thing about this plant is that it is historical. It was first recorded back in the 1500s, but was formally ‘discovered’ as a medicine in 1775 by a Scottish doctor, William Withering.  Pre the 1700’s, most of Britain’s medical science was mostly folk medicine. Digitalis is an example of a drug derived from a plant that was formerly used by folklorists and herbalists.

In 1775, one of Withering’s patients came to him with a very bad heart condition and since Withering had no effective treatment for him, thought he was going to die. The patient, being an independent type, went instead to a local gypsy, took a secret herbal remedy – and promptly got much better!

When Withering heard about this, he became quite excited and searched for the gypsy throughout the by-ways of Shropshire. Eventually he found her, and demanded to know what was in the secret remedy. After much bargaining, the gypsy finally told her secret. The herbal remedy was made from a whole concoction of things, but the active ingredient was digitalis. By the age of 46, Withering had become the richest doctor in the country!

I love this plant because its leaves and flowers are food for moths and butterflies. And yes, I like dangerous plants.  My daughter took this photo ❤

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