May: Dandelions, Hinder Fallings and Bed Wetting

Dandelion Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash

May has gone and, and just like last year not so many May posts. I have been leading a study tour for Road Scholar called ‘Quintessential Britain’ which visits: London, Oxford, Stonehenge, Bath, the Cotswolds, Ironbridge, Chester, Wales, York, Edinburgh. Great to see all those places in the company of a lovely group. In between, I have been moving my boat, Mrs Towser and looking after my grandson. Last year we went down the Lee Navigation to East London, but this year I am moored outside the golden gates of Hampton Court, in West London, at the beginning of an epic journey to Bath.

My boat is just where Henry VIII would have landed with Anne Boleyn on a visit from Westminster. The picture of the Gate wasn’t worth taking, sadly as they have erected some awful modern metal fending in front of it. But here is one I took a few years ago.

Mrs towser at Hampton court
Mrs towser at Hampton Court, you can just see the Gates behind the moored Narrowboat. Gates are, I think, by the great Jean Tijou

Indeed they are by Tijou and below is a video about the the restoration of the Tijou gates. Well worth five minutes of your time to watch.

And, I have a photo of the Gates taken on Friday just after Mrs Towser was moored.

The Tijou Gates (May 24). I’m not sure what the function is of the horrible modern fence in front of it. I guess to protect it, but it also obscures it.

Last year I wrote about looking after my grandson who was just making that huge transition from nappies to no nappies but is now so much grown up and joined by a brother. But, the post sprang from something that he said to me in the middle of the park. He was curious as to why I was concerned that the park toilets were out of action. He told me I could, like him, just pull down my trousers and wee, right here, right then, up against the tree in the park. My attempt at explanation drew a perplexed, ‘What?’ ‘What?’ is his new word. After an explanation, his next word is invariable another ‘What?’.

Is this relevant, you are asking yourself? May and June are the most prolific months for dandelions, which used to be known as ‘piss-a-beds’. They are diuretic and were often eaten, and so might well have consequences for the young trainee child.

John Hollybush in his 1561 ‘The Homish Apothecary’ says:

‘When a young body does piss in his bed either oft or seldom: if ye will help him take the bladder of a goat and dry it to powder, and get him to drink with wine, or else take the beans or hinder fallings of a goat, and give him of the powder in his meat morning and evening, a quarter ounce at every time.’

(quoted in ‘The Perpetual Almanac by Charles Kightley)

Hinder fallings are what falls out of the hind-quarters of a goat. I’m not sure even an indulgent Grandparent is allowed to give droppings and wine to the little ones. Nor can I find any mention of goat products in modern medical recommendations. So I won’t be recommending this as a practical aid.

Medically, dandelions were very well regarded. Mrs Grieve’s ‘Modern Herbal’ reports that it are diuretic and a general stimulant to the system but particularly the urinary system. They were good for liver and kidney complaints; gall-stones; and piles. They were considered excellent to eat and drink. Particularly, dandelion sandwiches using young leaves, with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. They were also taken in salads, teas, and beers.

We used to blow the seeds from the dandelion seed head saying ‘She loves me. She loves me not’ at each blow, until the truth was revealed.

Here is a poem based on the rhyme:

First written in June 2023, revised june 2024.

January 23rd Hawthorn and Planting for Hedges

 Photo by Timo C. Dinger on Unsplash
photo of hawthorn flowers
Photo by Timo C. Dinger on Unsplash

Many plants can be used for hedges, but hawthorn is the most common. It can be planted as bare-root from Autumn to Spring, so January is as good a time as any. It can also be grown from the seeds from its red berries. But this takes 18 months to achieve. Interspersed along the hedge should be trees—either trees for timber, or crab-apples or pear-stocks. Trees were also useful as markers. Before modern surveys, property would be delineated by ancient trees. Hedges could be quickly moved, and perhaps not noticed. Trees couldn’t.

Hawthorn is an oasis for insects, mammals and migrating birds (who eat the berries). It is a lovely plant for May, and it is often called May, or the May Flower or May Tree and also whitethorn. The berries are called ‘haws’ hence hawthorn. For more on this, look at https://whisperingearth.co.uk.

Hawthorn produces white flowers in Spring, and it is one of the great pagan fertility plants, its flowers forming the garlands on May Eve. One of the chemicals in the plant is the same as one given out in decay of flesh, so it has been, in folklore, also associated with death. So, is not to be brought into the house.

It was also said to be the thorn in the Crown of Thorns, so sacred. A crown from the helmet of the dead King Richard III was found on a hawthorn at Bosworth Field, and so adopted as a device by the victorious Henry VII. For more on the plant, https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk

a triangle of stained glass on a black background.
A 'Quarry' of Stained Glass showing the Crown, a hawthorn Bush and initials representing Henry VII and his, Queen, Elizabeth of York.  Possibly from Surrey. Early 16th Century and from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Public Domain).
A ‘Quarry’ of Stained Glass showing the Crown, a hawthorn Bush and initials representing Henry VII and his, Queen, Elizabeth of York. Possibly from Surrey. Early 16th Century and from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Public Domain).

John Worlidge, wrote in 1697

‘And first, the White-thorn is esteemed the best for fencing; it is raised either of Seeds or Plants; by Plants is the speediest way, but by Seeds where the place will admit of delay, is less charge, and as succesful, though it require longer time, they being till the Spring come twelvemonth ere they spring out of the Earth; but when they have past two or three years, they flourish to admiration.’

Systema Agriculturae 1697

Hawthorn is an excellent wood for burning, better than oak, having the hottest fire so that its charcoal could melt pig-iron without the need of a blast. It is also good for making small objects such as boxes, combs, and tool-handles. It takes a fine polish, so also used for veneers and cabinets.

This is the time, according to Moon Gardeners, to plant and sow plants that develop below ground. So rhubarb and garlic, fruit trees, bushes, bare-root plants and hedging plants.

Hawthorn has many medicinal benefits according to herbalists. Mrs Grieve suggests it was used as a cardiac tonic, to cure sore throats and as a diuretic. But don’t try any of these ancient remedies without medical advice!

First Published in January 2023, revised in January 2024

Collect your Holly & Ivy December 18th

Picture of Christmas greenery on a gift box
by Tjana Drndarski-via unsplash

So, the old Sun is dying, and if the Sun keeps going down we are all going to die. To keep our anxiety to a minimum with all of nature seeming to be dying or hibernating, evergreens are a symbol of a promise/proof that life will continue through the dark days. So, with its bright-green leaves and its luminous berries, Holly is the ideal evergreen for the Solstice. And as the prickles symbolise Christ’s Crown of Thorns, and the berries the red blood of Jesus, the symbolism works, too, for Christians.

‘Ivy’ says Culpeper in his Herbal of 1653, says its winter-ripening berries are useful to drink before you ‘set to drink hard’ because it will ‘preserve from drunkenness’. And, moreover, the leaves (bruised and boiled) and dropped into the same wine you had a ‘surfeit’ of the night before provides the ‘speediest cure’. (The Perpetual Almanac of Charles Kightly)

Henry Mayhew (editor of Punch) in his ‘London Labour and London Poor’ (1851–62) talks of Christmasing for Laurel, Ivy, Holly, and Mistletoe. He calculated that 250,000 branches of Holly were purchased from street coster mongers every Christmas. He says that every housekeeper will expend something from 2d to 1s 6d, while the poor buy a pennyworth or halfpennyworth each. He says that every room will have the cheery decoration of holly. St Pauls Cathedral would take 50 to a 100 shillings worth.

He also calculates that 100,000 plum puddings are eaten. Mistletoe he believes is less often used than it used to be, and he hopes that ‘No Popery’ campaigners will not attack Christmassing again.

Hot plum pudding seller from Sam Syntax Cries of London 1820s
from the Gentle Author Spitalfields Life web site
Hot plum pudding seller from Sam Syntax Cries of London, 1820s
from the Gentle Author Spitalfields Life website

Happy Eponalia

Roman Horse from Bunwell, Norfolk. Illustration by Sue Walker.

Last year (2021), I posted about Eponalia for the 18th Dec and this is what I said:

I’ve been too busy working on my Jane Austen and Christmas Virtual Tour (Sunday 19th December 7.30) to post over the last few days. And I have, therefore, shamelessly stolen this post off my Facebook friend Sue Walker, who is a talented archaeological illustrator, artist and a very good photographer.

She wrote: ‘the 18th December is the festival of the Celtic goddess Epona, the protector of horses, she was adopted by the Romans and became a favourite with the cavalry. This finely sculpted bronze horse with a head dress and symbol on its chest is 37mm high – found in Bunwell #Norfolk #Archaeology’

Culpeper on Ivy (1814 edition):

It is so well known to every child almost, to grow in woods upon the trees, and upon the stone walls of churches, houses, &c. and sometimes to grow alone of itself, though but seldom.

Time. It flowers not until July, and the berries are not ripe until Christmas, when they have felt Winter frosts.

Government and virtues. It is under the dominion of Saturn. A pugil of the flowers, which may be about a dram, (saith Dioscorides) drank twice a day in red wine, helps the lask, and bloody flux. It is an enemy to the nerves and sinews, being much taken inwardly, out very helpful to them, being outwardly applied. Pliny saith, the yellow berries are good against the jaundice; and taken before one be set to drink hard, preserves from drunkenness, and helps those that spit blood; and that the white berries being taken inwardly, or applied outwardly, kills the worms in the belly. The berries are a singular remedy to prevent the plague, as also to free them from it that have got it, by drinking the berries thereof made into a powder, for two or three days together. They being taken in wine, do certainly help to break the stone, provoke urine, and women’s courses. The fresh leaves of Ivy, boiled in vinegar, and applied warm to the sides of those that are troubled with the spleen, ache, or stitch in the sides, do give much ease. The same applied with some Rosewater, and oil of Roses, to the temples and forehead, eases the head-ache, though it be of long continuance. The fresh leaves boiled in wine, and old filthy ulcers hard to be cured washed therewith, do wonderfully help to cleanse them. It also quickly heals green wounds, and is effectual to heal all burnings and scaldings, and all kinds of exulcerations coming thereby, or by salt phlegm or humours in other parts of the body. The juice of the berries or leaves snuffed up into the nose, purges the head and brain of thin rheum that makes defluxions into the eyes and nose, and curing the ulcers and stench therein; the same dropped into the ears helps the old and running sores of them; those that are troubled with the spleen shall find much ease by continual drinking out of a cup made of Ivy, so as the drink may stand some small time therein before it be drank. Cato saith, That wine put into such a cup, will soak through it, by reason of the antipathy that is between them.

There seems to be a very great antipathy between wine and Ivy; for if one hath got a surfeit by drinking of wine, his speediest cure is to drink a draught of the same wine wherein a handful of Ivy leaves, being first bruised, have been boiled.

https://www.complete-herbal.com/culpepper/ivy.htm

First published on December 17th 2022, Revised and republished December 2023

St Hildegard of Bingen. Visions of Migraine, December 17th

Hildegard von Bingen receives a divine inspiration and passes it on to her scribe. From the Rupertsberg Codex of Liber Scivias.
Hildegard von Bingen receives a divine inspiration and passes it on to her scribe. From the Rupertsberg Codex of Liber Scivias.

What a relief! Here is a Saint who was not flayed alive, burnt on a griddle, scratched with wool combs, crucified upside down, beheaded, eyes gouged out etc. etc. (consider identifying the Saints in this list a Christmas Quiz). She died of illness and was famous not just for her vision but her erudition and her scientific writings.

She was elected as magistra (Mother Superior) of her Convent in 1136, and went on to found two other nunneries. But, was made famous by her writings on her visions. There has been speculation that her visions were caused by migraine. Read Mary Sharratt’s piece for more details, from which I took the following quotation.

When I was forty-two years and seven months old, Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch.

Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias, translated by Mother Columba Hart, O.S.B., and Jane Bishop

Amongst the many books she wrote were two famous and early books on medicine and science. Her medical writing was highly practical although, of course, based on the humoural theories which had held sway since Hippocrates. However, she did think that the four humours had a hierarchy with Blood and Phlegm the more superior humours representing the celestial elements of fire and air, while black bile and yellow bile represented the earthly humours of earth and water.

Just as physicists today look to find a unifying theory of everything, Hildegard also tried to find unities within the body of classical knowledge. According to Wikipedia, she:

‘often focuses on interrelated patterns of four: “the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth), the four seasons, the four humours, the four zones of the earth, and the four major winds.” ‘

Linked also to the celestial bodies and to religion, she gave her world view in Causae et Curae c. 42:

It happens that certain men suffer diverse illnesses. This comes from the phlegm which is superabundant within them. For if man had remained in paradise, he would not have had the flegmata within his body, from which many evils proceed, but his flesh would have been whole and without dark humour [livor]. However, because he consented to evil and relinquished good, he was made into a likeness of the earth, which produces good and useful herbs, as well as bad and useless ones, and which has in itself both good and evil moistures. From tasting evil, the blood of the sons of Adam was turned into the poison of semen, out of which the sons of man are begotten. And therefore their flesh is ulcerated and permeable [to disease]. These sores and openings create a certain storm and smoky moisture in men, from which the flegmata arise and coagulate, which then introduce diverse infirmities to the human body. All this arose from the first evil, which man began at the start, because if Adam had remained in paradise, he would have had the sweetest health, and the best dwelling-place, just as the strongest balsam emits the best odour; but on the contrary, man now has within himself poison and phlegm and diverse illnesses.

Wikipedia:

And here I was hoping to find light and joy in a medieval Saint’s story! So we all seem to be doomed by Adam’s Fall, and the poor quality of his semen. (Having recently watched ‘The English’ Hugo Blick’s Wild West box set, I can quite understand the syphilitic underpinnings of Hildegard’s theory).

On the subject of headaches, Hildegard was a keen user of feverfew, which has been, since the 18th Century, a suggested cure for Migraine. I didn’t find it worked for me. Hildegarde wrote on feverfew:

“If you suffer from a sick intestine, boil the Motherswort with water and butter or oil and add some spelt flour. Prepare a drink, for it helps the intestines.”

Hildegard of Bingen, Physica, Cap. 116 quoted in Hildegard’s Feverfew Use (www.healthyhildegard.com/feverfew-uses)

And so it became popular amongst women for gynaecological issues and abdominal pain. Feverfew has flowers like a daisy, ‘growing in every hedgerow’ according to Mrs Grieve English Herbal. She says it is good for nervous and hysterical complaints; low-spirits; as a syrup good for coughs; as a tincture against swellings caused by bites of insects and vermin.

St Hildegard seems to have two special days – one is Dec 17th and the other is the day she died, September 17th 1179 which is her ‘Liturgical Feast’.

First Published on December 18th, 2022, Revised and republished December 2023

Wild Winter Foraging & Chestnuts December 3rd

Chestnut. Image by Angela from Pixabay

In Lia Leendertz’ lovely ‘The Almanac – A Seasonal Guide to 2022’ she lists the following as in season for foraging:

Crab Apples and sweet chestnuts
Roots: Dandelion, horseradish, Jerusalem Artichokes, and wild garlic
Wild Greens: chickweed, dandelion, and wintercress
Game: Hare, rabbit, pheasant, and venison

Sweet Chestnuts were introduced by the Romans and have long been a feature of Christmas. They can be ‘baked, roasted, boiled or microwaved’. You need to prepare them by scoring a cross in them; otherwise they will explode when cooked. They are often sold by street vendors (there is often a seller on the Millennium Bridge on the way to Tate Modern in London) and, in my family, are always a part of the stuffing for the Turkey. They can also be candied, puréed or stored in syrup. (The Woodland Trust Foraging in November and December).

John Evelyn, the 17th Century Diarist and author of a book on trees (Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber) wrote that the nuts were:

‘delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks, and able to make women well-complexioned’

He complained that in England they are chiefly given to pigs to eat.

Chestnut meal was also used for whitening linen and for making starch. Marones, imported from Italy, France, Switzerland, and S. Germany contain 15% sugar and so were used to make a thick syrup and a ‘very usable’ sugar, from which Marons Glacés are made.

The wood of the chestnut is very useful and is/was used for building, pit props, furniture, poles for hops etc. but is nowhere near as long-lasting as oak.

Medically, they were used for treating convulsive coughs such as whooping-cough, where the leaves were infused in a pint of boiling water. (A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve)

First Published on 3rd December 2022, Revised and republished in December 2023

April 15th Time for a Tansy!

Tansy: by Georg Buzin (wikipedia)

Spring is time for a tansy, so I thought I would bring out again, for an outing, the many stories behind this awesome plant, not least in that the flowers display a classical  Fibonacci spiral, which is two counter-rotating  logarithmic spirals. But Mrs Grieve in her Modern Herbal repeats the belief that their name derives from the Greek word for immortality ‘Athanaton’, and this might be because they grow so well that in some areas they are proscribed they are so prolific. But Tansy was supposed to have been given to Ganymede by Zeus to make him immortal, and according to Ambrosius, through their use for preserving dead bodies from corruption. Tansy was placed in coffins and winding sheets and tansy wreaths placed with the dead.

Its toxicity means that it repels many insects, particularly, flies and ants, and so it was used as a medieval and early modern strewing herb. And yet there are other insects that love Tansy – it seems to have a dark side and a light side.

It was collected in August (along with meadowsweet or elder leaves) and strewn on the floors of houses (and the ‘thresh’ was held in by the threshold). But it was also placed between mattresses to keep away bugs. People rubbed meat with Tansy to keep flies off. It is now used as a natural protection for crops from insects to reduce the amount of artificial pesticides.

It was an important medical and culinary herb, said to be a substitute for nutmeg and cinnamon, and the leaves, shredded, as a flavouring for puddings and omelettes. At Easter ball games a Tansy Cake was the reward for the winners. It was symbolic of the bitter herbs eaten by the Israelites at Passover. Tansy was thought to be a very wholesome ingredient to eat after the sparsity of Lent and Winter, and voiding the body of the worms caused by eating too many fish. It was used for expelling worms from the stomachs of children. Interestingly it contains thujone, which is also in Wormwood, the other main herb for expelling intestinal worms. Thujone can cause convulsions, liver and brain damage if too much is taken.

In the 14th Century it was used for treating wounds. It was thought to be useful both to induce abortions but also to help women conceive and to prevent miscarriages. Culpepper and Gerard suggests the root was a cure for gout.

Here is a recipe from the ‘The Closet of Kenelm Digby Opened‘ 1669. It was essentially a form of omelette. I would not try the recipe! In the BBC documentary “The Supersizers go … Restoration“, Sue Perkins suffered from the effects of the toxic tansy.

A TANSY (Do not try this at home!)

Take three pints of Cream, fourteen New-laid-eggs (seven whites put away)
one pint of juyce of Spinage, six or seven spoonfuls of juyce of Tansy, a
Nutmeg (or two) sliced small, half a pound of Sugar, and a little Salt.
Beat all these well together, then fryit in a pan with no more Butter then
is necessary. When it is enough, serve it up with juyce of Orange or slices
of Limon upon it.

Sir Kenelm Digby was a Catholic and a natural philosopher of some reputation. After his death an employee published his cookery book. His father was executed after the Gunpowder Plot, and he supported Charles 1st but found a way to work with Oliver Cromwell. He made a great success of his idea of the ‘powder of sympathy’ – 29 editions of his book on the subject were sold. He found the powder in France and it was made with precise ‘astrological’ techniques. The most famous example of a suggested application for the powder was to win the competition for a method of working out longitude (in the 18th Century). Basically, a working method meant knowing the time, normally noon, in two different places. This allowed a triangle to be created between the two points and the Sun which allowed the distance between the two places to be discovered by triangulation. Clocks were not accurate enough (yet) to help so Digby’s famous powder of sympathy was suggested.

A wounded dog would be taken on board a ship, and a bandage from the wound would be left in London. At noon in London it would be sprinkled with the powder of sympathy. The dog on the ship would, perforce, yelp when the powder was administered on the bandage in London and so the Captain would know when it was noon in London! Digby was long dead when the application for the prize money was made and rejected.

‘Longitude’ by Dava Sobel tells the story of the discovery of a clock-based method of calculating longitude.