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Was it witchcraft or pragmatic plant medicine?


The use of plants as food and medicine is probably as old as man himself, and originally must have been discovered independently by different communities.

Such knowledge would have been handed down orally from one generation to the next and of course it was only in historically recent times that it was written down. The History of Domestic Plant Medicine by Gabrielle Hatfield considers the story of domestic plant medicine in Britain and looks at the various sources of information available to us, as well as recording little-known scraps of knowledge that we do still have about the practitioners of this under-valued, but vital, way of looking after ourselves.

The self-reliance of rich and poor alike when it came to their own health is impressive. Once official medicine distanced itself during the eighteenth century from the practices of the poor, we might have expected that rural medicine would sink without trace. But it was still possible during the twentieth century to find country remedies that had been used within living memory. Often an elderly person asked about plant remedies would disclaim any knowledge, or point out books that might help. But if asked what they or their parents or grandparents did for them when they were ill or had hurt themselves, then often all kinds of plant remedies would come to light, which they regarded as a well-known part of life, too common to be remarked on. Now fast-forward to the present generation of elderly people in this country and their remembered remedies are few and far between.

Guy Shrubsole, in his book The Lost Rainforests of Britain (William Collins, 2022) laments that there are only a few surviving pockets of temperate rainforest, most of which has been cleared with the loss of all kinds of potentially important plants. Much the same is true of our declining knowledge of plant remedies used by our ancestors, but it is better to record the vestiges of domestic plant medicine than to lose the lot, and to lose with them remedies that could be important for us in the future.

By Gabrielle Hatfield

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