Coltsfoot

(Tussilago farfara) "If the down flyeth off colt's foot, dandelyon, and thistles, when there is no winde, it is a sign of rain" (1656, quoted in M E S Wright) (probably Coles, W. Knowledge of plants). The only other instance of folklore is recorded by Dyer. 1889, who said that "on Easter Day the Bavarian peasants make garlands of coltsfoot and throw them into the fire". What was the ritual? Coltsfoot had its uses, apart from the medical. We are told that the downy seed covering was used in the Highlands of Scotland for stuffing mattresses (Pratt). However much of this would be necessary to fill a mattress? Another account confines itself, a little more reasonably, to stuffing pillows (M Evans).

But it is far better known for its medicinal value, so valuable that it was apparently used as the sign of an apothecary's shop, in Paris (Grieve. 1931). It was on coughs and all chest ailments that it built its reputation, as a tea (often with honey (Thomson. 1976)), as a piece of coltsfoot rock, to chew, or as coltsfoot wine (M Evans), or as pectoral beans or jelly (Grigson. 1955). And it can be smoked, like tobacco. Bechion, the plant in Dioscorides taken to be coltsfoot, was smoked against a dry cough, and it is still smoked in all herbal tobacco (Grigson. 1955), as it is also in Chinese medicine (F P Smith), for asthma and bronchitis, and even for lung cancer (Perry & Metzger). Gypsies smoke the dried leaves, and the tea is taken for coughs (Vesey-Fitzgerald). 0 Suilleabhain quotes its use in Ireland for asthma; the fresh leaves would be boiled in milk, and the lot eaten. It was smoked by

Cornish miners as a precaution against lung disease (Deane & Shaw). There is nothing new about all this. Gerard was advising the same treatment in his day, in different words: "A decoction made of the greene leaves and roots, or else a syrrup thereof, is good for the cough that proceedeth from a thin rheume ... The fume of the dried leaves taken through a Funnell or tunnell, burned upon oles, effectually those that are troubled with the shortnesse of breath. Being taken in manner as they take Tobacco, it mightily prevaileth against the diseases aforesaid".

Gypsies use the juice from the fresh leaves in making an ointment for the treatment of ulcers and the like (Vesey-Fitzgerald), and the juice was used in Ireland for earache (O Suilleabhain). The fresh leaves put on the chest and changed frequently were said in Russian folk medicine to bring relief for heartburn in tubercular cases (Kourennoff). A flower decoction has been used in China as an eyewash (F P Smith), but the oddest use must be Topsell's "for the drawing forth of a thorn or splinter out of a dog's foot, take coltsfoot and lard, or the powder thereof burned in a new earthen pot either of these applied to the foot draws forth the thorn and cures the sore".

Colutea arborescens > BLADDER SENNA COMFREY

(Symphytum officinale) The name comfrey comes, through Anglo-Norman cumfirie, from Latin confervere, to heal. Another line, through confirma and conserva, produced consolida, and eventually consound, a name much applied to this and to plants with a similar reputation. Comfrey too, although now confined to this particular genus, once had a more general significance. The reputation rests on the interpretation of the Greek word which gave the botanical name Symphytum; it comes from sumphuo, to grow together. Whether this really is the plant that the Greeks named and described as useful for knitting bones is doubtful, but it was certainly taken to be such in medieval times, and has been used for the purpose ever since. It was the glutinous matter of the root that was used, grated, for a plaster that set hard over a fracture. Sometimes a charm had to be spoken at the same time. One from Exmoor ran:

Our Lord rade,

The foal slade,

Sinew to sinew and bone to bone

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit said three times (Tongue). In Ireland it was taken internally as well, as part of the process of knitting fractures. Gypsies used it in the usual way, and probably still do (Vesey-Fitzgerald). It is said that soldiers carried the herb with them in medieval times (Tongue), and that it was known to the Crusaders as a wound herb. As an extension of all this, the Pennsylvania Germans even say it will reduce hernia,

But this is a magical cure - you have to hold it on the hernia until it is warm. Then the comfrey should be planted. If it grows, the hernia will be cured (Fogel). And surely the next must rank as the ultimate repair job, for it was even said to be able to hide the fact that a girl had lost her virginity. She was advised to take a long bath on the eve of her wedding in hot water and comfrey (As it was said, that "would do up whatever has been undone") (Page).

Comfrey leaves are edible (in Ireland they were used like spinach (Vickery.1995)), and they make a good animal feed; chopped leaves in with the feed will increase hens' laying production (Painter). In Bavaria, they have a special way of treating the leaves - they are dipped in batter and fried (see German cookery books under Schwarzwurz). The flowers too have been used, for giving flavour to cakes, and comfrey wine is quite well known.

The rest of the uses are purely medicinal. The leaves and root made quite a well-known cough remedy. The use is an ancient one, for an Anglo-Saxon leechdom prescribed for the dry cough elecampane and comfrey eaten in virgin honey (Cockayne). In the 14th century we find: For the quinsie: take colymbyn and fether-noyge (feverfew, perhaps?) and levys of comfrey and stampe hem to-gedre and drynke the ius with stale ale" (Henslow). A hundred years later, there is "for the dry cough: take horehound and comfrey, and eat [it] with honey three mornings and three evenings" (Daw-son). The root tea is an Alabama remedy for dysentery (Browne), and elsewhere it is drunk for rheumatism, arthritis and asthma (Painter). It is also a good thing to put on cuts and bruises. The standard Irish country method to ease the pain is simply to apply a poultice of comfrey roots (Logan). Elsewhere, it was not so simple, for there is a widespread superstition that the purple-flowered comfrey is for a man, and the white one for a woman (Burne, Foster). Gypsies too recognize the difference, and it has to be male flowers for a woman, and female ones for a man (Boswell). In the Isle of Man, it was said that the leaves, one side rough and the other smooth, would heal a wound if put in the right order, by first drawing and cleaning it, and then healing (Killip). It has been appearing in medical texts as a wound herb for centuries.

Comfrey root is used in Ireland to improve the complexion, by macerating the root and pressing out the juice as needed (Logan), and an ointment made from it is still in use for skin complaints and burns (Painter), and also for ulcers (Vickery. 1995). Boils, too, were treated with comfrey, at least in County Kerry, where they made a poultice from the boiled root. In this case, the belief was that the comfrey drove away the worms in the boil. They could not stand the smell of the comfrey, so it was said (Logan).

It has veterinary uses, too. In some parts of Ireland, swine fever is treated by boiling comfrey roots in milk, and adding everything, roots and all, to the pig's food. This has to be kept up for some weeks (Logan). But Norfolk pigkeepers added comfrey leaves to the pig's feed just to keep them in good health (Randell), but also to make sure they could not be bewitched. Pigweed is a Wiltshire name for the plant (Dartnell & Goddard), though it must have had a much wider significance.

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