We’ve looked at dandelions, burdock and nettle in part one; followed by ribwort, mullein, and wild garlic in part two. This time round we have a theme of Irish wildflowers with properties that can aid digestive health – vibrant little tormentil, bright white yarrow and tall goldenrod.
Tormentil (Néalfartach), Potentilla erecta
This is an extremely widespread little plant, native to Ireland and found across heathland, meadows, mountains and moors. It is one of the more unusual relatives of the rose family, as it typically has four petals, an uncommon amount for the roughly 5,000 species belonging to Rosaceae. However, if you have a good sense of smell, there is a definite familiar scent of rose from the yellow petals. The etymology of the name tormentil is thought to be from the Latin tormentilla, meaning minor pain, referring to the typical complaints this little plant was used for, and the Latin name of potentilla states the power of this little household flower.
Although technically entirely edible, the main benefits of tormentil are found in the root, which is very bitter and not particularly palatable. The root ranges from a deep orange to blood red in colour when sliced, and was traditionally used to create a natural red dye. Tormentil root is also one of Alfred Vogel’s original remedies – in herbal medicine it has been used for thousands of years because of its very high tannin content, which has an astringent effect. In fact, as far back as the 11th century it was mentioned by Saint Hildegard of Bingen for its healing benefits! The entirety of the plant, (leave, stem and root) can be boiled to create a wonderful tincture for use as a mouthwash, thought to have the properties to fight bacteria and to work against inflammation. Most commonly however, tormentil root tincture is used to address digestive complaints, especially with issues regarding the lower bowel. The root is also used to make blutwurz – German for bloodroot – an herbal liqueur and aperitif.
Yarrow (Athair thalún), Achillea millefolium
Yarrow is a plant with a liquorice-like aroma and rich appearance (the latin millefolium meaning thousand leaf), with an even richer history; known in the past as herbal militaris for its use in stemming the flow of blood. It has been used for thousands of years for its healing abilities, including throughout the Greek myth of Achilles, wherein he used yarrow to treat the injuries of his men (hence the full Latin title of Achillea millefolium). It is native to Ireland, and often found along roadsides and grasslands. The entire plant is once edible, either raw or cooked, but since it has digestive benefits it is once again very bitter regardless, with the leaves once used as an alternate for hops when making beer in Nordic countries, and some believe to be used in preparations of ale as far back as the Middle Ages.
Yarrow is considered by herbalists as a ‘blood-moving’ herb, and is thought to help with circulation, however the most popular use by far is as a digestive tonic. Yarrow tincture is a bitter which can help relieve gastric discomfort, and promote better digestion as well as a reduction of bloating, wind and other presentations of indigestion. The flower clusters can be harvested and steeped fresh in boiling water to create a tea, ideally sweetened with some honey – they can also be dried and preserved for use year-round. If you make too much yarrow tea, it is also a wonderful hair rinse that can promote hair growth! Yarrow can also be used to create topical oils and poultices – simply chewed and applied to the area when on the move may even suffice. The chewing of yarrow leaf may also have analgesic properties – meaning if you have a toothache it could help to numb the affected area.
Goldenrod (Slat óir) Solidago virgaurea
Goldenrod is no different to the previously discussed plants in that it has an unusual and fascinating history. The use of goldenrod may not go back as far in time, but it is certainly as impressive – goldenrod naturally contains latex. The species which has the highest amount is not the same as our native Irish goldenrod found in heathlands and along coastal areas; however Solidago leavenworthii was studied by Thomas Edison during his search for a home-grown rubber in the U.S.A. This particular species can contain up to 7% rubber in its dried leaves! Our own Solidago virgaurea does also contain latex – therefore care should be taken if you have a latex allergy. The name solidago is thought to be derived from the Latin word solida meaning whole and ago meaning to make – a possible reference to its healing properties.
Goldenrod tea is one of its most popular methods of use – simply gather the flowers and leaves and steep in a covered pot for around 10 minutes. Due to the fact it contains tannins, there can be a slightly bitter flavour, therefore it can be sweetened to taste once strained. In regards to digestion, this tea is thought to have antispasmodic properties, and may alleviate symptoms of indigestion such as wind and nausea. It is also seen to be a wonderful diuretic – with the A. Vogel complex containing goldenrod called Alfred Vogel’s ‘waterfall drops’. Goldenrod flowers can also be mixed in with oil and left in a dark cabinet for up to 6 weeks to create a topical application that is traditionally used to relieve aches and pains.
The history of the yew tree (Iúr in Irish, and taxus baccata in Latin) in Ireland is long and complex enough to justify a story all of its own, but here is some of the most interesting facts. The yew tree is a native to Ireland (one of very few native Irish trees), with a separate male and female tree, often found in graveyards, and can live for thousands of years. Each part of this tree is extremely poisonous if ingested – no wonder then that the tree is considered sacred to the Greek goddess Hecate, who is entwined with death and necromancy! Loved amongst poets, Irish chieftains, druids, and many more throughout history, the three oldest recorded trees in Ireland are yew trees, and many place names are inspired by it.