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A “noxious weed” that Culpeper praised….

Nicholas Culpeper, born 18th October 1616

My recent research has taken me into the realm of medieval plants, remedies, myths and legends. It’s fascinating, and I could easily become too engaged by it all, to the detriment of the things that led me to it in the first place.

Until two days ago I don’t think I had ever seen the orange flower that suddenly popped up all over my daughter’s garden lawn. The recent heavy rain had prevented regular mowing with her electric mower, so the orange flowers had been left to their own devices. As a result, they all sent up long hairy stems (the ones I’ve seen are about 10” tall) topped by clusters of what looked miniature button chrysanthemums. The leaves were hairy too, and the plant sends out stolons in all directions, that creep along through the grass, rather than shoot up like rose suckers.

Appropriately enough, this plant is called Orange Hawkweed, Pilosella aurantiaca, and it came from the European Alps. It then became a garden escape that is naturalised in the UK, but is still rare, even though it was introduced in the 17th century. One of its common names here is ‘fox and cubs’, apparently because of the way the buds hide away beneath the open blooms, like a vixen shielding her young. This name may, of course, apply to other varieties of hawkweed, but I came upon it when looking for the Orange Hawkweed specifically. It is also called Tawny Hawkweed, Devil’s Paintbrush, Grim-the-Collier (‘because the black hairs are reminiscent of a miner covered in colliery grime’), and Orange Hawkbit. So it’s been around enough to have acquired a handful of names. Oh, and fame has it that hawkweeds acquired their general name because ‘it is alleged that hawks eat these wildflowers and that this is the reason for their superb eyesight’.

Now, in the UK you will find a lot of different hawkweeds. Who hasn’t seen their yellow spikes topped with little yellow ‘dandelion’ flowers? They’re all similar, and can usually be differentiated by their leaves. And, of course, they all rejoice in complicated Latin names. But then, tell me a plant that doesn’t! I know there are many more hawkweeds throughout the world (Wikipedia claims there are 10,000+ recorded species and subspecies) but I’m confining this little article to the UK, and my personal experience.

1736-Johann-Weinmann – Hand-Colored-Copper-Plate-Engraving-Hawkweed
Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage 

This garden interloper aroused my interest in hawkweeds in general, whatever the variety. I immediately resorted to the beautifully illustrated and informative The Medieval Flower Book by Celia Fisher, wondering what medieval people had to say about it. Surprisingly, Celia doesn’t mention it…unless she does under a name I haven’t recognized.

The Reverend W Keble-Martin, in The Concise British Flora in Colour, describes the Orange Hawkweed without illustrating it. He illustrates many other varieties, all of them yellow.

What’s that I hear you cry out in horror? Hawkweeds are noxious, invasive pests of a weed? Exterminate! Exterminate!….

Oh, dear. I know that is how they are viewed, but Culpeper had quite a lot to say about their ‘government and virtues’. He lists their properties, and a very long list it is indeed. If he’s right, hawkweed seems to be some sort of super-plant.

“…Government and virtues   Saturn owns it. Hawk-weed (saith Dioscorides) is cooling, somewhat drying and binding, and thereforegood for the heat of the stomach, and gnawings therein; for inflammations and the hot fits of agues. The juice thereof in wine, helps digestions, discusses wind, hinders crudities abiding in the stomach, an helps the difficulty of making water, the biting of venomous serpents, and stinging of the scorpion, if the herb be also outwardly applied to the place, and is very good against all other poisons….

“….A scruple of the dried root given in wine and vinegar, is profitable for those that have the dropsy. The decoction of the herb taken in honey, digests the phlegm in the chest or lungs, and with Hyssop helps the cough. The decoction thereof, and od wild Succory, made with wine, and taken, helps the wind cholic and hardness of the spleen; it procures rest and sleep, hinders venery and venerous dreams, cooling heats, purges the stomach, increases blood, and helps the diseases of the reins and bladder….

“….The distilled water cleanses the skin, and takes away freckles, spots, morphew, or wrinkles in the face….”

Good lord, a noxious weed can do all that?

The gardeners among you will no doubt be frowning and shaking their heads when I say that I have purloined an Orange Hawkweed from my daughter to put in a trough and grow. I’ll watch the ‘clocks’ though – not everyone will be pleased to have hawkweed, no matter how rare and pretty, popping up in their immaculate gardens. And if it becomes too ‘wild and woolly’, it will go into the garden refuse bin, for Tewkesbury Borough Council to deal with somewhere I can’t see.

To read some more:

and for some excellent illustrations from old herbals, try:

Myths about the murderous mandrake….


Mandrake – from Wikimedia

“….in the Mediterranean there grows a…murderous plant called the mandrake. Its roots can look bizarrely like a human body, and legend holds that it can even come in male and female form. It’s said to spring from the dripping fat and blood…of a hanged man. Dare pull it from the earth and it lets out a monstrous scream, bestowing agony and death to all those within earshot….”

Ew. But it is true that these beliefs—and many others, including that a dog had to be sacrificed in order to drag the plant from the ground!—were held of this plant, Mandragora officinarum. I have taken the above quote from this post

In ancient times, the mandrake root was used by the Greeks to produce an anaesthetic for surgery. This use was continued into the Middle Ages. The Greeks also used it as an aphrodisiac, calling it the ‘love-apple of the ancients’. It was, of course, associated with the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Bible relates that to the ancient Hebrews, it was used to induce conception.

courtesy of Michael Ramstead, Fine Art Print

At her trial of 1431, Joan of Arc was accused of carrying mandrake with her as a means of controlling the minds of others. And by the 16th century, in England, mandrake was still so much in demand for its various properties, that bryony roots were being crafted to appear like mandrake, and then sold as such.

To read more of this ‘dangerous’ plant, go here

And yet it looks so innocent!

Mandragora officinarum

Yet another target for the Cairo dwellers

de Noailles

Last autumn, we reblogged posts to illustrate that the denialists of the history world, quite apart from their antics with respect to Richard III, quoted an obviously non-existent part of a document about Edward II and cited a book on botany, with reference to John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, that he couldn’t have owned because it was clearly published after his death, mentioning Queen Victoria who acceded two years after Chatham’s death.

This next case concerns two of the Seymour brothers, of whom Thomas,



Baron Sudeley, was Lord Admiral and Edward, Duke of Somerset, was Lord Protector to Edward VI – both being roles in which Richard had served before succeeding. Sudeley was beheaded for treason in 1549 during Somerset’s Protectorate before the Duke fell in early 1552. Hester Chapman, a 1950s biographer of Edward, quoted the French ambassador, Antoine de Noailles, that John Dudley, then Earl of Warwick but later Duke of Northumberland, had persuaded Somerset to execute his brother.

Edward VI



As Christine Hartweg explains, Skidmore, who wrote about the boy king more recently, made the same claim yet de Noailles did not arrive in England until May 1553, a matter of weeks before Edward’s death, as his papers, published in five parts, show and he did not write about previous events.

The Poison Garden….a list of plants to avoid….!


While going through some of my very large list of Favourites from my days of Regency writing, I came upon a site that I think will be of interest to those devoted to the mediaeval period. And writers concerned with that period, because let’s face it, if we need to bump a character off, poison is a good way of doing it. Right?

But these plants were important to mediaeval society for all manner of reasons, and most of them on this site were around in England then. Some weren’t, of course, having been introduced later. So a comprehensive list of poisonous plants, most with pictures as well, is both interesting and useful. Especially as some of them as deceptively lovely. “Come and pick me,” the flowers whisper. “Come and eat me,” wheedle those scrumptiously treacherous berries. Over the centuries too many unfortunate souls have listened to these blandishments.

I discovered this site some years back, and as you will see, it’s still going strong. Well done to the owner! Another very useful site, especially for those who do not live in the UK. It’s all about the wild flowers to be found here. Shakespeare often refers to flowers, which is all very well for the British, but must be puzzling to those who live abroad. So here is a very comprehensive site, complete with lots of pictures.

We are all interested in the flowers that Richard would have known, too!

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