Secrets of ancient folklore that inspired modern medicine

They’re regularly dismissed as old wives’ tales, but Patrick Harding tells Sarah Freeman why the old cures may sometimes be the best.

When Patrick Harding is out in his garden he doesn’t just see plants, he sees the basis of a hundred household remedies.

From marigolds to foxgloves, the South Yorkshire naturalist is evangelical about the healing properties of the natural world and he’s embarked on something of a mission to educate others.

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“There’s a tendency to think that herbal remedies are all old wives’ tales, but that’s just not true. Some of these plants were used for hundreds of years to treat certain ailments. Often no one knew quite why they worked, they just did.

“However, as science has moved forward, it has often been able to explain what people had almost instinctively known. In many cases chemistry has caught up with already tried and tested remedies.”

Patrick isn’t the only one who is helping to promote the ancient way of doing things. Earlier this year work began on recreating an historic garden close to the site of a 13th-century monastery on the St Ives Estate, near Bradford.

The blueprint was pulled together by Jane Ramsden, who works at the National Trust property East Riddlesden Hall, who trawled through medieval manuscripts for clues to historic cures for medical complaints and ailments.

Like Patrick, those behind the project soon realised that while folklore is easy to dismiss many of the ancient treatments for everything from headaches to shingles still have a place in modern life.

The St Ives garden is now brimming with borage, the herb it was thought would insitll courage in the Knights Templar as they set off on their crusades and meadowsweet, believed to be Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite way of removing the smells of 16th-century life from her private rooms.

As later scientific research proved, there was in fact a medical basis for both beliefs – borage can in fact help with cardio-vascular and respiratory problems and meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, which later became the basis for aspirin.

“In some cases these plants were being used as early as 50,000 years ago,” says Patrick, who will be delivering one of a series of talks at Potteric Carr Nature Reserve in Doncaster later this month. “There is evidence from graves which have been excavated in Iraq that when people died they were buried with certain plants. All of them seem to have had a medicinal and it is too much of a coincidence that they were simply a random selection.

“The thinking is they were taking them to ensure good health in the next life.

“In this country at least a quarter of native species have been used as herbal remedies through the ages and about half of our medicines are based in chemicals found in plants.

“It will probably come as a surprise to a lot of people that many familiar garden plants such as marigold and marsh-mallow were first grown for their healing properties rather than their appearance and many common herbs were valued as much for medicinal uses as they were in the kitchen.

“Marsh-mallow with its large, pink flowers is believed to soothe inflammation, sore throats and has even been used to heal chapped hands. Similarly, marigold plants were used as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic.

“The importance of many of these plants has also been harnessed in more recent medical breakthroughs. Take the humble yew tree, it’s foliage may be pretty toxic, but trees are now the source of taxotere, a drug used in the treatment of breast, ovarian and cervical cancer.”

While Patrick has devoted much of his life to analysing and recording plants both in his home county and further afield, he stops short of advocating self-medication.

“There’s a tendency to think, ‘Well, it’s green it must be ok’,” he says. “But hemlock looks pretty innocent to the untrained eye and that was the plant which famously killed Socrates.

“There’s also potentially a problem with getting the correct dosage. In the past people who suffered from water retention would take a remedy made from foxgloves.

“We now know that foxglove has the effect of making the heart beat much faster than normal and in turn that helps to flush out the system. However the plant contains a chemical called digitoxin, which is in itself incredibly poisonous. The truth is that foxgloves killed as many as they cured.”

For more details of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust event with Patrick Harding in Doncaster on July 15 call 01302 57077.