When weeds were regarded powerful healing agents

Botanical Garden Edinburgh Places, plants and people
Botanical Garden Edinburgh Places, plants and people
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THROUGH the barriers and just beyond the platform ticket office, not far from where the Glasgow train is waiting and the closest thing to a headache cure is the nearby branch of Boots . . .

The hustle and bustle around Waverley Station’s platforms seven and 11 could hardly be any further removed from a tranquil medieval garden tended by humble medicine men with the promise of curing whatever ye olde ailment you may have.

Sir Robert Sibbald.

Sir Robert Sibbald.

And yet, as a fascinating new guide to Edinburgh’s medical history shows, the middle of the train station is precisely where centuries ago local folks found precious relief from the most niggling of health problems.

For there, under medlar trees heaving with their tart little fruits – ideal in days gone by for curing many an intestinal disorder – among rows of dandelions and chickweed, doctors Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour were at your service in the garden of what was once Trinity College Hospital.

The corner of Waverley is just one of the long gone, curious city centre spots which has its roots in a unique element of Edinburgh’s history – and one which for folks with a burning boil or a gaping wound to deal with, could mean the difference between life or death.

Now they have been linked in a fascinating route map created by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh which documents the sites of long gone but much cherished medicinal gardens where the crops of what we might regard as today’s weeds and common everyday plants were the top drugs of their day.

According to Catherine Conway-Payne, who runs a herbology course at the Inverleith gardens, the city centre was a mass of dozens of lush and carefully cultivated plots where medicine men and women nurtured plants and herbs to mix into potions and poultices often using the most bizarre of ingredients.

“People had to use what they had to hand,” she explains. “So they had a great deal of working knowledge of what we today would regard as weeds. Nettles, dandelions, dock leaves, all were used for simple ailments and herbs for wound healing and internally as digestive remedies.

“They used an extraordinary range of material and media to create their medicine – from semi precious stones to frogs to one extraordinary ‘recipe’ that required mummy from Ancient Egypt.”

But offering to cure someone with eye of toad, a clove of garlic and the toenail of newt could have unpleasant side effects – as many of the 300 witches executed at Edinburgh Castle may have pointed out.

Such as Janet Stewart of Canongate, poor in monetary terms but with a rich knowledge of the benefits that could be brought from a good old fashioned herbal poultice, she was judged to be dabbling in sorcery, executed by strangling then burnt at the stake. Today the Art Nouveau-style Witches Fountain at Edinburgh Castle Esplanade has images of foxglove, arum lily and bindweed to represent the folk healers who died as “witches”.

While poor Janet may have come to a sticky end for her efforts, nearby Greyfriars Kirkyard was a much more successful venture for six Franciscan friars from the Netherlands who cultivated a medicinal herb garden which they used to treat the city’s poor.

And many a centuries-old doctor raided stocks of a large rhubarb-type plant which still grows on the south side of the railway at East Princes Street Gardens, to use for digestion. At one point the plant, Rheum Palmatum or Turkish rhubarb, was worth more than opium.

The city’s medicinal gardens, adds Catherine, would have been carefully tended – they were, after all, the only access to potential cures for ailments which by today’s standards would be minor but then could easily kill.

“A wound could very easily become infected,” she points out. “One plaster was made of mercury and frogs, which sounds very much like witchcraft, but was a topical application for wound healing.”

Edinburgh led the nation in its approach to healing, with the first physic garden in Scotland established near High School Yards in 1656 by the Incorporation of Surgeons and Barber Surgeons – a joint organisation simply because both employed the use of sharp knives. Apprentice surgeons were taught how to use medicinal plants grown there to dress wounds and calm a patient.

And there was a physic garden on the site of the public car park outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where in 1670 Dr Robert Sibbald and Dr Andrew Balfour – when not at what is now Waverley Station – would tend to plants intended for medical prescriptions.

Dr Sibbald’s research into 2000 plants in the garden appeared in the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia, a book crammed with remedies which was used by healers for over 150 years.

“There was a very holistic approach to the medicinal gardens,” adds Catherine. “After all, what they didn’t use for medicine, they ate.”

• The People, Plants and Places map is available from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Medicine firmly rooted in plants

EYE of toad and dandelion root, spiders’ webs and all manner of oddities – today a trip to the pharmacy is so much easier than heading into the garden and then concocting a herbal remedy.

However the power of plants to cure us of all manner of ailments is just as relevant today – as many as 75 per cent of modern medicines are either plant derived or inspired by plant medicine from the past.

And 80 per cent of the global population still uses herbal medicine as its primary healthcare.

Weeds are particularly useful – such as dandelions which are rich in minerals, high in potassium and vitamins A, B, C and D. They are said to be good for the bowel. In a nod to their place in our medical history, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is now cultivating a dandelion patch.

Nettles, with vitamin C and iron, are said to be a good weapon in the fight against hay fever and allergies. And plantains, broad leafed weeds with long stems with seeds, are good for stings and bites, while ribwort can be used to reduce inflammation.

The gardener’s enemy, chickweed, also has a wealth of uses in medicine, from soothing and cooling the skin to mixing with calendula and plantain as a healing salve.