Tag Archive | plants of northern Ireland

Healing herbs and plants in Old World Ireland

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Dandelions are known throughout the world’s temperate climes for their tenacity, but also for the flavor they give to our teas and salads. In my books, they’re called “sun-petals,” because the French word dandelion hadn’t yet evolved.

From the time she was 16, starting in a series of my books under a different pen name, the redheaded Caylith began to study the properties of plants. Under the guidance of her marvelous grandfather, she found that somehow the plants had an affinity for her, rather than the other way around!

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Caylith’s road lilies are similar to this white lily grass, Ornithogalum, in itheir delicate flowers, leafless stems and bulbous roots. The word “road lily”–indeed the plant itself– is my invention.

From the road lilies that give her uncommon strength, to the “sun-petal” tea and chicory that she and the other characters drink daily, all the Caylith books—from the early fantasies to the later romances— are full of plants, used for preternatural magical abilities, for food, for refreshing beverages, and of course for purposes of healing.

Notice how many of the plants in this article are in the family compositae, those with composite, “daisy-like” flowers.

As the author, I gave healing properties to plants both fictional and real. “Road lilies” are pure fiction. And yet, almost two years after making up those little beauties from  my imagination, I found that the white lily grass called Ornithogalum almost exactly fits my idea of Caylith’s beloved road lily! They resemble the extremely hardy “rain lilies” in my central Texas yard. Just like Caylith’s plants, whose leafless stems favor the harsh soils in the cracks along the old Roman roads, their bulbine roots find deep cracks and are difficult to bring up completely without using a shovel and plenty of elbow grease.

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The ubiquitous dandelion–what would mankind have done without her? This lovely weed has one of the longest taproots I’ve ever tried to extract!

I invented the name “Sun-petals” for dandelions, a word that would not have evolved for several hundred more years, for it was adapted from the French words dent de lion or “lion’s teeth.”

In Gaelic Irish, dandelion is called lus Bhríd (Brigid’s plant) or Bearnán Bríd (indented one of Brigid) where “lus” is the Irish equivalent of the English “wort,” or “plant.”[1] To this day, dandelion roots and leaves are used widely in teas, and the leaves are considered by many to be a delicacy in salads.

Rough-and-tough former soldier Gristle favors chicory, another flower from the family  compositae. Our pioneer fathers drank a coffee-like beverage made from the tuberous roots of these hardy plants. Even in my rough “pioneer” yard out here in central Texas, chicory grows wild in sunny, gravely alkaline soil in patches throughout my yard.

Chicory flowers, a kind of pale purple or lilac, nod in exquisite greeting to the coolness of early morning. But their roots are anything but exquisite. Tough and stout, they give a bitter yet rich flavor when boiled or ground and steeped, so that they make a coffee substitute when there is no Starbucks around.

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Chicory is distinctive for its lilac-colored petals and for the savory-to-bitter flavor of its roots.

One of the recently discovered ingredients in chicory is inulin, a complex of sugar that is high in fiber and that has several beneficial medicinal properties, especially for treatment of diabetes and for weight control. But Gristle drinks it for its sweet-bitter edge that he’s grown almost addicted to over the years. In fact, his companion Wynn gives him a hard time over his “herb,” which the young man claims to put hairs on his friend’s knuckles.

In Fire & Silk, the young woman Mariana tries to mend the bruised and twisted limbs of Flann, who has fallen into a deer blind. Looking around the boglands, she finds feverfew and fennel, both of which grow throughout the northern stretches of modern Co. Donegal (then Tyr Connell) where she has found herself.

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Daisy-like with feathery leaves, fennel has many beneficial properties, especially its ability to reduce both pain and fever. Attribution: Photo taken by Carsten Niehaus

The fennel, thankfully, was well past its bloom, and hundreds of seed capsules were loose. She shook the bunch onto her woolen blanket, releasing the seeds. Next, she stripped leaves from the fever weed. She poured water from her wineskin into her own metal cup and threw in as many fennel seeds as she imagined would make a strong poultice. She found Flann’s cup among his supplies and brought it to the fire, filling it, too, with water. Before the concoction became too strong, she poured part of it into the second cup. And then she added the stripped leaves. This second cup would be his wildwood tea.

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Feverfew, as its name suggests, is an anti-inflammatory that can bring a fever under control quickly.

Another interesting plant used throughout my novels–indeed throughout most of Europe  to this day–is the bark and leaves of the willow, salix. Scientists have found that the main ingredient of willow bark is salicylic acid—yes, the main ingredient in aspirin.

A white willow tea, or a poultice  made from the steeped parts of the willow, would have soothed fevers, cured headaches, and dulled toothaches . . . if the patient could tolerate the nasty flavor.

One of the healing combinations that I invent for my books comes from an old idea, the use of gruits. In beer making, as we know, hops lend the bitter yet delicious flavor that makes beer such a distinctive and desirable beverage. But in those climes where hops do not grow, ingenious beer-makers have come up with any number of substitutes for them. Such combinations are called “gruits.”

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White willow–our ancestors’ eqivalent to aspirin.

Trying to find a palliative for Owen Sweeney MacNeill, Caylith comes up with an individualized potion, or gruit, for him. She uses part of the sacred hawthorns that grew near his sacred clootie well, and other plants such as heathers that were native to his homestead at Limavady. The resulting mix really does act as almost a narcotic for the ailing Owen. It also has the astonishing side effect, as Caylith discovers, of being an aphrodisiac.

Following is a list of additional plants that could have been readily gathered in Caylith’s northern Ireland: [2]

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
Cat’s Claw – (Uncaria tomentosa)

Oregano – (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum)

Rosemary – (Rosmarinus officinalis)r:mary 80

Thyme – (Thymus vulgaris)

Yellow Dock – (Rumex crispus)

Wood Betony – (Pedicularis canadensis)

Passion Flower – (Passiflora incarnata)

Saffron – (Crocus sativus)saffron 80

Wild Lettuce – (Lactuca virosa)

Tumeric – (Curcuma longa)

Herbs that are helpful in pain treatment by gradually restoring the proper function of the body and increasing health and vitality:

Echinacea – (Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea)echinacea 370

Burdock – (Arctium lappa)

Skullcap – (Scultellaria laterifolia)

Lobelia – (Lobelia inflata)

Valerian Root – (Valeriana Officinalis)

oat 170Oats – (Avena sativa)

Herbs that are are used externally for pain relief

Peppermint – (Mentha piperita L.)

Lavender – (Lavendula officinalis)

[1] Noted in “Plants in Folklore,” part of a series by folklorist Eugene Daly in the Ireland weekly magazine Ireland’s Own, summer  2012. With special thanks to my friend Paul McDermott who sent me  this article.

[2] This list, and the photo/art of the fennel and feverfew, are taken from “The Herbal Resource,” www/herbal-supplement-resource.com

Don’t miss Erin O’Quinn’s Dawn of Ireland writing, including the MM Iron Warrior series.

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