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Wild Herbs in Britain

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Contents

Introduction
Buttercup
Comfrey
Cuckoo flower
Datura
Deadnettle
Evening primrose
Eyebright
Feverfew
Foxglove
Ground ivy
Hedge mustard
Herb bennet
Herb robert
Hop
Melilot
Mullein
Royal fern
St. John's Wort
Tansy
Violet
Yarrow
Yellow horned poppy
Acknowledgements/Bibliography
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Introduction

For centuries, most herbalists have obtained most of their supplies from cultivated crops, either in their own gardens (e.g. especially mediæval monks) or imported from crops grown in warmer climes. However, in the absence of any cultivated crops, many herbs can be found growing wild, even in modern England (though many that were available in this way in mediæval times are now very rare or extinct). I am attempting here to give a few details of some of those used for medicinal purposes that I have found growing wild. The photos are my own, and almost all are of wild plants (including some weeds in my garden!). However, please note that you should not use any herbs for medicinal purposes based solely on what is written on this page - to do so could endanger your health; I am reporting what has at times been advocated by various people, and NOT making recommendations.

At present this page is in the early stages of preparation. I expect to add many more entries, and more details and photos of some of those already here, over the next few months. One result of this will undoubtedly be to make this page excessively large. When I feel this has happened (it's already marginal) I shall split it, probably on the basis of plant families, putting each of the major families on a separate page.

Please note that in all cases a larger version of the photos can be seen by clicking on the miniature shown on this page, then use the "Back" button of your browser to return to this page.

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Buttercup

Creeping buttercup Creeping buttercup Creeping buttercup showing sepals Meadow buttercups Meadow buttercup showing leaves Bulbous buttercup showing sepals Celery-leaved buttercup Celery-leaved buttercup There are many species of buttercup in Britain, of which just a few are shown here. Three of these are fairly common: the creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is a common weed of roadsides, gardens and lawns. It propagates itself both by seeds and by runners which root at intervals along the surface to create new plants. It is usually shorter growing than the other species. The first photo here shows a patch of creeping buttercups in roadside grass, the second a flower growing in my lawn, while the third gives a side view of a picked flower, showing how the sepals clasp the petals quite tightly, as do most species of buttercup. The meadow buttercup (Ranunuculus acris), in contrast, is probably the tallest; it was once the commonest species, growing abundantly in meadows and hayfields before the advent of agricultural herbicides. It is distinguished by holding its petals in a somewhat deeper cup than most other buttercups, by its much more deeply and narrowly divided leaves (especially those on the upper part of the stem) and by its stiff, branched stems. The example in the fourth pictue shows a group growing in long grass at a roadside near Peter's Green, Hertfordshire, while the next shows detail of the leaves and the curious spiky round fruit as well as two flowers. The third common species, the bulbous buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus), has leaves similar to those of the creeping buttercup, but it grows taller, with no creeping stems. It is particularly distinguished by being the earliest buttercup to flower (from mid-May, compared with early June for the others), and by the fact that its sepals are folded right back against the stem, a feature shown by no other buttercup species (and seen in the sixth picture). If it is dug out, it is also found to grow from a small bulb like a miniature daffodil. It is also found in meadows and on roadsides. The last species illustrated here is the much scarcer celery-leaved buttercup (Ranunuculus sceleratus). It has much smaller flowers than the commoner species, with petals no longer than the sepals, and has shiny leaves divided into three long narrow lobes. It grows in or near stagnant or slow moving water. The plant shown here (seventh and eigth pictures) was growing in a marshy patch beside the River Lea at Stanborough, Hertfordshire.

Culpeper treats all species of buttercup (which he calls by the old name of "crowfoot") as being equivalent for herbal purposes. He warns against taking it internally, because the acrid sap of all species is most unpleasant and somewhat harmful ("it blistereth the tongue"), but recommends its use as an ointment made from the petals or from the bruised leaves mixed with a little mustard for use on blisters. He also recounts "I saw it once applied to a pestilential rising that was fallen down, and it saved life even beyond hope; it is worth keeping an ointment and plaister of it if it were but for that." In contrast, my other sources make no mention of the buttercup as a herb. Incidentally, I found in the medicine cabinet at home a bottle labelled "Buttercup Syrup", but the list of ingredients did not include any species of buttercup, nor of any closely related plant!

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Comfrey

Common comfrey Common comfrey The common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) (there are other forms much less frequently found) is to be found, like so many of those listed here, growing on roadside verges, usually along quieter lanes rather than motorways and main roads, usually where it is in partial shade from a hedge or wood. The first of these photos was taken at a woodland edge roadside between the Hertfordshire villages of Tea Green and Cockernhoe, near Luton, and the second in the partial shelter of a hedge at a road junction between Ley Green and Kings Walden, Hertfordshire. Click on the thumbnails to see larger images.

The leaves are large and soft, resembling in size and shape those of a soft, non-glossy dock. The flowers, which appear through most of the summer, are most commonly lilac, sometimes creamy white, and droop from one side of a stem which is usually one to one and a half feet (30-45 cm) tall. The biggest leaves and the flower stem all arise from a central rosette at ground level. The much less common soft comfrey (Symphytum orientale) (white flowers) has a much longer flowering season, but I don't know anything about its medicinal properties, if any; it grows among the gravestones at Hitchin Parish Church, Hertfordshire and also those of St. John's Church, Leytonstone, and appears to be evergreen.

Used as a poultice or in an ointment, the leaves of common comfrey sooth and help to heal cuts and bruises, and its use as a poultice on more serious injuries led to its colloquial name of "knitbone". An ointment can be made from the leaves which is used to speed the healing of cuts and bruises. If the leaves, fresh or dried, are made into a tisane, this when drunk is remarkably speedy and effective in clearing even severe cases of catarrh, but this is now discouraged because the alkaloids it contains are reported to have serious side effects on some people.

Incidentally, the leaves also make a very strong manure, especially rich in potash, whether buried green or held in a small tank to rot to produce a powerful liquid manure (and an equally powerful smell!).

The Henry Doubleday Research Association was founded to carry out research on the development of comfrey varieties and their uses. It used to sell ointment and tea as well as plants, but since the alkaloid problem came to light only sells plants for garden use, and concentrates most of its efforts on other aspects of organic gardening and farming.

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Cuckoo flower

Cuckoo flower or Lady's smock The cuckoo flower or lady's smock Cardamine pratensis is a small evergreen perennial growing in damp places such as water meadows. It has a rosette of basal leaves, each of which consists of a double row of widely separated round leaflets. In spring a central stem rises to about a foot or a little more (about 35 cm) with a few quite different leaves up it - they also have a series of leaflets, but these are very long and narrow. The four-petalled flowers are usually pale lilac but occasionally white and appear from April to June.

Culpeper compares it with watercress, and claims "they are excellent for scurvy; they provoke urine, and break stone, and excellently warm a cold and weak stomach, restoring lost appetite, and help digestion".

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Datura

This is a plant which occurs in quite different wild and garden forms. The garden plant, sometimes called Brugmansia, is a tender perennial with huge pendant flowers of various colours, from which it gets the name Angel's Trumpet. The wild plant (Datura stramonium) is a scarce annual, usually growing only a foot or so 30 cm) high in Britain but taller in warmer climates (I found a specimen nearly three feet (90 cm) tall and two across in south Brittany compared with a six inch (15 cm) one at the edge of a Luton car park) but still bearing trumpet flowers of smaller but still quite impressive size, in this case white. From the form of its fruit, it gets its common name of thorn apple. The leaves are bright green, pointed oval in shape but with very jagged edges. It is another weed of bare and cultivated ground, but flowers relatively late, from July onwards.

All parts of the plant are highly poisonous, and must be used with great care, if at all. It has powerful hallucinogenic as well as (limited) medicinal properties! The smoke from burning the plant has been used to relieve asthma (a very dangerous practice), and the leaves have been recommended (by Gerard) to make a salve for burns and scalds.

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Deadnettle

Red deadnettle White deadnettle + stinging nettles White deadnettle + stinging nettles There are several deadnettles to be found in Britain, but the red and white deadnettles are by far the most common. The red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), (first picture), is the smallest of the group, and when it grows more than 6-8 inches high it usually tends to sprawl unless growing among taller vegetation. It is often purplish overall, and is an annual weed of cultivation. The white deadnettle (Lamium album) is larger and paler, with much larger white flowers; when not in flower it can be confused with the stinging nettle, although on close examination its leaves are shorter, less deeply toothed and usually slightly paler. The second picture shows it growing alongside stinging nettles, showing the differences quite clearly. Parts of some stinging nettle leaves can also be seen in the third, close-up, picture. The white deadnettle is a creeping perennial, common at roadsides, alongside hedges and on waste ground.

Opinions clearly differ as to the medicinal qualities of these plants. Some sources don't mention them at all. One (Loewenfeld and Back, see Acknowledgements/Bibliography below) mentions only the white, and then only to say it has no medicinal qualities. Culpeper, however, calling them red and white archangel, describes numerous uses for them and treats them and the yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon) as being almost identical for this purpose.

Among the uses described by Culpeper for all three plants are treatment of stopping and hardness of the spleen, staunching bleeding of the mouth and nose, treatment of quartan agues, dissolving tumours and the king's evil, easing the pain of gout, sciatica and other pains of the joints and sinews, drawing out splinters and healing green wounds and old ulcers. He also says it makes the heart merry, drives away melancholy and quickens the spirits!

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Evening primrose

Common evening primrose One of our most spectacular wild flowers, the oil extracted from its fruit is currently a fashionable treatment for a wide variety of problems for which it is claimed to be effective. Its only resemblance to a primrose is the colour of the flowers, but these are distributed up a tall stem (up to about four feet high in most cases, though in summer 2002 I found a six inch specimen flowering while growing in the crack between two kerbstones at the edge of the road near my home!). The four-petalled flowers are more like a buttercup in shape, but much larger. There are in fact four species of evening primrose to be found wild in Britain, although not all are natives, with flowers varying in size from about an inch in diameter for the small-flowered evening primrose (Oenothera parviflora) to as much as four inches for the large-flowered evening primrose (Oenothera erythrosepala). The common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), shown here, has flowers generally from two to two and a half inches in diameter. In all cases the plant is a hairy biennial with long pointed leaves. The specimen shown here was growing on waste ground in the centre of Luton, among some creeping thistles, one of which can be seen in flower behind it.

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Eyebright

Eyebright Eyebright This semi-parasitic annual, Euphrasia officinalis, usually grows in short, dryish grassland, and depends on the roots of other plants, such as grass, for some nourishment. It is usually very short, with deeply toothed, roughly oval, leaves in pairs along the many branched, wiry stems. The tiny flowers are two-lipped, with the lower lip divided into three lobes; the flowers are mostly white, usually with a yellow centre and often with purple veins. It is a member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae). The specimen in these photos was in south Devon.

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Feverfew

Double-flowered feverfew Double-flowered feverfew This aromatic member of the daisy family (Tanacetum parthernium) resembles a miniature chysanthemum in both leaf and flower (but the leaves are more richly coloured). It occurs in both single and double-flowered forms, and grows anything from six inches to three feet three inches (15-100 cm) in height. The single flowers are somewhat like those of the common daisy in both colour and shape (but a little larger at an inch [2.5 cm] across), but the petals are proportionately shorter, broader and less pointed, and lack the pink tips of the common weed. The double flowers lack the yellow centre, which is replaced, as in most "double" flowers, by smaller petals of the same colour as the outer ones. Unlike some plants , the double flowers are fully fertile and come true (i.e. seed from a double-flowered plant will produce double-flowered plants). Like the chrysanthemum, the stems become woody with age, but unlike the larger garden flower, it self-seeds prodigiously and flowers throughout the summer. The foliage has a distinctive smell when handled. These two photos show a double-flowered form growing as a garden weed.

I have found it growing as a garden weed, in cracks in walls and on waste ground - it appears to be a weed of disturbed ground and open spots where it does not come up against much competition from stronger growing plants (although it seems to be very happy in partial shade, but whereas most plants of this inclination are fast growing annuals, this seems from my observations to be a short-lived perennial, but shares with them the crucial ability to produce seed while very young.

Taken as tea or (more usually) a few leaves in a sandwich to relieve migraine.

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Foxglove

Foxglove Foxglove flower close-up This is a well-known garden, woodland and (shady) roadside flower (Digitalis purpurea) with tall spires of purple (or occasionally white) flowers. When young, before development of the flower spike, the leaves are very similar to comfrey, but somewhat smaller. It is a biennial and grows freely in suitable (preferably acid, damp and partially shaded) conditions among other plants.

This is another plant which is highly poisonous except in minute quantities, when it is invaluable in stimulating the heart. For use only by experts!

 

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Ground ivy

Ground ivy Ground ivy This little plant is very common in deciduous woods, especially near the edges and in open glades, on hedge banks and is occasionally found in sparse grassland and bare ground. Under hedges and at woodland edges it sometimes carpets the ground. It is a creeping perennial with long runners, with softly hairy kidney-shaped leaves often tinged purplish. It flowers from April to June and sometimes longer.

It has been known as a healing herb for many centuries, and was so well thought-of that colonists took it to America, where it is apparently known as Creeping Charlie. Until the 15th century (when hops were permitted) it was also used in brewing to clear and flavour beer.

A tea made from the leaves is recommended for coughs, tuberculosis, kidney complaints and as a digestive tonic. Mixed with other herbal flowers (usually yarrow and/or chamomile) it is used as a poultice on abscesses, boils, ulcers and rashes. The juice can be sniffed up the nose to clear congestion and ease headaches. It is also used in China to relieve fevers and all pains, including earache and toothache. The juice of the leaves was used to cure jaundice and eczema, and a lotion made from the leaves was used to relieve sore and inflamed eyes. It was also one of several herbs used to treat wounds of all kinds.

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Hedge mustard

Hedge mustard Hedge mustard Sisymbrium officinale is a medium tall, stiff annual, usually roughly hairy, which is very common in waste places and roadsides. The leaves are deeply lobed, with pointed ends to the lobes. It is much branched, sometimes very spreading but with upright flower spikes on each branch, topped by tine (3mm) four-petalled yellow flowers. It flowers throughout the summer, and had long thin seedpods below the open flowers, pressed tightly to the stem.

Culpeper claims the juice or a strong decoction "is good to stop effusion of blood in a safe and happy manner". He also recommends the seed for "drying and binding" and helping with incontinance, and to resist poisonous bites and stings.

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Herb bennet

Herb bennet Herb bennet This plant, also known as wood avens (Geum urbanum) grows in woodland, hedges and other sheltered spots, (especially common in broad-leaved woodlands) and flowers all summer from May onwards.

Culpeper says it is good for diseases of the chest, for pains and stitches in the side, that it dissolves inward congealed blood from bruises and spitting of blood, if the roots are boiled in wine and drunk. He also recommends steeping the spring root in wine and drinking it before breakfast every morning to comfort the heart and to preserve against plague, as well as helping the digestion and opening obstructions of the liver and spleen. He describes it as very safe, with no need to limit one's intake, and says it should be kept in every house. This enthusiasm contrasts oddly with other writers I have consulted, who don't even give it a mention!

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Herb robert

Herb Robert This pretty little member of the geranium family (Geranium robertianum) is common at woodland edges and shaded roadsides. It generally grows to about a foot (30 cm) high, and its distinctive deep red, hairy, stems contrast sharply with the bright green finely divided hairless leaves. It is named after Robert of Moleme, an 11th century healer.

It was used from the Middle Ages onwards to staunch bleeding and to heal wounds, and also as a poultice on painful joints. Culpeper also recommends it for "the stone" and to cure old ulcers "in the privities and other parts".

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Hop

Hop flowersWild hop growing in hedge
A vigorous climbing plant (Humulus lupulus) which dies back to the ground each winter. I have seen one beside the River Ouse at Bedford reach towards the top of a large tree, but also know of an example in Hertfordshire (see photos above) where it swamps a low-growing, well clipped roadside hawthorn hedge each summer. The flowers are unusual, resembling small green cones dangling in groups from the flower stems.

The use of hops in flavouring beer is well-known, but a sleep inducing tisane can also be made by pouring boiling water on the flower heads.

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Melilot

There are three species of melilot found wild in Britain, but by far the commonest is the ribbed melilot (Melilotus officinalis). This is a fairly common roadside weed, usually growing to about two or two and a half feet tall, with long upright spikes of dull yellow flowers, the shape of which reveal its membership of the pea/clover family. I have occasionally found a specimen of white melilot (Melilotus alba) in overgrown, usually rather shaded land near a hedge; it is somewhat taller, with, obviously, white flowers, but is otherwise rather similar. I have yet to find the yellow-flowered tall melilot (Melilotus altissima), but it is not easy to distinguish from the common sort without a close examination of the proportions of the parts of the flower or the colour of the ripe seed pods (black and downy, compared with brown and hairless in the common species). In all three species the leaves are trefoil, the upper ones sparsely distributed up the stem, usually at the junction of branches.

A honey or almond-flavoured tea can be made from the leaves.

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Mullein

Great mullein There are several species of mullein which occur as wild plants in Britain, all of them normally biennials and all, in their second year, producing a stately spike of flowers. By far the commonest, however, and the one normally referred to by herbalists, is the common or great mullein (Verbascum thapsus). The yellow flowers are almost flat and almost stemless. The leaves and main stem are thickly coated with white woolly down, from which it gets the alternative name flannel weed. The specimens shown in this photo were about seven feet (210 cm) tall. It is usually found in dry grassy or bare places, and produces prodigious quantities of tiny seeds in late summer.

As well as being used to relieve varicose veins, mullein has many other uses. An infusion of flowers (fresh or dried) is used for coughs, cramp, gout and bronchitis, while the same as a lotion can bring relief to inflamed eyes, wounds, skin rashes and burns. A poultice of leaves is said to help with neuralgia and toothache, while the root boiled in a little wine is a cure for diarrhoea.

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Royal fern

Royal fern Osmunda regalis, one of the tallest European ferns, growing to as much as 10 feet (300 cm) tall, this is most commonly found in the acid bogs of west Ireland and south-west Scotland, but it also occurs locally in many parts of England and Wales. It is unusual among ferns in that the central fertile fronds are so covered with golden brown spore cases in summer that it appears from a distance to be in flower. The plant shown here, however, is not wild but was deliberately planted in my garden (for purely decorative purposes).

Culpeper, who called it osmond royal or water-fern, recommended it for "bruises, and bones broken, or out of joint, and giveth much ease to the colic and splenetic diseases; as also for ruptures or burstings", either used by drinking a concoction or by making it into an ointment by boiling in oil for external application.

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St. John's Wort

St. John's wort St. John's wort Numerous species of this genus (Hypericum) grow wild in Britain, and others, mostly large-flowered shrubby forms, are commonly grown as ornamental garden plants. The species normally used as a medicinal herb, however, is by far the commonest wild species, the Perforate St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum).

The plant is another one found on roadside verges, usually growing through grass. It grows to about two feet (60 cm) in height and has a bunch of open, five-petalled bright yellow flowers, with long stamens, at the top of each stem. The leaves are simple and fairly small, growing in pairs from the stem. The name "perforate" refers to the leaves; if one is picked and held up to the light it can be seen to have numerous tiny holes over its surface. The specimen shown here (both images are scanned from the same original) was growing in a small wild spot below a remnant of old hedge at a roadside in Luton.

It is a well-known (and recently fashionable) remedy for acute depression, but ladies should note that it tends to substantially reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptives.

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Tansy

Tansy flowers Tansy This is a tall-growing member of the daisy family (Tanacetum vulgare) with bright yellow button-like small flowers in profusion at the top of the stems and a unique pungent scent said to deter flies. It is an evergreen perennial whose leaves have a hot, peppery taste. The first image shows a close-up of one flower head. In the second the flowers are a little out of focus, but some of the leaves (to the left and right of the picture, not those in the centre) are reasonably clear. Photos courtesy of Dave Williams

Tea is brewed from the flowers and leaves, but it is thought by some modern medical authorities to be harmful if taken in large doses or over too long a period. It has a bitter taste, and is claimed to be helpful in cases of failing appetite, nausea, jaundice, heart problems and menstrual troubles. It is also used warm to bathe the affected parts to relieve toothache and inflammations and swellings of the eyes and ears.

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Violet

White-flowered sweet violet The sweet violet (Viola odorata) is a low, creeping perennial with heart-shaped dark green leaves and sweetly scented flowers, found in deciduous woods and at the bottom of hedges. The flowers can be either violet-blue or white, or, much more rarely, lilac, pink or yellow. It is distinguished from the commoner dog violet (Viola canina) not only by the latter's lack of scent but also by the fact that the sepals are sharply pointed in the dog violet but blunt in the sweet. In addition, the dog violet occurs only in the violet-blue colour, and then, unlike the similarly coloured sweet violet, the spur at the back of the flower is very pale (lilac) in colour. These white flowered sweet violets were in a small wood at Stanborough, Hertfordshire.

For internal use the sweet violet can be made into either a tea or, with sugar, a syrup. Either is said to help with whooping cough in children and with cough and TB in adults, as well as to sooth nerves, and relieve insomnia and headaches - whether any of these effects are related to its mild laxative effect I do not know. Externally an infusion can be used as an eyebath or mouthwash, and traditionally a compress of fresh crushed leaves reduces swellings and relieves sore throats, arthritis and gout. Culpeper lists many of these benefits and adds a few others, such as mixing the syrup with fried yolk of egg to cure piles (by external application) and to make a cooling drink by mixing with either a few drops of lemon juice (which seems very reasonable) or of oil of vitriol (which does not!).

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Yarrow

Yarrow Yarrow This common feathery-leaved weed of roadsides, waste ground, gardens and lawns looks as if it is a member of the umbellifer (carrot) family, but is in fact one of the usually very different-looking daisy family (Compositae), as can be seen from close examination of the individual tiny flowers. The second part of the Latin name Achillea millefolium refers to its finely divided dark green leaves, as does its alternate English name of milfoil. The first part of the Latin name comes from the legend that it was used by Achilles on the advice of the Centaur to staunch wounds. The flowers are most commonly white, but pink is not unusual. It is a perennial, spreading by creeping rhizomes. Depending on growing conditions, it can be anything from an inch or so (2 cm) to over two feet (60 cm) tall. The plant in these two images (both scanned from the same photo) was growing close to the St. John's wort pictured above.

The number of illnesses and symptoms for which it is claimed to be beneficial seems almost endless, including not only the staunching of wounds and nosebleeds, but also the relief of gout, rheumatism, toothache, intestinal problems of all kinds, kidney, liver and gall bladder troubles, heart and circulation problems, gynaecological problems of all kinds, regulation of menstrual periods, helping recovery from fevers and colds, early treatment of diabetes and even a substitute for quinine. It is also said to have a relaxing effect in bath water and is recommended as a cleansing lotion for greasy skin!

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Yellow horned poppy

Yellow horned poppy Yellow horned poppy This quite spectacular flower, Glaucium flavum, is most frequently found above the high water mark on beaches, such as the shingle banks along the north Norfolk coast and on sand dunes. The yellow flowers at three to four inches (10 cm) across are much bigger than those of the common red poppy, and its seed pods are narrow and enormously long (up to a foot). Several such pods can be seen in each of these photos, which were taken in south Devon (the daisy-like flower also visible is sea mayweed, which as far as I know has no herbal uses). Like many plants found on beaches, the leaves and stems are glaucous and succulent and feel somewhat rubbery to the touch.

Culpeper (writing in 1652) recommends it to open obstructions of the spleen and liver, to cure jaundice and scurvy, externally for sore eyes and various other unlikely ailments. He also reports that some consider it an antidote to plague!

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Acknowledgements/Bibliography

I use two books to identify wild flowers:
Richard Fitter, Alastair Fitter and Marjorie Blaney: The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe, 4th edition, published by Collins 1985, ISBN 0 00 219715 4.
A.R. Clapham, T.G. Tutin and E.F. Warburg Excursion Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition, published by Cambridge University Press 1985, ISBN 0 521 23290 2.

The following books have been useful sources of information on medicinal uses of herbs, past and present, their preparation from plants and their methods of application:
Nicholas Culpeper: Complete Herbal and English Physician, republished 1826 by J. Gleave and Son.
Claire Loewenfeld and Philippa Back: The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices, 2nd edition, published 1976 by Book Club Associates.
Dulcie Lewis: The A-Z of Traditional Cures and Remedies, published 2002 by Countryside Books, ISBN 1 85303 766 0.
Anne Pratt: The Flowering Plants, Grasses, Sedges and Ferns of Great Britain, published by Frederick Warne and Co. (no date stated, but appears to be pre-1939).

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