Nature’s medicine chest


“Try nettle tea,” said the functional medicine practitioner I’ve been seeing. Er, why on earth would I want to do that, I thought? But, when I investigated a bit further, it seems that early civilisations used it for all sorts of ailments from reducing swelling caused by arthritis to relieving muscle aches and aiding kidney function.

Some of our humblest plants are chock full of medicinal properties. Take sage for example, another anti-inflammatory that’s replete with antioxidants, which may – or may not – keep the signs of ageing at bay.

Or elderflower which can clear blocked sinuses and stave off hay fever sniffles. Make the flowers into a tea by steeping for ten minutes or try this cordial recipe from herbal remedy specialist Jessie Martelhof who organises regular wild medicine walks in the parks and woods of Brighton.

Apply the leaves of ribwort plantain, also called Lord of the Ways, to bites, stings and nettle rash if you can’t find a dock leaf. Used as a Saxon cure for headaches when tied to the head with red wool (why red I wonder?), ribwort plantain can additionally help stem a wound’s bleeding as well as draw infection from older wounds if applied as a kind of poultice. The trick, apparently, is to chew the leaves first…

Treating the wounded

Sphagnum moss, known variously as peat moss or bog moss, is another highly effective wound dressing and played a valiant role in the First World War. Twice as absorptive as cotton because of its cellular structure, sphagnum moss can soak up more than 20 times its own volume of liquids like blood or pus.

During the war, demand was such that ‘moss drives’ were organised in the UK and North America and, by 1918, more than a million moss dressings a month were being dispatched to hospitals in Europe and Egypt.

Not just responsible for saving lives, peat moss and its antiseptic properties have also helped to preserve history. The Tollund Man was so well preserved when discovered in a bog in Denmark in 1950 that his finders mistook the 4th century BC corpse for a recent murder victim.

Well known to the ancient Egyptians, the curative properties of honey were used in both World Wars to treat soldiers’ wounds. Still used by some hospitals in dressings today, this amber nectar has an antiseptic effect caused when bees add the enzyme glucose-oxidase, meaning that small amounts of hydrogen peroxide are constantly being formed from the sugar.

Hydrogen peroxide? Blimey that takes me back. Back 35 years in fact when I finally wheedled permission from my mum to get my ears pierced and the after treatment du jour was to wipe the stinging peroxide over the newly punctured holes at least twice a day. Ah good times!

Disclaimer: do consult with your doctor, or other qualified healthcare professional, before raiding nature’s medicine chest!

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