Backyard Medicine For All: A Guide to Home-Grown Herbal Remedies

Backyard Medicine For All: A Guide to Home-Grown Herbal Remedies

by Julie Bruton-Seal, Matthew Seal


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There is a wealth of plants growing abundantly all over roadsides, cities, and in your own backyard; this coincides perfectly with alternative medicine and natural healing reaching into every facet of our lives. These plants have numerous medicinal uses that people have largely forgotten. Once valued and widely used, they’ve fallen out of fashion over time as they were bypassed by commercial medicine.

A companion to the team’s previous book, Backyard Medicine for All will focus largely on medicinal plants that grow by roads or paths in the countryside or in the city. These nearby but often overlooked ecosystems are significant wild plant communities! This new book is packed with practical information on how to use fifty forgotten plants to cure all sorts of common ailments.

Each chapter has an introductory section that puts the plant(s) into historical and botanical context, and its forgotten or traditional medicinal uses, as well as featuring current medicinal applications. Make your own herbal medicines to cure complaints from hayfever to headaches to insomnia. Clear, easy instructions and stunning photographs will guide you to leave the armchair and go out to utilize backyard medicine yourself!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510725942
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 01/02/2018
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 618,951
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Julie Bruton-Seal is a practicing medical herbalist and natural healer. She is a council member of the Association of Master Herbalists and editor of its quarterly magazine, Nature’s Path. Matthew Seal is a writer and editor. They reside in Ashwellthorpe, Norfolk.

Read an Excerpt


AlexandersSmyrnium olusatrum

Alexanders has made the switch from wild-gathered plant to cultivated and back to wild, and was both food and medicine in classical and medieval times. It lost out to celery as a commercial salad crop from the 16th century, but is now making a comeback as a winter foraged food and has intriguing possibilities in colon cancer research.

Apiaceae (Umbelliferaceae) Carrot family

Description: Tall biennial (to 1.5m or 5ft), with hairless, scented stems; leaves dark green, glossy, three-lobed; flowers yellow-white; seeds dark black ovals. Dies back in summer.

Habitat: Near the sea, by cliff and roadsides, hedgerows, forming colonies; spreading inland slowly.

Distribution: Mediterranean origin, naturalised throughout Western and Central Europe; east and southern coasts of Britain and Ireland, southern England.

Related species: Many Apiaceae are medicinal, including angelica, celery, dill, fennel and lovage. Be careful of your identification as there are several poisonous species in this family.

Parts used: All parts, including the seeds, available from autumn to spring; produces early foliage in winter.

Geoffrey Grigson (1958) says alexanders is 'happiest and most frequent by the sea'. He's right, and sturdy stands of this vigorous and stately naturalised umbellifer abound by eastern and southern coasts of Britain and Ireland.

It also seems to be pressing inland in our part of East Anglia, thriving by roadsides at least 55km (35 miles) from the Norfolk coast, perhaps responding favourably to regular winter salting of the roads.

We welcome its advance, and Julie has fond memories of picking winter alexander shoots for salad on the school run to Wroxham.

The plant's origin and names are clearly Mediterranean. Archaeological finds suggest it was being cultivated in the eastern Mediterranean in the Iron Age (c.1300–700 BC). Its roots and shoots had become a popular, if pungent, potherb and vegetable by the time of the reign of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC.

The English name alexanders could be for the emperor, or indeed for the port in Egypt that he founded and which bore his name. The plant's Greek name hipposelinon means 'horse parsley or celery', which was still being used by John Parkinson in the early 17th century. In this context horse means large, according to William Salmon's herbal of 1710.

Columella, the Roman agricultural writer (AD 4–70), knew alexanders as 'myrrh of Achaea', the then current Latin name for Greece. The myrrh reference has followed the plant in its generic name Smyrnium. Some people do find the taste and scent to be myrrh-like, though others get more lovage in it; an old name is black lovage.

Alexanders had an early shift from wild-gathering to cultivation, and from Roman times to the 16th century or so it was more known as a food than a medicine. Its species name olusatrum derives from olus for potherb and atrum for black, the colour of the large seeds, which were ground as a condiment.

As both a food and medicine alexanders became a widely used monastic plant in medieval times. Many scattered inland sightings of it in Britain can be related to sites of former monastic houses. By the dissolution in the 1530s and 1540s, wild celery was being cultivated and superseded alexanders and lovage in popularity.

Currently alexanders is becoming popular again with foragers, for its fresh greens in winter and spicy seeds. We like it as a condiment to use as pepper. We actually don't find it 'peppery' but more pungent, sour, oily and nutty.

Use alexanders for ...

Alexanders was classified in classic Galenic terms as 'hot and dry in the third degree', and its actions were accordingly forceful. It was found to work strongly on the urinary and digestive systems, especially the seeds.

Parkinson (1629) states that The seede is more used physically than the roote, or any other parte. Salmon (1710) writes that alexanders effectually provokes Urine, helps the Strangury, and prevails against Gravel and Tartarous Matter in Reins and Bladder.

In modern terms, Salmon was saying that alexanders was a diuretic, clearing obstructions in the urinary system, including stones in the kidneys and bladder.

Dioscorides, in the 1st century AD, knew alexanders as an emmenagogue, a herb that promoted menstruation. Salmon noted that the plant 'powerfully provokes the Terms'; it also 'expels the Birth', ie afterbirth. That is, it is a powerful uterine tonic, to be treated with caution in pregnancy.

The Monks were good Chemists, & invented many good Receipts: which they imparted to their Penitents: & so are handed downe to their great-grandchildren, a great many varieties.

– Aubrey, c.1660s

Salmon adds that a cataplasm of the bruised leaves, applied hot to the afflicted part, will dry up old sores and foetid ulcers, and either discusses [breaks up] or maturates Scrophulous [tubercular] Tumors.

Alexanders was included in the first London Pharmacopoeia (1618), meaning it was an 'official' herb of the apothecaries. But by the time Salmon prepared his herbal nearly a century later it had been dropped. It was sliding out of use in both medicine and cookery, though there are records of alexanders root being sold to the public in Covent Garden market later in the 18th century.

Of course it does not follow that because alexanders has gone out of fashion it is no longer useful as food and a wayside medicine. The virtues the old herbalists championed remain valid, even if less used these days, and furthermore clinical experimentation is opening up some new possibilities.

[The expressed juice mixed with port or wine] ... is a Specifick against Stone and Gravel, eases the Strangury and brings away Urine or Matter obstructing the Urinary passages, when almost all other things fail.

– Salmon (1710)

Modern research

One area of recent interest is alexanders essential oil. Italian researchers found (2014) that the oil from the flowers induces apoptosis, or cell death, in human colon carcinoma cells. The oil has high quantities of isofuranodiene, a known anti-cancer agent.

Another intriguing finding (2012) is that this oil is strongly effective against candida, a fungal infection.

There is also a suggestion (2008) that alexanders has a comparable biomedical action to zedoary (Curcuma wenyujin), a type of Chinese ginger and source of a traditional remedy called Ezhu.

Ezhu is prescribed in China as an essential oil for liver, gastric, lung and cervical cancer, and its active principle, furanodiene, is the same. Perhaps alexanders could be a Western Ezhu in waiting?

Its certain aromatic or pungent flavour ... would be too strong for modern tastes.

– Pratt (1866)

... although it be a little bitter, yet it is both wholsome, and pleasing to a great many, by reason of the aromaticall or spicie taste, warming and comforting the stomack, and helping it digest the many waterish and flegmaticke meates [that] are in those times [winter and spring] much eaten.

– Parkinson (1629)

Root tisane

• sluggish digestion

• gas and griping pains

• urinary gravel

• urinary infections

Alexanders black butter sauce

• stimulates digestion

• urinary gravel


Avoid alexanders seed during pregnancy.


Ash Fraxinus excelsior

Ash has been a common British tree since Neolithic times, known as both a highly adaptable wood with a huge range of uses and as a folk medicine. It is currently in the news because it is endangered by ash dieback, a fungal disease.

Oleaceae Olive family

Description: Grows to 30m (100ft) tall, erect, deciduous; grey bark, knobbly brown and yellow flowers, large black conical buds, bright green pinnate leaves with 7–13 oval leaflets.

Habitat: Widespread, though prefers lowland and limestone; most abundant in eastern/southern Britain.

Distribution: Native to Northern Europe, Central and East Asia; sometimes forms woods, but also prominent in mixed woods, copses and hedgerows. Found in eastern Canada and north-eastern US.

Related species: F. americana (white ash); F. angustifolia (narrow-leaved ash); F. chinensis ssp. rhynchophylla (Chinese ash); F. ornus (manna ash).

Parts used: Bark, leaves, buds, fruit and seeds [keys], sap.

Britain recognised officially in 2012 that its 126 million or so Fraxinus excelsior (European ash) trees were under attack by ash dieback, an almost incurable fungal condition arriving in ash trees imported from mainland Europe. The dieback manifests in the tree crowns and leaf mass, and affects saplings more readily than mature trees. Estimates in late 2015 put up to 90% of British ash trees at serious risk.

Identified first as Chalara fraxinea, ash dieback has been subject to intensive research, which has moved its name on twice – it is now known as Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. The early genome research into the fungus was carried out in the wood at the back of our house in Norfolk – and our village has the unintentionally ironic name of Ashwellthorpe.

Another threat to ash trees is the emerald ash borer, a small destructive beetle endemic to North America and now rampaging through Russia, though not found yet in the UK. It destroys a full-grown ash in three years, while Hymenoscyphus might take five or ten.

In cash terms, estimates say ash wood adds £100 millionannually to Britain's economy; while ecologists remind us that ash provides a home for some 45 living species.

Even ash's glorious past has been questioned. It has long been identified as the Norse Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, with its roots in the lower world and its leaves in the heavens. But some scholars believe there has been a mistranslation, because Saga sources insist the tree is evergreen – it may be yew.

Wild-Ash is a Plant of the very same Nature with Sena [senna], but of greater Virtue. Its Leaves taken in the same Quantity [three Drams in a half pint of River Water] purge full as well, and do not gripe as Sena does.

– Wesley (1747)

Ash is one of the greatest gifts with which nature has endowed man in the temperate regions of the planet over the course of human history.

– Penn (2015)

The greatest threat to the world's trees and forests is globalisation of plant diseases: the casual way in which plants and soil are shipped and flown around the globe in commercial quantities, inevitably bringing with them diseases to which the plants in their destination have no resistance.

– Rackham (2014)

Use ash for ...

But herbal accounts offer some much-needed narrative relief. Old herbals called ash bark a dry bitter tonic and astringent, with anti-inflammatory and febrifuge properties. In practice this meant an ash bark decoction or tincture was drunk to clear the liver and spleen, bring down malarial fevers or ague, and also externally treat arthritis and gout.

Ash bark was often used for fevers before South American tree barks like cinchona and quinine were imported. A French herbalist calls ash a classic family remedy for intermittent fevers as a decoction or a powder with honey.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) ash bark is called Qin Pin, with properties of clearing heat, eliminating toxins and drying internal dampness. It is used for treating diarrhoea and dysentery, and leucorrhoea.

Ash leaves are known as diuretic and laxative, in addition to having the properties of the bark. They were used in teas for treating gravel and small stones in the kidney, as a purgative (often combined with senna pods), and for reducing the pain of gout and water retention (dropsy). An old name for ash was gout tree.

The leaves have an old reputation as a slimming aid. William Langham wrote in 1583: To become leane, drinke the iuice of Ash leaues now and then with wine. Ash leaves are still included in some modern slimming formulas.

Ash buds have also been used for their analgesic (pain-killing) properties in arthritis and as an anti-inflammatory for relieving synovial and joint pain. The practitioners of gemmotherapy (who use spring-time buds and fresh shoots) support these uses.

Ash fruit and seeds (known as keys) are sometimes pickled for eating, with a caper-like taste when preserved in salt and vinegar. The keys have an ancient reputation for relieving flatulence, and as an aphrodisiac, at least in Morocco (using F. oxyphylla).

In French herbal tradition ash keys are a remarkable diuretic in cases of dropsy (Palaiseul), used in tea or powder form with honey.

The bark and leaf sap of some ash varieties is sweet, and known as manna. The foremost of these is F. ornus, the manna ash. Manna was once used as a children's laxative.

Ash is a highly versatile wood: it made arrows, wheels, tools, handles, frames and sporting accessories such as baseball bats, snooker cues and hurley sticks ('the clash of the ash' in Ireland is two hurley sticks colliding).

The writer Robert Penn (2015) tested this versatility in a novel way. He felled a large ash and commissioned craftsmen to make useful objects out of it. A year's work yielded 126 of these, with even the sawdust useful as a fuel. Ash makes excellent firewood, even when freshly cut.

Modern research

Spanish research using ash keys showed diabetes-tackling potential by lowering blood sugar levels; a wound-healing effect was demonstrated in F. angustifolia extracts (2015); liver fibrosis from carbon tetrachloride was reduced by F. rhynchophylla ethanol extracts (2010); F. excelsior seed had a hypoglycaemic effect in reducing blood sugars (2004).

A European Medicines Authority monograph on F. excelsior (2011) confined itself to confirming use of ash as a diuretic and in pain relief.

What is certain is that ash is a medicinal boon to countrydwellers.

– Palaiseul (1973)

Its fever-reducing qualities recommend it for all cases of infection, whether by virus or by bacteria. It brings down the temperature dramatically, and my father always used to refer to the ash tree as the 'quinine of Europe'.

– Mességué (1979)

Ash buds in spring

Ash bud extract

• pain

• arthritis

• joint pain

Ash leaf tea

• constipation

• urinary gravel

• gout

• dropsy

• to lose weight

• fevers

• soothes a dry throat


AvensGeum urbanum, G. rivale

Avens, also called wood avens or herb bennet, had a stellar medieval reputation, then retreated to more mundane uses as a potherb and moth repellant, but seems to be valued again as a rose family astringent and fever-reducing herb. Its virtues include safety, abundance and a surprising scent of cloves.

Wood avens flower

Roseaceae Rose family

Description: Wood avens (Geum urbanum) is a hairy perennial, to 70cm (3ft), with bright yellow flowers of 5 petals, 5 long sepals; three-part greyish leaves; a bur of brownish hooked fruits. Water avens (G. rivale) has beautiful, nodding purply-brown flowers.

Habitat: Wood avens is found in woodland, but is also common in gardens and hedgesides; water avens needs more moisture and shade.

Distribution: Widespread and native in British Isles, Eurasia generally. Water avens is native to US; wood avens, an introduced species to US.

Related species: Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) is a rare alpine; hybrid geum (G. x intermedium) is a fertile cross of wood avens and water avens.

Parts used: Roots.

Where [avens] root is in the house, the devil can do nothing, and flies from it; wherefore it is blessed above all herbs.

– Ortus Sanitatis (Garden of Health) (1491) It is what lies under the earth that elevates wood avens into herb bennet, the 'blessed (benedictus) herb'. The name is thought to precede the lifetime of St Benedict, the monastic innovator (c.480–c.547), and refer to an older reputation that avens root would ward off evil spirits and dangerous beasts.

Avens itself is a name of uncertain origin; one supposition is that it is from the Spanish term for antidote. The genus name Geum has a more precise meaning from the Greek geno, to smell pleasant, in reference to the clove-like smell of the root in spring and autumn.

It is the essential oil eugenol that gives the fragrance to avens root, as it does to cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, basil, lemon balm and other aromatic spices and herbs. In avens itself, Polish research (2011) indicates that the time of harvest and age of the plant do not affect the amount of eugenol present.

This finding suggests that old harvesting rules of digging avens on 25 March were only partly true, and autumn roots are as potent. We have dug up the reddish-brown root of avens on several occasions, and find its smell varies in intensity according to time and place. If it doesn't smell, it could be because it is a non-fragrant hybrid geum or that the eugenol is not available; either way, it's best to return such roots to the ground.

The root is dried slowly to preserve the essential oil, and is ready when it becomes brittle. It is crushed for medicinal use, or in older times as a flavouring for a medicinal beer and wine.

Parkinson in 1640 noted: Some use in the Spring time to put the roote to steepe for a time in wine, which giveth unto it a delicate savour and taste, which they drinke fasting every morning, to comfort the heart, and to preserve it from noisome and infectious vapours of the plague, or any poison that may annoy it.

Avens is an antiseptic, but was not a success as a plague herb – what could be? It gradually became known as little more than a foraged potherb and broth ingredient, and a workmanlike deterrent to moths, but may be due for a herbal comeback.


Excerpted from "Backyard Medicine For All"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface 7

Introduction 9

Harvesting from the wayside 10

Using your wayside harvest 13

Alexanders 20

Ash 24

Avens 28

Bistort 32

Black horehound 36

Blackthorn 40

Bugle 44

Butcher's broom 48

Chicory 50

Cranesbill 54

Creeping jenny & yellow loosestrife 58

Daisy 62

Fleabane 68

Forget-me-not 72

Fumitory 76

Goldenrod 80

Greater celandine 84

Ground elder 87

Ground ivy 92

Gypsywort 96

Heather & bell heather 99

Herb robert 104

Hogweed 108

Lesser celandine 112

Mouse-ear hawkweed 116

Navelwort 120

Ox-eye daisy 124

Pine 128

Primrose & cowslip 134

Purple loosestrife 139

Rowan 144

Sanicle 148

Scabious 152

Sea buckthorn 157

Silverweed, tormentil & cinquefoil 162

Sowthistle 166

Speedwell 170

Sphagnum moss 176

Sweet chestnut 178

Thistle 182

Valerian 187

Violet 192

Walnut 198

Wild carrot 202

Wild strawberry 206

Woundwort 210

Notes to the text 214

Recommended reading 219

Resources 220

Index 221

The authors 224

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