In Celebration of St. Patricks Day this week I wanted to write about Irish or Celtic Herbs.
Herbs have been used in all cultures for food, medicine and ritual probably since the beginning of time. Each culture or civilization of course having their own favorites. These favorites would initially be based on native herbs that grow, but expand into others as invaders move into the area bringing in their own plants.
Much of ancient Irish traditional medicine focused on magic and religious tradition based in animism, while plant medicine brought a medicine more rooted in science. Surrounded by ocean, seaweeds were also important in Celtic medicine.
I want to talk here about some of the herbs we grow on our Colorado farm that are also important in Celtic or Gaelic tradition. Note that although some of these may be native to Ireland, others were brought in and are now popular.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale L. )
The ‘Flora of Northern Ireland’ site says that comfrey is probably native to Ireland. Comfrey is commonly referred to as ‘knitbone’ for it’s property of ‘knitting together’ broken bones. It has been used for sprains, bruises, wounds, and to ease the pain of arthritis and backaches. It can be used as a compress directly on the skin. Comfrey’s growth is abundant, producing very large leaves. If you have too much you can feed it to stock animals or put it in your compost as it makes a good fertilizer.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Many people try to rid their yards of dandelion, and I have to say, it is a difficult plant to control. It’s fuzzy seed heads are able to spread seeds for miles due to it’s parachute like structure. Each flower can produce 150-200 seeds and each plant up to 10 flowers. Dandelions are native to Eurasia, but are now found worldwide. I could find no information as to when they were introduced to Ireland.
In Gaelic Irish, dandelion is named for Brigid, a Celtic Goddess, herbalist and patron saint of Ireland. All parts of the dandelion are used in herbal medicine; roots, leaves and flowers. The leaves are rich in potassium and B vitamins and can be added to salads. Their slight bitterness is great for stimulating digestion. Pick them early in the spring before they turn too bitter – just a few mixed in with your lettuce is delicious. They can act as a diuretic, removing excess water from the body and reducing blood pressure. The flowers are used to make wine. The root is immune stimulating and good for the liver by stimulating bile.
Elder (Sambucus nigra)
The Druids considered Elder as a sacred trees. As a sacred tree, it was forbidden to cut one down. We have one in the middle of a lavender field that was growing on the property before we moved here so it will not be cut down. It is more of a bush than a tree. Some parts of the Elder are poisonous; bark, unripe berries, leaves but the ripe berries of the Elder are prized for their ability to combat the flu. Extracts from Sambucus have been studied and repeatedly found to decrease upper respiratory symptoms of the flu. You can read more here.
The flowers of the Elder are diuretic and ant-inflammatory. They are used to make tea as well as a delicious liqueur/cordial called St. Germaine. Flowers are great to soften and brighten the skin. They can also be battered, fried and eaten.
Mint (Mentha spp)
While there are many species of mint, it is water mint (Mentha aquatica) that is native to Ireland. Though Peppermint (Mentha piperata) has been grown in Ireland and used medicinally for some time. Mints were used as a ‘strewing’ herb – spread on the ground to deter insects and rodents in a home. It can be drank as a tea to calm digestion and used as a culinary herb in many cultures. It is considered a protective herb.
Plantain (Plantago major). Herbalists call Plantain a ‘drawing herb’ because it can be put on an inflammation to draw away the inflammation. Plantain can be chewed into a poultice to put on an insect sting or bite. It contains allantoin which helps to sooth skin irritation.
Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris). Self Heal can go pretty unrecognized as a low growing weed in a yard until it sends up it’s purple flower stalk. It is an edible herb that can be put in salads or tea. It is said to help with cold sores and other viruses. It can be used as a gargle for a sore throat.
Willow (Salix spp.). There are many species of willow but probably White Willow (Salix alba) was the one important to Celts. It is said to be a guardian tree that gives protection. Willow bark contains salicylic acid and so has been used traditionally for relief from pain and inflammation. We now use aspirin or Acetylsalicylic acid which is made from salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is also used in skin care as an exfoliant.
Several other herbs that were considered important and sacred include clover, rosemary, rue, sage, thyme, frankincense, myrrh, vervain (verbena), angelica, and St. John’s Wort. Are there herbs that are special to you? Mention them in the comments.
Some resources for more information on Celtic Herbs:
A local Coloradan herbalist who teaches on Celtic herbalism and healing is Tonya Reichley. https://www.dancingwiththewild.com/about