I joined the Diploma in Herbology because I wanted to skill up for the apocalypse. That was the answer I gave on the first day of class, back in 2018. For once, my timing was en pointe.
Unearthing and re-considering some of the more historical strands of herbological thought can be an interesting exercise. Some stand the scrutiny of contemporary perspective better than others.
For example, the Doctrine of Signatures, popular from Dioscorides (50-70 AD) to Culpeper (1653) and beyond, suggested that plants advertise their relevance to the human body through some characteristic which we are able to discern. Eventually this doctrine became compressed, so that a plant’s visual morphology was the primary consideration, but this may not originally have been the case. Pulmonaria officinalis offers a fine example of the Doctrine of Signatures. Still clinging on in some British woods and thickets, its flowers open a fleshy pink, turning organ blue as they mature; its broad leaves carry distinctive greenish-white spots, reminiscent of the alveoli of the lungs, or the spots on a diseased lung. Thus the doctrine suggested both the common name for the plant— lungwort (the ‘wort’ appellation being an old word for ‘plant’) —and the use of the herb, as an infusion or fluid extract, in the treatment of pulmonary complaints.
The Covid-19 respiratory pandemic arrived in the U.K. in the early months of 2020, just as the lungwort was coming into bloom.
This brings us to another historical strand of herbological thought propounded by Herodotus, Plato, Cicero, Brown, and Hale, amongst others: a line of reasoning which posits nature as a highly complex, responsive system that provides its own checks and balances, with humanity occupying one nexus in the web. The principle is something like Gaia theory: ‘in a balanced natural system, where there is need, there is provision’. When nature is allowed free rein, she may provide a nettle that stings (Urtica dioica), but she will also provide a nearby dock (Rumex obtusifolius) to soothe.
In a balanced natural system, where there is need, there is provision
As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold across the U.K., the butterbur (Petasites hybridus) is springing particularly virulently across my local wildlife margins. From the Middle Ages, its powdered root was taken in drinks as medicine against the plague, (a remedy commended by Culpeper in 1653 as ‘singularly good for those that wheeze much or are short-winded’), such that it became known as plague-flower (or Pestilenzenwurt, in German).
The milder common English name ‘butterbur’ derives from an old use of its leaves as packaging for butter. These leaves are the largest of any plant native to the British Isles, and it uses them to shade out competition, colonising vast stretches and thus becoming a plague in itself. For this reason, I found a recent sighting of butterbur in the Hebrides particularly disturbing— when human interventions have unbalanced nature to such an extent, decisions of conservation become deeply vexed. Will benevolent intervention undo the damage, or just wreak more?
To study herbology is therefore to examine the delicate relationship between humans and plants, between purpose and beauty. At the heart of all its considerations lie deeply existential questions on the dominance of humanity; on the status of non-human life on this planet; on ways of being, inter-being, and understanding, all of which risk being buried by civilization’s less sensitive practices.
To study herbology is therefore to examine the delicate relationship between humans and plants, between purpose and beauty
It has been one of the toughest (and most joyous) courses I’ve ever taken— and I’ve taken more than my fair share. Yet when I mention it to others, I often find it perceived as a marginal, hobbyist undertaking.
In some senses this is accurate. Herbology is not the same as medical herbalism, and there is no clear career path. Yet to study herbology is also to face up to constructed hierarchies of knowledge— to a ‘scientific’ mentality, which often manifests as plain patriarchy. The continuing disregard of herbology— as ‘hippy’, ‘cranky’, or even ‘witchy’— denies centuries of accumulated knowledge.
Perhaps the marginalisation of this knowledge is inevitable given our dismissal of nature: between 1935 and 1998 some 97% of hay meadows were lost in the U.K., and according to the 2019 State of Nature Report between 1990 and 2010 over 3,000 separate species each suffered a greater than 60% decline.
Perhaps the marginalisation of this knowledge is inevitable given our dismissal of nature
Perhaps because much of our herbological understanding emerged through the rural working classes, it cannot be afforded value.
Perhaps because its wisdom has come to be particularly associated with women, it cannot be admitted to the canon.
Of course, once the salicin from that meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) or willow (Salix alba) is repackaged as ‘aspirin’, it’s perfectly valid.
By Louder Than The Storm writer Kyra Pollitt