Healing Herbs of War Throughout the Ages

Healing Herbs of War Throughout the Ages

Seen in our Medieval Garden and Ypres Castle Still Room

by Lin Saines, Author of The Garden beyond the Tower: The Ypres Tower Still Room and Medieval Garden guidebook.  Thanks to Marttyn and Lin Saines for all the photos.

Healing herbs 19Healing herbs 13For centuries, healing herbs including many to be seen in the Medieval Garden just outside Ypres Tower have brought comfort to those suffering in conflict and war. Apothecaries, those early chemists, and surgeons would have a large collection of powders, lotions, syrups and ointments at hand to both heal wounds and ease trauma and illness caused by such stress. If they were within a Castle or Manor House these would include preparations including local herbal ingredients, collected in large quantities then worked upon in a Still Room, such as the one to be seen within Ypres Tower.

Still Rooms were part kitchen, part apothecary’s workshop, part distillery in places; alcoholic beverages such as home-produced beers and wines were produced within larger Still Rooms, and it is for this particular “distilling” process they became renowned in later times, eventually becoming the huge ‘Breweries’ of today.

But let us cast our minds back to far beyond the Still Room walls, and look at some of the most interesting herbs that have played their parts in helping the wounded in wars and conflicts throughout the ages. Take the Trojan Wars for instance. Would anyone think we would be growing plants used by Achilles and his counterparts from 1250 BC within our Ypres Tower garden today? Well, humble “Yarrow” has long been associated with this great warrior, its Latin name “Achillea Millefolium” naming both Achilles and the plant’s own many tiny leaves containing blood-staunching properties. It is popularly known as “The Carpenter’s Weed” and alternatively “Militaris” showing the importance of this plant to soldiers through the ages. Other uses have included easing toothache, with the flowers even used as a hop substitute when brewing ales in those later Still Rooms!

Healing herbs 7Keeping with the most ancient herbs, the pretty blue-flowering Cornflower “Centaurea cyanus” is one of many of this species named after the Centaur Chiron, tutor of Achilles, and is also a plant with healing properties.  The dried flowers produce cooling gentle eyewash when steeped in warm water and strained through muslin cloth. As usual with herbal plants Cornflower has other important properties including use as a good blood tonic when taken as a tea, and many years ago was grown to produce a blue ink, taken from the deep colouring of its attractive flowers. Similarly, “Centaury” was a medicinal cure-all, a blood purifier, wound healer and astringent tonic.

Healing herbs 150

Woad surely needs no introduction! For those Ancient Britons who painted this blue dye of war on their skins it served a double purpose. The sight of a painted warrior must have been frightening, but more importantly the ancient tribes must have known that this antiseptic herb helped heal blade wounds and staunch blood flow.  As with all these herbal cures, someone must have used them first to find which killed and which cured, and Woad was certainly a good plant to have growing nearby in ancient times, with such healing power in its leaves.

Again, this plant has more uses; in particular William Morris, the great Victorian designer, championed Woad as a dye plant and used it in many of his tapestries. Until the coming of Indigo, Woad was the only really strong blue dye and is still grown for use by many cloth dyers today. Famously, on film even Mel Gibson reverted back to the ancients’ blue body paint when playing the Scottish “Braveheart” William Wallace.

Moving forward, Salad Burnet is an extraordinary herb, and on a personal note was the one plant that totally fascinated me in the late 1970’s, and started my own herbal journey. It is a delicately fern-like perennial plant that tastes of cucumber and completely belies its underlying importance as a wound herb. It has been cultivated as a simple salad herb since the 1500’s, but has been carried to war to treat blade wounds for centuries, the root in particular being of use to staunch blood flow and has well earned the Latin name of ‘Sanguisorba (blood absorbing).

St. John’s Wort is another herb associated with wounds, healing and in latter times, depression. Its Latin name shows the importance of the Sun and sunshine, “Hypericum perforatum” with the healing powers from its leaves thought to have come from St. John the Baptist himself. I have found this one difficult to grow in the Medieval Garden because of the shading from the walls, but will try a couple of plants in another border during 2016, probably near the Womens’ Tower where there is more light for most of the day. It was an important medieval plant and one worth cultivating in this space.

Healing herbs 159In the same area around the Womens’ Tower wall no doubt visitors will see “Comfrey” and that is very hard to kill off, plant in a wrong place or once firmly established, evict entirely! But why try to do that as it is such a good plant to have in the Garden. Since Roman times Comfrey has been known as “knitbone” used for healing and setting broken bones and is used to treat arthritis today in tablet form. For the keen gardener Comfrey can be harnessed to provide a rich liquid feed for all garden plants and crops, and like many herbs may not be the most attractive but is probably one of the most helpful.

Another plant that is not so attractive, particularly in scent is Valerian. It is strongly sedative, and widely used in the First and Second World Wars as a calming drug for soldiers suffering from terrible trauma and stress. The root has a particularly unpleasant smell that is attractive to rats and is thought to have been used, such as in the Pied Piper of Hamelin story, to draw rat infestations from buildings.

So it will not surprise you to know it is still used today in rat poison. Valerian is also used in herbal calming tablets today, but obviously should be treated with caution.

But turning our attention away from these, let us not forget the beautiful ROSE because this plant has certainly played its part in quietly healing generations.


Healing herbs 107 Those of us of a certain age were no doubt given Rose-hip syrup by our parents, without knowing it was the Vitamin C in those Rose-hips that was the healing herb to keep coughs and colds at bay.

In fact Rose hips have been used over the centuries in pills and syrups to heal scurvy, skin problems and even the Plague, although it was not until the time of the Second World War that the essential oils containing Vitamin C were found to be the healer. The rosehips pictured are at Kenilworth Castle.


Fragrant and healing rose water was carried to “The Front” areas during the First World War to bathe the eyes of soldiers suffering from Gas and smoke, and today rose water, rose oil, pot-pourri and that most exotic of all Moroccan spice mixtures “Ras-el-Hanout” enrich our lives within the kitchen and around the home, most of us without thinking of the past uses of this beautifully fragrant Herb.

Healing herbs 89The photo at right shows one of the most ancient of Roses, “Rosa Mundi”  that has recently been planted in the Medieval Garden in memory of artist Brian Hargreaves.

Brian’s beautiful illustrations are to be found within the Still Room and Medieval Garden guidebook The Garden Beyond the Tower that I wrote in conjunction with Brian and his wife Joyce, who also contributed some lovely illustrations to this publication .


And so finally to the Poppy; the Herb most associated with the horrors of warfare and its consequences.

It is a sad truth that although the Poppy has produced pain-relieving Laudanum and Morphine over many years it now stands as a symbol of pain for millions more.

Healing herbs 5Wherever an area of soil is turned over Poppies grow readily, the carpet of bright red flowers stretching over War Graves in France and Flanders of World War One making this the Flower of Remembrance to commemorate ‘The War to End all Wars.

If only it had.

First posted in Featured, Medieval Garden, Ypres Tower Posts on 8th November 2015
Last updated: 8th November 2015