Sunlight on lichen. Lunch time, we’re sitting in the shade of the orchard, next to us our old metal teapot, red plastic plates, two chipped enamel cups; remnants of camping holidays, and still useable. Over the last couple of months we’ve sat in various parts of the gardens, but the orchard has become the preferred place; watching the play of sunlight on the lichen covering these bench slats. As with herbs, so Lichens are used in medicinal remedies, having antibiotic properties. Maude Grieve specifies two types; Litmus, Rocella Tinctoria, useful in treating coughs and catarrhs, and Liverwort, Peltigera Canina, as a remedy for liver complaints. But these are not the lichens we share this bench with.
We continue to work our way around the Physic garden, thinning out Marshmallow, Hop, Soapwort, Dyers Madder, moving Hypericum which has migrated over time. The garden’s starting to look more organised. We’ve laid a wood chip path next to the wall, for easier access to the plants as they begin to grow and spread again in the coming year. And as expected, the comfrey has emerged again. From past experience on our allotment, while the young shoots are often quite easy to remove, comfrey is deep rooted, and stubborn with it.
The comfrey we’re dealing with is a relatively modern introduction. Lawrence Hills, in Russian Comfrey, (1953), details its history from an agricultural perspective, beginning in the late 18th. century when Joseph Busch, a nurseryman and gardener, left England to become head gardener for Catherine the Great. He sent back several varieties of Symphytum as garden plants, including the largest, Prickly Comfrey, S. Asperrimum, a native of the Caucasus, and recommended as an ornamental perennial, capable of thriving in any soil.
The possibility that these new introductions might be grown as a fodder crop emerged at much the same time, with Hills citing nurseryman James Grant from Lewisham, as the first to discover the agricultural potential of the imported plant. However, because the plant is propagated vegetatively by division, or root cuttings, it was expensive, and the high price demanded by nurserymen meant only small quantities were bought for agricultural trial, which limited research. Interestingly, he points out that this also accounted for, ‘the quite extraordinary number of clergymen in the history of Comfrey. The country parson with his glebe land, his horse, and his Gilbert-White-like interest in Nature and the Useful Arts, was the most frequent buyer.’ Because of the prohibitive costs, eventually both clergy and farmers began to collect Common Comfrey, S. Officinale, from the wild, which increases its yield when cultivated. Hills suggests that this move was largely responsible for ‘the hybrids, with S. Asperrimum as the pollen parent, which are found in many districts more commonly than the true plant [S. Officinale].’
In about 1870, Henry Doubleday imported a hybrid of S. Officinalle and S. Asperrimum, known as S. x Upplandicum from St. Petersburg. The plant was sent to Doubleday by one of the successors to Joseph Busch. Doubleday, and Thomas Christy, a writer, botanist, and nurseryman, between them named this new variety Russian Comfrey, to distinguish it from the earlier introduction, Prickly Comfrey. This naming was against the background of a proliferation of hybrids and a lack of understanding about their use or which hybrids were being grown, evident in the agricultural press at the time. Although there were a number of others carrying out similar research, Henry Doubleday was the first person to select Comfrey by roguing out to improve stock, as well as methodically recording yields.
While Lawrence Hills’ primary interest and research was in the agricultural potential of Comfrey, it’s medicinal value was also recognised. Referencing a recipe in Gerard’s Herball of 1597 that called for the extracted juice of the plant in wine, to aid internal bleeding, Hills points out that, what ‘Master Gerard was prescribing [was] an 0.06 per cent dose of diureide of glyoxylic acid called ‘Allantoin’ to-day. This is present in both the roots and leaves of this plant, and the agricultural species, and its value as a cell-proliferant in making the edges of wounds grow together, healing sores, and internally for gastric and duodenal ulcers and intestinal irritations causing diarrhoea, is still recognised in pharmacy.’
Joseph Payne, in the first of the Fitzpatrick Lectures of 1903 to the Royal College of Physicians, took as his subject Anglo Saxon medicine. Payne drew attention to the fact that the body of knowledge contained in the surviving Anglo Saxon medical texts, was ‘founded on an empirical knowledge of the virtue of herbs, […] the Anglo Saxons took a keen and genuine interest in the study of plants for medicinal uses. […] Their knowledge of botany was not only much more extensive than has been supposed, but it was original.’
During his lectures, Payne made reference to Comfrey’s reputation as a vulnerary herb in Saxon England and, linking the plant across time, he quoted from personal correspondence with a doctor in Sussex, on the continuing use of the plant in diagnosis, ‘The local modus is to scrape the root and put the scrapings (not unlike a dish of horseradish) on the part alleged to be ‘sprained’. If it adhere there is unquestionable evidence of the sprain; if not there is no sprain whatever, the patient may suppose. As a matter of fact the scraped-wort poultice does harden very notably on a hot inflamed area, and sticks for a considerable time.’
Eleanour Rohde suggests that Anglo Saxon medical texts, written in the vernacular, fell into disrepute after the Norman Conquest. The Old English medical texts may have been abandoned for Latin texts, but it’s interesting to speculate on the extent to which the vernacular knowledge of pre-conquest England continued to exert an influence on the monastic physic garden, and the collection of herbs in the wild, for medicinal uses.