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Valeriana officinalis L. Valerianaceae Valerianus, Phu, Nardus sylvestris, Setwal. Distribution: Europe. Popular herbalism attributes sedation to Valerian, but this is not mentioned by Coles (1657) or Gerard (1633) or Lobel (1576) or Lyte (1578) or Dioscorides (ex Gunther, 1959) or Fuchs (1553), where he quotes Pliny, Dioscorides and Galen, or Parkinson (1640), or Pomet (1712). The English translation of Tournefort (1719-1730) covers a whole page of the uses of all the different valerians, but never mentions sedation or treating anxiety. Quincy (1718) does not mention it. Because it was used in epilepsy, for which Woodville (1792) says it was useless, Haller, in his Historia stirpium indegenarum Helvetae inchoatae (1768) advocates it for those with irritability of the nervous system, as does Thomson's London Dispensatory (1811) although he lists it as an 'antispasmodic and stimulant' and for inducing menstruation. Lindley (1838) notes (as many did) that the roots smell terrible and that this makes cats excited, and in man, in large doses, induce 'scintillations, agitation and even convulsions' so used in asthenic fever, epilepsy, chorea, hysteria and as an antihelminthic.' Fluckiger & Hanbury (1879) give a wonderful account of the history of its names, but give its use as 'stimulant and antispasmodic' as do Barton & Castle (1877). but by 1936 (Martindale's Extra Pharmacopoeia) its only use was 'Given in hysterical and neurotic conditions as a sedative. Its action has been attributed to its unpleasant smell'. The European Medicines Agency (2006) approves its use as a traditional herbal medicine for mild anxiety and sleeplessness for up to 4 weeks. Despite what is written continuously about its use in ancient Greece and Rome, the only reason for its use has been because it was thought, for a brief while, to be good for epilepsy and therefore might deal with persons of a nervous disposition because of its foul smell. It has been suggested that even its Greek name, 'Phu' came from the expression of disgust which is made when one sniffs an unpleasant odour. For 1,800 years, before the last century, no-one had thought it sedative. Photographed in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians, London.
- Dr Henry Oakeley
Cynara cardunculus L. Asteraceae. Cardoon, Globe Artichoke, Artechokes, Scolymos cinara, Cynara, Cinara. Distribution: Southern Europe and North Africa. Lyte (1576) writes that Dodoens (1552) could find no medical use for them and Galen (c.200 AD) said they were indigestible unless cooked. However, he relates that other authors recommend that if the flower heads are soaked in strong wine, they 'provoke urine and stir up lust in the body.' More prosaically, the roots boiled in wine and drunk it cause the urine to be 'stinking' and so cures smelly armpits. He adds that it strengthens the stomach so causing women to conceive Male children. He goes on to say that the young shoots boiled in broth also stir up lust in men and women, and more besides. Lyte (1576) was translating, I think with elaborations, from the chapter on Scolymos cinara, Artichaut, in Dodoen's Croydeboeck (1552) as L'Ecluse's French translation, Dodoens Histoire des Plantes (1575) does not mention these latter uses, but Dodoen's own Latin translation, the Pemptades (1583), and Gerard's Herbal (1633) both do so. It is useful in understanding the history of these translations to realise that Gerard uses, almost verbatim, the translation of the 'smelly armpit' paragraph from Lyte. Photographed in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians, London.
- Dr Henry Oakeley