Healing plants: medical uses of garden plants throughout history

For hundreds of years people have turned to the plants in their back gardens to relieve aches, pains and ailments

Ever rubbed a dock leaf on a nettle sting or aloe vera oil into sunburn? Then you've used herbal medicine! But how did these widely used natural remedies come to be? Visit our Healing Garden display which reveals the history behind natural remedies and medicinal practices used to treat patients for hundreds of years.

The history of healing plants

Without the physicians and herbalists who recorded their practices in botanical encyclopaedias, known as ‘herbals,’ modern medicine wouldn't be what we know it as today. Examples of these important publications, printed between 1500 and 1700, are on display at the RHS Lindley Library from 10 September to 14 December. The display will look at how our understanding of plants has changed throughout history and will explore the uses of plants in medicine and healing today.

Below are some plants, and their ancient medicinal uses, that we know of today thanks to these records.

Primrose (Primula vulgaris​)

Regarded as one of the first signs of spring, the native primrose, with its single yellow flowers, was commonly used in basic first aid. The leaves were often made into ointments, called ‘salves,’ used to heal wounds.

Foxglove (Digitalis)

Now known to be poisonous, foxgloves were once reccomended as a treatment for the ‘falling sickness’, now known as epilepsy, and congestive heart failure referred to in the herbals as 'dropsy.' A substance derived from foxgloves, which can only be obtained from the living plants, is commonly used in modern medicine to treat heart conditions.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

The roots of valerian have been a popular cure-all throughout the centuries. This native European plant is now known to be effective as a sedative – its ability to provide rest and relief from symptoms may explain why it was held in such high esteem.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

A member of the mint family, lemon balm was originally prized for its uplifting fragrance and was said to ‘make a merry heart.’ Today its leaves are often used in herbal teas and its essential oils in aromatherapy.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Throughout history, this kitchen garden essential has been recommended to help preserve and enhance mental abilities. In the words of the herbalists, it was used ‘to comforteth the memory’ and avoid ‘dulnesse of the minde.’ Now being investigated for its effects on Alzheimer’s, it seems the herbalists' beliefs about rosemary could be right.

Peony (Paeonia)

Like foxgloves, peonies were used as a treatment for epilepsy, with the herbals including records of peony roots, or seedpods, being 'hung about the neck' to prevent or dimish the effects of seizures. This treatment was recommended for children in particular.

Dandelion (Taraxacum)

Were you ever told not to pick dandelions because they make you wet the bed? Well, that may be because they're a diuretic, meaning they increase the production of urine. The roots, foliage and flowers of dandelions are all edible and continue to be used in herbal treatments today. For centuries they have been used to treat a variety of conditions, particularly of the kidneys and liver.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Aiding digestion, relieving cramps, reducing diarrhoea, drying up phlegm, fighting colds, acting as a salve for cuts and burns, killing bacteria and reducing inflammation and swelling - sage does it all. The plant's reputation as a solution or remedy for diseases is acknowledged in its scientific name, Salvia officinalis, derived from the Latin word, ‘salvere’, which means ‘to be saved’. Additionally, the term ‘officinalis’ shows a plant was officially approved for medicinal use.

Visit our Healing Garden display

Come and see our display at the RHS Lindley Library and discover the medicinal uses - and medical myths - attributed to garden plants throughout the centuries.

Botanical encyclopaedia known as herbals

Healing Garden Exhibition

Visit the display at RHS Lindley Library, between 10 September and 14 December 2018 to discover more medical uses of plants throughout history

Healing Garden Exhibition

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