One of the bitterest pills to swallow for those who care about contemporary Wales is the state of the nation’s health. First there is the odious background noise of the UK Prime Minister gloating about any aspect of the NHS in Wales that can be lazily caricatured as inferior to its equivalent in England, a cruel utilisation of Wales as a shitty stick to beat the Labour administration in Cardiff with. Meanwhile, Cameron never mentions that Cardiff can only spend what London allocates and that sum, currently £15 billion a year when the UK’s tax revenue alone from Wales is £20 billion a year, takes no account of the historic and structural causes of the ill-health that has been imposed on Wales by Britain: rapid, unregulated, polluting, dangerous, smokestack industrialisation; rapid, unplanned, brutal de-industrialisation; systemic impoverishment due to lack of ownership of resources; and mass in-migration by high-maintenance, elderly English retirees.
Then there is the scandal of the marketisation, privatisation, monetisation and bureaucratisation of the entire UK NHS, carried out by successive Westminster governments at the behest of Big Pharma over the last 30 years and only slightly mitigated in Wales by the strictly limited room for manoeuvre permitted by devolution. The inspiring, egalitarian and humane creation of Welshman Nye Bevan (1897-1960) has been so thoroughly tarnished by being run according to the bottom-line values of the business model that it has reached the point where the first advice given to anyone in need of the NHS, whether at the GP’s surgery, in the back of an ambulance or at the hospital admissions desk, is “Have you thought of going private?” At the same time the whole founding purpose of the NHS has been turned on its head by a propaganda onslaught portraying well-being as an entirely personal rather than social responsibility. Your sickness is your fault, because you eat the wrong things or smoke or don’t exercise enough or whatever – nothing to do with the unavoidable prevailing culture that has delivered cheap unhealthy food, passive sedentary lifestyles, addictive self-indulgent behaviour, profound psychological disturbance, a chemical cocktail of toxic air and a ransacked, dying planet. To be ill is thus letting the side down, a failure in one’s duty to protect the public purse and, in a truly surreal twist, the only people now welcome in a hospital are the fighting fit.
On top of this, of course, is the malignant grip of the hugely profitable giant pharmaceutical companies. We are seeing their true colours currently in the Pfizer/AstraZenica takeover battle, in which nobody is pretending it’s about anything other than corporate empire-building and shareholder dividends. But this particular feeding frenzy is but the tip of an iceberg of vast crimes against true health, from the medicalisation of every human variable so that a spurious ‘cure’ can be flogged, via the peddling of false needs and hypochondriac anxieties so that demand can be stoked, through to the elevation of not-dying as the sole measure of health so that we are kept alive well beyond our sell-by dates, demented, ga-ga, drug-dependent, tormented by minimum wage sadists, and asset-stripped for the privilege by the burgeoning ‘care’ sector. Never mind the quality; feel the margin-boosting longevity.
What makes this worse is the knowledge that Wales was once a medical pioneer in the vanguard of understanding natural healthiness, and could be again. 3,000 years ago the Gwyddoniaid (men of knowledge) on the island of Prydain founded the ancient arts of healing; 2,500 years ago the Druids had advanced knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants; 1,200 years ago Hywel Dda (c880-950), King of Wales, laid down physicians’ codes and techniques centuries ahead of their time; and 800 years ago the Physicians of Myddfai, Carmarthenshire, compiled a Welsh herbal directory of 175 different medicinal plants that was the first of its kind in the world and, to this day, remains advanced and utterly relevant.
There are alternatives to the self-perpetuating miserable merry-go-round of disease/drug/side-effect/drug/disease. The most glaringly obvious is to live in harmony with the environment, not in conflict with it. This the Physicians of Myddfai (Rhiwallon and his three sons Cadwgan, Gruffydd and Einion) knew way back in the 13th century – and the herbal remedies they described were routinely known by the common folk of Wales right up to the 19th century. I’ve been trying to re-learn what’s been forgotten and to that end have drawn up a list, in alphabetical order of their Welsh names, of healing plants that can still be found for free in Wales:
Banadl (Broom) Cytisus scoparius
Tolerant of the thin soils of heathlands and rocky places, broom is distinguishable from the very similar yellow-flowering gorse by being thornless. Rich in alkaloids, the flowers and seeds crushed into a paste alleviate water-retention and oedema.
Breuwydd (Buckthorn) Rhamnus frangula
A shrub or small tree of marginal, marshy places with berry fruits that start green before turning red and then black. If you’re so constipated it’s like trying to squeeze Eric Pickles through a turnstile, buckthorn berries are the answer. Stew a handful until soft with a little sugar; the mild emetic will soon do the deed.
Briallu Mair (Cowslip) Primula veris
Rare now that agribusiness has ploughed and drained so much of its habitat of moist pastures and sunny meadows, cowslip’s tubular yellow flowers simmered in syrupy water make a lovely drink that works as a dreamy mild sedative for insomniacs.
Bustl y ddaear (Centaury) Centaurium erythraea
For a tonic to cleanse the liver, kidneys and digestive system, collect the whole plant in July when just breaking into pink star-like flower in its dry grassland habitat, dry and then infuse in wine.
Bwyd ellyon (Liberty cap) Psilocybe semilanceata
The ‘magic mushroom’ of wet, grassy, unfertilised grazing meadows can be harvested throughout the Welsh hills in autumn. They are small, with tan-coloured caps topped by a pronounced nipple. Within 15 minutes of ingesting a handful the fabulous hallucinogenic properties take hold – and nothing will ever be the same again. Depending on the individual’s character, the intense psychological catharsis of psilocybin brings lasting enlightment, childlike joy, breakthrough illumination, a better personality and increased intelligence. The UK sees it as a threat to every cherished tenet of authoritarian, death-fearing, traditional thought so, ridiculously, it is illegal. WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE: MOTHER NATURE.
Cedowrach (Burdock) Arctium lappa
Well known for its velcro-like round burrs that stick to clothing, burdock’s worth as an invigorating antioxidant survives in the mainstream in the dandelion & burdock soft drink. The young taproots are a delicious root vegetable tasting rather like artichoke.
Craf (Garlic) Allium sativum
There can be nobody unaware of garlic’s potent health benefits (antiseptic, antibacterial, antiviral and antivampiral!), but don’t ignore its value as a healer of suppurating wounds, bronchitis, flu and even the common cold. In Wales, close relative Allium ursinum (craf y geifr/ramsons) is more common in the wild in shady woods and is equally effective.
Cribau St Ffraid (Betony) Stachys officinalis
The purple flowering heads of betony are still a familiar sight in uncultivated dry grasslands and meadows. The leaves and flowers have multiple medicinal properties, particularly in the treatment of migraine and anxiety, while the sap heals cuts, scabs, carbuncles and sores.
Chwerwlys yr eithin (Woodland germander) Teucrium scorodonia
Happy in sandy soils, dry woods and stone walls, this sage-like herb has pale green flowers bearing four red filaments. Use the leaves direct to hasten the clotting of deep cuts, or in a tea to fix sore throats and mouth ulcers.
Danhadlen (Nettle) Urtica dioica
This extraordinary plant’s burning sting, delivered instantaneously at the merest brush via fine leaf and stalk hairs, is the clue to its therapeutic powers. The lingering pain is caused by histamines, and this means nettles are rich in their antidote: antihistamines, superb blockers of nerve receptors and thus an ace treatment for swellings, pains, bites and allergic reactions. It’s the fresh nettle juice you want: pick a whole plant, liquidise and sip as required. For rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, the remorseless aches can be significantly abated by actually “grasping the nettle” and getting stung as much as can be endured.
Dant y llew (Dandelion) Taraxacum officinale
Needing no introduction, the dandelion is a dogged companion of humans found on all continents. Laden with vitamins and minerals, it has many culinary uses (wines, coffees, soft drinks, root beers, salads) and for therapeutic use it is also versatile. Drink a concoction of leaves, root and petals to soothe urinary tract, kidney and bladder infections.
Effros (Eyebright) Euphrasia officinale
Now a rarity due to loss of the heaths and commons where it was once ubiquitous, petite eyebright can be recognised by the yellow eye in the centre of its white flower. Bathe your eyes in a tincture made from the whole plant when in flower: the ultimate natural remedy for a spectrum of eye complaints from conjunctivitis, styes and ophthalmia through to simple eyestrain and redness.
Ffennigl (Fennel) Foeniculum vulgare
Brought here by the Romans and unmistakeable with its erect hollow stems, large umbels of yellow flowers and heady aniseed aroma, fennel’s fame as a culinary star should not distract from its medicinal value as an unmatched cure for baby’s gripes, menstrual cramps and adult flatulence.
Glesyn y coed (Bugle) Ajuga reptans
Bugle’s towers of carpeting blue flowers form striking colonies in shady woodland edges during late spring and early summer. A strong infusion of the whole plant is good for treating many ailments, particularly high temperatures, jaundice and hangovers from excessive boozing.
Gwlithlys (Sundew) Drosera rotundifolia
An insectivorous plant of bogs and marshes with a rosette of reddish leaves covered in long hairs that capture insects in a sticky, inescapable glue and then devour them by slow absorption. This unusual meat/veg combo creates something special when the leaves are infused in sterile water: an antispasmodic to relax tight chests, a demulcent to pacify grumbling stomach ulcers, and an aphrodisiac to arouse the limpest libido.
Gwlydd y perthi (Goose grass) Galium aparine
Umistakeable creeping clamberer that sticks to other plants with its hairy green stems and leaves. Pound well, leave to stand in water overnight and then drink to deal with lymph system ailments like tonsillitis and glandular fever.
Hocys (Mallow) Malva sylvestris
The handsome mauve-flowering mallow is increasingly uncommon due to the eradication of wild meadows. It’s our loss: the downy leaves make fine external poultices for insect bites and stings and the seeds make a soothing tea that relieves mucous membrane inflammations. The roots and leaves of another member of the Malva family, Althaea officinalis (hocys y gors/marshmallow), are even more effective as a demulcent. The velvety beauty with large pink flowers was introduced to Wales by the Romans and just about hangs on in the last remaining scraps of undrained marshland.
Iorwg llesg (Ground-ivy) Glechoma hederacea
Soak the leaves, stems and purple spring flowers of this common evergreen creeper in hot milk and water for a wholesome, peppery drink that relieves congestion, coughs and bronchitis.
Llydain y ffordd (Plantain) Plantago major
A great survivor, able to withstand trampling, drought and impoverished soils, plantain is one of the most easily accessible and abundant medicinal plants. Chop up and then infuse a whole specimen in boiling water for 1 hour, strain and then mix in a ratio of 1:4 with a neutral aqueous cream. The refrigerated ointment, applied liberally, will relieve a veritable hanging basket of haemorrhoids.
Llysiau llwyd (Mugwort) Artemisia vulgaris
Mugwort is a denizen of uncultivated wasteground and roadsides, tall yet unshowy with inconspicuous flower clusters and narrow leaves that are green above and silver below. Boil leaves, stems and roots until pulpy, strain, and then sip the liquid warm for a bracingly bitter stimulant when energy levels are low.
Llysiau’r cwlwm (Comfrey) Symphytum officinale
Always found in damp places, close to ditches, rivers and water meadows, stately comfrey with its big hairy leaves and purplish-white flowers is an amazing plant packed with beneficial organic compounds. As well as being the ultimate compost-maker, fertiliser and mulch for the gardener, its root, rhizome and leaves contain molecules that stimulate healing. Rub direct onto cuts and wounds.
Llysiau’r dom (Chickweed) Stellaria media
Treated negligently as a “weed” when it is actually a marvellously useful gift from nature, this common, creeping little plant of roadsides and waste places is extremely effective in the treatment of eczema, psoriasis, itching and ulcers when chopped, boiled gently in lard and made into an ointment. It’s also an excellent food: the young leaves sweated down are at least as good as spinach and are delicious raw in salads.
Llysiau’r dryw (Agrimony) Agrimonia eupatoria
A perennial of fields, hedgerows and waste ground, with spikes of star-shaped bright yellow flowers on delicate downy stems appearing from June to September. Infuse 2 teaspoons of leaves and flowers in hot water for an arrestingly-flavoured, all-purpose tonic and astringent.
Llysiau’r hudol (Vervain) Verbena officinalis
Vervain was taken up by the Druids as a magic plant after finding its way to Wales via the Romans. You can see why: the fresh or dried leaves make a tea that unpicks depresssion, nervousness, melancholia and mental exhaustion. Sounds like my CV! Identifiable by its tiny lilac flowers and pale green, toothed, lobed leaves, wild vervain is endangered in Wales, most of its dry limestone habitats having been destroyed.
Llysiau Taliesin (Brooklime) Veronica beccabunga
The spiky blue flowers of this water speedwell are a feature of streams, ditches and ponds, where it often roots below water level. Pick the leaves and stick them straight in your mouth for an instant tasty tonic and mood modifier.
Melynllys (Greater celandine) Chelidonium majus
This indestructible herb found never far from human habitation is a relative of the poppy and has yellow, four-petalled flowers on slender stems. With caution and in miniscule doses, apply the highly-irritant latex it secretes when broken directly onto warts, corns and moles.
Melyn Mair (Marigold) Calendula officinalis
Calendula ointment is a staple of the High Street health food store as an application for cuts, burns, blotchy skin and pimples. The cheery, sun-loving plant can also be used as a wash to treat ulcers and varicose veins.
Milddail (Yarrow) Achillea millefilium
Yarrow is a common wayside plant of field and trackway, with feathery leaves and multitudes of tiny white flowers blooming for six months a year in dense, flat clusters. Everything above ground has therapeutic use. The leaves can be directly applied to wounds as a poultice or infused in hot water to dress wounds, made into an ointment with an egg white and lemon juice to clear spots and rashes, and dried with the stems and flowers in solution to staunch diarrhoea.
Môr-gelyn (Sea holly) Eryngium maritimum
A metallic blue-green beauty of seaside sand dunes and salt-soaked coasts, sea holly works as both diuretic and expectorant. The root is what you want; dried and infused in sugared water it makes a pleasant medicine for chronic smokers’ cough and painful urination issues.
Môrlwyau meddygol (Scurvy-grass) Cochlearia officinalis
A dweller on muddy sea shores and damp, soft cliffs, famed from time immemorial as an important provider of vitamin C for sailors on long sea voyages. The goodness is all in the thick, fleshy leaves. They’re bitter and hard to digest; wilt them slowly in butter with plenty of sea-salt and black pepper.
Pesychlys (Coltsfoot) Tussilago farfara
Producing its yellow flowers in early spring before the medicinal, downy- white leaves appear, this is a hardy little plant that colonises banks, cliffs, building sites and polluted industrial zones. Dry the leaves and stalks before steeping in sugared water and bottling to make a sure-fire expectorant that will clear those stubborn bronchial coughs and abate wheeziness.
Pren y clefyd melyn (Barberry) Berberis vulgaris
Packed with vitamin C, the eye-wateringly acidic, red, rectangular berries of this once-common shrub make excellent jam. Used sparingly in solution, the leaves and young stalks are very effective purgatives, promoting the exit of bile from the gall bladder – just the thing for the bilious with a lot of gall.
Tansi (Tansy) Tanacetum vulgare
Tansy’s bright yellow, long-lasting, button-like flowerheads used to be seen in every hedgerow and field margin, but subsidy-fat Big Agribusiness has put paid to that. It’s a shame, because the flowering stems, fresh or dried, work wonders on bellyaches, stomach cramps and children’s worms. Take only very small doses and avoid totally when pregnant – unless intent on inducing abortion.
Teim (Thyme) Thymus serpyllum
Wild creeping thyme, rather than shop-bought garden thyme, is the curative. Fresh leaves infused in mild vegetable oil make a strong antiseptic good for respiratory and gastric upsets, as a gargle and mouthwash, as a lotion for chilblains and callouses and as a wash to clear up acne and blackheads.
Triaglog (Valerian) Valeriana officinalis
Well established as a medicinal plant for its powerful yet gentle ability to sedate the central nervous system, valerian has few man-made rivals in the treatment of a variety of nervous troubles like hysteria, chaotic thought processes, over-excitability and insomnia. It’s a proper tranquillizer and a real drug – but not classified as such by the UK’s illogical laws. For insomnia, grate a piece of root into a cup of boiling water and drink an hour before going to bed. Tolerance and dependency can build up quickly, so use spasmodically and sensibly.
Uchelwydd (Mistletoe) Viscum album
Quite apart from its cultural and mythological significance, semi-parasitic, evergreen mistletoe lowers blood pressure, slows heart-rate and improves circulation when sipped in a solution made from the leaves and bark. Whatever you do, don’t eat the waxy white berries that appear in winter – or your next kiss will be from the undertaker not Great Aunt Maud.
Wermod wen (Feverfew) Tanacetum parthenium
Feverfew is abundant where hedgerows have not been grubbed out, its daisy flowers sparkling on sunny banks through June and July. A potion made from the leaves and flowers dispels headaches, nervousness and depression. Some people get an allergic reaction to the herb.
Ysgawen (Elder) Sambucus nigra
Herbal teas, cordials and syrups made from the masses of white flowers that bloom in July are renowned for the treatment of colds and catarrh and tackling overproduction of mucous and snot.
Picture: ′ö-Dzin Tridral
Good post, as ever.
Worth checking out the National Botanic Garden from time to time, regarding the Myddfai guys. More generally, the word “pharmacognosy” will take you to some interesting places.
Big Pharma is a puzzle. We know they’re evil (even though there’s some realisation in parts of the industry that, for example, publication bias is not the salesman’s friend) and yet a lot of the stuff they churn out is pretty effective at doing what it’s supposed to. Like the old joke Q.what do you call an alternative medicine that works? A.medicine.
In spite of all the politicans’ bluster, the evidence does suggest that most of us are living longer, healthier lives than our parents and grandparents (even if we are fatter) and you can’t put a cigarette paper (so to speak) between standards in the NHS in different parts of the UK. The uncomfortable truth for the Tories is that health inequality correlates very well with economic inequality and there’s been several published studies that show causation too. Do they have any plans to tackle this? I wonder.
By the way, if you are ever thinking of going into hospital make sure you’re physically robust and have got most of your marbles. You should be OK then.