Yeo! How’s the craic? Yup, its March and that means Irish eyes are smilin’ because it’s St. Patrick’s Day, boyo! While many of you are making your list for ingredients for Irish Stew and going over your green wardrobe options, you may not realize that Ireland and especially the Celtic people have a rich history in herbalism as traditional Irish medicine is based on such. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I want to discuss some popular herbs that have been used in Ireland for thousands of years. Before we do that however, it’s time for a brief history lesson!
Hollywood often portrays the Celts as a primitive, unruly and blood thirsty folk, but they were actually quite advanced as a society. There were very industrious and especially known for trading in copper and tin and were one of the first peoples that actually melded these two metals together to make bronze. They were also a very holistic and spiritual people. Because they were a rural society, they were very knowledgeable about the earth, nature, and especially herbs. In the Celtic culture they viewed themselves as caretakers of the earth. One special class of Celt, the Druids were specifically seen as the spiritual guardians, priests and shamans of the group. They believed in and made certain that everybody took part in a healthy lifestyle which included exercise and proper diet. Although the Druids were seen as the primary ‘witch doctors’ of the society, one did not have to be a Druid to make herbal medicines. The following is excerpt from his Confessio Authoris by Jan Baptist van Helmont, a seventieth-century chemist who wrote about medical care in Gaelic Ireland, “For I remember the Chieftains of Ireland used each to give a piece of land to a healer who lived with them; not one who came back trained from the universities but one who could really make sick people well. Each such healer has a book crammed with specific remedies bequeathed to him by his forefathers. Accordingly, he who inherits the book inherits also the piece of land. The book describes the symptoms and ailments and the country remedies used for each, and the people of Ireland are cured more successfully when ill, and have generally far better health than the people of Italy.” Clearly Ireland is steeped in the knowledge and use of herbs for healing and health!
Finally, I want to note that one does not have to agree with or endorse the Druids/Celts spiritual practices and beliefs to recognize and discuss their ability to understand nature and use herbs to the benefit of all. Personally, I am not a follower of Druid beliefs and am not endorsing said beliefs. I am merely calling out their knowledge of the use of herbs for healing and health.
Let’s talk about some of the most popular herbs used in Ireland for healing over the years.
First and foremost, it is worth mentioning that trees held a very special place among the Druids and were used extensively in medicine making. We will not discuss tree’s in particular save one. Rather, we will focus on the herbs of choice.
Here are Seven Popular Celtic Healing Herbs:
- Comfrey: This is one of my all-time favorite herbs. In medieval times it was called “knit-bone” in Europe. It’s no coincidence that the Gaelic name for comfrey, “Lus na Cnamh Briste” means “the plant for broken bones”. This herb was used as a poultice for broken bones, sprains, bruises and swelling. I would recommend only using this herb topically. There are some that like to take this herb internally, but there are studies that show if you take comfrey internally it can cause liver damage. Using it topically however is not an issue and it works wonders. I make a homemade salve that is terrific! If you don’t want to make your own, you can find this in pre-made salves and ointments at your favorite health food store!
- Willow: The bark of this tree contains acetyl salicylic acid. If you don’t know what this is, its what is in aspirin. Willow bark is known for pain relief and it really works. I have several remedies that I use willow bark in and it never fails. You can buy this in powdered capsule form and use in place of aspirin!
- Dandelion: We have been talking about dandelion a ton lately! The Celts used dandelion to treat fever. They also used it to treat jaundice as the roots are a great tonic for the liver. They also made coffee from the roots and made this a part of their regular diet. Dandelion is a diuretic and also does an amazing job as a detoxifier, digestive and blood cleanser, ( in herbalism a blood cleanser is called an “Alternative”). You can use this to cleanse your liver (called a “Hepatic”), your blood, and also your kidneys. Make it fresh if you like (but always wash before use) or you can buy pre-made teas. Dandelion is seen as a weed by most Americans, but it really is a terrific herb.
- Burdock: Another herb that is sadly seen as a weed, like dandelion, burdock is excellent as a blood detoxifier as it stimulates the body to eliminate toxins! It does this by triggering the excretory system, kidneys, sweat glands, liver, and lymphatic system to help expel excess fluids and toxins in your system. Some records show Druids gave this to teenagers to help clear up acne! Yes before Proactiv was burdock root! They also gave it to the elderly suffering from arthritis and gout. It is anti-inflammatory and high in alkaline, so it works very well for these ailments. You can buy this today in a premade tea or also in tincture form.
- Bilberry: I must confess, I have never used bilberry in an herbal remedy…yet. Also known as Huckleberries or Whortleberries, Bilberries are very high in anti-oxidants and thus highly beneficial to the human body. They are also purported to strengthen the blood brain barrier, or membrane that separates the brain from the blood that flows around it. They contain anthocyanins which are a flavonoid that help the immune system and have anti-histamine properties also. They are very good for the skin and eyes as well. And oh by the way, they taste great! This can be taken in tea form, jam/jelly form, or tincture. Of course if you have access, they are best picked and eaten fresh!
- Mistletoe: Widely known as the small green plant with red berries that enable you to steal a kiss during the Christmas period, mistletoe is much more than that! It was imported to Ireland from Greece originally. The Druids would consume this in large quantities because it induced hallucinations and aided them in their spiritual endeavors as it opened them up to the spirit world. From a healing/health angle mistletoe juice or tincture has been investigated for the treatment of cancer. Please note: this herb is VERY POWERFUL and SHOULD ONLY be used under the supervision of a qualified and licensed herbalist. If used improperly it is very dangerous due to its high toxicity.
- Nettle: Most people hear “nettle” and think of “stinging nettle”, and for good reason. This is not a plant you want rubbing up against your skin! But that aside, it is a wonderful herb for healing and is on a short list of herbs I would pick if stranded on a deserted island. Here’s why: The leaves and stems have ability to help prevent hemorrhaging and also stop bleeding (known in the herbal world as a “Vulnerary”). They are also good for skin and muscle aches (if prepared properly). The root is good for the prostate, urinary tract infections, and even kidney stones. The leaves are high in vitamins, minerals, and protein. The leaf and root make for a great diuretic and help remove toxicity from our blood. You can also make paper from the leaf and stem and even clothing! Of course you have to know how to identify, harvest and eat the plant first! That is for another time. I would recommend you start with a nice nettle tea. Caution: nettles may interact with medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, sedatives and if you are on Warfarin!
*** As always, be safe with herbs, people. If you are pregnant or breast feeding, OR if you are on medications ALWAYS check with your physician before you introduce herbs into your life. ***
That’s all for now, dear friends. I will let you get back to making your soda bread, Irish stew and corned beef! Have a wonderful day and remember, at Bucklebury we believe your best wealth is your health! So long for now.