Many modern drugs have their origins in traditional remedies found in nature. Aspirin, for example, is based on willow bark, which has been used for centuries to treat fever, pain and inflammation. Similarly, quinine had its pharmacological roots in the cinchona tree, an ancient Peruvian Indian remedy for malaria.
Here, we look at remedies for everyday ailments which can be found in the British countryside or your garden – or, if the weather is bad
To help get rid of boils use a hot compress from a flannel, soaked in warm water which has been steeped in thyme. The herb contains an antiseptic compound called thymol which can help prevent infection.
These leaves have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and have been used in traditional preparations to alleviate sore gums and mouth ulcers. Put 10g of dried leaves into 100ml of cold water. Bring to the boil and leave to infuse for 15 minutes. Strain and use as a mouthwash.
The thick green rind which forms the casing inside an unripe walnut shell was often used to cure ringworm – a common fungal infection. To apply, extract the rind, crush into a pulp and apply to ringworm up to four times a day, until it clears up. Do not eat it, as the pulp is poisonous.
To aid bruises, take a leaf from a dark green cabbage and steep in hot water to soften. Then wrap around the affected area. Cabbages contain naturally occurring anti-inflammatory substances and have been used over the centuries to reduce bruising and swelling. The leaves can also be used to help treat mastitis through breastfeeding, although keep the leaves away from the nipple.
An old-fashioned way to combat an attack of gout was to eat two handfuls of cherries straight away. Gout pain is caused by tiny crystals of uric acid building up in the blood and clustering around the joints.
Scientific studies certainly back up this old remedy, since research from the U.S. shows that antioxidants called anthocyanins, which give the cherries their red colour, also reduce swelling in the body, which again alleviates the symptoms of gout and helps with other conditions such as arthritis. (Dried cherries are just as effective as fresh.)
Tea from the herb yarrow has been used in traditional remedies to help sweat out a fever. Yarrow opens the pores, and triggers sweating. Steep a tablespoon of yarrow flowers in a cup of boiling water for ten minutes. Let it cool, strain and drink a cup or two until you start to sweat. Elderflower tea, made in the same way, also has the same effect.
Drinking juice made from raw cabbages was a traditional way to settle stomach ulcers. The remedy may well have worked as cabbages contain glutamine, an amino-acid that nourishes cells of the gastrointestinal tract and promotes healing.
Munching on a sprig of parsley is an age-old way to offset halitosis – bad breath. Parsley is rich in chlorophyll, a green pigment found in plants. This helps fight germs which cause the smell, and deodorises bad breath.
Drink as much dandelion tea as possible during an attack of kidney stones. Dandelion is a strong diuretic which stimulates blood circulation through the kidneys, increasing urine output, so helping to flush out kidney stones. To make dandelion tea, add two teaspoons of the dried herb to one cup of boiling water and steep for 15 minutes, then drink.
Styes – an inflamed bumps on the edge of the eyelid – occur when an eyelash follicle becomes clogged with dirt or oil, then infected by bacteria. Traditional remedies rely on moist heat to bring the stye to a head and rupture. One oldfashioned favourite involved boiling an egg until it was hardboiled then taking it out of hot water and wrapping in a clean cloth. The hot egg was then held against the outside of the eyelid for as long as was comfortable.
Nettles are a powerful diuretic, and a daily cup of nettle tea may help men who suffer with an enlarged prostate (causing a weak urine stream and a frequent need to go to the loo). The tea works by slowing down the growth of prostate tissue. To make nettle tea, steep two teaspoons of dried leaves in a cup of hot water for ten minutes. As a diuretic, nettle tea was also used to calm the symptoms of urinary tract infections.
Wood-cutters used to remove splinters caused by splitting logs by spreading warmed pine resin on the skin and peeling it off once it dried. This would pull out the splinter as the resin came off. Cooks who got a splinter would use bacon fat to soften the skin round the splinter and so help it glide out.
Blackberries can help settle upset stomachs caused by diarrhoea, possibly because the fruit is rich in tannins, which can help reduce intestinal inflammation and block the absorption of toxins by the gut. Bring two tablespoons of fresh blackberries to the boil in 250ml of water, simmer gently for ten minutes, then strain. Drink one cup several times a day.
Or to make blackberry tea, place 1.5g of blackberry leaves in a cup of boiling water, leave to infuse for ten minutes and strain. Take three cups a day between meals.
A popular folk remedy for warts involves rubbing a juicy, freshly cut slice of raw potato over the affected area. (One tradition says this won’t work unless you bury the potato first!) There is no science to back this one up. An alternative was to hold – or nowadays, tape – a fresh basil leaf over the wart as the herb contains virus-killing compounds. Replace the leaf daily.
To ease heartburn, mix half a teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water and gargle. The salty solution helps to rinse away and neutralise acids in the throat. This should relieve the burning sensation and help to heal irritated mucous membrane.