Midsummer has passed, the Full moon in July is complete, and Lammas is here. The first Harvest is upon us. I always feel that time is either going too fast or too slow, very infrequently does it seem to be just right. But maybe it is just right, and I just need to learn to slow down.
The once tame garden is now wild with flowers and squash and kale and peppers and so so many wild greens. Every day we make meals of Leatherback mushrooms fresh foraged from the dark woods with tender yellow squash and pungent, freshly harvested garlic. Grass fed beef from the farm behind ours and sheep’s milk yoghurt from another neighbor. Curly and bitter dock seeds are harvested to grind for flat bread, and the ubiquitous violets, magenta lambsquarters, ox eye daisies and nettles fill our bowls. It’s hot, we sweat, we swim, we struggle, and we laugh.
We’re almost through the Dog Days of Summer. That special time when Sirius, the Dog Star, is overhead and in Appalachian folklore, dogs and snakes are more likely to bite, tempers flare and wounds are slow to heal between July 3rd and August 11th. This term stems all the way from ancient Romans, who believed the bright light of the Dog Star actually added warmth of its own to the sweltering Summer heat. In fact it doesn’t, but the term has traveled through the ages and settled into the languaging of here, the place where I dwell.
So many plants are blooming or getting ready to, and I’m excited to spot some small yellow flowers soon. The flowering tops of one of the most humble members of the Rosacaea family: Agrimony.
The name alone reminds me of my childish fascination (and let’s be real it obviously never ended) with all things witch-related. It just sounds spooky perhaps, or like the word itself is a spell, a word of power. The word Agrimony comes from the Greek agremon which was believed to refer to cataracts in the eyes. There is some confusion about the origin of the word, however, for it may have been referring to a type of Poppy. However its name came about, I love this plant which I rarely see mentioned.
There are many species of agrimonia, 15 in fact, but only about four boast a reputation as healers. Agrimonia eupatoria, which is native to Europe, North Africa, Southwest Asia, and Macaronesia, is an introduced species in North America. Agrimonia pilosa is native to Asia and Eastern Europe and Agrimonia gryposepala and parviflora are native to North America.
Like many other Rosaceae family members, the tannins in this plant are one of the sources of its powers. Tannins are are a class of astringent, polyphenolic biomolecules, (I know it’s a mouthful), that bind to and precipitate proteins and various other organic compounds including amino acids and alkaloids. This is why, it makes your mouth pucker and feel dry when you drink tannic tea; it binds to the proteins present on the mucus membranes of the mouth. This tightening of the flesh is what causes tannin rich plants to be so useful medicinally as wound washes, for inflammation and bleeding.
Historically, starting in ancient Greece, Dioscorides mentions the seeds and herb infused in wine being useful for dysentary, and the leaf for hard to heal ulcers, speaking to its tannic nature. It was also indicated as a liver herb, or for “faults of the liver”. The Anglo Saxons called it “garclive”, and used it for snake bites according to Madame Grieve, who woefully often does not cite her sources. She does give this charm though,
“If it be leyd under mann’s heed,
He shal sleepyn as he were deed;
He shal never drede ne wakyn
Till fro under his heed it be takyn’ (Grieve, 1931, p. 13)”.
Other Medieval herbalists used it similarly, and this line, between waking and sleeping, awareness and lack thereof, seems to be the domain of this humble plant.
From Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica:
“Let a person who has lost understanding and knowledge have the hair cut from his or her head since the hair creates a horrible and shaking tremor. Then cook agrimony in water and wash the person’s head with this warm water. Also, the herb should be tied warm over the heart when the person first senses mindlessness. Then place it warm over the forehead and temples. The person’s understanding and knowledge will be purified, and the mindlessness will leave.”
She also recommends it for,
“bile and mucus from intestines (wine infusion), saliva, excretions, and runny nose (in complex formula, pill form), leprous skin condition due to incontinence or lust (complex formula, bath), and cloudy eyes (pounded agrimony placed around the eyes at night with a cloth, not entering the eyes).”
Its vulnerary uses persisted in Europe, and mixed with vinegar and Mugwort, it was applied to a variety of wounds. Its powers to stop bleeding were apparently made more powerful by the recommendation of adding pounded frogs and human blood to treat internal hemorrhaging. In England in the 18th century, the juice and crushed leaves were still being used commonly for injuries and wounds by common people. In Ireland, this plant was sometimes known as Marbhdhraighean in Gaelic. It was also sometimes known as “tea-plant”, which as you can guess, was due to its use as a substitute for tea during lean times. There, it was used for colds, liver issues and as well as old ulcers.
The species of the Americas, a. gryposepala or parviflora, were used by native peoples and here where I live, in Cherokee it is called a la s ga lo gi. They use it as a tonic and blood purifier. The Cherokee also used infusions for similar issues of bleeding, urinary issues and more—often of the root, which was not commonly used in Europe. They were used for skin issues and pox, as a gynecological aid, for fevers, and many other ailments. Today, Agrimony is used for urinary issues, gastro issues, respiratory problems where breath is limited and wounds. Things haven’t changed too much, but we just won’t add frogs to our mix.
Of course it also has other uses. Agrimony is also a lovely dye plant and yields a yellow dye, much likes its small joyous flowers. When braided together with Rue, Maidenhair Fern, Broom, Ground Ivy, it was believed in Tyrol to reveal the presence of witches, and held them fast on the threshold. We see many stories of the power that different plants have to reveal witches beneath thresholds. How one enters or exits a place does indeed say a lot about them doesn’t it? According to Culpeper, Agrimony is attributed to Jupiter and Air. In Hoodoo, Agrimony has the unique ability to turn back jinxes that have already been made. This is interesting because most herbs are focused on preventing a working. It is also said to represent gratitude. What a good reminder at any time of year.
One of its old names, Church Steeples, is evident this time of year as the tall flower spikes of yellow flowers stand upright, waving in the hot, late Summer breezes. The association of the holy place, a church, with this plant further exemplifies its uses against evil and as a jinx breaker. While you walk the cool forest trails as Summer’s end comes into sight, please give a nod to this sweet little plant and feel its soft fuzz between your fingers. Hail Summer’s End, and the beckoning Dark times ahead.
Allen, D., Hatfield, G. Medicinal plants in folk tradition. An ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland. Portland/Cambridge: Timber Press. 2004.
Culpeper, N. Culpeper’s complete herbal. London: W. Foulsham & Co., Ltd. 1880.
Garrett, J.T. The Cherokee herbal. Native plant medicine from the four directions. Rochester, VT: Bear & Co. 2003.
von Bingen, H. Hildegard’s healing plants. From her medieval classic physica. Trans. Bruce W. Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press. 2001.
Watts, Donald. Dictionary of Plant Lore. Academic, 2007.
Wood, M. The earthwise herbal. A complete guide to old world medicinal plants. Vol. 1. Berkeley: North Atlantic Herbs. 2008.
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