Two medicinal plants

Two more plants from breakfast at Palo Alto’s Gamble Garden on Tuesday (the 25th): yarrow (Achillea) and scabious (Scabiosa), both plants with a history in folk medicine, though apparently in different traditions.

Yarrow. From Wikipedia:

Achillea … is a group of flowering plants in the family Asteraceae [the composites] described as a genus by Linnaeus in 1753.

The genus was named after the Greek mythological character Achilles. According to the Iliad, Achilles’ soldiers used yarrow to treat their wounds [as a vulnerary], hence some of its common names such as allheal and bloodwort.

The genus is native primarily to Europe, temperate areas of Asia, and North America.The common name “yarrow” is usually applied to Achillea millefolium

… These plants typically have frilly, hairy, aromatic leaves. The plants show large, flat clusters of small flowers at the top of the stem. The flowers can be white, yellow, orange, pink or red

A white variant grew wild in Ohio and we let it naturalize in the garden there:


We also intentionally planted a red variety:


Beautiful plants with a wonderful smell (usable as a scent herb, to freshen rooms, beds, etc.) and a very long history as a vulnerary, for stanching wounds. (Apparently its medicinal uses were discovered by accident, a long time ago.)

Other vulneraries on this blog, in my posting on StachysPrunella vulgaris (all-heal, selfheal), Ajuga reptans (bugleweed), Stachys sylvatica (woundwort).

Scabious. From Wikipedia:

Scabiosa … is a genus in the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) of flowering plants. Many of the species in this genus have common names that include the word scabious … Another common name for members of this genus is pincushion flowers.

Some species of Scabiosa are annuals, others perennials. Some are herbaceous plants; others have woody rootstocks. … Scabiosa species and varieties differ in the colours of their flowers, but most are soft lavender blue, lilac or creamy white.

An assortment of hybrid scabious:


The ones we saw at GG were pink.

You can see where the name pincushion flower comes from. And in fact this prickly appearance is the source of the name scabious. From NOAD2 on scabious:

ORIGIN late Middle English: based on Latin scabiosus ‘rough, scabby’; the noun is from medieval Latin scabiosa (herba) ‘rough, scabby (plant),’ formerly regarded as a cure for skin disease (see scabies)

And on scabies:

a contagious skin disease marked by [intense] itching and small raised red spots, caused by the itch mite. ORIGIN late Middle English (denoting various skin diseases): from Latin, from scabere ‘to scratch.’ The current sense dates from the early 19th cent.

This is the medieval doctrine of signatures: the plant was recommended to treat the disease because its flowers resemble the symptoms of the disease. See the discussion on this blog of Scrophularia as a recommended treatment for scrofula (a disease of the throat), and recall walnuts as recommended “brain food”.

But if you’re suffering from itch mites, I wouldn’t recommend turning to Scabiosa for relief.

On the mites, from Wikipedia:

Sarcoptes scabiei or the itch mite is a parasitic arthropod that burrows into skin and causes scabies. The mite is cosmopolitan, meaning can be found in all parts of the world. … The discovery of the itch mite in 1687 marked scabies as the first disease of humans with a known cause.

An infestation is treated by miticidal creams or lotions, sometimes by oral medications.

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