Sunday, September 18, 2011

An Agrimonious Ode

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) is one of our most beautiful wildflowers. Its tall yellow flower-spikes grace our summer hedgerows and meadows. It deserves a post all to itself.
Agrimonia eupatoria, St Margaret's, Kent, July 2009
Agrimonia is possibly derived from the Greek argemone, suggesting that agrimony was once used for eye complaints (Hensel, 2008). I am not under the impression it ever was used thus, and probably names of things got transferred hither and thither. The naming of plants was a mess until Linnaeus arrived and sorted it all out. Actually argemone is the name of a genus of poppies; prickly poppies to be precise. The word was apparently first used by the Greek medical botanist Dioscorides to describe a poppy used for cataracts. 
Agrimony flower spikes Kingsdown Road, Kent, July 2009
The etymology of eupatoria is as follows. Mithridates Eupator of Pontus (134–63 BC) was a King and renowned polyglot. He had 6 wives and many mistresses. His first wife was his sister Laodice. Not relevant really but interesting. He must have been terrified of assassination, because mythology says he tried to make himself immune to poisons; he believed he could do this by taking minute doses of poisons over many years. It is said that Mithridates created a 'universal antidote' to poisons; mithridate or mithridatum. One medieval version of this antidote had 54 ingredients. 
Agrimony flowers, Lydden Down, Kent, July 2008

Although the link with eyes is probably spurious, agrimony has been used as a herbal medicine for millennia. The parts used are the stems, leaves and flowering tops, gathered during flowering (BHMA, 2003). Indications for use given in the most recent British Herbal Medicine Association (BHMA) guide include; diarrhoea in children, mucous colitis, grumbling appendicitis, urinary incontinence and cystitis. (All of which, it goes without saying, should be treated by a medical doctor, not herbs.

It is also used as a gargle for pharyngeal inflammation (a roundabout flouncy way of saying 'sore throat') and topically on the skin for mild inflammatory conditions. So it's recommended as a tea, a tincture or a wound dressing. Rigorous scientific evidence for clinical effectiveness for any of these uses is extremely limited (Barnes, et al., 2002).
Agrimony flowers
Agrimony is categorised as a gentle astringent herb. Astringency is that dry, puckery feeling you get in your mouth after drinking black tea. It's caused by tannins, which bind salivary proteins and leave you with that dry mouth feeling. Try nibbling the inside of a banana skin (or better still drink a glass of red wine). That's the feeling. It's from the Latin, adstringere, to bind fast.
Agrimony leaves

John Gerard (1597, page 575), always to be relied upon for some glorious word-smithing, says this of agrimony; 'the decoction of the leaves of Egremonie is good for them that have naughtie livers, and for such as pisse blood upon the diseases of the kidneis'.

'Naughtie livers' :-)

Agrimony growing down the Sandy to Bedford cycle track 2008.
What did Nicholas Culpeper say about agrimony? I like Culpeper. He was a rebel. He was the 17th century radical astrologer herbalist who upset the College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries by publishing not only their remedies in vernacular English (rather than scholarly impenetrable Latin), but went further by selling those remedies cheaper than they did and criticised them in print into the bargain.

Agrimony on the cycle track; Sandy to Bedford
We know now that Culpeper's astrology and reliance on humoral medicine is bunkum, but it is interesting to read nonetheless. Here is his astrological, humoral take on agrimony; 'It is moderately hot and moist, according to the nature of Jupiter. It is under Jupiter and the sign Cancer, and strengthens those parts under the planet or sign, and removes diseases in them by sympathy, and those under Saturn, Mars and Mercury by antipathy, if they happen in any part of the body, governed by Jupiter, or under the signs Cancer, Sagittarius or Pisces; and therefore must needs be good for the gout' (Culpeper, 1653).

Meh? Non sequitur alert. In fact his entire philosophy is out to lunch. It was the 17th century after all. Thank goodness for The Enlightenment and modern medicine.

Agrimony spike drooping over Kingsdown Road, July 2009
Agrimony has some lovely local English names. Grigson (1973) lists some: fairy's wand, lemonade, money-in-both-pockets and sweethearts. Law (1973) adds sticklewort to the list. Grigson also says that the Anglo-Saxons used agrimony (and plantain and bistort) to make a paste that could treat snake bite. There is an old rhyme that runs thus;

'He that hath sticklewort by
Knows no snake shall draw him nigh'

Agrimony, which the Anglo-Saxons called garclive (Fetrow and Avila, 2000) was also a component in a magical poly-herb salve that could keep goblins at bay. A jolly useful herb all in all.
Agrimony, Lydden Down, July 2010
Agrimony has an incredibly efficient seed dispersal strategy. Its seeds are burrs and attach to one's clothes with great tenacity. 
Agrimony, Sandy, August 2008
I woke up last Sunday morning with 6 uninvited guests in my bed; agrimony seeds. I must have picked them up on a walk. I like to read in bed, in the middle of the day, wrapped under my duvet. The seeds must have been attached to my clothes, most likely on my socks.
Agrimony velcro, Tempsford, August 2011
Here they are on my very (I notice with some shame) dusty laptop. I may plant them in the spring.
Hitchhikers, September 11th 2011
I recall a glorious sunny day in Kent 2 years ago. I was wandering down Kingsdown Road from St Margaret's, just exploring and enjoying the flowers, and agrimony was spilling out of the verge. 
The verge down Kingsdown Road, St Margaret's is just lovely.
Happiness :-)
Agrimony and friends on Kingsdown Road, Kent, July 2009
Here is the stunning wildflower verge along Kingsdown Road, in 2009. Lots of agrimony down there (although not in this photo!). Lovely jubbly.
Stunningly lush verge, Kingsdown Road, St Margaret's Kent, July 2009

Barnes J, Anderson LA and Phillipson, JD (2002) Herbal Medicines. 2nd Edition. London: Pharmaceutical Press.
British Herbal Medicine Association (2003) A Guide to Traditional Herbal Medicines. BHMA Publishing: Dorset
Culpeper, N (1653) The Complete Herbal. (Link here to page on agrimony from Bibliomania)
Fetrow, CW and Avila, JR (2000) The Complete Guide to Herbal Medicines. Springhouse: USA
Gerard, J (1597) Great Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. The full text is here on Botanicus.

Grigson, Geoffrey (1975) The Englishman’s Flora. Paladin
Hensel, W (2008) Black's Nature Guides: Medicinal Plants of Britain & Europe. A&C Black: London.
Law, D (1973) The Concise Herbal Encyclopedia. John Bartholomew & Son: Edinburgh.

Richard Feynman's Ode on a flower from a BBC Horizon interview in 1981, is seminal and beautiful, and also inspired this post. His words are always there, somewhere in the back of my mind when I look at plants. His enthusiasm and wonder in the natural world is magnetic. For me he also captures the essence of Darwin's famous line that 'there is a grandeur in this view of life'. Video here [The full version can be found easily on You Tube].


  1. Interesting article. Wild flowers seem to have very potent medicinal values.

  2. Hi lotusleaf. Every flower has as story to tell. Some flowers have particularly vivid emotional resonance for me. Agrimony is one of those. Mel