It is hard to envisage a time, especially at the moment, when we didn’t have the National Health Service to rely on to treat our illnesses. Before the establishment of the NHS in 1948, access to medical treatment was ad hoc and those who could afford private doctors tried to avoid treatment in hospitals. Health insurance was available but again it was not a comprehensive system. No wonder that many people in Wales turned to nature, plants and flowers, and any other ingredients they had available to them to treat everyday ailments that afflicted themselves and their animals.

During the 1970s and 1980s St Fagans National Museum of History and specifically a young researcher named Anne Elizabeth Williams, collected oral testimony from hundreds of people around Wales as a record of those traditional remedies. To mark National Gardening Week here is a selection of the different plants and flowers that were used.

Flowers and Plants

Onions for Earache – Put an onion in the oven and heat it. Take the core out of the onion and place it in the ear. Olive Evans, The Rhos.

Dandelion in the treatment for Warts – use the white liquid from the stalk of the dandelion and rub it on the wart. Merthyr.

Wax model of a Dandelion from NMW collection

Wax model of a Dandelion from National Museum Wales collection

Garlic was used in a few remedies. In Llanfallteg near Carmarthen garlic was put in the bottom of the socks and worn overnight to ward off coughs and colds. It was thought that the aroma would ward off the cold symptoms.

Two women from Llandysul recalled how they were made as children to wear garlic around the neck as a prevention for worms. It was also considered a remedy for snake bites.

Tansy (Tanacetum Vulgare) is a perennial, herbaceous flowering plant of the Aster family, native to Europe and Asia. It’s listed in Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. It was used in Merionethshire for the treatment of tape worms. In Pembrokeshire it was boiled in milk to treat loose bowels.

Bogbean (Ffa Corsydd) In Trawsfynydd and Llandysul Bogbean was used in treating water infections but in Cwm Main it was used to treat aching joints or arthritis.

Agrimony (Llysiau’r Dryw) was also used to treat water infections in Cwm Main as were Yellow Flag (Gelaets) and Wood Sage (Chwerwlys yr Eithin) in other areas.

Many had considerable faith in the healing powers of Common Centaury (Yr Ysgol Fair) and Milk Thistle (Ysgallen Fraith) for kidney and bladder infections.

Trees

The Physicians of Myddfai mention the many healing powers of trees in the Red Book of Hergest, written shortly after 1382 (Llyfr Coch Hergest, held at the Bodleian Libraries, MS 111). Much oral testimony collected documents how people in Wales used them to cure many afflictions. A woman from Llandecwyn in Merionethshire remembers creating a drink from the bark of the Mountain Ash (Criafolen) and it being used to treat someone of a nervous disposition. Pouring water on the bark of The Hawthorn (Y Ddraenen Ddu) and drinking the water was used by a gentleman in Maenclochog as a remedy for stomach upsets. The Elder Tree (Ysgawen) was thought to have many healing properties. The leaves would be dried to make an infusion and used as necessary and the berries for wine, both a remedy for colds. A salve could also be made from the leaves or the branches mixed with pig fat or mouldy butter (Menyn Gwyrdd).

Fruit and Fruit Trees

A drink made with blackberry leaves to treat loose bowels and stomach upsets and the flowers used as a drink to treat haemorrhoids. Rhubarb was considered effective for constipation and the leaves used for joint pain. Potatoes had many uses – a slice on aching joints and as a poultice on the neck when suffering from Quinsy.

The most unusual? A remedy from Swansea: the slime from a snail was used to cure a stye on the eye!

Materia Medica Collection, NMW

Materia Medica Collection, National Museum Wales

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