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Friday, September 9, 2011
SEA HOLLY, ERYNGOES, A MEDIAEVAL APHRODISIAC, HEALTH BENEFITS AND USES OF ERYNGIUM MARITIMUM
Sea Holly reminds me of teazle, although the two are not related. As its name suggests in the wild Sea Holly grows along the coast of much of
Europe, including Scandinavia, and can also be found along the Black Sea. Its name eryngium comes from the Greek meaning to cure flatulence, and maritimum means of the sea. There could be another reason for the plant to be called eryngium, though, as eeringos is also Greek for the beard of the Billy-goat and Plutarch has this strange tale about a goat which tried to eat Sea Holly. He wrote that if a female goat had sea holly in its mouth “it causes her first to stand still, and afterwards the whole flock, until such time as the shepherd takes it from her.”
It is said to have aphrodisiac qualities, and a legend has it that the ancient Greek poetess, Sappho, wore it to attract the love of a particularly handsome Greek boatman, Phaon. It is mentioned by Falstaff for these qualities in “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, in Act V, scene v: -
“Let the sky rain potatoes,
let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves
hail kissing-comfits and snow eryngoes
let there come a tempest of provocation…”
Sea Holly roots were used as sweets to sweeten the breath in Shakespeare’s day, hence the name “kissing-comfits”; Sea Holly was then known as eryngo. It has been used in the same way as angelica, candied, although it tastes like sweet carrots when eaten like this.
This plant is a member of the Apiceae or Umbelliferae family and is closely related to rock samphire, sharing its coastal habitat. It is in the same family as the carrot, of which its root tastes a little, parsnip, fennel and lovage. The young plant’s shoots can be eaten, boiled like asparagus, and when the roots are baked or roasted, they taste like chestnuts or parsnips.
I used to admire these plants when I was on the beaches of the
, Gower Coast South Wales, and loved the frosted appearance of the leaves. This is due, I now realize, to a waxy covering which seals in moisture and protects the plants from the ravages of the sea “breezes” which are often gale force winds. They can still be found in the sand dunes along the Gower, although in some parts of the British Isles, such as the coast, they are extinct. There is some good news for them though, as they can be cultivated in gardens, and as they make a pretty ornamental they are currently in vogue. Somerset
At first sight they look like a thistle, although nothing like a cardoon or a globe artichoke, being more reminiscent of a milk thistle. I have always thought they were fairy plants, probably because of their blue flowers and the frosting – I thought that fairies especially loved blue flowers such as bluebells.
These plants grow to around a foot high and their roots have been used over the centuries as a diuretic, and to prevent the formation of kidney stones. They are also useful for cystitis and bladder infections and may help with enlarged prostate glands. The 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper recommended that the distilled water made from the whole young plant should be taken for “the melancholy of the heart” and for fevers. It can promote sweating and so reduce temperatures. He also says that it is good for stiff necks.
Earlier in the 16th century John Gerard thought that it was good for liver diseases, stomach cramps and epilepsy, while in the 1st century AD Dioscorides used it to relieve flatulence and indigestion.
In medical trials it has been found to have some antioxidant properties, although not as many as rock samphire, and to have anti-bacterial ones. An extract of the rhizome showed anti-inflammatory properties when used on rats.
In folk medicine it has been used as an antiscorbutic and its purgative properties, as well as for the other cures mentioned above. Studies are still being carried out on this plant.