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Monday, November 21, 2011
TOADFLAX - BITTER HERB: HISTORY AND HEALTH BENEFITS OF TOADFLAX
Toadflax is rather like a snapdragon or Antyrrhinum and this common toadflax is yellow, but there are also different coloured varieties, including a blue one. Toadflax gets its name because its leaves are similar to those of flax, and toad might refer to its wide mouth or the old belief that young toads sheltered under these flowers. The Latin botanical name Linaria also refers to flax as the Greek for that plant is linon, hence Linaria. Vulgaris means common and this yellow toadflax is very common in Europe, including Britain, and in Western Asia. It was introduced into North America, perhaps mixed with grain seeds, and is now classes as a noxious weed in several states. It is a member of the Scrophulariaceae or figwort family, whose members are used for skin problems.
Historically toadflax was used for liver and gall bladder complaints, including obstructions of the latter and jaundice. An infusion of the whole herb can also be made for skin problems and it can act as a detergent to clean wounds. In Germany a yellow dye used to be obtained from the flowers of this plant. These bloom from June or July (depending on where they grow) and continue until October. The flowers are close-lipped until a bee forces them open to get at the nectar deep inside the flower. The under lip is orange, which gives rise to the common name for this plant, Butter and Eggs.
The English herbalist, John Gerard, writing in the 16th century, likened toadflax to larkspur and snapdragons and wrote that an infusion was used externally as it “taketh away yellowness and deformities of the skinne.” Infusions are made with 1 ounce of the whole herb to a pint of boiling water and then the plant is left to steep for a couple of hours then the liquid can be strained and applied externally. The tisane made from this plant is extremely bitter and may be toxic; the taste gave it the name Gallwort as it was said to be as ‘bitter as gall’.
You can harvest the whole herb just as it comes into flower and either use it fresh or dry it for later use. It can be chopped and boiled in lard to make an ointment for piles and skin problems and it is said that if it is steeped and boiled in milk and the concoction is placed where a lot of flies gather, it will kill them. So it is useful if you are bothered by flies. The whole herb can be warmed and used as a poultice for piles too.
Traditionally the distilled water of this plant has been used to reduce inflammation of the eyes, but whether this is considered advisable now is another matter. The plant should not be given to pregnant women either because of its toxicity. It has been used for its diuretic qualities in cases of oedema and is a powerful laxative, although not as strong as jamalgota (Croton tiglium). The leaves and flowers have been used in decoctions combined with quinine, cinnamon and Peruvian bark (which comes from the Chinona species of trees as does quinine) in cases of jaundice in former times.
In 1742 a five-spurred yellow toadflax flower was found on the Stockholm Archipelago and on investigating it, Karl Linnaeus, the Father of Botany, deemed it to be like a monster and called it “Peloria” which is ancient Greek for “monster”. This is an example of a natural mutation and was perhaps named monster because of this plant’s association with the poor toad which doesn’t have very good PR officers.
There have been few clinical trials on toadflax, but some suggest that it has powerful antioxidant properties and it is known to contain vasicine, which is used for its bronchodilatory and mucolytic properties. It may be liver protective but this has not yet been conclusively proved.