Orpine is one of the Sedum or Stonecrop family of plants of the group Crassulaceae. It is called Telephium after Telephus the son of Hercules who is said to have discovered its wound-healing properties after a battle, as he used it to cure a serious leg wound. It is native to Europe and to temperate parts of Asia, and has been used for centuries to heal. It may not be a native to Britain although it grows in wasteland and in woods and hedgerows, but it was probably introduced very early on. It was known to the Physicians of Myddfai and to the 16th century herbalist John Gerard. It was first named Crassula montana by an early Italian botanist who believed that it grew in mountainous regions. However, this proved to be an error and its name was changed. It grows to a height of 1 to 2 feet in the wild and in gardens may reach 3 feet in height. It is the stonecrop with the largest, broad leaves in Britain, where it is generally crimson, although orpine can be white-pink too. The plant flowers in July and produces seeds in August. The whole herb can be used in medicine.
The name orpine is thought to have come from the Latin, auripigmentum, which is a gold coloured pigment, a sulpheret of the metal arsenic, and from there to the Old French, orpiment and Middle English orpin. It is also known as Long Life and Everlasting because it can live for a long time if uprooted and hung in a room. There is a superstition which says that if orpine is hung in a home and suddenly dies there will be a death in the family. On the other hand, while it lives it will protect all members of the household. It is able to live without soil or water because of the nutrients it stores in its leaves and swollen roots.
Its leaves have been used in salads especially during the Middle Ages, and sheep and goats will eat them, although horses avoid them. An infusion of the leaves has been a popular remedy for diarrhoea in various countries for centuries, as the plant has astringent properties.
The 16th century German herbalist, Hieronymus Tragus, believed that distilled water of the plant was good for the stomach and bowels, and “ulcers in the lungs, liver and other inward parts.”
The root has been used to relieve burns and inflammation of wounds and skin, with the juice of the leaves being used effectively for burns, scalds and other skin problems. The plant’s juice has been made into a syrup with honey and given for sore throats, and poultices of the leaves have been applied to boils and carbuncles to stop pain. The roots can be added to soups and stews and were used for them in the Middle Ages.
Modern medicinal research has shown that the plant does indeed have wound healing properties, perhaps because of the presence of polysaccharides, and concurs with the Mediaeval physicians that it has anti-inflammatory properties too. It is believed that it can be helpful in cases of uterine haemorrhage as well as those of the bowel and rectum. It is being researched currently for its possible use in cancer treatments.
The Physicians of Myddfai used it with other herbs to treat a number of complaints and this is one of their cures for fevers.
“The mugwort, madder, meadow sweet, milfoil, hemp, red cabbage, and the tutsan, all these seven herbs enter into the composition of the medicine required. Whosoever obtains them all, will not languish long from a wounded lung, or need fear for his life. Any of the following herbs may be added thereto, butcher's broom, agrimony, tutsan, dwarf elder, amphibious persicaria, centaury, round birth wort, field scabious, pepper mint, daisy, knap weed, roots of the red nettle, crake berry, St. John's wort, privet, wood betony, the roots of the yellow goat's beard, heath, water avens, woodruff, leaves of the earth nut, agrimony, wormwood, the bastard balm, small burdock, and the orpine.”
For curiosity’s sake only, here are other remedies from these Welsh physicians which used orpine (which has been underlined).
“A sterile woman may have a potion prepared for her by means of the following herbs, viz:—St. John's wort, yew, agrimony, amphibious persicaria, creeping cinque foil, mountain club moss, orpine and pimpernel, taking an emetic in addition.”
Finally here is one of my favourite remedies which show that these old physicians didn’t really understand the workings of the female body.
“A woman who is subject to profuse menstruation, should take the reddish bastard balm, small burdock, orpine, stinking goose foot, pimpernel, water avens, with the ashes of a hart's horns, that has been killed with his antlers on, boiling them, as well as possible in red wine, straining the liquor carefully, and drinking it daily, till it is finished, abstaining (the while) from stimulating food. Being restrained by the above means, the blood will be habitually diverted to the thighs and ankles.”
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