Today hops are synonymous with the brewing of beer, but that has not always been the case. They are members of the Cannabinaceae family and so are distant relatives of Cannabis sativa, and also of stinging nettles. Wild hops are indigenous to Europe, including mainland Britain, although there is some debate as to where they originated, with some claiming they spread from Asia. The hop gardens in Kent were the biggest in Britain, although hops were also grown in Hampshire, Sussex and Surrey in southern England and in Worcestershire and Herefordshire.
   The Romans grew hops in gardens according to Pliny (61-113 AD) and their young shoots were eaten as a vegetable in the same way that we eat asparagus. This practice continued into the 20th century in Britain when they were cooked and chopped, then covered with butter or cream, salt and black pepper.
   Hops can grow to around 18 feet and the poles in hop gardens in England were made from Spanish chestnut trees or ash. The name lupulus comes from the Latin lupus for wolf and is said to have been given to the hop plant because the vine strangles any plants it climbs around just as the Romans thought a wolf killed a sheep by embracing it.
   The Dutch used hops to brew beer in the 14th century but the Britons were still brewing ale flavoured with traditional herbs such as chamomile, yarrow, meadowsweet, agrimony, betony and dandelion as well as malt from rye. Ale was an Anglo-Saxon drink and its brewing traditions were firmly upheld in the reign of Henry VIII when parliament described the hop as a “wicked weed that would spoil the taste of the drink and endanger the people.” As with other new things from continental Europe and the New World (the tomato and potato for example) the hop, although indigenous to Britain was looked upon as the work of the devil. It was thought to bring on melancholic thoughts and perhaps lead to suicide. Henry Vii in 1524 forbade the addition of both hops and sulphur in ale. However in the reign of Edward VI in 1536 the hop was described as “notable, healthy and temperate”- so it is quite surprising how things changed over a short period of time.
  The craft guild of brewers making beer with hops was established in Britain in 1493, separating itself from the older guild of ale makers. The Abbess Hildegarde of St. Ruprechtsberg wrote “If one intends to make beer from oats, it is prepared with hops.”  She would have known as beer and ale were brewed by members of monastic orders and hops were grown in monastery gardens in Europe.
  One of the detractors of the new-fangled hop was John Evelyn who wrote in his Pomona of 1670,
 “Hops transmuted our wholesome ale into beer, which doubtless much alters its constitution. This one ingredient, by some suspected not unworthily, preserves the drink indeed, but repays the pleasure in tormenting diseases and a shorter life.”
  The hop vine has been used to make paper and a coarse cloth, and more recently it has been suggested that it would make good pulp or biomass as do flax shives, soybean and cotton stalks. The volatile oil from hops is used in the food industry in baked products as well as in sweets, frozen desserts, mineral water and also in the tobacco and the perfume industries. The stems are used to make filler material for corrugated paper and board products. Like flax, the hop vine has a high lignan content.
  Traditionally hops have been used against insomnia and still are used to fill sleep pillows. They have a sedative action and calm hysteria and anxiety, especially when combined in a tisane with valerian and lemon balm, two other herbs with sedative properties. Half an ounce of hops to one pint of water are the usual measurements for a tisane which should be drunk for anxiety and nervous disorders, or to ease indigestion, or even, traditionally, for heart problems jaundice other liver and stomach problems. It has also been used for urinary tract problems such as cystitis and delirium tremens. Used externally it can reduce bruising and poultices of hops can reduce inflammatory swellings, although I think mallow is better for this. Hops allay pain only for a short time, being classed as anodyne rather than analgesic. A pillow stuffed with warm hops can be useful for neuralgia pains, earache and toothache. The Delaware tribe of Amerindians used sachets of hops for similar purposes. It was thought that the hop juice cleaned the blood and could remove the calculus from the joints thus easing arthritic and rheumatic pains. The infusion sometimes has poppy heads and/or chamomile added to it.
  In China and alcohol extract of hops is used for a number of diseases in their traditional medicine system, such as for leprosy, pulmonary tuberculosis and amoebic dysentery.
  In European medicine systems the hop flowers have been used in decoctions to soften a hardened uterus and to reduce swellings, while the dried hops have been used in poultices for painful tumours. Some believe that they are an aphrodisiac like cannabis.
   It is thought that the antimicrobial actions of hops are because of lupulene and humulone which are bitter acids. In Germany hops are added to sausages to preserve them from bacteria.
  In in vitro experiments it was found that xanthohumol, a constituent of hops, exerted some cancer cell killing activity, but research is still in its early stages.
  It could be that this “wicked weed” has some very beneficial properties for our future health.

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