The use of herbs for healing is ancient but today they are often seen, at best, as alternative medicine but generally as just folklore and non-effective. However, what people may not realise is that a large proportion of the substances used in modern medicine were originally obtained from plants. When supply of these plants became cut off in World War II, the Felbridge Herb Gatherers, one of many nationwide groups, stepped in to help meet the short-fall of herbs required for the production of medicines.
Every ancient culture recognised a wide range of medicinal plants and also had a profound understanding of the healing properties of each plant. Tried and tested local plants were picked for a range of common health problems and taken as teas, applied as lotions or mixed with fat and rubbed in as an ointment. These ancient herbal remedies must have been developed through trial and error and by observing the natural world to see which plants were avoided by animals and the effects that certain plants had on animals when eaten. These observations and the knowledge gained about the healing properties of certain plants was then passed down over the generations to create a wealth of herbal folklore, with each ancient civilisation devising its own herbal remedies based on the plants and spices at their disposal.
Many of these plants, given that they had life-enhancing properties, were often believed to have magical properties as well and were often administered with ritual ceremonies. However, by about 500 BC, Hippocrates, sometimes called the Greek father of medicine, concluded that illness was a natural rather than supernatural phenomenon and felt that medicine should be given without the ritual ceremonies.
With the establishment of trade routes between Europe, the Middle East, India and Asia came a cross pollination of herbal remedies, plants and spices that had until then been confined to each ancient civilisation. As trade and interest in herbal medicines and spices increased so various writers made systematic records of the plants and their known medicinal properties. The most successful of these writers was the Greek physician Dioscorides who wrote the first European herbal, De Materia Medica, which remained the principal herbal reference book in Europe until the 17th century. Perhaps the best-known book in this country on the subject of medicines made of English herbs was The English Physician by Nicholas Culpeper written in the mid 17th Century.
By the end of the 16th century, there emerged a new breed of medical thinkers, those advocating chemical medicines, which included mercury, antimony and arsenic, coupled with excessive blood letting. With remedies like these, the patient, more often than not, died from the treatment given rather than the initial ailment. These practices reached a peak in the early 19th century when a total review of medicines and medical practice was brought about by a greater understanding of the way the body worked. A growing interest in science had, by this date, discovered that many plants contained substances that could be extracted or synthesized in a laboratory that had beneficial healing properties such as, cardiac glycosides obtained from foxgloves, narcotic alkaloids from the opium poppy and salicylic acid, a fore-runner of aspirin from the bark of the white willow. From this point on herbal medicine and biomedicine, as it was known, were to take two separate paths, with scientists making tremendous progress in understanding how isolated chemicals affect the body. The effect of this scientific approach was to sideline traditional herbal remedies and assign them to an existence as alternative medicine.
It is not commonly known that even in the 1930s around 90 per cent of medicines prescribed by doctors or sold over the counter were of herbal origin. It is only more recently that laboratory synthesised medicines have become the norm. The plants that yield drug substances are located all over the world, some growing wild as weeds while others are cultivated. At the turn of the 20th century, many of the plants used in British medicine originated from the Continent due to the fact that they grew more abundantly there and because of the warmer climate could be dried without artificial heat. As a consequence these plants were in short supply during World War I and the continued production of medicines in Britain began to rely on the use of native grown plants and natural remedies. A typical treatment for battle wounds during World War I was the use of garlic, a natural antibiotic, and sphagnum moss, which made a natural antiseptic dressing. To over come the short fall of imported drug yielding plants, volunteers throughout Britain collected native grown plants. In 1918 there was also a failure in the fruit crop, leading to the Ministry of Food calling upon the people of Britain to help out in the crisis by picking blackberries for jam. The British Forces consumed 1.5 million pounds of jam per day and in 1918 the demand increased with the arrival of the American Army. To date there is no evidence that plants were collected from the Felbridge area during the First World War, although between 2nd and 16th September 1918, the children of Felbridge School managed to pick 260 lbs/117kg of blackberries that were accepted and paid for by the East Grinstead War Womens Association for the use of troops at home and abroad. In acknowledgement, Mr Winter visited the school on behalf of the Ministry of Food to thank the children for their success in blackberrying and urged them to continue. Over the next two days the children went out again and picked a further 137 lbs/62kg bringing the total weight of blackberries picked to 397lbs/179kg. Blackberries are rich in Vitamin C and contain anthocyanins that help keep blood vessels healthy.
With the onset of World War II, Britain was once again in the same situation as it was in World War I, with many of the plants used in medicines still being imported from the Continent, with supply disrupted or even blocked altogether. In 1940, Whitechapel Hospital alerted the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to the fact that due to the war, supplies of all essential drugs had been practically cut off. To counteract the shortfall, Sir Arthur Hill, the Director of Kew, called a meeting to assess the situation and formulate a plan of action. Representatives from Kew met with representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Pharmaceutical Society and the herb growers and traders of Britain, which resulted in the formation of the Vegetable Drugs Committee. The committee, advised by Dr Ronald Melville, an expert in medical plants from Kew, drew up a list of essential plants that needed to be cultivated and collected. A simple and effective way to re-establish a supply of these plants was to encourage the people of Britain to collect and dry the plants found in this country. An effective system was established by Kew with assistance from the National Federation of Womens Institutes, the Scottish Womens Rural Institutes and the Womens Voluntary Services for Civil Defence, who in turn involved the school children, and Scouts and Guides of Britain.
One such organisation that was formed in Felbridge to help the war effort was the Felbridge Herb Gatherers, in which Dora Wheeler, a member of the Felbridge WI, played an active and prominent role. She mobilised the children of Felbridge School to gather and dry the required herbs from hedgerows, waste ground and the Commons of the Felbridge area to help meet the shortage of imported botanical plants and herbs. The herbs, once dried, were then sent to the companies that had, before the onset of war, dealt in importing botanical drugs. For identification purposes cigarette cards of plants produced by the London Cigarette Card Co Ltd. were initially used, along with a pamphlet produced by the Boy Scouts, followed by booklets produced by several of the botanical drug companies.
In 1941, the Vegetable Drug Committee took over the organisation of medical drug supplies and distribution from Kew and identified two groups of British plants required, Group 1 essential, and Group 2 less important.
Plant, Botanical name, Part used, Crude drug extracted, Use/disorder treated
Broom, Cytisus scoparius, Tops, Scoparium, Diuretic (increase production of urine)
Dandelion, Taraxacum, Roots, Taraxacum, Laxative
Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna, Leaves, Belladonna, Spasms, sedative
Elder, Sambucus nigra, Flowers, Sambucus, Influenza, colds, diaphoretic (produce perspiration)
Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, Leaves & Seeds, Digtalis, Heart disease
Male Fern, Dryopteris filix-mas, Rhizomes, Male fern, Tapeworm infections
Naked Ladies, Colchicum autumnale, Corms & Seeds, Colchicum, Gout, rheumatism
Sphagnum Moss, Sphagnum, Whole plant, , Wound dressings
Valerian, Valeriana officinalis, Roots, Valerian, Sedative, carminative
Plant, Botanical name, Part used, Crude drug extracted, Use/disorder treated
Black Horehound, Ballota nigra, Above ground parts, , Spasms and anthelmintic (expulsion of intestinal worms)
Burdock, Arctium, Leaves and root, Lappa, Diuretic and diaphoretic
Centaury, Centurium, Whole plant, Centaury, Tonic, stimulant
Coltsfoot, Tussilago farafara, Flowering shoots and leaves, Coltsfoot, Bronchi, inflammation, demulcent (soothing qualities)
Comfrey, Symphytum officinale, Roots, Comfrey, Wounds, demulcent
Couch Grass, Elytrigia repens, Rhizomes, Couch grass, Diuretic
Large-leaved Lime, Tilia platyphyllos, Inflorescences, Tilia, Indigestion, nerves, vomiting
Lime, Tilia x vulgaris, Inflorescences, Tilia, Indigestion, nerves, vomiting
Marshmallow, Althea officinalis, Leaves, Althea, Demulcent and emollient (softening and soothing qualities)
Parsley, Aphanes arvensis, Above ground parts, , Kidneys, diuretic
Skullcap, Scutellaria galericulata, Above ground parts, -, Spasms, nerves
Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa, Leaves, , Fever
Sweet Flag, Acorus calamus, Rhizomes, Calamus, Tonic, stimulant, carminative
Tansy, Teucrium vulgare, Above ground parts, , Anthelmintic
White Horehound, Marrubium vulgare, Above ground parts, Marrubium, Coughs, laxative
Wild Carrot, Daucus carota ssp carota, Above ground parts and seed, -, Diuretic, carminative
Wild Thyme, Thymus polytrichus, Above ground parts, Thyme, Antiseptic, carminative
Wood Sage, Teucrium scorodonia, Above ground parts, , Diuretic
Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, Above ground parts, Absinthium, Nerve, tonic stimulant
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, Above ground parts, , Demulcent, diuretic
These medicinal plants were not generally intended to be used whole as is the practise in herbal medicine but were sent to have key constituents removed to be used in the manufacture of botanic drugs. The extracted constituents and their medical effects are:
Alkaloids which contain a nitrogen-bearing molecule that makes them particularly pharmacologically active. The group is very mixed that includes some well-known drugs that have a recognised medical use, e.g. vincristine used to treat some types of cancer and astropine used for reducing spasms, relieving pain and drying up bodily secretions.
Anthocyanins the pigments that give flowers and fruits a blue, purple or red hue help to keep blood vessels healthy.
Anthraquinones which have an irritant laxative effect on the large intestine, causing contractions of the intestinal walls and stimulating bowel movement.
Bitters which is a varied group of plants linked only by their bitter taste that stimulates secretions by the salivary glands and digestive organs. Such secretions improve the appetite and strengthen the overall function of the digestive system. Improved digestion and absorption of nutrients nourishes and strengthens the body.
Cardiac Glycosides which have a strong, direct action on the heart, like digitoxin, digoxin and gitoxin, helping to support its strength and rate of contraction when it fails. They are also significantly diuretic to help transfer fluids from the tissues and circulatory system to the urinary tract, thereby lowering blood pressure.
Coumarin which is a group of toxic, fragrant, organic compounds found in many plant species, all having different uses.
Cyanogenic Glycosides which are based on cyanide, a very potent poison, but in small doses they have a helpful sedative and relaxant effect on the heart and muscles.
Flavonoids which are found in many plants and have a wide range of actions. They are anti-inflammatory and are especially useful in maintaining healthy circulation.
Glucosilinates which are found exclusively in species of the mustard family, and have an irritant effect on the skin, causing inflammation and blistering, if applied to painful and aching joints, they increase blood flow to the affected area, helping to remove the build-up of waste products.
Minerals like calcium, copper, germanium, iodine, iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, silica and zinc, which are found in some plants that can act as mineral supplements to the body.
Mucilage which is found in many plants and is made up of polysaccharides (large sugar molecules) that soak up water, producing a sticky jelly-like mass. Mucilage lines the mucous membranes of the digestive track, protecting against irritation, acidity and inflammation. This soothing and protective action appears to extend to other areas including, the mucous membranes of the throat, lungs, kidneys and urinary tubules.
Phenols which is a group of compounds that are found in many plants and includes salicylic acid, the natural forerunner of asprin, they are also antiseptic and reduce inflammation when taken internally.
Saponins these fall into two types, triterpenoid and steroidal saponins. The latter get their name from their similarity to the human bodys own naturally occurring steroid hormone. Many plants containing steroidal saponins have a marked hormonal effect. Triterpenoid saponins are often strong expectorants and may also aid in absorption of nutrients.
Tannins which are produced to a greater or lesser degree in all plants and contract the tissues of the body, therefore improving resistance to infection.
Vitamins which are necessary in maintaining a healthy body and are found in significant levels in some plants.
Volatile Oils which are extracted from plants to produce essential oils, all being strongly antiseptic and some containing sesquiterpines that have an anti-inflammatory effect.
As the war continued the Vegetable Drug Committee reviewed their plant groups and whilst some plants were dropped others were added to their essential list. Those that were added included: conkers from the Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) that gave glucose used in Lucozade and aesculin used in testing for Streptococcus in dairy products, various forms of Red Seaweed, Chondrus crispus, Gigantia stellata,and Chondrus crispus used in bacteriology, and Rose hips (Rosa ssp) used for Rose Hip Syrup a rich source of Vitamin C to boost the immune system.
Children from all over Britain collected an amazing amount of plants and in 1942 gathered 1,000 tons/1 million kg, which rose to 2,000 tons/2 million kg in 1943 and by 1944 the target was set at 4,000 tons/4 million kg. Collectors were initially paid directly by the botanical drug traders who required a minimum of 30lbs/13kg of dried plants and not less than 7lbs/3kg of any one item. The botanical drug trader, to which the Felbridge plants were sent, was Brome & Schimmer located at 4 Leather Market, London, SE1, having been established in about 1924 by Mr A E Brome and Mr R C Schimmer. Family tradition states that young Brome and young Schimmer had little money but went down to the docks on a Friday evening and bought a sack of Senna pods a very useful purgative! Bob, (Robert Schimmer) then cycled round London selling them. When they had sold the sack-full they returned to the docks and bought some more and so the company grew. By the end of the Second World War, Brome & Schimmer had expanded by taking over an old-established firm of essential oil merchants called Sparks, White & Co. that had been founded about 1700. In 1970, Brome & Schimmer expanded again this time taking over I A Horner & Son Ltd., established in the Elizabethan era, and in 1971, John Wylde Ltd., a company well known as grinders in the botanical plant import trade was also added.
Mr Brome retired in 1958 and in 1959 Robert Schimmer was joined by his son Philip, who eventually took over as Managing Director. In 1976, the company moved from Leather Market to Romsey in Hampshire. In 1993, Philip Schimmer reorganised the business, and Brome & Schimmer was handed over to someone else to run, whilst Philip Schimmer retained Sparks White Ltd., still importing herbs and spices but by then dealing mainly with the gin trade.
To ensure supplies of essential botanical plants during World War II, Brome & Schimmer, supported by the Ministry of Health, produced a booklet called Herb Gathering that gave clear guidelines on what to collect and, more importantly, how to dry the plants. On the collection and harvesting of the plants, the booklet states:
In gathering herbs for medicinal use it is important first of all to know where they grow profusely, and which parts are required.
The most important thing from the collectors point of view, as well as from the chemists, is to obtain as much as possible of what is known as the active principle, that is, the medicinal property of the herb. In order to succeed in this several simple rules should be observed.
All herbs should be gathered on a dry day, never directly after rain.
Leaves should be gathered before the flowers are fully open; they should be clean, free from insect bites or discolouration, and without stems.
Flowers are at their best when first open fully.
Roots, on the other hand, are best gathered in the autumn, when the top of the plant is dying down. They should be thoroughly washed to rid them of any soil adhering, and all traces of tops and root fibres removed.
If the whole plant is required with the root, it should be dug when mature and washed, as directed for roots, before drying.
If the herb is wanted without the root the top should be cut off at ground level and dried without previous washing.
Berries require picking when fully ripe but not over-ripe; they should be dry and free from bits of bark and leaf.
Seeds should be gathered pod and all, when ripe, and shaken out and sieved after drying.
Herbs are held to be useless if the colour is not preserved, and failure in this can be caused in several ways:
By heating, that is if left heaped up they will start burning in the middle like a pile of lawn clippings. By bruising or crushing in handling. By spreading too thickly to dry. Also, by a lesser degree, by drying too slowly, or at too low a temperature, and by fading caused by direct sunlight falling on the herbs when drying. The harvest should therefore be taken in to the drying shed as soon as possible after gathering. If this is impossible for several hours the herbs should be laid out thinly, where the air can get at them, out of direst sunlight.
Herbs should never be left heaped up even for half an hour.
The booklet points out that not only must the herbs be of sound quality but that it was essential to dry them correctly, giving several pages of instructions for the most suitable drying arrangements. From a newspaper article of the time, the Felbridge Herb Gatherers hung their herbs from strings strung across the classrooms at Felbridge School. This obviously proved to a very satisfactory method, although not one mentioned in the booklet, as a hand written comment on the bottom of one of the Brome & Schimmer receipts states: A remarkably useful collection and all very well done.
It must be remembered that most herbs lose about 80 per cent of their weight while drying so a very large quantity of fresh herbs are required to produce a given quantity of dried herbs. In nearly all cases, 5lbs/2.25kg of fresh herbs are required to produce 1lb/450g of dried herbs, and even for woody-stemmed plants such as nettles the ratio is 4lbs/1.8kg to 1lb/450g. Parsley may take about 10lbs/4.5kg to produce 1lb/450g when dried, and flowers and water plants may take as much as 20lbs/9kg to make 1lb/450g when dried. Finally, it takes up to 9lbs/4kg of fresh roots such as dandelion to produce 1lb/450g of dried roots.
No doubt armed with cigarette cards and the Herb Gathering booklet, the Felbridge Herb Gatherers set to work, and from two surviving receipts it is evident that they collected and dried huge quantities of plants from the Felbridge area. One receipt reveals that they collected 3lbs/1.3kg of foxglove seeds and 1lb 12oz/790g of red rose petals. Bearing in mind the weight loss during the drying process, these equate to about 15lbs/6.75kg of fresh foxglove seeds and 35lbs/15.75kg of fresh rose petals! A local newspaper article dated 12th August 1944 states that the Felbridge Herb Gatherers had been active since 1941, the year in which the Herb Gathering booklet was published, and the two receipts dated 15th September 1943 and 12th September 1945 suggest that they were active until at least the end of the war and possibly longer. Money raised from the collection of the plants during the war was donated by the Felbridge Herb Gatherers to the Red Cross Agriculture Fund, which was run jointly by the Red Cross and St John Ambulance Service, to enable parcels to be sent to Prisoners of War and supplies to the sick and wounded.
The following is a list of plants and their general uses that the Felbridge Herb Gatherers regularly supplied to Brome & Schimmer:
Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatoria
Also known as Church Steeples and Cockeburr and is found in hedgerows, dry thickets and roadsides. The aerial part of the plant is used as a tonic to improve bodily tone and condition, a diuretic to increase the passing of urine, an astringent helpful in the remedy for diarrhoea, and it also has anti-inflammatory and blood-staunching properties.
Balm, Melissa officinalis
Cultivated in gardens. The aerial part of the plant is used as a diluent for fevers, a stimulant, a carminative to expel gas from the stomach and intestines, a nerve tonic for relaxation, anxiety and mild depression, an antiviral, a diaphoretic to produce perspiration, and an antispasmodic to reduce convulsions.
Bay, Laurus nobilis
Cultivated in gardens. The leaves and berries are used to combat infectious diseases, as a diuretic, an anthelmintic to dispel or destroy intestinal worms, and as an expectorant for the promotion of expulsion of phlegm or other matter from the membrane of the air passages.
Blackcurrant, Ribes nigrum
Found on wasteland and cultivated in gardens. The leaves are used as a diuretic that helps to reduce blood volume thereby lowering blood pressure. The berries, being high in vitamin C, improve resistance to infection.
Black Horehound, Ballota nigra
Also known as Marrubium nigrum, Black Stinking Horehound, and is found on dry, wasteland. The herb is used as an anti-spasmodic to combat convulsions, and is a mild sedative.
Burdock, Arctium Lappa
Also known as Thorny Burr and is found on roadsides and wasteland. Both the leaves and root can be used as a diuretic, an alterative tending to restore normal health, and it also has antibiotic and antiseptic properties.
Centaury, Erythraea centaurium
Also known as Red Centaury, Filwort or Feverwort, and is found in dry pastures, chalky cliffs and cleared woodland. The aerial part of the plant is used as a tonic to strengthen the digestive system.
Clivers, Galium aparine
Also known as Cleavers, Goosegrass, Catchweed, Goosebill and Robin-in-the-grass, and is found among hedges and bushes and at the base of hedges. The aerial part of the plant is used as a diuretic and tonic for skin diseases.
Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara
Also known as Coughwort, Horsehoof and Son-before-Father, and is found on wasteland, preferably on clayey soils. The leaves and flowers are used as an expectorant, a demulcent to sooth, an anti-inflammatory, an antispasmodic and immunostimulant to increase the effectiveness of the immune system.
Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale
Also known as Priests Crown, Swines Snout and Wet-the bed, and is found in fields, roadsides and gardens. The leaves and roots are used as a diuretic that treats high blood pressure by reducing the volume of fluid in the body, and is also used as a tonic to stimulate the kidneys to remove toxins and waste products.
Elder, Sambucus nigra
Also known as Black elder, Common Elder and Pipe Tree, and is found in woods and hedges. The flowers and berries are used as a diaphoretic to produce perspiration and therefore reduce a fever, a diuretic and it also has anti-inflammatory properties. The berries are also rich in vitamin C to improve resistance to infection.
Feverfew, Chrysanthemum parthenium
Also known as Featherfew and Featherfoil, and is found on wasteland and in hedges. The aerial part of the plant is used as an aperient or gentle laxative, an analgesic or painkiller, a diaphoretic to produce perspiration, and an anti-rheumatic.
Figwort, Scrophularia nodosa
Also known as Throatwort and Carpenters Square, and is found in moist, bushy places and damp woods. The whole plant is used as a diuretic, an anodyne able to soothe or relieve pain, and it also aids in the healing of wounds.
Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea (poisonous)
Also known as Red Thimbles and found in woods and roadsides. The leaves and seeds are used primary as a cardiac or heart stimulant, used in conjunction with its diuretic properties to stimulate urine that lowers the volume of blood and thus lessens the load on the heart.
Garden Mint, Memtha piperata
Cultivated in gardens. The aerial part of the plant is used as a carminative to expel gas from the stomach and intestines, an antiseptic, a diaphoretic to produce perspiration and also as a stimulant to the digestive system.
Ground Ivy, Nepeta hederacea
Also known as Gill-go-over-the-Ground and Alehoof, and is found in hedgerows, meadows and waste ground. The aerial part of the plant is used as an astringent, a diuretic, tonic for skin complaints and as an anti-catarrhal or any problem involving the mucous membrane of the ear, nose and throat.
Lavender, Lavendula vera
Cultivated in gardens. The flowers are used for their aromatic, antibacterial and antiseptic qualities, and for the volatile oil that can be distilled from them, used for its aromatic quality, and as a carminative for the nervous system and stimulant for blood flow.
Lily-of-the-Valley, Convallaria majalis
Also known as May Lily and Our Ladys Tears, and is found in shady places in woods and is also cultivated in gardens. The whole plant is used as a cardiac tonic and diuretic.
Meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria
Found in damp places. The whole plant is used, the tops as a diaphoretic to produce perspiration, an astringent to draw together or constrict tissue, an anti-inflammatory for joints, an anti-rheumatic, a diuretic and a safe remedy for diarrhoea. The root is used as a diluent for fevers.
Mullein, Verbascum thapsus
Also known as Blanket Herb and Candle Flower, and is found in dry, sunny places. The leaves and flowers are used as a demulcent for soothing coughs and catarrh and an astringent to draw together or constrict tissue.
Nettle, Urtica dioica
Also known as Stinging Nettles and Common Nettles, and is found everywhere on waste ground. The aerial part of the plant is used as an anti-asthmatic to combat chronic respiratory infections accompanied by laboured breathing, chest constrictions and coughing, a diuretic, an astringent to slow the flow of bleeding, an anti-allergenic for the treatment of hay fever, a tonic for skin conditions and insect bites, and it combats anaemia.
Periwinkle, Vinca major and Vinca minor
Both periwinkles are found in woods and upon shady banks. The leaves are used as a tonic, and astringent for sore throats and have blood-staunching properties effective against internal bleeding.
Pilewort, Ranunculus ficaria
Also known as Lesser Celandine, and is found in moist places, both open and shady, and in hedgerows. The whole herb is used as a treatment for haemorrhoids.
Plantain, Plantago major
Also known as Way-bread and Way Broad Leaf, and is found in meadows, pasture and by roadsides. The whole plant is used as a diuretic, expectorant and anti-catarrhal, and it is particularly effective in staunching blood loss, and encouraging the repair of damaged tissue and bones.
Raspberry, Rubus idaeus
These are found in woods and heaths, and are cultivated in gardens. The leaves are used as an astringent, as eyewash for conjunctivitis, a mouthwash, or lotion for wounds and ulcers, and as a stimulant to encourage easy childbirth.
Red Rose, Rosa gallica
Cultivated in gardens. The petals contain a volatile oil used for its aromatic quality, and as a mild sedative, anti-depressant and anti-inflammatory. Rosewater is mildly astringent and can be used as eyewash.
St Johns Wort, Hypericum perforatum
Found in meadows, on banks and by the roadside. The flowers and leaves are used as a tonic for anxiety, tension, insomnia and depression, and as a gastric anti-inflammatory.
Sage, Salva officinalis
Cultivated in gardens. The leaves are used as an antiseptic for sore throats, an astringent for mild diarrhoea, a tonic for the nervous system and digestive system, and as a carminative for asthma.
Scarlet Pimpernel, Anagallis arvensis
Also known as Poor Mans Weatherglass and Shepherds Barometer, and is found in cornfields, wasteland and gardens. The aerial part of the plant is used as a diuretic, a hepatic to treat liver disease, an expectorant and a diaphoretic to produce perspiration.
Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare
Also known as Buttons, and is found in hedgerows and waste ground. The leaves and flowering tops of the plant are used as an anthelmintic to dispel or destroy intestinal worms, and an external tonic to kill scabies, fleas and lice.
Thyme, Thymus serpyllum
Also known as Wild Thyme and Mother of Thyme, and is found on barren and dry soil, heath land and mountains. The aerial part of the plant is used as an antiseptic and tonic for the immune system, an anti-asthmatic to relieve breathing problems, an anthelmintic to dispel or destroy intestinal worms and for its aromatic properties. Externally it can be used as a tonic to relieve bites, aches and pains, fungal infections and scabies and lice.
Violet, Viola odorata
Also known as Sweet-scented Violet, and is found in damp woods and shady places. The leaves are used as an antiseptic, a demulcent for soothing coughs and catarrh, as well as an expectorant, and a diaphoretic to produce perspiration and therefore reduce a fever.
Wood Betony, Stachys betonica
Also known as Bishopswort and is found in thickets, woods and at roadsides. The aerial part of the plant is used as an astringent, an analgesic or painkiller, is a mild sedative relieving nervous stress and tension, a diaphoretic to produce perspiration, stimulates the digestive system and liver and is an alterative to restore health.
Wood Sage, Teucrium scorodonia
Also known as Garlic Sage and Wood Germander, and is found on heath land, commons and in woods. The aerial part of the plant is used as a tonic and astringent to treat stomach problems, a demulcent for soothing coughs and catarrh, as well as an expectorant, and a diaphoretic to produce perspiration and therefore reduce a fever.
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
Also known as Old Mans Pepper and Staunch Wee, and is found everywhere, meadows, pasture, roadsides and gardens. The aerial part of the plant is used as an anti-spasmodic, a stimulant for the digestive system, an astringent that helps arrest internal and external bleeding, a diaphoretic to produce perspiration and therefore reduce a fever, and it has anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic properties.
Despite the efforts of the national herb gatherers during World War II there was still a short fall of some of the essential drug producing plants. To combat the shortfall and safe guard the continued existence of British wild plants growing in the wild, the Ministry of Supply recommended the cultivation of five plants that were still in short supply: Aconite (Aconitum napellus) used for nerves and joint pain, Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) used as a sedative, Foxglove, (Digitalis purpurea), Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) used as a sedative and anti-spasmodic and Thornapple (Datura stramonium) used as a sedative and anti-spasmodic. The cultivation of these plants would, in the long term, also be more economic. Other plants that were suggested for cultivation were: Caraway (Carum carvi) used as a carminative, Chamomile (Anthemis noblis) used for indigestion and inflammation, Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) and Dill (Anethum graveolens) used as carminatives, and Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) used for coughs and flavouring for medicines.
To prevent a repeat of the situation that arose during the war years and ensure availability of essential plant drugs for the newly established National Health Service of 1945, a long-term policy of the cultivation of vegetable drugs was implemented. This policy, coupled with importation from countries such as India and New Zealand, meant that by 1946 stocks of essential vegetable drugs were high and there was no longer a need for local herb gatherers to scour the British countryside for native plants. However, there is evidence to suggest that the Felbridge Herb Gatherers continued for a short period of time after the war, as they donated £10. 2s. 6d, the proceeds of the herb sales, to the Childrens Wing Fund at Queen Victoria Hospital, which during the war had been donated to the Red Cross. Also, the concerns raised during the war years about the effect of the collection of British native wild plants by national herb gatherers seems to be unfounded in the Felbridge area as a survey carried out in 2001 suggests that the majority of the wild plants that the Felbridge Herb Gatherers were collecting can still be found in the Felbridge area, and that the modern scourge of development would seem to be having a far greater impact on the flora of Felbridge.
Several of the Felbridge School children who were involved in herb collecting during the war also recall collecting plants after the war had ended. Rose Hips were collected from the hedgerows of Gullege Lane and from fields between Crawley Down Road and Copthorne Road, (Hedgecourt Common), being used for Rose Hip syrup. As an incentive the children were paid for rose hip collection at a rate of 3d a pound. Barbara Cornish also recalls other hedgerow plants collected for the war effort, which included blackberries, sloes and elderberries for jam, (if sugar was available from the ration), Hawthorn and Rowan berries, Deadly Nightshade to dilate eyes, and Chamomile for a blonde hair rinse, (vinegar was used for dark hair). Other plants gathered included dandelion leaves for greens and salads, chicory roots for a coffee substitute, and cabbage leaves for chilblains!
Cultivation and processing techniques of medicinal plants steadily improved after the war and it was found that British grown plants retained more active constituents than some of the imported plants. Also, chemical synthesis of the key drug substances has developed significantly both in techniques and scale of production. As a consequence Britain is no longer solely dependant upon the importation of many medicinal plants and there is unlikely to ever be a future need for organisations like the Felbridge Herb Gatherers to maintain a supply of medicines to hospitals.
Herb Gathering by B Keen & J Armstrong
They are helping to save live, Local Newspaper article, 29/4/44, FHA
Herbs for Healing, EGO, 12/8/1944, FHA
Herb Gatherers, Local Newspaper Article, undated, FHA
Medicinal plants and Kew, article from MAFF Bulletin, Autumn/Winter 1995, FHA
The Botanic Gardens at Kew and the wartime need for medicines, article in The Pharmaceutical Journal, Vol. 257, FHA
Blackberry collection, Wolverton Express Newspaper, 18/10/1918
Felbridge School Log, Felbridge School
Documented memories of J Gates, née Bray, D Wheeler, née Pattenden, B Whiter, née Cornish, former Felbridge School children, FHA
Company Profiled Brome & Schimmer, article from the Chemist & Druggist, 15/4/72, FHA
Culpeppers Complete Herbal & English Physician
Robinsons New Family Herbal
Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Plants by A Chevalier
Dictionary of Sussex Folk Medicine by A Allen
Grateful thanks are extended to Sheila Weston, wife of Philip Schimmer the son of the co-founder of Brome & Schimmer Ltd. for all the information she has supplied about the family and company and Laura Hastings of the Centre of Economic Botany, Kew.