Natural Valium

Now and then I pass clumps of feverfew in the Sussex countryside. A tight, white flower like a well-fried thrush's egg, a dozen of them generally, arranged like an offering, ready to cure anyone with a migraine who might pass that way.

It is one of the most well-known herbs, brought here from the Balkans a thousand years ago, and still used to this day by those who suffer from this horrid pain in the head. I am fortunate not to suffer but I know a man who does, and he swears by it.

Thirty years ago the flower became headline news with the story of a woman who chewed one or two leaves a day and so rid herself of this debilitating problem. This persuaded a doctor to undertake research on 270 patients who suffered and who used feverfew leaves as a cure. Each took a leaf a day for three months and three quarters of them claimed relief. Ninety people said that their affliction had gone away completely.

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The active chemical seems to be able to stop blood vessels in the brain going into spasm. This is a strongly aromatic plant, well-known to the ancients as their first aspirin. They took it for any ache or pain such as rheumatism or headache.

Apothecarys in the herbal boom time of the Civil War already had 600 years of knowledge to work on but they quickly added their own quackery to the folklore that hitherto had been passed down in the east possibly for thousands of years. Thus, Nicholas Culpeper, who died at the ripe old age of 38 in 1654 despite total command of every remedy known then to man, sold feverfew for a great range of physical wrongs.

Today, we claim just migraine for this pretty little flower. He claimed that it would...'do all the good a woman can desire of an herb'.

Particularly useful was the way feverfew would put to rights...'such infirmities as a careless midwife has caused'. He said that Venus commanded the plant, presumably because women were the main beneficiaries, just as strong plants like mustard and onion (which he sold as aphrodisiac) were governed by Mars.

Feverfew was good for 'melancholy, heaviness, and sadness of spirits'. Which I suppose is what Valium does today. But as I do not suffer from those things either but know some who do, it would be interesting to know whether Culpeper was right. Feverfew is part of the daisy family, and Culpeper was quick to use even the common daisy (Day's eye) for a number of illnesses.

Daisy leaves...'boiled in asses milk, is very effectual in consumption of the lungs'. Not to speak of the king's evil and every conceivable wound inside or outside of the body. The ox-eye daisy, marguerite or moon-daisy was especially valuable. "This greater wild daisy is a herb of good respect, often used in those drinks and salves that are for wounds." Palsy, sciatica, gout, ulcers, pustules in the mouth and 'secret parts' wounds that refused to heal, especially those in the joints of arms and legs...'bruises and hurts that come of falls and blows' were all helped by moonpenny, another name. Closely related is chamomile, of literary lawn fame, whose pleasing scent of apples is calming to the nerves. No wonder Sir Francis Drake was not fussed by the invading Spanish Armada, for his game of last-minute bowls was being played on a camomile lawn.

The plant used to be widespread over England but today, Cornwall and Sussex seem to be its strongholds, Heyshott cricket pitch especially.

Well even if you can't find feverfew (though there are plenty of places east of Chichester where it grows in villages on walls and waste places) or the much more rare chamomile, you won't have problems finding a close relative, pineapple weed, which also has a sweet scent of pineapples when crushed. It grows in almost every field gateway. So many herbs '“ many of them good for you. What about the camelia leaves for example. I know a man who is addicted to those. Me.

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