Concerning the virtues of plants which have not yet been tried.
As the intent of this work is truly to be of use to mankind, the author who is desirous of making that utility as extensive as possible, cannot close it without observing, that, notwithstanding the great deal that is known of the virtues of English plants, there is certainly a great deal more unknown; and there is room for great discoveries.
The plants mentioned in this work are only four or five hundred, and not all these of English growth; if they were, they would yet be but a very small number in proportion to the whole. The catalogue of those native of our own country, as published by Mr. Ray, amounting to many thousands; great numbers therefore remain yet untried.
To what purpose can a man devote the hours of his leisure better, than to the discovering among the number to the unregarded, virtues which may farther supply the catalogue of our own remedies, and make the roots and seeds brought from remote countries less necessary? What encouragement to the attempt, that there are such multitude of objects for the trial! and that the discovering but one remedy among them all for a disease we knew not how so well to cure before, is a source of more true honour, than can be derived from all the useless knowledge in the world.
If any suppose the trial dangerous, they mislead themselves; and to encourage so laudible an undertaking, I shall observe how little is the hazard, and how considerable the advantages, from what we know already.
If a man were to be turned loose upon an island where no person had set foot before, he might dread to taste of any plant he saw, because he might not know, but every one he saw was fatal: and supposing him to have got over this fear, the ignorance of the virtues of all would keep him backward: but this is not at all the case with him, who shall at this time set about inquiring into the virtues of plants in England. The poisonous plants, native of our soil, are hardly a dozen and these are charactered even to the eye, by something singular or dismal in the aspect. They are well known; and he has nothing to do but to avoid them. For the rest, he has so many, whose uses and qualities are already perfectly known, that he has a great foundation to go upon in the search, because he can compare those he does not know with them. Their taste will go a great way toward informing him; but this is not all, their very outward figures will direct him: for in general those plants which agree in the external aspect, agree likewise in their virtues.
To give an instance in the marshmallow. It is known to work by urine, and to be good against the gravel. We will suppose no more known concerning this kind. A person desirous of extending this useful knowledge, finds that by the taste of the root, which is insipid, and its mucilaginous quality, he might have guessed this to be its virtue, from what he before knew of medicine. The next plant he meets, we will suppose is the common mallow, and afterwards the little white flowered mallow, which lies upon the ground; he tastes the root of these, and he finds they are like the other; he will therefore guess, that they have the same virtues and upon trial, he will find it is so.
But this is not all: if he had examined the flower of the marshmallow, in what manner it was constructed, and how the little threads grew within it, he would have found that the flowers of these other two mallows were, in all respects, like those of the other; and farther, he would have found, that the seeds of these two kinds were in the same manner disposed in circular bodies: from this he might, without tasting their roots, have been led to guess that their virtues were the same; or having guessed so much from this, he might have been thence led to taste them, and by that have been confirmed in it: but he might he carried farther; he would find the same sort of round clusters of seeds in the hollyoak in his garden; and upon examining the single flowers, he would see they were also alike: and hence he would discover that it was of this kind; and he would rightly judge that the hollyoak, also possessed the same virtues.
This is a method by which many of the plants mentioned in this book, have been found to have virtues which others neglected; for there are many named in the preceding pages, and named with great praise, of which others have made little account: these are the means by which the first guesses have been made about their virtues; and experiments have always confirmed them. It has not always happened that the virtues of a plant thus tried, have been in a degree worth setting in a light of consequence; they have been sometimes slight, and the plant has been disregarded; but they have scarce ever missed to be found of the same nature.
These experiments, I have always thought honesty required me to make upon myself, and I never found harm from the trials. I had no right to bring into the least possible danger, the health of others; as to my own there was no probability of harm: but if it had happened, the intent would have sanctified the accident, and I should have been contented.
There is this great use in examining other plants which have the same sort of flowers and fruits with those which we know to have virtues, that we may in this way discover plants at home, to supply the place of those we have from other countries. It is certain the sun in warmer climates does ripen the juices of vegetables farther than in ours, but yet we find the plants of the same kind from whatever part of the world they come, to possess nearly the same kind of virtues; generally indeed they are the same, only differing in degree. Thus all the mallows of Spain and Italy, to bring the trial to the before-named instance, possess the same virtues with the marsh-mallow, mallow, and hollyoak of England; and the case is the same with those which are truly mallows of the East and West Indies; though this does not hold good with respect to some of the plants of those countries which have been brought hither under that name.
Thus also, that root which was at one time about to be brought very much into use, under the name of the Senegal rattle-snake root, but of which little mention has been made here, because the attention has not been turned upon novelty, but use, being found to belong to a kind of milkwort, or polygala. The roots of the common milkwort of our pastures being tried, have been found to possess the same virtues, though in a less degree. This plant would not have been regarded, if the other had not been found to be of the same kind; but to that we owe the knowledge of its virtues.
There is a great reason for seeking in our own climate, plants of the same nature, and form, and kind, with those which in other countries afford us remedies; that they are generally of the same kind, and may be fitter for our constitutions. This is certain, that as the sun ripens the juices of plants in hotter countries to mere virtue than with us, so it make men's constitutions more able to bear their effects.
The Chinese will swallow such doses as are poison to one of us. This we know in many instances, and it ought to encourage us in the present research; because, it the same doses which agree with them, are too much for us; we may also find, that other medicines, of the same kind of virtues, though in a less degree, may also be found to agree better with our constitutions. I would not carry so far as some have done, that opinion of nature's having provided in every country the remedies for the diseases of that country: God is the author of nature, and he knowing there would be commerce among mankind, knew that would not be necessary. But not withstanding that it may be necessary in some cases, and convenient in many, for us to have drugs from abroad, yet in general it will be better for us to be cured by those herbs we may find at home; and they will be found upon trial inure sufficient for that purpose, than we at present imagine. The means ate at hand, but we have made very little use of them, proportioned to their number and their value.
The observation already made, that the external form of plants may very well give the hint for a conjecture about their virtues, is much more general than might be imagined. Almost all the plants of the same kinds are of the same virtues. But that is not all: for in general, those of the same class possess the same qualities; though different in degree: and this is a prodigious help to him, who shall set out upon the generous and useful plan of adding to the number of the useful plants. It is also singular, that what might appear objections in this case, being brought to the trial, will often be found confirmations of the truth there is in the observation.
Thus suppose a man, observing that lettuce is eatable, should inquire into all the plants like lettuce, which are those that have flowers composed of many parts, and have the seeds winged with a white downy matter, to find whether they were eatable; let us examine how he would succeed. The plants of this class native of England, are the sowthistle. the hawkweeds, the dandelions, goats beards, succory, and endive, all eatables. The hawkweeds are less agreeable in the taste, but wholesome; and as to the wild lettuces, those who would bring the opiate quality of the principal of them as an objection, strengthen the observation; for the garden lettuce also has an opiate quality. This wild one possesses it in a greater degree, but still in such degree, that it is an excellent medicine, not at all dangerous. Its bitter taste would prevent people's eating it, for it is disassemble; but its virtues are the same with those of lettuce, only greater. There are some kinds of hawkweed also, which have a bitter milky juice, altogether like that of this lettuce; and they, also, have this opiate quality. I have tried many of them, but as they are none of them, equal to the great wild lettuce in this respect, it would have been idle to have spent many words about them.
This general observation may be carried a great deal farther; but it were the business of a volume, not of a short appendix, to explain it at large. In general, the seeds of umbelliferous plants, that is, those which have little flowers in rounded clusters, each succeeded by two seeds, are good against colics; those of caraway, anise, cummin, coriander, and all of that kind, are produced by plants of this figure. In the same manner, the verticillate plants, as they are called, that is, those which have the flowers surrounding the stalks, as in mint and thyme, are of a warm nature; and however they differ in degree and circumstance, they have the same general virtues. Farther, such plants as are insipid to the taste and smell, have generally little virtues; and, on the contrary, those which have the most fragrant smell, and sharpest taste, have the greatest virtues, of whatever kind.
In general also, those plants which have a strong but an agreeable taste, are most worthy to be examined with respect to their virtues; for they are generally the most valuable; and on the contrary, when a very strong taste is also a very disagreeable one; or, in the same manner, when the strong smell of a plant has also something heavy. disagreeable, and overpowering in it, there i mischief in the herb, rather than any useful quality. The poisonous plant of this country are very few; but they are for the most part characterized after this manner (Don't trust this! -Henriette): so that they are known as it were at sight, or by the first offer of a trial.
Thus we see how very little can be the danger of inquiring farther into the virtues of our own plants, by experiments; and how useful such an inquiry may be to mankind is sufficiently proved by the matter of the preceding volume.
What I have written, is with intent to encourage some who have opportunities to make the trial; and for my own part, I shall not be wanting. What I have already discovered in this way, I am pleased to see makes no inconsiderable addition to the present publication; what I shall discover farther, or learn from the experience of others, shall have its place in the succeeding editions.