Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

QUERY: Bistort

Michael Braithwaite is interested in the status of bistort (Persicaria bistorta) in the British Isles. It is usually considered to be native, i.e. naturally occurring, but Michael suspects that it might be an archaeophyte, introduced intentionally or unintentionally by man before AD1500, ‘in much or all of Britain’. Thus he seeks information on the uses and folklore of bistort, in the hope that this might provide clues to its history.

1. I have two recipes for herb pudding copied from The Cumberland Federation of Women’s Institutes Cookery Book, ed. 6, 1956. Both include in their lists of ingredients ‘easterman giants’, which I believe is bistort. One of the recipes is attributed to Raughton Head W.I. [Sandra, Bologna, Italy, October 2012].
2. Yes, easterman giants is one of several ‘easter’ names given to bistort (see the Local Names page on this website), and herb puddings (often known as dock puddings), in which bistort is considered to be an essential ingredient, are, or were, widely made in northwest England. Julia Smith in her Fairs and Frolics: Customs and Traditions in Yorkshire, 1989: 11, records that the first World Championship Dock Pudding Contest took place in Hebden Bridge in 1971. This event attracted ‘hundreds of entries’, but ‘since that date the number of entrants decreased dramatically and it has not been held every year’. Several videos of the 2012 Contest, which was held at Mytholmroyd in April, can found on the internet [RV, October 2012].
3. William Turner, in part 3 of his New Herball, 1568: 648, records finding bistort in a wood in East Friesland, where it grew ‘in such great plenty as I never saw in no garden of England’. It’s easy to read more than is intended into this statement, but perhaps it suggests that Turner did not know bistort as a wild plant in his home country.
John Gerard in his Herbal, 1597: 323, notes that bistort grows ‘in moist and waterie places, and in the dark shadowie woods, and is very common in most gardens.’ The dark woods habitat seems strange as bistort is unable to tolerate deep shade, however it does imply that when Gerard was writing bistort was known well away from cultivated areas. According to Gerard: ‘in Cheshire [bistort was known as] passhions and snakeweede and there used for an excellent pot herb’.
Why should bistort be found ‘in most gardens’? Gerard lists many medicinal uses: the root boiled in wine ‘stoppeth the laske [diarrhoea] and bloodie flixe,it staieth also the overmuch flowing of womens monthly sickness’, ‘staieth vomiting, and healeth inflammation, and soreness of the mouth and throat: it likewise fasteneth loose teeth being holden in the mouth for a certaine space, and at sundrie times’, and the juice put up the nose ‘prevaileth much against the disease called Polypus, and the biting of serpents, or any venemous beast, being drunk in wine or in water of Angelica’ [RV, November 2012].

Image: J.G. Sturm, Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen, 1796.

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