Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Britain’s Green Allies

Posted on by royvickery |

Peter Ayres, Britain’s Green Allies:  Medicinal Plants in Wartime.  Kibworth Beauchamp:  Matador, 2015.

004This attractive book provides an easy-to-read overview of Britain’s struggle to maintain supplies of drugs during the First and Second World Wars.  The domination of German drug manufacturers left Britain deprived of many important  supplies at the outbreak of WW1.  Thus people were encouraged to grow, or gather from the wild, important drug plants such as deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), thornapple (Datura stramonium), autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) and valerian (Valeriana officinalis).  It seems as if although individuals and organisations enthusiastically attempted to supply the neccessary plants their good work was often hampered by lack of identification skills and problems in adequately drying what they’d collected.

In places the author’s grasp of botanical matters is poor.  For example, both corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and opium poppy (P. somniferum) are said to be native to Europe; in fact both are ancient introductions – ‘archaeophytes’.  The inclusion of the former, which ‘was of no practical significance during the war’, is perhaps puzzling, but it seems  that authors (or publishers?) consider its inclusion in any book about the World Wars to be obligatory.

After the end of WW1 drug production in Britain was allowed to run down, so that on the outbreak of WW2 the country found itself in a similar situation to 1914.  (Perhaps there’s an important lesson here for today, when many essential commodities are imported from potentially hostile nations).  However, things seem to have been organised in a more scientific way, with approximately 250 drying centres being established by the end of the war.  Surprisingly during WW2 as far as total mass went the two most collected wild plants, were not used as drugs, but were rose hips (Rosa spp.), gathered for their Vitamin C content, and seeds of horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) – ‘conkers’ – used in ‘the main for the the manufacture of glucose’, but also yielding ‘valuable amounts of saponin [for the manufacture of soap], while the rest made useful cattle food.’

Edited 16 February 2021,

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