Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Onions in folk medicine

When people think about folk medicine they often assume that the ‘folk’ sought out rarities to treat ailments, but, in fact, they used ordinary, everyday plants found in local hedgerows and gardens.  Obviously professional, or quack, physicians could not easily charge for such cures, so they claimed to use rare imported herbs, sometimes collected at the correct phase of the moon.

One common plant which was widely used in folk medicine was onion (Allium cepa).  Here are some examples collected since 2015:

‘A simple remedy for helping fight a cold, learnt from my father and mother (both Irish) when I was young, was to boil a whole white onion in milk, drink the milk and eat the onion’ [South London Botanical Institute, January 2015].

‘For bad ear infections and earache I slice an onion in half and microwave it quickly to heat up (not cook).  Check it’s very warm, but not scalding hot, and hold over the ear.  The onion is meant to draw out the infection, and the heat as well relaxes and soothes the ear’ [South London Botanical Institute, January 2015].

‘When I was about 5-6 years old, in the early 1950s, I got stung by a wasp.  My dad, who was a gardener, went out, dug up an onion, cut it in half and told me to rub it on the sting to make it better.  He was born in rural Hampshire in a farm-labourer’s hut, and said it was a local cure’ [Wimbledon, London Borough of Merton, April 2015].

‘My grandma (born roughly 1870) was a great believer in fried onions – both as a poultice on flannel for coughs, to put in one’s ear for earache.  She lived in Poplar and Barking’ [Leigh-on-Sea Horticultural Society, Essex, January 2019].

‘Blocks of yeast were fried with onions, salt and bread crumbs to make a nourishing paste said to strengthen the ailing (pre-war Budapest)’ [e-mail, July 2019].

Image:  Breton onions for sale from a stall in Romsey Market Place, Hampshire, 29 September 2020.

Edited 2 November 2020.