Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Purple loosestrife

Purple loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, a common, widespread and conspicuous plant in wet habitats, seems to have attracted little folklore.  The Local Names page on this website lists about 18 such names, ranging alphabetically from brian-braw in Co. Donegal to willow-strife in Somerset.

James Britten and Robert Holland in their Dictionary of English Plant-names, 1878-86,  list red sally as a name from Southport, Lancashire, where, they state, ‘it is much gathered for medicinal purposes’, but fail to record what these purposes were.  According to David Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield, in their Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, 2004, in the medicinal use of purple loosestrife in the British Isles was restricted to Ireland: ‘the Gaelic name in general use for it in the west and south-west of Ireland translates as ‘wound herb’.  However, they were unable to find any evidence of it being used in recent centuries, though there are ‘generalised statements in the literature’ of it being used by Irish peasants to treat diarrhoea, and Caleb Threlked in his Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum, 1726, recorded that by using a preparation of the plant he cured a patient of severe dysentery.

Comment from Sarah O’Connell: Purple loosestrife grows abundantly and gracefully in marshy meadows along the western coast of Ireland (and places where I have not seen it, such the U.K.  …  and Cape Cod, Massachusetts).  According to Mary Oliver in her short story ‘The Ponds’ which is set in the marshes of Cape Cod, purple loosestrife gets its botanical name salicaria from Salix because it is generally found growing beneath willow.                                  In  Jean Palaiseul’s Grandmother’s Secrets: Her Green Guide to Health from Plants (1972), which is a mine of information about the folklore and uses of herbs and flowers, purple loosestrife is described as having astringent properties and swift, powerful haemostatic action, which made it a remedy for acute or chronic inflammation of the gastro-intestinal mucosa.  So it is listed as an ancient treatment for, amongst other ailments,  internal haemorrhage, excessive menstrual loss, frequent nosebleeds, and stomach pains’.

Image:  Salisbury, Wiltshire, July 2020.

Edited 2 November 2020.