Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Spurge laurel

Spurge laurel, Daphne laureola, a small evergreen, shrub, which produces yellowish green flowers in early spring, is most common in south-east England, and is probably present only as the result of introductions elsewhere.

Local names include copse-laurel on the Isle of Wight, fox-poison in Lincolnshire, laurel-wood in Gloucestershire,  mezereon (a name more usually given to the related Daphne mezereum) in Cheshire, sturdy lowries in Co. Durham, and wood-laurel in Gloucestershire, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight and Somerset.

In his Flora Vectensis (1856) W.A. Bromfield reported that he had been told that ‘spurge laurel in collected in large quantity from the woods of Sussex … [to] supply the markets at Portsmouth and Chichester, where it is sold as horse medicine’, but his informant was unable to say  how it was used and which diseases it was used to treat.  David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield in their Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition (2004) quote from the Hampshire Review, no.1, 1949, that it was used to ‘add gloss to horses’ coats’, while Larch Garrad, in her History of Manx Gardens (1985) mentions its use as a purge for horses.

Spurge laurel was also used to treat human ailments. Anne Pratt, in her Wild Flowers (1857) noted that its ‘acrid bark is in some counties used as a blister, and the still more acrimonious roots are employed to alleviate toothache, but they should be applied with caution’.

Allen and Hatfield consider spurge laurel’s medicinal use to be ‘wholly the product of the learned works and their followers’,  with out any ‘seemingly true folk uses’.  Druggists seemed to have valued it most for the treatment of venereal disease and both benign and malignant cancers.  They also record that the plant was mentioned in Chaucer as a ‘cottage garden laxative’, and was described by William Withering as a ‘brisk and rather severe purgative’.

Expanded from Vickery’s Folk Flora (2019).

Image: cultivated at the South London Botanical Institute, London Borough of Lambeth, March 2020.