Early June and the midges are out. I suddenly noticed this when I walked into a sylvan glade in the woods. It was so beautiful. The brilliant sunshine dapples by the shade of luminous green beech leaves. The last of the bluebells nodding gently with the white flowers of pignuts, scattered with yellow tormentil. Then suddenly brought out of my reverie by the savage attack of the midges! These insects are so small you can barely see them, yet can make our lives misery. I am sensitised to insects in general – due to a nasty centipede bite – and within minutes could feel lumps swelling up around my eyes, on my cheeks, neck and arms. Ow!!
Usually I have a supply of marsh woundwort on hand (see Marsh Woundwort in the Field) however, today I had none. Nature rarely lets us down though and along the lane where I had parked my car, there was some dock and sone small hedge woundwort plants (Stachys sylvatica).
The traditions medicinal use of hedge woundwort is to treat pain, swelling and inflammation. Mrs Grieves reports that “An old authority tells us that this herb ‘stamped with vinegar and applied in manner of a pultis, taketh away wens and hard swellings, and inflammation of the kernels under the eares and jawes.'” Elizabeth Blackwell 1739 records it’s use for all sorts of wounds (especially green (pus infected) ones, and also that it helps stop internal bleeding.
Although it’s been incredibly hot, there was also still enough dock gel under the new leaf sheaths to apply to the swellings (see Do dock leaves really work?) to take the initial itch and aggravation out of the bites. Not having a camp stove with me – rare, but I’d cleaned out the car to take guests around – all I had was a water bottle. So I just picked the plant, crushed it between my hands and pushed it into the bottle. I then gave it a good shake and drank it. Relief was only minutes away!
Both hedge and marsh woundwort are highly undervalued plants. Even as foraging for food has become popular again, many people are put off by their musky scent that smells like an old room where mice have been living. However, it never tastes like that thankfully! They were widely used in the Middle Ages especially when treating the wounded on battlefields as, not only are they good for dealing with inflammation and swelling, but they are excellent for managing pain. I occasionally use betony (Stachys officinalis) tincture to manage the occasional migraine but the fresh herb beats the tincture hands down in with the Stachys family.