Purple Loosestrife – Lythrum salicaria

Purple Loosestrife is a perennial wild flower with striking hot pink raggedy flowers growing in spires from the top of the long stem. The plant likes damp or marshy habitats and grows to between three and four feet tall. The long thin lance shaped leaves are green on top and greyish beneath and are very reminiscent of the willow tree which is why it is sometimes known as Purple Willow Herb. Consequently it is often confused with Rosebay Willow Herb, but despite sporting similar coloured flowers they are distinctly different.

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An old country term for Purple Loosestrife was Long Purples and Shakespeare uses this name in Hamlet when Gertrude describes the scene of Ophelia’s watery demise…. There is a willow grows aslant a brook That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream. There with fantastic garlands did she come Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies and long purples, Apparently the leaves and very hard roots are edible if cooked, however I have been unable to source a recipe for them. The flowers make an edible red dye which was at one time utilised to tint desserts and sweets. The plant was once used as a bug repellent and in his ‘Historie of Plants’ the 16th century herbalist Gerard claimed; ‘The smoke of the burned herbe driveth away serpents, and killeth flies and gnats in the house’. Garlands of the herb were tied around horses and cattle to deter biting insects during the summer months. The leaves have a high tannin content, and in centuries gone by they were used in the commercial tanning process to treat leather. This same tannin means the leaves are highly antibacterial and astringent and a decoction made from the leaves was a popular folk medicine for sore throats and oral inflammations. It was also used to wash infected ulcers and sores. The 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper confirms this in his ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal’…
..It cleanseth and healeth ulcers and sores, and stayeth their inflammations by washing them with the water, and laying on them a green leaf or two in the summer, or dry leaves in the winter. This water gargled warm in the mouth and sometimes drunk cures quinsy, or Kings Evil in the throat. The said water applied warm taketh away spots, marks, and scabs in the skin…… The astringent, nature of the plant would indeed help to heal spots, blemishes and even eczema. I might try a few leaves as a toner and cleanser.

At one time Purple Loosestrife was so highly regarded in Lancashire it was collected and sold at market. During a cholera outbreak in Bolton in 1868 it was sold in the Market Place (then in Victoria Square) as a cure for the disease, with a great deal of success. Modern research has proved the herb to be a natural anti-biotic, particularly good at fighting diseases such as typhus. Taken internally Purple Loosestrife has been used in herbal medicine for a ranger of gastric troubles as well as diarrhoea and bowel complaints. These days some herbalists use it to treat Crohn’s, IBS and leaky gut syndrome. However in previous centuries it was thought beneficial for the liver and was prescribed as a ‘general tonic’ able to restore a sense of wellbeing. The herb was also considered a wound herb, fresh leaves being bound to the affected area with a clean cloth. Purple Loosestrife also has a long association with eye health, and was considered for centuries a cure for a range of ophthalmic problems. Culpeper certainly thought so, claiming it to be…. …..a great preserver of the sight when it is well, and a cure for sore eyes, the distilled water is a remedy for hurts and blows on the eyes, and for blindness….. Even today Purple Loosestrife in combination with Eyebright is sometimes used to treat eye problems. The general instructions seem to be ¼ an ounce of each dried herb mixed with a pinch of salt and boiling water. Once cooled and strained the liquid can be used as a healing eye lotion. Folklore bestowed the plant with magical powers, enabling the development psychic and precognitive skills. Purple Loosestrife was also thought capable of calming wild animals, particularly horses. John Gerard mentions the plant’s amazing animal ‘whispering’ properties in his ‘Historie of Plants’ … …. Of a special vertue that it hath in appeasing the strife an unrulinesse which falleth out among oxen at the plough…. Although invasive in many places around the world Purple Loosestrife is quite sparse in my local area, so I have decided what little I have found should be left to multiply. Next year I will grow some of my own then I can experiment and discover if the plant really does possess ‘special vertues’.… Happy Hunting Claire Fleetneedle Cautions: Should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women These are some of my personal experiences using Purple Loosestrife combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate, in the treatment of specific conditions it is always best to consult a herbalist or your GP. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the above please stop using the herb immediately. And always take care when identifying the plant. If you plan to eat some the herb, please try a small amount to begin with to ensure your system can tolerate it. LIFE ON PIG ROW DISCLAIMER: We’d like to thank Claire for this wonderful piece, as she points out, this is her personal experience and common sense must prevail in homemade herbal remedies. Therefore, if you are out and about foraging and aren’t confident that what you are about to pick is edible or medicinal the best advice is to leave it where it is. In the event of an adverse reaction to any homemade herbal remedy or foraged edible food you are advised to seek out medical advice. While every care is taken in the production of these posts neither Claire Fleetneedle nor Life on Pig Row are responsible for adverse reactions. Please remember to check local by-laws before foraging and never forage on private land without permission. Please use common sense when foraging.


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