This week I’m continuing my imaginary walk through the flora of the edgelands of the Oxford Canal with Pulicaria dysenterica (Pulix being Latin for flea, and the leaves and roots of fleabane were used as an astringent used as a defence against dysentery), or Common Fleabane, is a species of Fleabane in the daisy Asteraceae or Compositae family of plants.
It is related to marigolds, purple goat’s beard (salsify), yellow goat’s beard, the ox-eye daisy, tansy, feverfew,groundsel and yarrow. It is native to Europe and western Asia where it grows in a variety of habitats ranging from semi-arid Mediterranean woodlands to wetter situations.
P. dysenterica is perennial and can form dense clusters of plants, spreading by its roots. It flowers at its maximum height (up to 60cm).
It has large terminal flat head bright yellow flowers, single, or one or two together, up to 2-3 cm across, and large in proportion to the size of the plant. The stems are woolly. The leaves are approx. 6cm long, heart or arrow-shaped and embrace the stem. The outer edge of the leaves are irregularly waved and toothed. Leaves a contains a salty-astringent liquid.
Like the stem, the leaves are more or less covered with fine woolly fibres. The under surface is ordinarily more woolly than the upper.
The plant is in bloom from the latter part of July to September.
Fleabane’s common name comes from its former use as an incense, the leaves being burned to drive away insects. The bruised leaves have a slightly soapy smell.
Other uses have included treatments for dysentery and unspecified ocular maladies. It has also been used for wounds and cuts, applied externally as a paste.
The English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, writing in the 17th century states:
It is called also in English, mullet and in Latin conyza. It is hot and dry in the third degree. The herb being spread under foot and smoked in any place, will drive away venomous creatures and will kill and destroy fleas and gnats. An ointment of the roots and leaves is used with success for the itch.
Whilst Miss E. S. Rohde’s Old English Herbals:
Fleabane bound to the forehead is a great helpe to cure one of the frensie.
Fleabane on the lintel of the door I have hung,
S. John’s wort, caper and wheatears
With a halter as a roving ass
Thy body I restrain.
O evil spirit, get thee hence!
Depart, O evil Demon.’
Trans. of Utukke Limnûte Tablet ‘B.’ R. C. Thompson, Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonians
Modern clinical trials have shown that extracts of the plant have antimicrobial and antibacterial properties against some bacteria. It is thought that the insect repelling properties of the plant are due to its thymol content, as this has proved to have the ability to kill houseflies.
For other posts in this Series please click HERE.