Battlefield Botanicals: Plant Use During War

Words by
Angharad Johnson
| May 21, 2019

An apple triggered the Trojan War, so legend claims. As far as this fruity myth goes, history extols that wars have begun for much less and are chaotic, merciless enterprises. Since the dawn of civilisation, combat has bestowed order or besieged the masses. Armies need upkeep however; troops must be fed, equipped, and kept healthy for as long as possible. Plants have long filled this role, and besides a food source were used to heal (wounds, diseases, disorders) or unsurprisingly, to harm (poison, maim, kill). Most early herbal medicine and pharmacopeia relied on locally abundant resources and often grisly, desperate circumstances. Healing practices – from high-calibre to horrific – were passed down, often riddled with folklore and superstition, and used on countless battlefields and make-shift infirmaries.

Ancient Tactics
If there is one botanic flag-bearer of war, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) wins the prize. According to Greek mythology, it grew from the spear of the mighty war hero Achilles, which he then applied to his soldier’s wounds. Army medics throughout time put this myth into practice, knowing that this Herba militaris coagulated blood from seeping wounds, and thereby deriving its other traditional names, soldiers’ woundwort and staunch weed.

Early weaponry (bows, arrows, spears, clubs and shields) were sculpted from trees like yew, pinewood, ash, spruce, eucalyptus and acacia.”

Arrows were sometimes tipped with poisonous concoctions made from deadly plants. Botanical supplements ranged from the ordinary: Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) is said to have fed onions to his troops and parsley to their war horses to give them extra strength; to the extraordinary: dragon’s blood (Dracaena draco), a bright red resin from a tree found in Morocco, Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, was used by many ancient cultures to speed wound healing. Today we know it has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, but unlike Game of Thrones, does not come from actual dragons.

Around 60 C.E., Dioscorides, a surgeon in the Roman army, wrote his five volume door-stopper, De Materia Medica, describing over 600 medicinal plants and their virtues. This remained the go-to reference for herbalists and physicians for nearly 1,500 years! For soldiers’ wives waiting earnestly at home, he prescribed something a little stronger than a gin and tonic – a beverage of chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus), the keep the ladies chaste while husbands were at war.

Aside from treatments, warriors of all nations have been known to cover faces and bodies with symbolic paint or ink, typically made from roots, berries, bark or moss. Markings intimidated the enemy, or were used as camouflage or badges of honour. Celts supposedly used woad (think William Wallace in ‘Braveheart’), the bright blue dye produced from leaves of Isatis tinctoria, also an antiseptic. Other plants were consumed pre-battle to create an altered mind-state and lessen fatigue or fear. Zulu warriors took Natal gasteria (Gasteria croucheri), believing it made them invisible to the enemy. When warriors of Genghis Khan camped riverside, it is said they planted aquatic sweet flag (Acorus calamus) upstream to purify their drinking water.

Tactics sometimes came from angelic legend. As King Clovis I (466­-511 C.E.) was losing battle, an angel told him to ‘pimp up’ the coat of arms adorning his shield and to replace the three black toads with three golden irises. He did so and was victorious. This is claimed to be the origin of the heraldic ‘Fleur-de-lis’ in France. Likewise, Emperor Charlemagne (742-814 C.E.) had a vivid dream when his army was half-rotting from bubonic plague. An angel told him to shoot an arrow into the air and whichever plant it struck would be the cure. Carline thistle (Carlina acauliswas the target, and he fed its roots to save his remaining troops.

Coloured pen drawing of Giovanni Cadamosto's illustrated herbal, of the Emperor Charlemagne kneeling in front of the Carline Thistle pierced by an arrow. Source: British Library Collection
Civil War medicine bottles containing quinine and opium pills. Source: American Civil War Surgical Antiques

Mediaeval to Modern
In mediaeval times, the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ was a widespread belief that plants resembling a body part would cure the same ailing part. So, for a Knight in the Crusades, mangled mid-battle, St. John’s wort’ (Hypericum perforatum) was a likely remedy, as when held to the light the transparent glands were deemed to resemble fleshly wounds. Or herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) was used to slow blood flow when it turned ‘blood red’ come autumn.

Stronger sedatives were needed for heavy duty surgical procedures. A veritable cauldron was sourced from the Solanaceae family for its alkaloid compounds, namely datura, deadly nightshade, henbane and mandrake.

One manuscript included a recipe for a knock-out narcotic beverage: ‘…three spoonfuls each of hemlock juice, wild nept, lettuce, poppy, henbane’. Once consumed, the patient would fall asleep to,‘…safely be carved’.”

John of Arderne (1307-1392) reputedly honed his surgical skills during the English 100 Year War. His claim to fame though, was a cure for a most uncomfortable condition, Fistula in Ano, which many doctors of his day, for obvious reasons, feared to attempt. This condition was prevalent in knights weighed down by armour and countless hours on horseback with posteriors in cold, soggy saddles. The treatment consisted of a hemlock, henbane, and opium anaesthetic followed by a rather risky operation.

The phrase, ‘disease, not battle, digs the soldiers’ grave’ can be applied to many wars. Hundreds were victorious in the field only to perish later from unsanitary living conditions. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), nearly ten million soldiers required aid. With medicines scarce, an estimated two thirds of all treatments came from plants. Quinine (Cinchona spp.) was used to ward off malaria; a near lethal concoction called ‘Blue Mass’ including marshmallow (Althea officinalis) and mercury, for dysentery;and pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides) to reduce fever. Precious supplies were smuggled in by civilians, sometimes sewn into secret petticoat pockets in the voluminous skirts of women, or else the troops foraged. One southern soldier wrote that the woods were his ‘drug store’. In more practical terms, twigs became toothbrushes, chicory (Cichoorium intybus) made a coffee substitute, and some made ink from berry juice of pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), to write letters home to loved ones.

Girls harvesting foxgloves. Image from Wellcome Collection. CC BY

During World War I (1914-1918), septic wounds were rife and sterile bandages in short supply on all sides. Used since the Bronze Age to staunch wounds, peat moss (Sphagnum spp.) became literally, a lifesaver, being twice as absorbent as cotton and containing antiseptic iodine. Volunteers rallied around Europe and North America to collect staggering quantities of bog moss to be distributed to field hospitals. One man is said to have walked 1000 miles to collect moss and ‘do his bit’ for the war effort.

Similarly, during World War II (1939-1945) community folk foraged plants to supplement short supplies. Collected by the tonne in particular were, foxglove (Digitals purpurea), used to regulate heart beat, deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) to dilate pupils during eye surgery, black horehound (Ballota nigra) a treatment for spasms or intestinal worms, and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) a sleep-aid. This collective effort must have created a sense of camaraderie, putting some structure into the days of the community while the chaos reigned elsewhere.

Today, an all-powerful analogy of war and plants can be witnessed in the Russian forest of Nevsky Pyatachok. Discarded military relics from a WWII battle have been ‘swallowed up’ by the trees. It is unknown if the soldiers survived but the trees grew on to bear the remnants of those who fought. It remains a profound reminder of the persistence of plants and nature and that in the end, perhaps, only time heals all wounds.

Header image:  Serbo-Turkish War: wounded servians leaving Alexinatz. Coloured wood engraving. Sourced from Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Surgical dressing substitutes, including Sphagnum moss, Europe, 1914-1918. Image sourced from the Science Museum, London. CC BY

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