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Herbs during Wartime

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I will be trading at the Stoke Bruerne “Village at War” weekend on 10th and 11th September. This annual event looks back at the impact of the Second world War on life in an English village.  Several people have asked me what herbs have to do with war, particularly World War2, and are surprised to hear of the crucial role the humble herb played in our nation’s health and survival.

I will have some "black market" sweets for sale, Sarsaparilla tablets, Coltsfoot rock and Dandelion and Burdock and some wartime soft drinks.

Herbal medicine has always had a role in times of war. From the use Woad for it’s antiseptic properties by ancient Britons to Comfrey, or Knitbone, by Roman Soldiers and Yarrow, or Achillea, named after Achilles and used during the Trojan wars for its ability to stem the flow of blood.

                     sarsaparilla  sarsaparilla2dandelion and burdock

Sarsaparilla root was widely used medicinally by indigenous people in the Americas. It was adopted by Spanish settlers and went on to become a popular treatment for syphilis and blood disorders. By WW2 "Sarsaparilla" was a popular soft drink in Britain, with an aniseed flavour though how much actual sarsaparilla root it contained is questionable. Most modern Cola drinks are derived from Sarsaparilla and Root Beers that were made from the Sassafras root. Dandelion and Burdock was another favourite wartime drink made from herbs.

Prior to  the start of WW2, attempts to allow Herbal practioners to become properly registered to practise had been discouraged, and the practise of herbal medicine  was again treated with suspicion. However, with the outbreak of war the breakdown in supplies of medicines and foodstuffs from abroad together with the huge rise in injuries and the loss of medical personnel to the battlefield meant that, once again, people turned to the hedgerow for help.

 collecting-rose-hips     wartime

Farming practises in pre-war Britain meant that those hedgerows and wild land were abundant resources to be drawn on. The Ministry of Health consulted with Kew Gardens and formed the “Vegetable Drugs Committee” who published leaflets on plant identification. Across the country an army of volunteers, often organised by local Women’s Institutes, Mother Unions, and the Guide and Scouts would venture out to gather herbs to be processed into medicines, dyestuffs and the crucial wartime drink of Rosehip syrup that prevented a national scurvy crisis as supplies of fresh fruit like oranges died out.


Some of the key plants they would have gathered, along with Rosehips are listed below and I have also included a recipe for Rosehip syrup as they are just ready for harvest, contain more vitamin C than oranges and are also rich in other vitamins, iron and calcium. It contains a terrifying amount of sugar by modern standards and can be drunk instead as a tea.


Dandelions and Nettles were gathered in vast quantities to use in camouflage dyes. Both were also eaten for their high vitamin and iron content.


Sphagnum Moss is naturally acidic which helps prevent bacteria growing and was gathered and dried for wound dressings,Horehound, a vermifuge, was used for treating intestinal worms,Thyme was gathered for its antiseptic properties,Elder for the treatment of colds and flu, Foxgloves, Digitalis, were crucial in helping control blood flow and treat heart failure and also as a diuretic.


Valerian, commonly used in rat poison at the time, was gathered for its sedative properties and many a terrified injured soldier must have benefitted from its soothing properties along with chamomile. Deadly Nightshade, Belladonna for muscle spasms and heart rate,  Broom (diuretic), Ferns (vermifuge), Burdock for blood cleaning and laxative properties and Autumn crocus (for gout) were also gathered along with many other herbs.


The Poppy, now regarded as a symbol of war and suffering, of course provided pain relief in the form of Laudanum and Morphine for thousands of wounded soldiers.


Lest we forget





Rosehip Syrup

  • 2 pounds / 900g ripe rosehips
  • 5 litres / 4.5 Imperial pints water
  • 1 1/4 pounds / 560 g sugar
  1. Have 3 pints of boiling water ready, mince the hips in a coarse mincer, drop immediately into boiling water or if possible mince the hips directly into the boiling water and again bring to the boil.
  2. Remove from heat and set aside for 15 minutes. Pour into a flannel or jelly bag and allow to drip until the bulk of the liquid has come through.
  3. Return the residue to the saucepan, add 1.5 pints of boiling water, stir and allow to stand for 10 minutes.
  4. Pour back in to the jelly bag and allow to drip. To make sure all the sharp hairs are removed put back the first half cupful of liquid and allow to drip through again.
  5. Put the mixed juice into a clean saucepan and boil down until the juice measures about 1.5 pints / 840 ml, then add sugar and boil for a further 5 minutes.
  6. Pour into hot sterile bottles and seal at once.



Do not use copper or iron saucepans when making this syrup as these would have a destructive effect on the vitamin C.

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