A Wartime Botanical Medical Chest

Dr Trevor Dines

Dr Trevor Dines

Plantlife Botanical Specialist

7th November 2017

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Scouts at Ranscombe Farm

When we were kids, alongside the familiar taste of blackberries, our mum made something else from the hedgerows that tasted sublime.

In a tradition inherited from her own parents in the 2nd World War, she made rose-hip syrup: thick, sweet and incredibly rich in vitamin C.

During both World Wars our own wild flora provided a whole range of drugs and other supplies. Over 80 species were used medicinally, making up the shortfall when supplies from German pharmaceutical companies (which dominated European markets before both wars) were cut off.

In his wonderful book Britain’s Green Allies: Medicinal Plants in Wartime (Matador, 2015), Peter Ayres describes these plants and how an army of volunteers were galvanised to forage and grow huge quantities of plant material from which drugs, medicines and other valuable resources were extracted. The Scouts, Girl Guides, Women’s Institutes and even schoolchildren were mobilised into action, doing their bit for the war effort.

Do you remember people collecting wild plants for use during the 2nd World War? If so, we’d love to hear your memories.

During the 1st World War, huge quantities of plants like foxglove, henbane and valerian were needed. But the problems of co-ordinating collection and transport, combined with poor drying techniques and identification problems meant lots of material was wasted. Lessons were learnt during the 2nd Work War though, with botanists, pharmacist, doctors and the ministry coming together to form the Vegetable Drugs Committee. They established 70 County Herb Committees along with 250 drying centres around Britain, and conducted extensive research on which plants contained most active ingredients the best ways to harvest, dry and extract these drugs.

Here are some of the plants they collected. Not all were for drugs - some had some very surprising uses.

Please remember, as always, never eat any wild plant unless you know exactly what it is.

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1. Deadly Nightshade

Like many plants from the potato family, this species contains many toxic compounds including atropine and hyoscyamine. Atropine is well known to dilate the pupils; belladonna means ‘beautiful lady’, and was once used by women to dilate their pupils, making them appear more attractive.

The drug was in high demand for eye operations following battlefield traumas and by the end of World War Two, 200 tones of Deadly Nightshade leaves and roots were needed. Atropine sulphate was also used as an antidote to nerve gas attack, loaded in an auto-injector for self-administration. Sadly, it is still in demand today for use in modern battlefields such as Syria.

All parts of the plant are poisonous, but the large, succulent black berries tend to cause most accidental poisonings as they’re so attractive. Just half a berry has been known to kill a child.

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2. Foxglove

One of our commonest wildflowers, this species contains a powerful compound called digitalin that acts on heart muscle. It can help to strengthen and regulate an arrhythmic heart, slowing it down and preventing atrial fibrillation. During World War One 16 tones of foxglove leaves were needed each year and in 1941, Oxfordshire Women’s Institutes sent enough foxglove to their local processing plant in Islip to produce 350,000 doses of digitalin. Not all foxgloves are the same though. In tests, plants around Bangor in North Wales produced exceptionally high quantities of digitalin. As a result, plants were grown by the University of North Wales to meet demand. Foxglove is extremely poisonous and no parts should ever be eaten. The leaves are extremely bitter so eating large quantities usually causes vomiting, helping to prevent poisoning. But if just a few leaves are eaten they can lead to death from heart attack. Cases are very rare but in 2016 a two year old girl spent six days in intensive care after eating a single leaf.

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3. Rose-hips

During World War Two, with rationing at its height and fresh fruit and vegetables in short supply, the search went out to find a reliable home-grown source of vitamin C, especially for young children at home. After extensive testing, our hedgerows came to the rescue in the form of rose-hips, which easily out-performed blackcurrants. There are 13 species of rose (and a huge number of hybrids) in Britain and Kew scientists found that hips from more northern species, like Soft Downy-rose (Rosa mollis) contained more vitamin C than those like Dog Rose (Rosa canina) from the south. It was also found that the best time to collect rose-hips was in August when the fruit first turns red. Fortuitously, this coincides with school holiday time so children in particular were mobilised into action. In 1943, 500 tons of rosehips were collected, enough to make 2.5 million bottles of syrup and saving the importation of 25 million oranges.

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4. Horse Chestnuts

The huge starchy seeds of Horse Chestnuts (or conkers) were used in both World Wars to manufacture glucose and saponin (to make soap), but during World War One they were put to a rather more sinister use. When fermented by the Clostridium acetobutylicum bacterium the starch was converted into acetone, which was used to make explosives including nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose. School children and scouts were put to work collecting conkers – a pastime for which they needed little encouragement other than a bit of pocket money - but the use of their bounty was never revealed. In 1917, 3000 tones of conkers were collected and sent to the Synthetic Products Company in Kings Lynn, although much of the haul rotted before it could be processed.

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5. Sphagnum Moss

In World War One sphagnum moss was used as a wound dressing, proving to be better than cotton wools as it can absorb 20-22 times its own weight of water (or blood) before dripping. It’s naturally acidic pH inhibits bacterial growth and helps prevent infection. Holiday makers went on moss-collecting excursions in Scotland and one person collected nearly 5000 sacks of moss from Dartmoor in 5 months. A million dressings a month were being sent to military hospitals around the world by the end of the war.

Other plants that were collected:

  • Nettles (Urtica dioica) were collected for their chlorophyll which was extracted and used in the synthesis of anti-asthma drugs. They also yielded a green dye that was used for camouflage, and in Germany nettle fibre was used to manufacture army shirts and uniforms.
  • Black horehound (Ballota nigra) contains diterpenoids chemicals including marrubiin and ballonigrin. It was collected and used as a treatment for spasms and intestinal worm infections.
  • Large quantities of Meadow Saffron (Colchicum autumnale) bulbs were collected to provide the drug colchicine, used to reduce inflammation. With 12 tones of bulbs needed in World War Two, collectors were instructed to gather them from pastures and meadows in which they grew when these were being ploughed up to grow crops. No doubt many sites never recovered from these activities.

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