Name: Eyebright (Euphrasia rostkoviana)
Otherwise known as: Casse Lunette, Euphrasia
Habitat: An annual member of the Scrophulariaceae family growing up to 50cm with tiny ovate to lanceolate leaves, small, scalloped-edged, white flowers growing from the axil displaying yellow spots and red veins. It is native to woodlands and heaths in Europe.
What does it do: The name Euphrasia is derived from the Greek – to gladden – after one of the Graces who was distinguished for her sense of joy and mirth. Possibly reflecting the feeling one derived on knowing that use of the herb would improve sight.
Milton refers to Eyebright when the archangel Michael visits Adam after ‘the fall’ and washes away ‘the film from his orbs, for there was much to see’. The plant was unknown to the ancients; Discorides, Pliny and Galen, as well as the Arab scholars and remained obscure in Europe until the middle ages. There is a theory that its potential to cure and alleviate infections of the eye originated with the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ developed by Paracelsus: ‘That nature or god marked the plants to indicate their curative powers’: the flowers of Eyebright resemble a conjunctive and bloodshot eye. Culpepper suggested ‘if the herb was but as much used as it is neglected, it would half-spoil the spectacle makers trade’.
The flowering stems contain the iridoid glycoside aucubin, tannins, bitter compounds and pigments. These are anti-inflammatory and when used as an eye-bath or on compresses will give relief to conjunctiva, photophobia (abnormal sensitivity to light), and general eye strain. A bath of Eyebright was very popular with the hunting community after a heavy day in a head wind – a reference to the mounted variety. Some modern herbalists recommend the plant as a stomachic, and recently, as a treatment for sinusitis and hay-fever. In rural Germany Eyebright poultices were applied to stubborn wounds.
As the family name indicates it was a popular treatment for scrofula.