Name: Alkanet (Anchusa officinalis)
Otherwise known as: Dyer’s Bugloss, Anchusa
Habitat: An herbaceous, perennial member of the Boragineae family growing to about 30cm in wastelands and rocky habitats in Europe and Asia. It has stiff, erect stems containing linear, pointed leaves bearing bright blue, violet or red tubular flowers issuing from the axils and terminal spurs. All parts are covered in fine hairs that can cause serious skin irritation.
What does it do: The plant was well known to the ancients as a source of dyes and medicaments; Dioscorides claimed that it was an effective treatment for those bitten by venomous beasts whether taken internally or applied to the site of the wound. He even went so far as to suggest that ‘…if the root be taken into the mouth and chewed and then spit into the mouth of the serpent it will die instantly’. He is silent on how this was to be achieved.
Culpeper states ‘It helps old, tough ulcers, hot inflammations, burnings by common fire and St Anthony’s fire, and mixed with vinegar it helps the leprosy… and yellow jaundice and spleen and gravel in the kidneys’.
William Salmon, an eminent physician of the later 18th century in his ‘English Herbs’ describes a formula involving Alkanet to be used for ‘…deep wounds, and punctures of the nerves made with thrusts, stabs and prickings with any pointed weapons; it eases pain and prevents convulsions’. It was made from olive oil, Alkanet root, and 40 cleaned and purged earthworms, which were boiled together and placed on the wound when hot.
The plant contains silicic acid, the alkaloids cynoglossine and consolidine, mucilage and anthocyanins. These substances give Alkanet an expectorant action and while the plant is not as popular with herbalists as it once was it is still used to treat coughs, colds bronchitis and other chest and throat infections.
The tender young leaves are rich in vitamin C and are eaten in salads or cooked like spinach.
An extract from the root is used to colour ointments and medicines and has been used by unscrupulous wineries to colour wines. The dye is included in polishes and varnishes and was used by furniture makers to imitate the patina of rosewood.