Name: Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum)
Otherwise known as: Sea Holme, Panicault
Habitat: A biennial, sometime perennial, member of the Umbellifereae family, growing up to 60cm in sandy coastal areas in Europe. It has stiff, spiny leaves and produces blue flowers in summer. The leaves have an unpleasant odour and the tiny flowers are supported by spiny bracts. The plant is atypic of the Umbellifereae and more like a thistle. In full sun it appears metallic.
What does it do: The plant takes its name from the Greek word to eructate: belch or other flatulent disorders. Dioscorides used the root of the plant for that purpose. All parts of Sea Holly are edible. Medieval herbalists made preserves and candied the stems which were valued as aphrodisiacs. They were sold as ‘eryngoes’ and given to children in winter to ward off coughs and flu.
The English town of Colchester in Essex created an industry around the cultivation of the plant and the production of the candies which they claimed were the ‘kissing comforts’ alluded to by Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s play, and following a visit from the monarch, when the corporation presented a tray of the confectioneries, the industry thrived, particularly when the most extraordinary cures were claimed for the roots. Gerard stated: ‘The roots are good if be eaten by those that be liver sick, will ease convulsions (apoplexy); the falling sickness (epilepsy); they are exceeding good for the old and withered whereby they may regain the natural moistures’.
Travelers from Arabia referred to the native’s fondness for ‘eryngoes’ as a restorative of sexual potency. Culpeper distilled water from Sea Holly to treat the ague and the wry neck. Sea Holly was used by the early physicians to treat advanced tuberculosis, and to be useful in cases of paralysis and nervous diseases. The Danes valued it as draught to be taken by those suffering kidney and bladder ailments.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants