Part used: aerial parts
Erect, reddish, pubescent stems (50-150 cm high) bear alternate, pinnate, toothed leaves with velvety undersides with small pairs between larger pairs. There is a basal rosette of leaves. Bright yellow flowers with five small petals occur on long, slender spikes from June to September. Small, cone-shaped fruits are enclosed in a characteristic bristled calyx-tube. The hooked bristles enable widespread dispersal of seeds on animal fur. It also spreads vegetatively by stout, woody, deep-lying rhizomes.
Other species used
fragrant agrimony Agrimonia procera Wallr. syn. Agrimonia odorata, which is a larger plant with leaves green on both sides, pale yellow flowers and bell-shaped fruits. It has similar constituents but is scented. Agrimonia pilosa is used in China (WHO 1989).
Collect during or shortly before flowering (BHMA 1983).
The Eupatorion Of Dioscorides
Dioscorides (IV 41) describes agrimony under the title ‘eupatorion’, by which name it was known until the Linnaean classification of the 18th century. The name is linked with a king of Pontus, Mithridates Eupator, a famous plant collector and author of a botanical text in Greek, who died around 63 BC. Thus Pliny records, ‘it hath gotten credit and reputation by a king, as may appear by the name’. Many centuries later Fuchs puts forward the retrospective notion that Mithridates, on discovering the medicinal use of the plant, named it ‘hepatorium’ because it heals the liver.
Both internal and external uses of agrimony are recorded by Dioscorides in the 1st century AD. The leaves are applied topically in some form of oil or grease to wounds and ulcers that are proving difficult to heal. The powdered herb or seed or both together are taken in wine for dysentery and bloody diarrhoea, for liver disease and for those bitten by reptiles.
Galen, in classifying a rational herbal therapeutics, defines the internal activity of the plant: by virtue of its thin parts – an ability to penetrate thickened residues more usually found in notably pungent or heating herbs – it cuts, scours and cleanses humours obstructing the fine, narrow passages of the liver ‘without manifest heat’, while its binding power helps to reopen the channels and restore power and strength to that organ. Thus, by its gentle heating and astringing qualities – Galen classifies it as hot and dry in the first degree – agrimony is made a tonic to the liver. This toning effect is extended by later authors, no doubt in recognition of Dioscorides’ recommendation of the plant for dysenteries, to the other organs of the alimentary system whose operations draw on the power of that central organ of digestion. Serapio, from the Arabic tradition, tells us that al-Razi has demonstrated by experiment that the benefit to the liver of Dioscorides’ eupatorion is not as great as that of wormwood.
In elemental terms, therefore, agrimony imparts a gentle fire to the body. In Aristotelian physics, fire implies heat and light, and the ability to separate out different kinds of substance. It warms and dries. Its power is greater than expected from what the senses can detect of its fiery quality. Its astringency also moderate, nevertheless provides it with a high ranking among the wound herbs of the herbal tradition.
In the second great age of herbals, during the Renaissance, there is much discussion concerning the correct botanical species. Parkinson, for example, identifies several species of agrimony besides the common scentless one. Among these are two species native to Italy: the sweet-smelling Agrimonia odorata (now designated Agrimonia procera Wallr., aromatic with pale yellow flowers, which is rarer in the UK but has the same European distribution and similar pharmacological constituents as Agrimonia eupatoria), which he favours above the common sort but recognizes is hard to come by in England; and also a bastard agrimony, although this common name was usually applied in England to the bur-marigold or water agrimony Bidens tripartita. While Fuchs maintains that agrimony should be picked in the summer when in flower, Dodoens and Bauhin cite Mesue in insisting that for medicinal use agrimony should be gathered in May before flowering because the root then is very odoriferous. This may be a reference to Agrimonia procera. Meanwhile, another 16th century physician, Caesalpinus is reported by Bauhin to have detected no aroma from the plant, on account of which Galen had commended it for those drunk on mandrake, nor any cutting power evident in medicinal usage, and therefore to doubt the identification. Bauhin, however, assures his readers that agrimony is the true eupatorion: ‘whoever is a doctor, after this let him use agrimony confidently, if he wishes to use eupatorium’.
In the 20th century Grieve states that agrimony is subject to considerable variation of form and suggests that the common sort can also be aromatic and that as a consequence the distinction between Agrimonia eupatoria and Agrimonia procera is scarcely maintained by the botanists of her day. She mentions the aromatic plant gathered early in the season as an ingredient of a blood-cleansing ‘spring drink’ and maintains that the fragrance of common agrimony is retained in the dried aerial plant, which may explain its popularity in France as a tisane.
Concerning another species, the hemp agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum, Parkinson writes ‘all the apothecaries of our land, especially of London nowadays, do use the first kind of agrimony as the most assured eupatorium of Dioscorides. Howsoever in former times, both we and they beyond the seas did usually take the Eupatorium cannabinum, which they called Eupatorium vulgare, for the true kind’. This former time beyond the sea is discussed by Mattioli, who criticizes ‘almost the whole throng of apothecaries’ for a replacement, or just as often a mixing, of Dioscorides’ agrimony with that of Ibn Sina’s hemp agrimony. Mesue’s eupatorium is a third kind, the tops of which, soaked in white wine and diluted, Italian women give to their children, Mattioli affirms, as a successful remedy for worms. Grieve suggests later that the water and hemp agrimonies, although not actually related botani-cally to common agrimony, were given the same name by the older herbalists because of their similar qualities. Dalechamps refers to the ‘officinal’ eupatorion as sold in apothecary shops, while his entry of ‘common agrimony depicts and describes hemp agrimony, ‘the eupatorion of Avicenna’, which is often substituted for officinal agrimony because it has been observed to have greater powers and benefit for the liver.
By and large then, Renaissance authors of herbals are satisfied with the identification of the true eupatorion of Dioscorides. Nevertheless, a confusion has been handed down through medieval texts over the centuries even as far as our own period with Grieve, who suggested that the name agrimony is derived from argemone, ‘a word given by the Greeks to plants which were healing to the eyes’. Fernie (1897), one of Grieve’s sources, states that the name agrimony is ‘derived from the Greek, and means ‘shining’ because the herb is thought to cure cataract of the eye’. Pliny and Dioscorides already differentiate these two herbs, but a later illustrated manuscript of the Dioscorides text appears to depict agrimony without rosette, under the name argemone. In the herbal of pseudo-Apuleius, agrimonia is misspelled as argimonia and the first listed use is for defects or pain in the eyes. A similar entry is transmitted in medieval texts such as the Old English Herbarium and the Salernitan herbal: the fresh herb – or, if not available, the dried herb soaked in hot water for a day – well crushed and placed on the eyes, is stated to be profitable for eye pains and bruises, discolouration and swelling.
The Herbal of Pseudo-Apuleius offers several uses for agrimony: the same application for the eyes could be laid on ulcerous sores, gashes caused by blows from a wooden club or iron weapon and infected wounds in order to open them up for cleansing, while the fresh herb pounded in vinegar could be used on warts. Internally, at a dose of 9 g of herb in two cups of wine (the Salernitan dose is slightly smaller), the Dioscoridean application for snake bite is repeated, as is the use in fluxes, but a sore abdomen or spleen replaces the classical indication of liver dysfunction. The Old English Herbarium repeats these, with the omission of the use in fluxes. The plant is called garclive in Anglo-Saxon. Grieve cites Chaucer on ‘egrimoyne’ used with mugwort and vinegar for a bad back and all wounds.
Hildegard, however, writes of quite different uses for the plant. While continuing the medieval notion that agrimony heals the eyes, in this case from clouded vision, it is also applied to those who have lost understanding and knowledge, when the head should be shaved and washed with a decoction of agrimony. The bilious or those with a cold stomach and intestinal mucus should drink the herb in wine. Head catarrh is remedied with a complete regime, including pills made from agrimony, fennel, galangal, female fern and celandine. A bathing regime for skin eruptions due to lust or (sexual) incontinence is also described, where agrimony Agrimonia eupatoria, hyssop Hyssopus officinalis, asarum Asarum europaeum and menstrual blood are added to the bath.
The Galenic qualities of agrimony and its classical indications are restored in Renaissance herbals from Fuchs onwards, alongside new uses for the herb and also the root, and a new preparation of a distilled water. A decoction of the herb in wine is found to be useful for the urinary tract, helping to correct foul or bloody urine, and strangury, or the inability to pass urine except painfully and drop by drop. Abdominal colic (from Mesue), worms in the digestive tract and obstructions of the liver and spleen (which are usually taken to mean jaundice and malaria) are treated using herb and root. Coughs are relieved as the cleansing power of the plant works on phlegm-filled lungs. A warm decoction is to be taken before the fit of an ague or malaria to prevent the attack and gradually to cure the disease. For Culpeper, agrimony acts as a tonic in the sense of its ability to help correct all imbalances of qualities in the body. He writes: ‘It is a most admirable remedy for such whose livers are annoyed either by heat or cold. The liver is the former of blood, the blood the nourisher of the body and agrimony a strength-ener of the liver’. Culpeper recommends a dose of 1 drachm (4 g).
• Leucorrhoea, menorrhagia and dysmenorrhoea.
• Tonic for the elderly, especially in the presence of the above conditions or with arthritic and rheumatic symptoms.
Dosage: The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia recommends 2-4 g three times a day of dried aerial parts.
Total 0.2% only found in Agrimonia procera.
Triterpene glycosides: euscapic acid, esters of euscapic acid and tormentic acid (commercial).
Total 2.3% (12 compounds): mainly p-hydroxybenzoic acid, protocatechuic acid, vanillic acid, salicylic acid (wild, Poland).
Daidzein, biochanin A (leaves, commercial, Czech Republic).
Total 7.4%; total 10.1%.
Catechin tannins 7.1 %; leucoanthocyanins 6.9% (decoction).
Catechin and epicatechin type oligomers, in particular procyanidin dimers (type B), trimers and tetramers (45% aqueous-ethanol solution).
A small proportion of ellagitannins is cited by Bradley (2006) but there is a lack of more recent studies. This is important as agrimoniin, an ellagitannin oligomer found in root of Agrimonia pilosa, has been found to have a range of activities. More recently, agrimoniin was found in vitro to inhibit human neutrophil elastase and thus could have an antiinflammatory activity in psoriasis. Agrimoniin is found in other Rosaceae such as Potentilla erecta and Alchemilla vulgaris.
Recommendations On Safety
• Use caution where there is constipation.