Figwort

2011

Scrophularia nodosa

Family: Scrophulariaceae

Part used: aerial parts, root

The genus contains over 200 species, which are mainly perennials. The erect stems are usually square with opposite leaves and bear lobed flowers, so can be confused with members of the Lamiaceae family. Distinguishing features of Scrophularia species are the terminal branched flowerheads and the characteristic staminodes (enlarged non-fertile stamens) and seed cases. The Flora of Turkey gives 56 Scrophularia species, including Scrophularia nodosa.

Scrophularia nodosa L. is a native, herbaceous perennial found in damp places. It is widespread in Europe. Smooth, erect, four-sided stems (50-120 cm) with acute stem-angles, bear serrate, opposite leaves with short petioles without stipules. Stalked clusters of small, tubular, five-lobed, greenish purple-brown flowers with a large upper lip occur in July. Under the upper lip is a tongue-shaped staminode. It is pollinated by wasps and the seeds are enclosed in small clusters of hard, brown, egg-shaped capsules. The root is white and tuberous.

Other species used

Water figwort Scrophularia auriculata L. is a similar plant that is found in wetter places. The stems are taller and more stout with more prominent wings on the stem angles. The roots are brown and stringy. A former synonym was Scrophularia aquatica but this has been discontinued. Scrophularia marilandica is widespread in North America (USDA 2009) and is very similar to Scrophularia nodosa but has a more branching flowerheads. The sample which we grew had white nodules on the roots. Scrophularia ningpoensis is used in China (WHO 1989).

Quality

Where the root is specified then only Scrophularia nodosa should be used.

’The Brown Wort’ – But What Is It?

The descriptions given by the authors include much discussion of the identity of the plant under consideration. Earlier writers may be referring to a figwort or to a dead-nettle. Dioscorides describes galeobdolon and the debate on the identity of this plant is explored in the chapter on Lamium species. As discussed later, some Lamium and Scrophularia species are not easily distinguished. They are listed consecutively by Gerard and Parkinson, although Parkinson also describes ‘great figwort without knobbed roots’, which could be Scrophularia auriculata. Alongside figwort is water betony or water figwort Scrophularia auriculata. Another reason for the confusion is that some of the actions are comparable. For example, Mattioli debates the differentiation of species and, after making recommendations for use of the leaves of stinking deadnettle for ‘bruises, injuries, burns, strumas, tumours/swellings, gouts and wounds’, he goes on to recommend external use of figwort root ‘by which the aforesaid diseases are most usefully healed’. Before discussing figwort in more detail, what we can say is that the descriptions from the Renaissance are of figwort Scrophularia nodosa so that while there is uncertainty about the other plants, it is certain that figwort was used.

Many earlier recommendations are for external usage of the root. External use of the leaves is suggested combined with internal use of the leaves to heal wounds, places where the blood is congealed in the body and swellings of every sort, more especially haemorrhoids and swollen lymph nodes in the neck. The alterative usage which is most common today develops more clearly after the 18th century.

Dioscorides (IV 94) describes ‘the brown wort: but some call it galepsis and others galeobdolon’ as having delicate purple flowers and the ‘entire little shrub’ resembling the nettle (IV 93) in shape, leaf and stem, but the leaves are smoother and ‘rather foul smelling when ground’. Beck gives Scrophularia peregrina nettle-leaved figwort, which fits the description given by Dioscorides. Dioscorides refers to it as growing on fences, roadsides and ‘building lots’ (Beck) or ‘house courtyards’ (Fuchs), which would not describe Scrophularia nodosa as it is found in more moist sites. Mattioli also makes this point in his argument that figwort is not the galiopsis of Dioscorides. Makbul et al (2006) describe Scrophularia nodosa growing in Turkey so, apart from the habitat given, this could be the plant described by Dioscorides. Scrophularia species do have an unpleasant smell and the flowers can be described as reddish-purple or maroon. The indications given are plausible for figwort but the description is not conclusive.

The Renaissance authors give descriptions and I will start with Dodoens, who says the plant is called Scrophularia major in the shops and brownwort and wood betony in English. He describes two figworts with hollow stems as growing plentifully in the borders of fields, under hedges and on the edge of lakes and ditches. Dodoens notes an important distinguishing feature between Scrophularia nodosa and Scrophularia auriculata: the root of Scrophularia nodosa is solid, white and knobbly and the root of Scrophularia auriculata is stringy. Having confirmed this from plants in my garden, I have to agree with Dodoens that ‘those that do not take heed to the difference in the roots, do gather the one for the other’. This suggests that the recommendations for use of the root must refer to the use of Scrophularia nodosa, but that use of the aerial parts may refer to either species. This proposal is supported by research into the constituents (see below), and the evidence that many species of Scrophularia are used worldwide.

The illustrations from Fuchs’ text were published as a separate document in 1545 and a facsimile produced. This lists galeopsis minor, small Braunwurz (brownwort) and the picture could be Scrophularia nodosa. Mattioli and Bauhin both decry Fuchs over the question of whether figwort smells as badly as stinking deadnettle but the picture given is plausibly Scrophularia nodosa. In contrast, Gerard and Parkinson use the same print, which could be figwort, but is not clear enough to be distinguishable. Parkinson gives a full description of figwort Scrophularia nodosa and Culpeper follows Parkinson in his description of ‘common great figwort’ as 3-4 feet high, growing in moist, shady places, in woods and lower parts of fields and meadows. Gerard gives three entries under great figwort and the first could be Scrophularia nodosa. The third, the yellow-flowered, flowers in May and is pictured with a hairy stem. This is a Lamium, as already confirmed by De l’Ecluse (Clusius). Parkinson calls figwort ‘the great figwort’, as does Gerard and refers to the white roots. Bauhin gives a picture which looks right for Scrophularia nodosa and is clear on the point that he does not consider figwort to be the galeopsis of Dioscorides. Bauhin claims that Fuchs has lost his sense of smell if he thinks this plant is the galeopsis of Dioscorides as it does not have a strong smell. This depends how the word ‘strong’ is used. The scent of figwort could be called strong as it is somewhat penetrating and lingering and has something of the unpleasant smell of woundwort Stachys sylvatica. Parkinson argues that the galeopsis of Dioscorides could be stinking deadnettle or hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica. Miller describes the smell as like elder Sambucus nigra with which I would concur. It is interesting to trace the development of the nomenclature as Quincy gives Scrophularia major vulgaris of Parkinson and Scophularia nodosa foetida of Caspar Bauhin.

There are two further points on the identity of the plant used as figwort. Water betony is described by Gerard and Parkinson, who both use the same illustration, and Culpeper gives the description from Parkinson. The description of the seeds is of Scrophularia auriculata but the picture is of a Lamiaceae, possibly a Stachys. Finally, as Gerard notes, Scrophularia minor was used for lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria as it has a knobbly root and is used to treat haemorrhoids which were called figs, so Scrophularia major means the larger of the plants used to treat haemorrhoids.

The text in Turner is unclear and it appears that he was not referring to the same entry in Dioscorides. The illustrations for ‘clymenum or water betony” look like figworts with the characteristic seed pods. However, the text refers to plants with a four-squared stem like the bean stalk, leaves like plantain and little seed cases ‘not unlike unto the claspers of the fish called polypus’ which the translators give as octopus. Turner describes the herb given by Pliny as clymenos with a branched, hollow, jointed stem which is compared to an ivy with ivy-like leaves and seeds and the actions given are those of an astringent herb.

Although there are similar actions, figworts and Lamium species are, as Pelikan reveals, very different plants. Pelikan suggests that while at first glance some Scrophularia species resemble the Labiates, they have none of their powerful warmth nature and make no etheric oils; they rather take after the nightshades. Figwort itself is associated with shady streams and riverbanks, undergrowth and forest ditches. He observes the strong rootstock with tubers arising from nodes, and how, though the panicle rises and separates from the banked pairs of nettle-like leaves -these nettle-like leaves plus the throaty flowers suggesting strongly the Lamiaceae – it does not lead to the light, but to a dull brown olive-green gullet ‘smelling as gloomy as nightshade’ and speaking of the forces of the dark working in them. Pelikan points to its use not only for scrofula and tuberculous and glandular problems in children, as the name suggests, but further to its application for ulcers/ boils, eczema in the head area, and even for goitre, as found in other plants with dammed energy around the roots, witnessed by knobbly swellings there. The relationship between figwort and the scrofulous process, he says, is signalled by the plant’s overcoming of the swelling damp, the fight with the lack of light to achieve a transformation of the leaf buds into a successful and determined flowering, i.e. astralising, process; and he notes the appropriate nature of this process to affect a swollen organism lacking in etheric form which cannot manage sufficient light and astral suffusion. My impression gained from using figwort is that it is very different in action from any Lamiaceae and is an alterative which travels deeply into the tissues of the body.