A HOP pillow is the best known soporific and has been for a long time. The secret of success against insomnia lies in not packing it too tightly, and renewing the dried hops every four to six weeks. The pillow’s sedative action was used to combat other conditions, too. Lindley tells us that they were prescribed for “mania”. George III is said to have slept always on a hop pillow. Pillows are stuffed with the dried leaves of CATMINT, too, for the smell is supposed to help the sleepless. NETTLE seems an unlikely plant to be associated with cures for insomnia, but it certainly is in both the medical sense and also as a charm. In the Highlands, we are told that nettle leaves chopped very small and mixed with whisked egg-white used to be applied to the temples and forehead. This remedy was mentioned as early as the beginning of the 18th century by Martin, who particularly speaks of fevered patients benefitting from the treatment. In Wales, they used to put a bunch of nettles in broth, both to induce appetite and to promote sleep. Grated HORSERADISH root is used in Rusian folk medicine as compresses on the calves of both legs, for insomnia. Dry mustard was sometimes added. It is said that this causes a flow of blood away from the brain, and so induces sleep.
An infusion of four or five HEATHER flower sprays to a pint of boiling water is drunk as a tea for insomnia; it was even just applied to the head for that condition. And a heather pillow is still used to give refreshing sleep. Another tea that can be taken is from the dried flowers of SCENTED MAYWEED.The root infusion of PRIMROSE, if taken last thing at night, has a distinct narcotic tendency, and so is good for insomnia. THYME, too, has been used for insomnia, as well as melancholy and nightmare (Hill, J The family herbal, claimed that “the night mare is a very troublesome disease, but it will be perfectly cured by a tea made of this plant”). VIOLETS were associated with sleep, but by a misunderstanding. It is well known that the smell of violets is fleeting. When first coming on them, the fragrance is obvious, but it soon seems to go. “To smell the smell out of violets” is a proverbial saying, and there is factual basis for it, for the fragrance contains ionine, which has a soporific effect on the sense of smell. This effect was recognised, but misunderstood, as the gift of sleep. One 16th century herbalist Ascham said, “for them that may not sleep for a sickness seethe violets in water and at even let him soke well hys temples, and he shall sleepe well by the grace of God”. Even TOMATOES have been recommended for the condition.
In some parts of Europe, leaves of BLACK NIGHTSHADE used to be put in babies’ cradles, the idea being that they (the leaves) would soothe the babies to sleep. There was some justification for this — the generic name, Solarium, comes from a wordneaning ‘to soothe’. Some South American Indian peoples use Black Nightshade for insomnia, by steeping a small quantity of the leaves in a lot of water. Ancient writers refer to MANDRAKE as a remedy for insomnia. Even the smell of the plant was said to have the same effect. Dodoens says that “the smell of the mandragora apples causeth sleepe, but the juyce of the same taken into the bodie doth better”. But of course mandrake was used as an anaesthetic; indeed it was probably the very first anaesthetic in Italy. Amulets for the prevention of insomnia were made by binding OAK twigs into the form of a cross.
A very strange leechdom from the 15th century offered treatment “for those who speak in sleep. Take SOUTHERNWOOD and stamp it, and mingle the juice with white wine or with vinegar, and give the sick to drink when he goeth to his bed, and it shall let him for speaking in his sleep”. Just as odd was a very similar prescription by the Physicians of Myddfai. They make more sense when it is realised that it is insomnia they are trying to cure, not just talking in the sleep. Even WHITE HOREHOUND has been used in a sleeping draught in the Fen country. Rue was added too, followed by a good dose of gin mixed with laudanum. It is quoted as being a last resort means of stopping a mother giving birth on 1 May (an unlucky day). It just put her to sleep for twenty-four hours.
LIME-BLOSSOM tea is the best known cure for insomnia. A hot bath with lime flowers in it, is another remedy. This infusion is valued for headaches, too, and seems to be a sort of cure-all.