Figwort: External Use For Swellings Of All Sorts

The common thread throughout the authors is the use of figwort for swellings, in particular enlarged cervical glands, and externally for swollen haemorrhoids. The recommendations of Dioscorides (IV 94) are only for external usage. He advises use of the leaves and stems to dissolve indurations (hardenings), tumours, scrofulous swellings of the glands, swellings of the glands and tumours of parotid glands. He gives an application as a plaster with vinegar twice daily, or the decoction as a rinse, and a plaster with salt for spreading ulcers, gangrenes and putrid humours. Translations vary and the term ‘induration’, hardening of the skin, could be linked with swollen glands under the skin, chronic inflammatory skin disease, abscesses or boils. Similar recommendations for external use as a plaster with vinegar are given by Fuchs and Mattioli, with reference back to Pliny, who states that it disperses lymph swellings, scrofula and parotid swellings. Mattioli gives the reference but it is not clear whether this does refer to an entry on figwort as we were not able to confirm this in the edition we used. Fuchs quotes Paul of Aegina as recommending figwort to soften and disperse hard swellings and use of a cataplasm (plaster) for corroding sores. Fuchs was able to use a new Greek version of this text published in Venice in 1528 and revised again for publication in Cologne in 1534 and Basel in 1538.

Dodoens recommends leaves, stalks, seeds, root and juice to ‘waste and dissolve all kinds of tumours, swellings and hardness, if it be pound with vinegar, and laid thereupon 2 or 3 times a day”. He then recommends the leaves of either species stamped and laid to ‘old, rotten, corrupt, spreading and fretting ulcers and consuming sores’. He also gives the same recommendation of Dioscorides for a plaster with salt. He suggests external use of the fresh root and eating the fresh root to dry up and heal haemorrhoids. Bauhin gives the root as the main part to be used and lists scrofula, scabies, ulcers and cancers. Gerard recommends the leaves of water betony (water figwort) as of scouring and cleansing quality to ‘mundify foul and stinking ulcers, especially the juice boiled in honey”. Bauhin gives the same recommendation and adds a reference to use of the leaves dried in the oven and powdered. Mundify means to rebuild the tissues, and use of the terms ‘scouring’ and ‘cleaning’ suggests a use to cleanse wounds and remove dead tissue, before the use of demulcents to rebuild the tissue.

The authors give similar but varying suggestions for use of figwort as a face wash. Dodoens recommends washing the face with the juice of figwort to take away redness. This could be a more cautious rendition of the entry in Fuchs, who records other practitioners of the time as using ‘the juice for a deformity of the face resembling elephantiasis’. Fuchs also records use in healing suppurating ulcers and piles and Turner writes ‘The common herbaries write that scrophularia healeth rotting sores and the swelling sores of the fundament called figs of some writers. The juice is also good for the deformity of the face much like unto a lazar’s sickness’. The plant is included in Volume 1 of Turner, which was published in 1551, and this reads like a translation of Fuchs, which was published in Latin in 1542. The editors of Turner give the plant as Scrophularia auriculata, but this could refer, as discussed above, to just these last three lines of the entry. Gerard states that ‘it is reported’ that use of the juice to wash the face takes away redness and deformity. Parkinson, in his entry for figwort, gives the distillled water of the whole plant as good for ‘any foul deformity that is inveterate and the leprosy likewise’. This text could refer back to the original recommendation of Dioscorides for use of the plant in ‘spreading ulcers’ and we must remember that the identity of that plant is not clear. The recommendation for use on the face is ascribed to figwort by one author and to water betony by another and, in contrast to some herbs in this book, Parkinson does not shed much light here. Bauhin keeps to advising the distilled water of the root for redness of the face. The recommendations for use on the face are given by Grieve for water figwort, as ‘the juice or distilled water of the leaves is good for bruises, whether inward or outward, as also to bathe the face and hands spotted or blemished or discoloured by sun burning’.

The herb is not given in Apuleius or Macer, but appears in the Salernital herbal, where it is recommended for scrofula and hard glands as an electuary, a preparation of the powder in honey, to be taken in the morning on an empty stomach with no food to be taken for 3 hours. It might also be prepared in pancakes followed by some pure white wine. It is not mentioned by Hildegard or by the Myddfai but has a brief mention in the Trotula as a preparation of the root in honey, useful for ‘thickness of the lips’.