White Deadnettle: Elusive Identity

The first difficulty is the usual one of which plant is Dioscorides’ lamium and does it correspond to Pliny or anyone else. There is an amount of dispute. Beck identifies Dioscorides’ ‘leukas’ (III 99) as deadnettle, but this is tentative, and comes with a question mark in the index against the Latin binomial. There is little description in Dioscorides’ text beyond that the one growing in mountains has wider leaves than the cultivated, is more potent and its fruit is more pungent, bitter and less tasty. Its actions are only against venoms of animals, topically or drunk. Mattioli suggests this text is obviously corrupt and several things are missing. Pliny speaks of lamium’ and, according to Dodoens of’anonium’ or ‘aononium’, which with salt will heal contusions and blows, burns and swollen glands, swellings, gout and wounds; and the white it has in its leaves will heal the sacred fires (St Anthony’s fire). The trouble is Dioscorides (IV 94) also has an entry called ‘galeopsis’, otherwise ‘galepsis’ or ‘galeobdolon’. Even the origin of the word is disputed. Mattioli criticises Fuchs’ suggestion that the name comes from galea, a helmet, saying that galea is a Latin word, not a Greek one, and the Greeks, ‘having no want of words’, would not compose names of plants from the Latin. (Grieve suggests galeopsis comes from gale meaning weasel and opsis, countenance, inspired from the flower). Galeopsis resembles the nettle, says Dioscorides, but it has smoother leaves which smell rather foul when ground, and its flowers are delicate and purple. It grows on fences, road edges and building lots. This galeopsis will dissolve indurations, tumours, scrofulous and other swellings of the glands and parotid tumours, applied twice daily with vinegar as a plaster, or the decoction as a rinse. It is applied with salt as a plaster for spreading ulcers, gangrenes and putrid humours. This could be interpreted as Pliny’s lamium, or at least a purple variety of it, broadly used for wounds and swollen glands, but may be an entirely different herb. Beck designates this plant brownwort Scrophularia peregrina. Most of our Renaissance authors include it among the deadnettles or call it stinking deadnettle, although some authors, according to Parkinson, do think it is a scrophularia. It is impossible to conclude the definitive identity of the plant, and confusion is inevitable. The plant does not appear in Galen.