White Deadnettle: Renaissance Debate And Use

The question of identification becomes critical in the Renaissance texts, yet remains elusive. Fuchs distinguishes three types of deadnettle: white deadnettle, lamium proper; spotted deadnettle with purple flowers, Lamium maculatum; and yellow archangel, Lamium galeobdolon. Turner writes only of Lamium album, dede nettle urtica iners/mortua/alba, archangelica. Dodoens has a title archangel or deadnettle, of which there are two kinds: the first, which does not smell, of which there are three sorts, with white, yellow and reddish flowers; the second has a strong and stinking savour, of which there are two sorts which differ only in flower color, one being pale, the other of a brown red color, smaller than the flowers of the first deadnettle. This does sound rather like a figwort. Dale-champs distinguishes between lamium, which has white flowers growing by walls and footpaths or yellow flowers growing in shady wooded places, and galiopsis, the foetid deadnettle with purple flowers. He says of galiopsis ‘the Ancients and those after them were familiar with the notable qualities of this deadnettle, which was easily distinguished from lamium and the like… yet the images of the species here do not differentiate to my untrained eye’. Bauhin, strangely, since he is usually the differentiator and taker to task, partly confounds the two plants, introducing them as galeopsis or inert nettle, yet specifying different species: white nettle, archangel, Pliny’s lamium, which likes damp shady places, ditches and courtyards; spotted deadnettle; yellow deadnettle; the purple flowered with oblong leaves differs by scent in that it is more foetid.

Parkinson sets out his own list of eight: (1) red deadnettle or red archangel, (2) Spanish archangel with flowers of purplish color, (3) white archangel, (4) long-leafed red archangel, (5) archangel with spotted leaves, (6) archangel with white lines in the leaves, (7) yellow archangel and (8) strange archangel. He details which may be called which and by whom, yet none of these is Dioscorides’ galeopsis, for he has a following post entitled galeopsis, stinking deadnettle, which he names the true stinking deadnettle of Dioscorides. There follow in Parkinson the yellow stinking deadnettle, the hoary stinking deadnettle, pale stinking deadnettle and the dragon flower. Gerard distinguishes six plants under the heading of archangel or deadnettle: white, yellow, red, Hungary, hedge and ‘Hungary nettle with variegated floure’. The hedge nettle, he says, Tragus and Clusius judge to be the true galeopsis of Dioscorides. Matthioli thinks the galeopsis of Dioscorides is not a scrophularia. He speculates whether it could be the lamium with white patches on the leaves, the name galeopsis possibly relating to gala, milk in Greek, and whether Pliny was familiar with galeopsis, but eventually does not commit himself to a firm opinion. Culpeper has a red, white and yellow archangel, but, shunning idolatry, is distinctly uncomfortable with the name: ‘to put a gloss upon their practice, the physicians call an herb (which country people vulgarly know by the name of Deadnettle) Archangel; whether they favour more of superstition or folly, I leave to the judicious reader’.

It is clear these authors recognized and probably worked with the deadnettles; the problem lies in the unreliability of citing Dioscorides’ uses of galeopsis for these plants. The questionable similarity of Pliny’s lamium compounds the difficulties. Turner sticks with Pliny, although Pliny himself is no reliable source. Turner writes how with a corn of salt it heals places that are bruised, beaten or burnt, and wens and swellings, gouts and wounds. He repeats Pliny’s white sections of the leaf for St Anthony’s fire. Then he adds a reference carried in most of these Renaissance authors to ‘the later writers’ who hold that the herb is good for nose bleeds when laid to the back of the neck or shoulder blades. Furthermore, it is a good remedy against ‘foul sores, fistulas or false wounds’. Dodoens too stays with Pliny, with no reference to later writers, only that the virtue is like other nettles. Fuchs cites Pliny too, but then adds, singularly, a sort of magical use, how ‘certain people among us distinguish the types by the season; the root of the autumnal urtica is bound to the body in tertian agues such that the sick are formally called when that root is dug up and told which root will be lifted out and for whom and by whose son, thus the healing of illness has been handed down’. Quartan agues are treated similarly, with salt added to the root of urtica.

Dalechamps is clear in keeping Pliny and Dioscorides separate. He distinguishes lamium with Pliny’s recommendations, adding the usual ‘recent practitioners’ reference, together with how the yellow archangel is much more effective for wounds, ulcers, swellings, while galiop-sis, the leaves, flowers, juice and seed, dissipates harden-ings, carcinomas, scrophulous swellings and parotids applied in vinegar as warm cataplasm twice daily, and the decoction applied with salt on gangrenous and putrid sores. Yet we still do not know what plant this is. Bauhin tells us all deadnettles generally are good for ulcers and swellings, and in baths and vapour baths to soften. He then offers different uses for four types: the purple with oblong leaves disperses scrofulous tumours (Dioscorides’ galeopsis) and can be smeared on with salt for putrid ulcers, cancerous eating ulcers and corroding sores; the spotted deadnettle should be used as powdered leaves in an egg, sucked, or taken in wine, for obstructions of the spleen; the white deadnettle or white archangel is taken in wine for obstructions of the liver or spleen, and for ‘the whites’ (leucorrhoea) in women as a conserve in sugar taken daily. This is an early reference to this use. Then follow uses for nosebleed and wounds/ulcers. The yellow deadnettle or yellow archangel has similar uses to the white but is much more effective for wounds, ulcers and swellings. It might be called lamium, he suggests, because the flowers look like hooded ghosts.

Parkinson introduces the deadnettles as hotter and drier than stinging nettles and used with greater success for hardness of the spleen taken both internally and applied hot externally as cataplasm or fomentation. The use for women appears again, but Parkinson recommends the white flowers to stay the whites, and those of the red to stay the reds, i.e. menorrhagia. He adds a number of further uses ‘it is thought good to make the heart merry, to drive away melancholy and to quicken the spirits’. Quartan agues, nose bleeds, bruises, burns and such appear too, and for the king’s evil, gout, sciatica and aches of joints and sinews, after Pliny. He expands on the wound uses: for inflammations, as a repercussive to drive away humours, to heal all green wounds, for old ulcers, to stop them corroding and spreading and it draws splinters etc. too. The yellow archangel, he says, is best for filthy and corrupt sores and ulcers, fistulae and to dissolve tumours. The stinking deadnettles, including Dioscorides’ galeopsis, are boiled in wine and drunk for inward hurts and for the spleen; the warm juice with vinegar is applied for haemorrhoids, warts and ‘other such like hard gimes or knots that grow in or about the fundament’, for other swellings etc. that grow in the neck or throat and for fistulous ulcers and gangrenes, again mainly following Dioscorides appropriately, assuming the herb is accurately identified. Culpeper follows Parkinson exactly, covering all three of his red, white and yellow archangels, adding only that it is a herb of Venus and its chief use is for women.

Gerard for ‘Archangel (or rather the hedge Nettle)’ covers Pliny, but seems to broaden more specifically into galeopsis: Archangel…stamped with vinegar, and applied in manner of a pultis taketh away wens and hard swellings, the king’s evil, inflammation of the kernels under the ears and jawes and also hot fierie inflammations of the kernels of the necke, armeholes and flanks. It is good to bathe those parts with the decoction of it, as Dioscorides and Pliny say”. Later physicians, he says, use a conserve of the flowers to stay the whites, and the flowers baked with sugar are use to ‘make the heart merry; to make a good color in the face, and to make the vitall spirits more fresh and lively’.

So a very unclear picture emerges from the Ancients themselves – are Dioscorides and Pliny speaking of the same plant and if so is it lamium or a scrophularia? The Renaissance authors broaden the debate considerably but do not necessarily help us to a conclusion. Perhaps we can rely a little more firmly on their references to ‘later writers’, with their recommendations for nose bleeds and gangrenous ulcers and fistulae, since that plant at least is more likely to be identifiable as a deadnettle.