Elspeth’s Herbal Part Five

Elspeth’s Herbal, Part Five



Peppercorns are the seed berries of the Piper nigrum. Pepper is a perennial plant is a woody spreading perennial vine. Its fruit is called a drupe and when dried it is a peppercorn. Pepper originated in India over 4,000 years ago. It is the most popular spice in the world.

Pepper has always been valued and people accepted peppercorns for payments like tributes, dowries, taxes and rents. The term “peppercorn rent” is often used to denote a pittance, but in medieval times, a pound of pepper was the equivalent of a pound of gold or up to three weeks’ labor for trade purposes.

Those who could afford it kept stores of peppercorns as collateral, since all recognized their value as currency.  The city of Rome was ransomed for three thousand pounds of pepper in 408 A.D.


In ancient times peppercorns were believed to placate the gods and were used as offerings to them.

One such tale tells of the wife of a farm laborer resting in her cottage after a hard day’s potato digging. A gypsy knocked and asked for food.  She gave her a little of what she had, apologizing for not rising as her legs were hurting. The gypsy told her to swallow a peppercorn every morning, and she would never get pain again. And so, it came to pass.


 Pepper has antibacterial properties as well as antioxidant ones.  It boosts the immune system to sustain health and deter harmful bacteria. The outer skin of a black peppercorn stimulates the breakdown of fat which is stored in cells and helps with weight loss and lack of energy.

The peppercorn first gained fame for medicinal purposes as a digestive stimulant and expectorant. The hot and pungent flavor causes the membranes inside the nose and throat to exude a lubricating secretion, helpful to those in respiratory distress as an aid to cough up phlegm and mucus. It is used in China to treat vomiting caused by hypothermia.

 Pepper is analgesic, antiseptic, anti-spasmodic, cardiac, carminative, digestive, diuretic, and has laxative properties. Pepper is also used in external ointments to relieve skin afflictions and hives. Sore throats respond to a hot mixture of crushed rose petals and peppercorns.



Salt has been a boon to many and an important and integral part of man’s world since about 6000 BC.  Egyptians used it for religious offerings. Trade between the Phoenicians and their Mediterranean empire included salt. Its importance in the ancient world cannot be overstated. The word “salary” was derived from the word “salt.” Salt was highly valued, and its production was legally restricted, so it was historically used as a method of trade and currency. If you had both salt and pepper, you were fortunate indeed.

Until a little over one hundred years ago, salt was the most widely used and best-known food preservative for thousands of years.  Ancient verifiable salt works can be dated to 6050 BC. 


Red Hawaiian salt, also known as Alaea sea salt, is a traditional salt used widely in Hawaii for both seasoning and preserving. It gets its red colour from “Alaea,” baked volcanic clay that enriches the salt with iron oxide.


Marine fossil salt, harvested from the foothills of the Himalayas, is 100% natural, unrefined and comes in unpolluted yellow translucent crystals, as well as other colors.


White salt is the most common color and the most readily found.


Salt is not only essential to all humans biologically, but it was believed to be a powerful magical substance.  Spilling salt was considered a dangerous omen.  Salt’s ability to preserve foods (especially meats) from decaying is the reason it became a symbol of eternity and immutability.  It often is a symbol used in pledge-making rituals where taking salt together binds two persons into eternal friendship

Salt was believed to be powerful enough to keep witches and devils away, so carrying it as a talisman or good luck charm renders protection from such dangers.  The practice of throwing salt on doorsteps to bring bad luck to the inhabitants of a dwelling has resulted in a flurry of scrubbing and sweeping each morning before sunrise in places that still remember such things. The French Quarter in New Orleans is one example.

If salt is spilled, do not pick it up.  Instead, throw some over your shoulder and hit the “evil eye” to counteract the omen of bad luck.


 Salt is mentioned as an essential ingredient in medical science in some of the oldest medical scripts. The ancient Egyptian papyrus Smith recommends salt for the treatment of an infected chest wound. The belief was that salt would dry out and disinfect the wound.

The Greeks used a mixture of salt and honey, applied topically, to clean bad ulcers and salt-water was used externally against skin diseases and freckles. Hippocrates also mentions inhalation of steam from salt-water and used the anti-inflammatory effects of inhaled salt to provide relief from respiratory symptoms. Greek medicine had already discovered topical use of salt for skin lesions, drinking salty or mineralized waters for digestive troubles and inhaling salt for respiratory diseases, over 2000 years ago.

Sore throats, toothaches, postnasal drip, bee stings, mosquito bites, painful gums, poison ivy, and poison oak are some of the ailments for which salt has been prescribed. A simple remedy for minor sore throat pain is still a warm saltwater gargle.  Add 1 teaspoon salt to 8 ounces’ warm water and gargle several times a day.

Severe burns in the mouth from eating something very hot can be relieved by rinsing with saltwater every hour or so. Use 1/2 teaspoon salt in 8 ounces’ warm water.

Swish painful gums with 1 teaspoon salt in 4 ounces’ warm water. If you have an abscess, the salt will draw out some of the infection.



There is much speculation and confusion surrounding Spikenard and Lavender.  They are two different plants. Historically both were called by the same name in the records of their times, making identification even more difficult.  

 Spikenard and Lavender smell nothing alike.  Spikenard has an earthy, long lasting odor, not the floral scent one would expect in a perfume.  It is often used as a base to enhance other herbal and floral concoctions. 

 Lavender has a soothing floral aroma that can stand alone.  The two can be mixed to add another fragrance level. 

 Spikenard (from the Greek name for lavender, naardus, after the Syrian city Naarda) was mentioned the gospel of Luke.  The writer reports: “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.” The description could be either plant.

Lavender (genus Lavandula) was also known by the  ancient Greeks as nardos, nard, after the Sanskrit “narada” or “nalada”. 

Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi); is a  flowering plant of the  Valerian family that grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, and India. It is a heavily aromatic amber-colored essential oil. Since ancient times the oil has been used as a perfume, as a medicine and in religious contexts.

Pliny lists twelve species of “nard”, identifiable with varying assurance, including Lavandula stoechas as well as true nard. Lavender was a common flavoring in Ancient Roman foods and occurs frequently in the recipes of Apicius, though it tends to be used sparingly.


 An ancient Christian reference to lavender involves how it got its scent. The plant is said to have been taken from the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve. However, the powerful perfume came later. According to legend, the clothing of baby Jesus bestowed the scent when Mother Mary laid them upon a bush to dry. This may explain why the plant is also regarded as a holy safeguard against evil. In many Christian houses, a cross of lavender is hung over the door for protection.


 Spikenard/Lavender is antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, deodorant, relaxing, and a tonic for the skin. It is helpful in the treatment of allergic skin reactions and skin cancer. It may also help with other allergies, Candida, indigestion, insomnia, menstrual difficulties, migraines, nausea, rashes, bacterial infections, stress, tachycardia, tension, and wounds that will not heal. It strengthens the heart and circulatory system.

Many skin ailments that result from bacterial infections respond to lavender. It not only works topically, but also helps terminate bacterial growth inside the body. It can be applied directly to wounds to protect them from bacterial infections and is effective in curing bacterial infections in the urethra, urinary bladder, and kidneys. Athlete’s Foot, cholera, food poisoning, septemia and tetanus respond to lavender as well.

The earthy and mossy fragrance of the essential oil of Spikenard is pleasant to the nostrils and the mind. It is very soothing and comforting to nerves and mind.  The fragrance lends itself to use as a deodorant.  It is gentle and does not cause headaches or allergies as do many synthetic deodorants. It can be used for constipation or improper excretion and does not have the harsh effects on the system left by synthetic laxatives.

Spikenard was used to season foods in Medieval European cuisine, especially as a part of the spice blend used to flavor Hypocras, a sweetened and spiced wine drink. From the 17th century it was one of the ingredients for a strong beer called Stingo.




 In 510 BC the Emperor Darius of Persia invaded India where he found “the reed which gives honey without bees”. The secret of cane sugar was a closely guarded secret which brought great wealth to the country.

 In the seventh century AD the Arabs invaded Persia, found sugar cane being grown and learned the secret of refining it. Sugar became known western Europeans as a result of the Crusades in the 11th Century AD.  Crusaders returning home talked of this “new spice” and how delicious it was. Sugar was available in London at “two shillings a pound” by 1319 AD. This equates to about US$100 per kilo at today’s prices so it was very much a luxury.

In 1493 Columbus took sugar cane plants to grow in the Caribbean. The climate was so suitable that sugar cane became a major crop.


 Many believe that knocking over the sugar bowl is a sign you will receive money.

An Indian legend says that Nanahboozhoo fled from enemies with his grandmother, to the forest and hid her among the glowing autumn Maple Trees.  When their pursuers saw the bright colors, they thought the woods were on fire, and turned back and hid in their caves. He was so pleased he decided to make his home there in the forest. One day his people came to him and said “”the Indians of the Far South have a delicious sweet thing they call Sugar, and we have nothing of the kind. We sent runners with gifts to the South to get some of this Sugar for our people; but the runners were killed and wounded. Tell us, how we may make Sugar for ourselves.”

At first Nanahboozhoo was greatly puzzled, for he had been in the Southland and knew how hard it was to make Sugar. But his grandmother added her pleadings to theirs, for she too had tasted Sugar and longed for more.  Nanahboozhoo thought a while and said: “Since the beautiful Maples were so good and protected Nokomis, henceforth in the Spring of the year they shall give the Indians sweet sap. And when the sap is boiled down thick and delicious, it will cool and harden into Sugar.” So, every Springtime since, when the Frost is going out of the ground and the Arbutus blossoms under the snow, the sweet sap mounts through the trunks of the Maple Trees, and the Northern Indians gather the sap, and say, “This is the way Nanahboozhoo taught us to make Maple-Sugar!”


Sugar contains natural antiseptic ingredients. Used to make soap, it enables a thorough cleansing of the skin and a high level of antisepsis. In the presence of lemon juice, the soap creates an acidic environment for the skin which protects and guards against bacteria, aids in healing wounds, inflammations, and burns.

Sugar is an ancient germ fighter that is naturally antibacterial, and it speeds up healing Pouring granulated sugar on wounds, bedsores, leg ulcers or amputations before dressing kills the bacteria that prevents healing and causes chronic pain. Sugar has an anesthetic effect when used to counteract mouth burns from hot foods, or from hot spices.

Sugar is an all-natural exfoliator. Make a simple one by mixing ½ cup sugar with ¼ cup oil (canola, almond, jojoba or olive all work well) to create a loose paste. Add 3 drops essential oil or vanilla extract if you like fragrance. Apply in a gentle circular motion and then rinse off in the shower.

Sweet Potatoes and Potatoes

The color pigment in sweet potatoes gives them high anti-inflamatory value. The orange sweet potato is the most common, although they can be found in white, yellow, pink and purple. They are an excellent source of Vitamin A and B6. B6 helps prevent hardening of blood vessels and arteries and the potassium content lowers blood pressure. To add to their appeal, they also contain magnesium which promotes relaxation, calm and good cheer. There are also reports that indicate they are beneficial for some forms of cancer.

There are no bad side effects to eating sweet potatoes except that you might turn a bit orange if you eat too many!


 Vodka  (Polish: wódka, Russian: водка) is a highly distilled liquor composed primarily of water and alcohol, sometimes with traces of impurities and flavorings. Vodka can be made by the d

I found it interesting that Covington Gourmet Vodka, distilled from 100% North Carolina sweet potatoes, recently won a prestigious gold medal at the 13th annual World Spirits Competition.

During the Middle Ages, distilled liquor was used mainly for medicinal purposes, as well as being an ingredient in the production of gunpowder. In the 14th century vodka was the Russian national drink and in the mid-16th century it was established as the national drink in Poland and Finland. According to the Novgorod Chronicles of 1533 vodka was used frequently as a medicine, and called “zhiznennia voda” meaning ‘water of life’


 Vodka has been quite famously used in Russian folklore for curing practically all ailments ranging from a just a mild headache to a condition of common cold to a bad hangover. In the 14th century, Russians believed that Vodka preserved a divine spirit due to its intoxicating effect.

It was cheap to produce so was distributed and carried around in gallon-sized jugs at religious ceremonies. It seems most churchgoers drank from these jugs because to reject the offering of a drink would be tantamount to sacrilege.


Apply it topically as an anesthetic and antiseptic.  It is an excellent and cheap antiseptic and cleaning fluid.  Make a mixture of half vodka and half water, add a few drops of your favorite oil, shake, and you have a delightful new cleaning solution that leaves a pleasant scent as well.

Tinctures are prepared by soaking the preferred kind of leaves, flowers and stems in vodka, which extracts the essential oils rich in healing qualities without asserting the flavor of the herbs.  This is one of the easiest methods of creating your own herbal mixtures.  Combinations are interesting.  Think Roses and lavender for instance.  It is my favorite scent.

Vodka’s antiseptic qualities help in prevent the development of infections from animal bites. The high alcohol content in vodka helps sterilize wounds. Since it has no color or flavor, it can be used as an extractive solvent and is utilized by herbalists to make alcohol-based ointments. Such salves vaporize readily leaving behind only the curative properties of the specific herbs used.

Make a liniment by combining equal amounts of your chosen herbs. Perhaps lavender and mint. Place in a jar, cover with vodka and let sit for 4 to 8 hands, turning frequently.  Strain put in clean botas and use.

In liniment form, it helps bring down fever when rubbed on the back and chest area.

Vodka based liniments should not be used on dry, burned or sensitive skin.

Apply vodka to cold sores.  Use to disinfect the exposed dermis in open blisters.

It disinfects and deodorizes feet, and a measured amount mixed with cinnamon, cures bad breath.

Smiles…and wonders how many people will develop bad breath.

It is a diuretic which can be used to flush toxins from the body. Vodka has a dilating effect on the arteries which stimulates free flow of blood. Unobstructed flow of blood in the heart components prevents the development of major illnesses such as stroke and cardiac arrest. It also aids in promoting the amount of HDL (good) cholesterol in the body.

It is also the least toxic alcohol you can drink.

Brandy is the most toxic.

More will be added to Elspeth’s Herbal as she continues to learn.

You may wish to use this series as a starting point for your own collection of information about the fascinating history of herbs.

I wish you well,

Elspeth MacLeod





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