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Fantasy Medicine – Part Two: Pretty as a Bairnwort

Disclaimer: If you stumbled upon this post while looking for medical advice or information, please note that this article was NOT written for this purpose. Please do not take any of the information below as any kind of medical advice or opinion, since I am not an expert in either homeopathic or mainstream medicine.

Ulvenwald Mystics by Dan ScottIn my last article, I wrote about healing and healthcare in fantasy settings, focusing on the various types of occupations. This second article will explore a few herbs and how they were (and still are) used in historical medicine practice. Because allopathic medicine is relatively recent, this information mostly applies to herbalism.

There was a scene in a book I read years ago, The Western Wizard by Mickey Zucker Reichert, which shaped the role of medicine in fantasy for me. One of the main characters, Mitrian, is standing before the burning pyre of her husband. Garn had been poisoned in a fight, and the only antidote consisted of a mushroom that grew nowhere near the area they were in. Still, as she grieved before the pyre, she clutched a handful of different types of mushrooms in her hand, clinging to what had been her last hope: that one of them might just be the mushroom she needed to save her love.

Herbalism is touched upon in many fantasy stories, even when magic is also used as a form of healing. It is understandable; there is something about the ability of an ordinary man or woman to make a hurt or sick person well again with some cooked up plants and brews that has garnered the admiration and respect of people throughout the ages. Mother by breathing2004And the techniques used to prepare remedies require tools that have been around long before medieval times. The mystery of herbalism lies in the knowledge involved, knowledge that was granted to the few deemed worthy to invest years of training and mentoring. So it only makes sense that these early medicine people were considered to wield a mystical power in their own right.

One cool aspect about incorporating herbalism is developing the flora for your world. Herbals are books that catalog plants. They are the plant versions of bestiaries, and a great tool for anyone creating a world. An herbal can range from a simple list of regional plants to a comprehensive encyclopedia containing description, medicinal properties and undesirable effects of every plant known to exist.

Plants are known by various names in different areas of the world, and many have different names even in the same region in which they thrive. Take the daisy as an example. The daisy is also called bairnwort, bruisewort and day’s eye. It is considered useful for treating digestion problems, wounds, and can be used as an expectorant, among other things. It can be used as a dried herb, as a tincture, or an infusion.

Below are ten other well-known herbs with offbeat or interesting names and a few facts about them:

Red Clover by masaki ikedaRed Clover
beebread, trefoil – A treatment for whooping cough. Some post-menopausal women also use it as an alternative for estrogen replacement.

Watercress
scurvy grass – This green has lots of Vitamin C, so it was given to sailors as a scurvy preventative. But watercress can cause harmful side effects if eaten while taking NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).

Witch Hazel
tobacco wood, winterbloom – Witch Hazel is an astringent that is well known for treating hemorrhoids.

Borage
starflower, ox’s tongue – Some herbalists believe that borage can reduce anxiety and bolster courage.

Allspice
clove pepper – Used mostly as a culinary spice, allspice was used for many minor pains and ailments

Ginger Root by MarkGinger
zingiber – It is not a very exotic or unique name, but I love the word zingiber for some weird reason. Ginger tea is a great tummy soother.

Ground ivy
alehoof, cat’s-foot – This very common plant is considered useful for treating sinus problems and for dealing with phlegm.

Horseradish
pepperrot – The horseradish root is used mainly as a condiment. It can be used for certain infections and inflammations, but it is a poisonous root, and the risks and side effects seem to outweigh the benefits.

Lobelia
bladderpod, gagroot, vomitwort – Because lobelia contains an alkaloid called lobeline, which is similar to nicotine, it is used these days as a smoking deterrent. However, lobeline is not always recommended, since no studies have been made regarding long-term use. Lobelia was also used to induce vomiting.

Pokeweed by Emoke DebreczeniPokeweed
coakum, scoke, and pigeonberry – This is a poisonous weed, but careful handling and cooking can render parts of this plant edible. Poke salad is common in the southern US, and the berries can be used to make ink. The seeds and roots are the most toxic parts of the plant and must never be eaten. Pokeweed can kill you. However, pokeweed contains an antiviral protein that doctors believe might have potential against cancers that are hormone sensitive (uses hormones to grow).

Lastly, no one can be a successful herbal healer if they did not know how to prepare the remedies. Details on remedy preparations are great for writers. It helps create some good beats, provide color and detail to a scene, and provides a timing perspective during dialogues and more passive scenes. Keep in mind that in a fantasy world, there are never any hard and fast rules, so ingredients, tools and timing can be substituted as preferred by the author.

Four popular herbal preparations and how they are made:

Mirosoy by Carmen CianelliInfusion
Infusions are made just like teas. Boiling water is poured over the herb, covered and allowed to steep for 10-20 minutes. Infusions should not be boiled. Cool and drink.

Decoction
The plant part of the herb is simmered in water for about 5 minutes, or longer depending on the herb and part of the plant. If a long simmer is needed extra water is added to compensate for evaporation. The pot should be covered when simmering.

Tincture/Extract
The herb is placed in alcohol, vinegar or glycerin and allowed to stand for 2-3 weeks. The container is shaken occasionally. Tinctures are usually diluted, or used as drops.

Essential Oil
The oils from plants are distilled, expressed (crushed or squeezed out), or extracted with a solvent.

Having an alternative to magical healing provides a great opportunity to flesh out a world with useful details. A world’s flora should not be ignored. And if magic is put in the mix, there is no end to the creative potential these two factors can provide.

Title image by Dan Scott.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar AJ Zaethe says:

    Wow, I love the examples you give here. It’s a nice starter kit and leads the reader to do more research for their own world.

  2. […] already a couple of great articles on Fantasy-Faction about medicine in fantasy (here is part 1 and part 2), and I recommend taking a look at those for some good […]

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