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Herbs for Ancient Mariners

Posted by gulliblevolunteer Nz6Mass (My Page) on
Sat, Nov 20, 04 at 6:46

Hi, hoping to get some help from people who know about herbs. This is a historical question. Do any of you know what sorts of herbs sailors used to take to sea with them in past centuries - as medicine, etc.? In Alice Coats' book "Flowers and Their Histories" I did find a blurb about pennyroyal: "Turner says: 'If thow must nedes drynk unholsum water, then put Penny ryall into it', and sailors used to buy the dried herb to put into their drinking-water on long voyages." Does anyone know about any others? Hope this is an appropriate question for this forum :-)


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RE: Herbs for Ancient Mariners

Hello. Interesting supject!
I remembered reading about scurvy being a problem aboard ship, so I took the liberty of doing a search and came up with a couple passages:

(from Encyclopedia.com) (I found this is why they started calling British sailors "Limey's")
Scurvy was a serious problem in the past, when fresh fruits and vegetables were not available during the winter in many parts of the world. It was especially common among sailors in the days when only nonperishable foods could be stocked aboard ship. More than half the crew of Vasco da Gama died from scurvy on his first trip (1497-99) around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1747 the Scottish naval surgeon James Lind treated scurvy-ridden sailors with lemons and oranges and obtained dramatic cures. In 1795 the British navy began to distribute regular rations of lime juice during long sea voyages (hence the name limeys for British sailors), a measure that was largely successful in preventing scurvy. It was probably the first disease to be definitely associated with a dietary deficiency.

And another one below about Scurvy grass, Cochlearia officinalis.

Enjoy! Lynn

Here is a link that might be useful: Herbs 2000 link


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RE: Herbs for Ancient Mariners

This is something else I must explore in the world of herbs, hitherto sadly neglected.

Not mariners precisely, but ancient Roman soldiers travelled far and wide across the seas. They carried quite a few herbs and seeds with them, which is how many Mediterranean herbs became naturalised in various other parts of Europe, Africa and England. The one I recall most clearly is fennel, which they used to curb the pangs of hunger on long marches. The slaves who rowed the ships transporting the soldiers were also fed fennel seeds for the same reasons - it kept them going on minimum rations.

I will research this subject further - bells are faintly tinkling in my head. I'm sure the Vikings knew a thing or two about herbs.


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RE: Herbs for Ancient Mariners

Wow! what a difficult subject to find anything on! So far, all I've discovered is that many of the ancient sailors (going back to Ancient Egypt, Alexander the Great and the Vikings etc) carried garlic for protection. Whether they ate it or just wore it, I can't discover.

But sailors from time immemorial have been notoriously superstitious, so it's likely they carried quite a few herbs for various 'magickal' purposes. And of course they had to eat and drink, so must have carried herbs amongst their foodstuffs. Will keep hunting. What have you found so far?


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This is very interesting!!

Rose hips are also very high in vitamin C, which would help keep scurvy at bay. Elizabeth I had rose hip conserve on her table (as well as lavender conserve). You might try a search on Sir Walter Raleigh or Drake and see if those items were carried aboard ship.


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RE: Herbs for Ancient Mariners

The ship's doctor would have carried the same herbs as were used on dry land ...


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Thanks everyone! I'm interested in sailors' herbs up through the colonial period, not just ancient - maybe my title for the thread was a little too 'clever' :-: Thanks for the link about Scurvy Grass, herbalynn, I didn't know about that one. Also, the rose hips are one I didn't even think to look into, herbalbetty! Sailors introduced Rosa rugosa to the local shoreline... From what I've read, when there was a real outbreak of illness aboard a ship, the captain would make directly for the nearest port in order to find an 'herbwoman' who had expertise in that particular illness. Especially if the sick person was the wife of one of the officers. Women went on these voyages a lot more often than official accounts noted. In fact, the general attitude seemed to be that wives were welcome aboard even navy ships if they could "make themselves useful." One way was with nursing skills, including herbal expertise. We know this from the journals kept by ships' doctors. But I'm still searching for particular herbs...:-)


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RE: Herbs for Ancient Mariners

Check out the herbals for landlubbers for the era and region you are interested in. Mariners would be using the same.

Occasionally they would pick up herbs from a foreign port and bring it back home.


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RE: Herbs for Ancient Mariners

from what country did your ancient mariners sail? and in what time period? i posess a number of antiquarian herbals which refer to voyaging herbs. naturaly these vary fom country to country and from climate to climate, and of course the time frame! please mail me and i will be happy to supply you with a list of herbs, names and sources..
good luck...
love ella:)


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will just add for historical interest: tincture of opium poppy was used to ease childrens crying in ancient egypt. bean oil from the castor tree was used as a purgative and brought relief to burns and septic wounds, also ancient egypt. one of the first recorded herbal medicines was chaulmoogra oil from the hydnocarpus genus of trees, this was a chinese for leprost recorded 15000 bc. hippocrates regarded medicine as a science in 480 bc, he prescribed papavers, mentha's,sage, rosemaries and verbenas a sdiuretics, tonics, ointments and linaments. theophratus was another greek who who wrote a number of medicinal manuscripts,, he described the extraction of myrrh and frankincense as antidepressants. ptolemy founded the first school of medicine in 332 bc, the school and university were burned to the ground by christian fanatics in ad 391 along with 7000 scrolls and books relating to herbal medicine. historys next great herbalist was to be pliny the elder, in his life time he produced 37 books. 27 of these dealt with medicinal botany. after this there was dioscorides, who was anthony and cleopatras physiscian. and then galen, he produced over 500 manuscripts he was also physician to marcus aurelius. then the arabians began there transcriptions and expirements, they discovered the medicinal properties of camphor, saffron, senna and spinnach! the persian prince, avicenna was a great herbalist and his canon of medicine is still studied today.


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In Dana's Two years before the Mast, on the return home scurvy was rife' they met and outward bound ship and got freash potatoes which they sucked raw if I remember right


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For some reason it never occurred to me to wonder about this...I wonder if more is available on Google about it now?


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Just a note on the limeys... England could purchase limes for a lot less money than other citrus, so, being broke from perpetual warfare, they went the cheapest route. Unfortunately, limes have less Vitamin C than other citrus, so are not as effective at preventing scurvy, so you could always tell a British sailor by his sick gums & lack of teeth-- HENCE the term Limeys... Not because it helped them, but because their preventative measure was a, er... distinctive failure.


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