Monday, January 23, 2012

Spurge Laurel

There are always landmarks in the changing seasons that I look out for and this is one that's particularly welcome at this time of year: spurge laurel Daphne laureola coming into bloom, a sign that spring is creeping a little closer. These lime green clusters of flowers always begin to open at about the same time as snowdrops bloom and depend on bees and butterflies that emerge on mild days for their pollination. In January, the plant is likely to be better served by these insects in southern England  than up here in the North East. The flowers have a faint fragrance, though nothing like as strong as some of the Daphne species grown in gardens.

When I was a kid growing up in Sussex I used to see spurge laurel quite often in the beech woods on the South Downs but in North East England it's an uncommon plant - but relatively easy to spot in hedgerows at this time of year because it's evergreen. This one is growing in a hedgerow at Wolsingham in Weardale.

Later in the year it produces glossy black berries which are poisonous, but like many poisonous plants it has been used in herbal medicine in controlled doses. The 18th. century botanist and physician William Withering had a high opinion of its therapeutic properties. "Very happy effects have been experienced from this plant in rheumatic fevers", he wrote. "It operates as a brisk and rather severe purgative. It is an efficacious medicine in worm cases; and upon many accounts deserves to be better known to physicians; but in less skilful hands it would be dangerous, as it is possessed of considerable acrimony. The whole plant hath the same qualities, but the bark of the root is the strongest. Dr. Alston fixes the outside dose at ten grains"

Sounds risky, so please don't try this at home - even if you can find kitchen scales that are calibrated in grains. 

Incidentally, Dr. Charles Alston, 1683-1760, quoted by Withering above, was  lecturer in materia medica and botany at Edinburgh University and was the first person to produce opium from poppies in Britain, conducting experiments with it on animals and drawing attention to its potential for pain relief and drug-induced feelings of well-being.


  1. Yet another lesson learned, thank you Phil.

    1. Where we see wild flowers, I suppose our ancestors saw pain relief, toffeeapple...

  2. I believe they did Phil, though who would want to be the first to try the remedy?