It was called 'the Blessed Herb' (Herba benedicta), of which a common name still extant - Herb Bennet - is a corruption, because in former times it was believed that it had the power to ward off evil spirits and venomous beasts. It was worn as an amulet.
The Ortus Sanitatis, printed in 1491, states: 'Where the root is in the house, Satan can do nothing and flies from it, wherefore it is blessed before all other herbs, and if a man carries the root about him no venomous beast can harm him.'
Dr. Prior (Popular Names of English Plants) considers the original name to have probably been ' St . Benedict's Herb,' that name being assigned to such as were supposed to be antidotes, in allusion to a legend respecting the saint. It is said that on one occasion a monk presented him with a goblet of poisoned wine, but when the saint blessed it, the poison, being a sort of devil, flew out of it with such force that the glass was shivered to atoms, the crime of the monk being thus exposed.
It's clear that we are dealing with a plant that was believed to have strong protective powers. Powers to ward off evil, demons, devils. If we look at this statement with today's eyes, it's not so far from the truth. Wood avens has indeed some powerful constituents that can ward off disease.
Wood avens is anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, aromatic, astringent, diaphoretic, and tonic. The powdered root has been used as a substitute for quinine in the treatment of intermittent fevers. I think adding it to a diaphoretic herbal tea mixture, with meadowsweet and elderflower and perhaps linden, could be beneficial to sweat out fevers. I will keep that in mind next time fever visits me.
The high tannin content make wood avens an astringent herb, used specifically to treat problems affecting the mouth, throat and gastro-intestinal tract. Wood avens root tightens up soft gums, heals mouth ulcers, makes a good gargle for infections of the mouth and throat, and reduces irritation of the stomach and gut.
In my mothertongue Dutch, the word for wood avens is nagelkruid, and the word for clove is kruidnagel. Wood avens root indeed has a similar scent and, just like cloves, it contains eugenol, that has antibacterial properties. It's this bacteria-killing eugenol that makes such a great combination with the tannins when it come to infections of the mouth.
Harvesting wood avens root is done best in early spring, as the fragrance is the strongest at that time of the year. You should smell cloves with a hint of cinnamon. If the particular clove-like scent is not present, just put the root back in the earth. Wood avens hybridises quite regularly with water avens (Geum rivale), which results in an inferior quality of the root.
Dry the underground parts of wood avens with care, as much of the volatile oils can get lost during the drying process. Always dry wood avens roots in their whole and store in a airtight container. Break up the roots in pieces when using them. Grind when needed: it can be used as a spice in the same way you'd use cloves. Historically, it was even used as a flavouring agent in ale.
When you are too late for harvesting the roots, do not despair, as you can use the greens as well, before the plant forms flowers. Baby leaves can be used in salads, older ones cooked in soups or dried for herbal tea. Wood avens leaves are medicinal as well, but not nearly as strong as the root.
Other names: Bennet's Root, Old man's whiskers, Herb Bennet, Colewort, Way Bennet, Goldy Star, Colewort, St. Benedict's herb -From the Latin Herba Benedicta, blessed herb.
Dutch: Geel Nagelkruid – French: Benoîte Commune – German: Echte Nelkenwurz
I love digging up roots. And I only do this barehand. There's something to be said about the physical contact between naked skin and bare earth. I use my hands as tools and use whatever else I have at hand. Sometimes it's a twig or a stick, sometimes it's a piece of rock. Digging up plant roots makes us humble. It makes us kneel down for the deep secrets the earth has to offer. And as we dig, the aromas of the soil talk to us. The rich humus, the wetness of the black earth.
It is more engaging than picking flowers or leaves or fruits, it takes more effort but it is so worth the energy. The occasional meeting with royal soil workers -like earth worms- is always magical to me. Roots unveil themselves slowly, gradually, they require time and patience.
While digging up roots is generally hard work (think burdock, or teasel), wood avens roots are quite easy to excavate. Its roots are not so long and deep (about 5 cm long), and as wood avens loves to grow in shady places, it has a preference for wood soil that exists out of loose humus. This makes it a good beginner's root, even toddlers can help.
But before we start digging, let's take a glance at the historical use of wood avens. Though still abundantly present, it seems to be one of these forgotten plants that is rarely used these days. Quite unjust I think.
Wood avens mouth wash
Fill a glass jar halfway with washed and chopped wood avens roots and then fill it completely with vodka or gin (the kind of alcohol you use doesn't matter but it should be about 40%). Make sure that all the plant material is covered with the alcohol. Let steep for 6 weeks and filter through a fine cloth. Pour in a dark glass bottle and label.
I use about a teaspoon of this in half a glass water as a mouthwash after I have brushed my teeth, to keep teeth and gums healthy. You can use up to a tablespoon in case of infections – it also supports in case of gum/mouth/throat infections when you garge with it. In acute cases, I've even used it undiluted and saw gum infections clear up un less than 24 hours.
Wood avens chai
One of my favourite winter drinks.
- 2 yellow dock roots (Rumex crispus, aka curly dock)
- 2 wood avens roots
- a handful of dried white mulberries (Morus alba)
- two sticks of cinnamon
- a piece of fresh ginger root (quite large)
- a tablespoon green tea or dried wood avens greens
- optional: some black pepper
- 1 l water (that's 4 cups)
Bring the water with all the other ingredients to a boil. Then wrap your cooking pot (lid on) in a warm blanket and let simmer for a while. After 10 to 30 minutes (depending how strong you want this to be), take of the lid. You'll see the water become darker, and the aromas will hit your nose. Strain.
Drink as it is (if you love intense bitter) or preferably: serve with some honey and home made almond milk, and notice how this one cup in your hands has all the four elements of nature: earth (the roots), water, fire (used to heat the water) and air (see that damp swirl from your cup?). Enjoy.