A column looking at medieval plants and what they were use for. (Archive)
|C. A. M. Lindman from: Bilder ur Nordens Flora|
Latin names: Alchemilla vulgaris and Alchemilla mollis
Aka: Lion’s foot (Leontopodium/Pied-de-lion), Bear’s foot, Nine hooks, Stellaria, Dewcup, Frauenmantle, Falluing mhuire, copan an druichd
Description: check it out on botanical.com
One problem with researching this plant is that it’s common name ‘Lady’s Mantle’ first appeared in the 16th century and so doesn’t appear as such in older texts. It’s latin name alchemilla, coming from the word ‘alchemy’ is also a more modern name.
The Bonnefont Herb Garden at the Cloisters in NYC lists alchemilla vulgaris, but one of the books I’m using as a reference only deals with alchemilla mollis, so I’ve included that species to flesh out this post.
|By Mom the Barbarian (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons|
It’s called alchemilla because the look of water pooled in the centre of the leaves reminded people of mercury, which was used in alchemical processes. (Fisher, 38). Similarly, alchemists used this water in their attempts to produce the philosopher’s stone (Ricola) and other mystic potions (Botanical). The Ricola website mentions that the liquid isn't dew, it's actually sap.
The scalloped edged leaves led to its being referred to as Mary’s (ie our lady’s) mantle (ie cloak).
The plant is able to self-polinate, a process known as parthenogenesis, so it was believed that the water droplets were "impregnated with powers making fertilization possible without external intervention". (Ricola). The Ricola website also mentions that contrary to this idea, Hildegard von Bingen gave one of the plants’ uses as a contraceptive. I wasn’t able to find any reference to Lady’s Mantle in her Physica, but as I mentioned above, it’s possible that the plant is in the book under a different name or was mentioned in another of her works.
The plant was used for its astringent and styptic properties as well as being considered one of the best herbs for healing wounds. (Botanical)
In modern times the plant is used to help alleviate hormonal mood swings in women (Ricola) and was once used to treat female illnesses (Nedwick, 140).
Once again I had trouble understanding why it was planted in the magical rather than the medicinal bed at the Cloisters’ garden, so I did a bit more digging. The Nefaeria website mentioned that the leaves were worn as cloaks by the good (ie fairy) folk. It also mentioned that in Eastern Europe it was believed that burning the plant in fire helped ward off storms, while hanging it in windows and doorways on farms would help keep people safe from nature’s wrath.
Fisher, Celia. The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library, 2013.
Botanical. http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/l/ladman05.html, 1995
Newdick, Jane. The Magic of Herbs. London: Salamander Books, 1991.
Nefaeria. http://nefaeriaofetsy.blogspot.ca/2009/03/wortcunning-ladys-mantle-alchemilla.html, March 2009.