Dear Readers, I might have mentioned that this plant was described in my field guide as ‘easily overlooked’, and so it is. It has none of the green freshness that red dead-nettle often shows (although it’s in the same family), and it is said that the foliage has an unpleasant scent when bruised (hence its alternative name of ‘Stinking Roger’) and may turn black if damaged. So, all in all not a plant to make one leap around rejoicing, but I have a fondness for all dead-nettles, and the little flowers have a teddy-bearish look to them (if you squint). The plant has a characteristic downy appearance, which may have contributed to its rather Gothic common name.
The origins of the name ‘black horehound’ are up for debate. Most people agree that the ‘horehound’ bit comes from the Old English word ‘har’ (meaning hairy) and ‘hune’, meaning plant. Apparently it has also been linked to Horus, the sun god of ancient Egypt. The Latin name ‘ballota’ means ‘to reject’, because grazing animals are largely deterred from the plant by its smell, described as ‘mildewy’, ‘humid’ and ‘rotten’. As usual I didn’t have the opportunity (or in truth the inclination) to give the plant a good trample, so do let me know what you think if you haven’t had so many scruples.
In spite of the smell, you can apparently make a syrup from the young plants, but a bit of digging about on the interwebs makes me think that the syrup is probably more of a cough syrup than something to pop into a cocktail. In past times, it was frequently used as a cure for dog bites (probably another reason why the ‘horehound’ name has stuck), and was also used as an expectorant, a stimulant and as a cure for worms (The Morning Star (august organ of the Communist Party in the UK) describes it as ‘a rare and exotic plant’ and mentions that it was used during the Second World War as a vermifuge). It has a history of use as a cure for anxiety, and to reduce flow in heavy periods, and has sometimes been used to alleviate motion sickness.
In Southern Italy, the whole of the plant was burned to fumigate a room and repel insects.
Black horehound is also an ingredient in the medieval ‘Four Thieves Vinegar’, which was considered to be a way to protect oneself from catching the Plague. The legend has it that there were a series of burglaries in the houses of plague victims, where all sensible people were too afraid to enter. The eponymous Four Thieves were caught in the act and, to save themselves from the gallows, they gave up their ‘secret recipe’ that had kept them safe from the dread disease. One recipe goes as follows:
‘Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of camphor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express then bottle. Use by rubbing it on the hands, ears and temples from time to time when approaching a plague victim.‘
Well, if only we’d known a few months ago. I suspect the smell from all that camphor would have made the social distancing a whole lot easier too.
In Germanic legends, black horehound is apparently known as ‘old woman’, and was believed to be associated with Frau Holle, a forest goddess who is described as being both ‘friendly and punishing’. This seems like a rather complicated combination, but then the gods were ever quixotic.
And now, of course, a poem. I rather like this very much, especially the last few stanzas, though I find myself mentally inserting commas. See what you think.
Photo One byH. Zell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)