Spurge





Conspicuous in Summer by their golden green leaves, and their

striking epergnes of bright emerald blossoms, the Wood Spurge, and

the Petty Spurge, adorn our woodlands and gardens commonly and

very remarkably. Together with many other allied plants, foreign

and indigenous, they yield from their severed stems a milky juice of

medicinal properties. The name Euphorbioe has been given to

this order from Euphorbus, the favourite physician of Juba, King of

Mauritania. All the Spurges possess the same poisonous principle,

which may, however, be readily dissipated by heat; and then, in

many instances, the root becomes a nourishing and palatable food.

For example, the Manioc, a South American Spurge, furnishes a

juice which has been known to kill in a few minutes. Nevertheless,

its root baked, after first draining away the juice, makes a

wholesome bread: and by washing the fresh pulp a starch is

produced which we know as Tapioca for our table. This is so

sustaining that half-a-pound a day is said to be sufficient of itself

to support a healthy man. The Indian rubber and Castor oil plants

belong also to this order of Euphorbioe.



The Wood Spurge, seen so frequently during our country rambles,

suggests by its spreading aspect a [533] clever juggler balancing on

his upturned chin a widely-branched series of delicate green saucers

on fragile stems, which ramify below from a single rod. Each saucer

is the bearer again of sub-divided pedicels which stretch out to

support other brightly verdant little leafy dishes; so that the whole

system of well poised flowering perianths forms a specially

handsome candelabrum of emerald (cup-like) bloom. The botanical

title Spurge is derived from expurgare, to act as a purgative,

because of the acrid juice possessing this property. Gerard says the

juice of the Wood Spurge, if given as physic, must be ministered

with discretion, and prepared with correctories by some honest

apothecary. Furthermore, this juice, if mixed with honey causeth

hair to fall from that part which is anointed therewith, if it be done

in the sun. Therefore, what better place may there be than a

wooded English meadow on a sunny day for a clean and convenient

natural shave by those of the fair sex who, unhappily, own hirsute

facial appendages of which they would gladly be rid? Euphorbia

Peplus, the Petty Spurge, is equally common, and often called

wart weed. It signifies, Welcome to our house, and turns its

flowers towards the sun. The Irish Spurge (Hiberna), is so powerful

that a small bundle of its bruised plant will kill the fish for

several miles down a river. Yet another Spurge (Lathyris), a twin

brother, bears caper-like seeds which are sometimes dishonestly

pickled and sold as a (dangerous) substitute for the toothsome

flowerbuds taken in sauce with our boiled mutton. The whole tribe

of Spurges contains two hundred genera, and forms, what we call

now-a-days, a large order. The roots of several common kinds are

used in making quack medicines, which are unsafe, [534] and

violent in action. Because of its milk-white sap the Wood Spurge

bears the name in Somersetshire of Virgin Mary's Nipple: and yet in

other parts, for the like reason, this plant is known as Devil's Milk.

Chemically, most of the Spurges contain caoutchouc, resin, gallic

acid, and their particular acrid principle which has not been fully

defined. In France the rustics sometimes purge themselves with a

dose of from six to twelve grains of the dried Wood Spurge: and its

juice is used in this country as an application to destroy warts;

also, to be rubbed in behind the ear for ear-ache, or face-ache. The

famous surgeon, Cheselden, employed a noted plaster made with the

resin of Spurge for relieving disease of the hip joint by

counterstimulation. But, to sum up, I would say with wise Gerard,

these herbes by mine advice should not be received into the body,

considering there be so many other good and wholesome potions to

be made with other herbes that may be taken without peril.

Nevertheless, a tincture prepared (H.) from the Wood Spurge, with

spirit of wine, may be given admirably in much diluted doses for

curing the same severe symptoms which the plant produces when

taken to a toxical degree. Offensive diarrhoea, with prolapse of the

lowest bowel, will be certainly remedied by four or five drops of

this tincture, first decimal strength, with water, every two or three

hours: especially if, at the same time, there be a burning and

stinging soreness of the throat. Said young Rosamond Berew

(1460), in Malvern Chase, concerning a tall gaunt figure, noted

for her knowledge of herbs, sometimes called the Witch, but

worshipped by the hinds and their children:--There is Mary, of

Eldersfield; I expect she has been on Berthill after Nettles to make a

capon sit, or to gather Spurges for ointments. [535]





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