Two Potentillas occur among our common native plants, and

possess certain curative virtues (as popularly supposed), the

Silverweed and the Cinquefoil. They belong to the Rose tribe, and

grow abundantly on our roadsides, being useful as mild astringents.

The Potentilla anserina (Silverweed) is found, as its adjective

suggests, where geese are put to feed.

Country folk often call
it Cramp Weed: but it is more generally

known as Goose Tansy, or Goose Gray, because it is a spurious

Tansy, fit only for a goose; or, perhaps, because eaten by geese.

Other names for the herb are Silvery Cinquefoil, and Moorgrass. It

occurs especially on clay soils, being recognised by its pinnate

white silvery leaves, and its conspicuous golden flowers.

In Yorkshire the roots are known as moors, which boys dig up and

eat in the winter; whilst swine will also devour them greedily. They

have then a sweet taste like parsnips. In Scotland, also, they are

eaten roasted, or boiled; and sometimes, in hard seasons, [515]

when other provisions were scanty, these roots have been known to

support the inhabitants of certain islands for months together.

Both the roots and the leaves are mildly astringent; so that their

infusion helps to stay diarrhoea, and the fluxes of women; making

also with honey a useful gargle. The leaf is of an exquisitely

beautiful shape, and may be seen carved on the head of many an old

stall in Church, or Cathedral. By reason of its five leaflets, this

gives to the plant the title five leaf, or five fingered grass,

Pentedaktulon. Potentilla comes from the Latin potens, as

alluding to the medicinal virtues of the species.

In former days the Cinquefoil was much affected as a heraldic

device through the number of the leaflets answering to the five

senses of man; whilst the right to bear Cinquefoil was considered an

honourable distinction to him who had worthily mastered his senses,

and conquered his passions.

Silverweed tea is excellent to relieve cramps of the belly; and

compresses, wrung out of a hot decoction of the herb, may at the

same time be helpfully applied over the seat of the cramps. A potent

Anglo-Saxon charm against crampy bellyache was to wear a gold

ring with a Dolphin engraved on it, and bearing in Greek the mystic

words:--Theos keleuei mee keneoon ponois, God forbids the

pains of colic. This acted doubtless by mental suggestion, as in

the cure of warts. The knee-cap bone, or patella, of a sheep, known

locally as the cramp-bone, is worn in Northamptonshire for a like

purpose; also the application of a gold wedding ring (first wetted

with saliva, an ingredient in the holy salve of the Saxons), to a stye

threatened in an eyelid is often found to disperse the swelling; but in

this case [516] it may be, that a sulphocyanide of gold is formed

with the spittle, which promotes the cure by absorption.

A strong infusion, if used as a lotion, will check the bleeding of

piles, the ordinary infusion being meantime taken as a medicine.

The good people of Leicestershire were accustomed in bygone days

to prevent pitting by small-pox with the use of Silverweed

fomentations. A distilled water of the herb takes away freckles,

spots, pimples in the face, and sunburnings; whilst all parts of the

plant are found to contain tannin.

The Creeping Cinquefoil (Potentilla replans) grows also

abundantly on meadow banks, having astringent roots, which have

been used medicinally since the times of Hippocrates and


They were found to cure intermittent fevers, such as used to prevail

in marshy or ill-drained lands much more commonly than now in

Great Britain; though country folk still use the infusion or decoction

for the same purpose in some districts; also for jaundice.

Likewise, because of the tannin contained in the outer bark of the

roots, their decoction is useful against diarrhoea; and their infusion

as a gargle for relaxed sore throats. But, except in mild cases, other

more positively astringent herbs are to be preferred. The roots afford

a useful red dye.