Popular Pharmacopoeia: medicinal plants in traditional culture in Burgos

Popular Pharmacopoeia: medicinal plants in traditional culture in Burgos
2019. Emilia Alcalde, showing us rudrón grass. Photo: Demetrio Delgado © Demetrio Delgado

Popular Pharmacopoeia: medicinal plants in traditional culture in Burgos

Pharmacopoeias are codes or regulations that govern the use of medicinal preparations and products, and specifically in our case, as refers to plants with therapeutic properties. There are beautiful parchments and ancient medieval books of classical apothecary’s Pharmacopoeia. The etymology of the word comes from pharmacopoiia, the preparation of drugs, remedies, mixtures, formula and poisons.

If we add the word «popular» to the term, we are referring to the traditional use of medicinal plants, a practice handed down from generation to generation, oral lore which has not been written down anywhere.

We have studied a small area in the centre and east of Burgos province to identify the use of over 90 species of wild and cultivated plants and the survival of their use in popular phytotherapy, ethno-medicine or ethno-veterinary treatment. We gathered this information via interviews we carried out with people who had such lore.

Popular remedies involve not just single plants, but also mixtures, herbal tea recipes, creams and ointments. An anonymous collective memory keeps old sayings alive, and many treatments have an element of magic, superstition or religion linked inseparably to healing.

Plants such as the elder (Sambucus nigra), for example, the marigold or “boyfriend scarer” (Calendula officinalis), pepperwort (Lepidium latifolium) or «hare bread» (Aphyllanthes monspeliensis) have been referenced as medicinal plants in our research to be published soon. We sometimes include how they were originally prepared, or how, surprisingly, still are, like frying the grass in oil or eating the plant in an omelette for healing purposes.

In the photo we highlight Emilia Alcalde, 74, from the village of Villacienzo  (Burgos) who is showing us, among other things, what they call –in the plural- «rudrón grasses» (Senecio jacobaea, Asteraceae) or ragwort, which appears in books as «zuzón», «Saint James grass» or «Jacobean grass». It is a wild plant which is found in open, barren spaces, ditches and fresh fields, and has attractive yellow flowers although it is poisonous.

Emilia and other village locals tell us about old folk veterinary treatments, handed down from their parents, using this species for wounded sheep, making a concentrated brew and washing the wound with it to cure the swelling.

«We would gather it in the summer, July and August, when it was in full bloom and hang it in the loft, garret or pens until we needed it. We would then boil the whole plant and once it had cooled, we would apply the liquid to the sheep with a syringe or by tying cataplasms to it for several days until it got better

Eduardo Zamora from Villafranca Montes de Oca, «[…] used it if a sheep got a cut during shearing, boiling it and applying it to the wound to disinfect it and make any kind of larva come out. It was very useful for grazes caused to the animals by the harnesses we used which day by day scratched the skin until it became a wound».

All this lore is rapidly disappearing with hardly any research into it, hence the value of these local studies and the need to compile them and keep them in use.