I Have a Little Bottle in my Pocket...

A large part of what we do in our history presentations is concerned with herbs and their use in medicine, cooking, dyeing and in folklore but I haven't written much on here about that so, as the elecampane is showing its vibrant flowers in our garden, I've been inspired to change that.

Our first few years of growing it were without much success, but in the past few summers the plant has burst forth, reaching about six foot in height and spreading out along the fence, I've noticed that it seems to like being against a wall or fence, though doesn't need the support.

Sadly, elecampane is not described by John Gerard, the famed Elizabethan herbalist who we refer to a lot, (especially as he came from Cheshire), but Culpeper writing a little later in the mid-17th century relates how it was used for a multitude of ills.

He says "It is hot and dry in the third degree, wholesome for the stomach, resists poison, helps old coughs, and shortness of breath, helps ruptures and provokes lust; in ointments it is good against scabs and itch".  He also writes "The decoction of the roots in wine, or the juice taken therein, kills and drives forth all manner of worms in the belly, stomach and maw".

By the 18th century it had become a standard cure-all and made its way into the cure of the quack doctor of the mummers plays which began to appear in the middle of the 1700s.  Just as the plays began to spread through the oral tradition so the plants name got mangled.  I've seen ellicupane, alimcumpane and in the version I've been performing around Chester for 18 years now with Jones' Ale Soul Cakers it is 'I have a bottle in my pocket called alec and plain'.

Recently I discovered that in Cheshire a way to silence persistent questioners was to just say 'alimcumpane' as if answering the query "What's your name?" no doubt derived from the Doctor's entering lines in these plays.

The root does seem to work when made up as a cough mixture, but it's worth growing just for being an attractive plant, and the bees like it too!