In the past, gathering medicinal plants was the purview of specially trained individuals, at first usually bali or vrači, and later herbalists and folk healers who used the plants in their work. There were folk healers to be found among the laypeople, too: lekarji and padarji, wound-healers and herbalists of all stripes, united by their use of natural medicinal substances, and especially of plants. Folk healers were simple but well-informed people. They came from all walks of life, from shepherds, cottagers, and pedlars to landowners and labourers. Whether they had inherited their knowledge or come into it themselves, they offered help to their community and in exchange for their craft received food, clothing, wool, and other gifts. Folk healers could be divided into three categories: those who practiced only incantation, those who healed only with natural, largely plant-derived substances, and those who did both. For their work healing people and livestock – and creating various medicinal preparations – these healers enjoyed a large degree of trust.
Our ancestors preserved their admiration, respect, and gratitude towards plants in fairy-tales and legends, songs and proverbs. This body of folk literature most often pays tribute to economically important plants such as buckwheat, grape vine, turnip, wheat, rye, beans and – hemp. The remains of old folk traditions and rituals connected to plants have also survived in the form of superstitions.
In Slovene tradition, belief in the protective power of hemp was widespread. Hemp was reputed to protect a person against all kinds of evil, just as it protected Jesus in his flight from King Herod. According to a Carinthian legend, a labourer once defended himself against a škopnjak – a dangerous being from pagan lore – by standing on wild-growing hemp. In some areas, women wove belts from hemp, in the belief that this would prevent hip pain in the coming year. So belted, they took turns leaping over the bonfire, to ensure their health – if their belt came untied, on the other hand, this was a sign that they would bear a child out of wedlock.
Old healing magic practices also included the application of smoke to affected parts of the body. This was accomplished by scattering embers onto a hot brick or iron pot, then covering them with herbs or other plant parts. Plants used for smoking – especially hemp – were intended to protect places against evil forces, curses, and demons. This belief in the protective properties of smoke and fire has been retained to the present day. The ritual burning of plants was also used to bless homes on particular days of the year or in advance of field work as a request for divine favour, good luck, and a good yield.
Common marigold (Calendula officinalis), a decorative garden plant, was considered the best cure in Slovene folk medicine for skin conditions. To this end, it was most often prepared as an ointment made from its flowers. It was also used in tea to treat stomach disorders, tuberculosis, skin conditions, and to cleanse the blood. For treating skin conditions, ulcers, infected swellings, and infected wounds in animals, another suitable ointment was made of common marigold flowers and lard.
At the top of the list of the most commonly used plants in Slovene folk medicine were juniper, which was used in the treatment of over one hundred conditions. It has been hailed as long as folk medicine has existed. Also known as brinje, every part of the plant was used: berries, branches, and wood. Juniper berries were eaten fresh, dried, crushed, or soaked in spirits or oil; they were made into balms and compotes, and these preparations were used to treat asthma, migraines, rheumatism, and disorders of the bile ducts, liver, and stomach. Chewing juniper berries was regarded as the best treatment for all kinds of infection and, in the Middle Ages, even for plague. The berries, when soaked in spirits, were also thought to be an excellent cure for diarrhoea. Crushed green juniper berries were applied to the forehead to treat headaches or cooked in fat to produce a balm for the treatment of scabies, rashes, swelling, and ulcers. The smoke of juniper berries or fresh sprigs of juniper was inhaled to combat toothache and respiratory diseases. As with human medicine, the most popular method of healing in folk veterinary medicine was with medicinal plants. Young sprigs of juniper were mixed into horse feed to combat goitre. A berry decoction was used to treat intestinal cramps and as a diuretic. Intestinal cramps in horses were also treated with bread soaked in juniper spirits. Juniper berries were combined with lard to make an ointment for the treatment of skin infections, eczema, and swelling; when crushed and mixed with butter, they were added to animal feed to combat loss of appetite. During outbreaks of animal plague, barns and stables were cleansed several times a day with juniper smoke.
Another common method of magical healing was the use of juniper smoke which was believed to cleanse farm buildings of evil spirits, curses, and demons.
This belief in the protective properties of smoke and fire has been retained to the present day. The ritual burning of plants was also used to bless homes on particular days of the year or in advance of field work as a request for divine favour, good luck, and a good yield.
Plants were indispensable at the end of a person’s life, as well. In the past, juniper was burnt by sickbeds in the belief that its protective power would turn away the spells and curses responsible for the illness. All over Slovenia, it was customary to use a juniper branch to sprinkle water on a dead person’s body, in order to keep away the devil preying on the deceased’s soul. In folk traditions, juniper was an especially magical plant that offered protection from all sorts of evil spirits. Juniper, considered a holy wood in the past, also had to be placed on the fire to chase witches and evil spirits away, and to cleanse the air of unclean forces and curses.
Deadly nightshade(Atropa belladonna), with folk names volčja črešnja or paskvica, is one of the most poisonous plants in Slovenia, known since the classical era. Plants in the nightshade family contain the toxic alkaloids atropine and scopolamine, which in large enough doses can cause death due to obstructed breathing. In folk medicine, deadly nightshade was used with great caution: most often, its smoke was used to treat asthma or other conditions, of both livestock and people. The highly toxic deadly nightshade was used by veterinarians when confronted with certain diseases in pigs.
Its specific name belladonna (“beautiful woman”) points to the old practice of using the juice of deadly nightshade berries as eye-drops. This caused the pupils to dilate which, according to the beauty standards of the time, made women more attractive. In the Middle Ages, deadly nightshade was one of the most common ingredients in magical ointments. These ointments, whose ingredients could be absorbed through the skin and which were supposedly used by “evil witches”, caused hallucinations and delirium in line with the known effects of plant alkaloids. Medieval chronicles are full of accounts of witchcraft in which women, meeting in secret, first consumed a potion, then took of their clothing and rubbed magical ointment made from hallucinogenic plants into their skin. The symptoms of these activities included temporary memory loss, hallucinations, and sensations of flight, while their fugue was supposedly also accompanied by a wild lust. Folk tradition describes flights of witches to Slivnica and Klek, some of which were also recorded by Janez Vajkard Valvasor in the 17th century. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, in the time of the Inquisition, women who resisted the dictates of the Catholic church were persecuted. Some were branded witches and burnt at the stake.
Slovenian botanist Martin Cilenšek’s accounts of deadly nightshade poisoning reveal that consumption of the berries sometimes resulted in death, other times in insanity – from which originates the folk name norica (“madwoman”). Until recently, deadly nightshade was cultivated in plantations around Mengeš for the pharmaceutical industry’s needs.
An old Slovenian tale claims that our ancestors, who once lived in lands far to the east, were brought to the lands beneath Triglav by a grain of buckwheat. When the time came to move on from their previous home, their goddess gave them the grain and said: “Plant this seed on your travels, and where it sprouts and grows, there you shall remain – but if it does not sprout in three days, then you shall dig the seed up and continue on your way.” The story goes on to say that the seed did not sprout on the shores of the Black Sea, nor on the plains of Poland, nor the German mountains – it rose from the earth and bloomed white across the land only when it reached Slovenian ground. From once upon a time and ever after!
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) was an indispensable plant with a variety of uses. Known by a preponderance of folk names including sv. Janeza roža, janževa roža, ivanjska zel, krčna zel, and krifrišarca, it was closely associated with the summer solstice, when it was believed to offer protection from lightning. St. John’s wort was the midsummer plant most often invoked for protection against fire and lightning. St. John’s wort was traditionally believed to possess magical powers that protected against dark forces, thunder, and lightning. It was said to be especially hated by the devil, who pierced its leaves through with needles – the resulting perforations in its leaves being attested by the specific name perforatum. Once blessed, the plants were stored and used piecemeal throughout the year for various purposes. Often they were burnt to cleanse the house of disease and hung as protection against fire and lightning. St. John’s wort was regarded as particularly effective in the latter case, and it was distributed throughout the house and outbuildings for this purpose. A bunch of St. John’s wort flowers held under one arm was additionally thought to ease fear of thunder. The alternative folk name križeva roža (“flower of the cross”) originates from the Christian legend in which John the Baptist stood below the cross, grieving, and picked the flowers on which the Saviour’s blood had fallen. Another name for it is krvavec (“bloody one”), owing to John’s death by decapitation. Medicinally, it was used in a tea to treat insomnia, depression, and disorders of the bile ducts, bladder, and kidneys. Soaked in spirits, St John’s wort was used to disinfect wounds; in wine, it was given to patients with epilepsy and dysentery. Oil of St John’s wort was applied to burns or massaged into joints to treat rheumatism.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is one of the most well-known and widespread medicinal plants. Because of its variety of uses – both internal and external – in treating nearly any condition, it quickly became an established garden plant. In folk medicine, chamomile was most often utilised as a tea, or in a more potent, distilled preparation known as žgana voda. The tea was drunk to combat infection, the common cold, gastrointestinal disorders, and infections of the kidneys and bladder. Externally, chamomile was used in compresses for rashes and infections of the ears and eyes. It was also gargled to treat mouth infections and toothache. In accordance with the Slovar naravnega zdravilstva (Dictionary of Natural Medicine, 1926), rheumatism, aches and pains, and infection were treated with a warm compress of chamomile: “Cook chamomile, drain, wrap in linen, and lay on the stomach, lower abdomen, and festering areas.” Or: “Fill a small bag with chamomile, warm it, and lay it on the affected limb.” A well-known home recipe is for oil of chamomile, which was rubbed into the joints to alleviate rheumatism. Chamomile blossoms were added to oil and allowed to sit in sunlight for several days. Through long experience, folk medicine confirmed that chamomile tea promotes sweating, eases cramps, soothes, strengthens the stomach and body, disinfects, and decomposes. In addition to tea, chamomile baths were also common, having a beneficial effect on menstrual pains, headaches, all kinds of infection, and various nervous conditions, such as irritability, over-sensitivity, internal unrest, mental exhaustion, fatigue, and insomnia. Chamomile tea was also well-known emetic, which was prepared in the form of a strong decoction. Plant emetics were also boiled in milk or wine, which was reputed to enhance the effect.
In Slovene folk medicine common houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) was once considered the best medicinal plant for treating ear infections, diseases, and hearing loss. Its folk names ušnik and ušesnik (“earwort”) are derived from this use. Typically, drops of houseleek juice were applied directly to the inside of the ear. In some areas, the juice was first collected in a small bottle, which was then baked into a loaf of bread. The juice was then applied, still hot, to treat ear infections. Houseleek juice was also used to remove warts, lumps, freckles, acne, and corns. Houseleek was fried in fat to create an ointment for treating wounds and burns, and its tea was used as a diuretic. For healing wounds and other injuries in livestock, common houseleek was, in its time, used to prepare a variety of ointments, some of which also contained gentian and juniper.
Houseleek was ascribed the same powers because of its presence on the shady side of straw-thatched roofs. A house with such a roof was considered safe from lightning, and its apotropaic power was also harnessed in flowerpots and on gravestones. This use is reflected in one of its folk names, Perunova brada (“Perun’s beard”), which invokes the name of the Slavic god of thunder and lightning.
In Slovenian folk tradition common bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is the best known of the midsummer plants associated with the summer solstice, during which it is ascribed magical and protective properties, but it was also once used medicinally. It was added to baths to treat rheumatism and gangrene, and its roots were soaked in spirits for topical application. Bracken tea was drunk in cases of roundworm or tapeworm. Fresh leaves were tied to the forehead and eyes to ease pain, while dried ones were used to line shoes as a remedy for tiredness. Healing and magical plant! Common bracken is the most mysterious and magical midsummer flower, which connected the visible and invisible worlds – once it also played an important role in this ritual. Beautifully described by Boris Čok in V siju mesečine (In Moonlight’s Glow, 2012), this pagan ritual was practiced as late as the 1830s in the rock shelter of Triglavca near Divača. The day before the ritual, girls and women gathered bracken from the local area and washed it in clear spring water. The next day, the priestesses tied the bracken around their waists for protection against besi and curses. During the ritual itself – which was led by a man (Božeglav) – the women removed their bracken belts and placed them on a ritual stone. Afterwards, they reclaimed the belts, and the next evening girls would carry them to all the families in the village, to place by their hearths. Thus sanctified, the bracken protected the families from misfortune, diseases, natural disasters, famine and supernatural forces. Common bracken, the most well-known midsummer plant, was also used for apotropaic purposes.