Medicinal Plants During World War II


I am glad to share some of my most current research. Right now, I am hard at work on a book on plant uses during World War II—everything from victory gardens and rationed food to medicines, fibers, timber, airplanes, camouflage, and agriculture. A curious forgotten bit of history has come to light—the county herb committees whose members collected medicinal plants across England during the war years. Here is a bit of the background story: The German occupation of Europe interfered with drug shipments, and by the early 1940s, there were critical shortages of essential medicines in British homes and hospitals. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, just outside of London, responded to the medical crisis by organizing a scheme for collecting medicinal herbs from rural areas of England. By 1941, The Ministry of Health established a Vegetable Drugs Committee at Kew that published guides for herb collectors in the various rural counties. These provided specific instructions about what to collect and how to dry, bundle, and deliver the collections.


Hedgerows, the dense natural hedges that define property boundaries, were particularly diverse habitats for both native and naturalized medicinal herbs. Women’s Institutes and Boy Scouts worked locally to provide reliable information on plant identification and collection.This was a return to practical herbalism—necessitated by wartime drug shortages due to German occupation and U-boats in shipping lanes. Women’s groups, the elderly, Boy Scouts, and Girl Guides all participated as diligent herb collectors; there was no room for error in identifying, drying, storing, or shipping potential drugs. Among the most important herbs was foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), which was used to regulate heartbeat and save lives in cases of congestive heart failure. The Ministry of Supply issued monthly herb collectors’ bulletins that provided updates on the progress of collection in different areas; the first Bulletin (1942) noted that in Derbyshire “The Hathersage Women’s Institutes dried fifty pounds of materials chiefly nettles in the attic of a house, and the Clifton and Mayfield Boy Scouts dried seventy-six pounds of foxglove at their headquarters. They hope to do much more this year and the county committee is looking around for drying depots.” Of course, the cardiac glycosides in foxglove degrade if the plants are not handled with care; a pamphlet from Kew advised that collectors spread the plants on drying racks (lace curtains tacked to wooden frames) and then dry the plants in a coke-heated shed at 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit.


Collectors also gathered deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna, the source of belladonna), autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale, a treatment for gout), and valerian (Valeriana officinalis, a sedative). Other useful plants included wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus, an antiseptic), burdock (Arctium spp., a diuretic), colt’s-foot (Tussilago farfara, a demulcent), and black horehound (Ballota nigra, a treatment for spasms and worm infections). As in World War I, peat moss (Sphagnum spp.) was harvested from bogs to use as an absorbent sterile wound dressing; its naturally acidic pH inhibits bacterial growth and helps to prevent infection.Vitamins were another wartime necessity; most of these metabolic compounds were discovered between 1920 and 1941, and they remained in the forefront of medical concern. Because home front shipments of citrus fruits were increasingly rare, research at Kew centered on rosehips as a rich source of vitamin C. Botanically speaking, a rosehip is the cup-shaped hypanthium that remains behind after a pollinated rose drops it petals. These are often red-pigmented, and they contain the small, seed-like fruit (achenes), which are dispersed by birds feeding on the hips. Local children once again mobilized as collectors; primary school classes took half days away from their studies to gather native rosehips by the pound. Eventually Kew botanists determined that rosehips from northern counties contained appreciably more vitamin C than those from the south, and so collection sites were adjusted accordingly.


Rosehips were made into syrup, administered primarily to infants and children as a scurvy preventative.At the time that medicinal herbs saved the English home front, penicillin was just emerging as a pharmaceutical drug; one of its first large scale uses was to treat burn victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire, which included many servicemen on leave. But physicians and botanists most likely did not realize that medicinal plants also often have antibiotic properties. In fact, virtually all medicinal and culinary herbs and spices can stop the growth of at least some bacteria. For instance, various mints and tansy (all collected and used medicinally in England during the war) are antibiotic to pathogenic strains including Streptococcus and Staphylococcus. Why? The medicinal secondary compounds of plants often function against bacterial and fungal attack—especially in plant roots, where compounds tend to concentrate. I often wonder that if we continue to overuse antibiotics and antiseptics, we will again need medicinal herbs as pharmaceuticals—this time for their antibiotic properties.


Sheltering with Valerian


I would like to follow-up up with a bit more information about one of the most important plants that were collected and used. England needed effective medicines to supply the home front, so the Vegetable Drugs Committee at the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) organized a collection scheme in which hedgerows and other natural sites were for combed for useful plants. Plants were categorized by priority of need; the most essential plants included diuretics (broom, Cytisus scopiarius, and foxglove, Digitalis purpurea), vermifuges (male fern, Dryopteris felix-mas), and treatments for gout (autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale) and influenza (elder, Sambucus nigra).


These plants certainly provided relief for common physical ailments, but what about the psychological aspects of war? Women carried the major responsibility for war work, child care, cookery, rationing, and household tasks. Moreover, England experienced intense nocturnal bombing raids, when the only option was to collect family members, seek shelter, and hope against a direct attack. British physicians predicted that with the onset of aerial bombing millions would suffer from psychological trauma, and there were certainly frayed nerves and fear during these trying times. Given the sustained attacks against England that began in September 1940, it is not surprising that the Vegetable Drug Committee included valerian (Valeriana officinalis), long valued for its sedative properties, on the list of most essential plants for collection and use.


With bombing a reality, newspapers and women’s magazines suggested coping strategies for comfort and safety. Shops advertised siren suits for both children and adults; these were one piece jumpsuits that could be zipped up quickly over pajamas, popularized by Winston Churchill who wore his own pin-striped siren suit to meet with heads of state. Because excavated shelters were often damp and cold, women were advised to pack blankets, eiderdowns, hot water bottles, warm drinks, and sandwiches for nights spent keeping safe from bombs. Columnists such as Mary Rose, who penned “Making the best of a ‘Sheltered’ Life” in the Manchester Daily Sketch, recommended personal items to improve spirits and counter fear. Small luxuries included face creams and powders, cologne, smelling salts, and “nerve tablets”—which most likely contained valerian.


The use of valerian in war time was nothing new. In A Modern Herbal (1931), Maud Grieve described valerian as a “powerful nervine, stimulant, carminative, and anti-spasmodic.” She noted the use of valerian during World War I: “The drug allays pain and promotes sleep. It is of especial use and benefit to those suffering from nervous overstrain…During the recent War, when air-raids were a serious strain on the nerves of civilian men and women, valerian…proved wonderfully efficacious, preventing or minimizing serious results.” Valerian was also used to treat soldiers who suffered psychological effects after fighting on the front lines; it was administered as a tincture to shell-shocked infantrymen during both world wars.Ancient Greeks and Romans understood the medicinal properties of valerian, using it to calm stomachs and improve digestion. Dioscorides recommended the herb for heart palpitations, Galen mentioned it for insomnia, and Arabs deployed it to control aggression. In fact, the generic name Valerian is likely derived from the Latin verb valere, which commands us to be strong, while the specific epithet officinalis refers to the medical properties of the species. Valerian appeared in editions of the U.S. Pharmacopoeia between 1820 and 1930, becoming a popular remedy for “vapors”, cramps, anxiety, headaches, high blood pressure, nervous complaints, and even naughty behavior in children.


Active principles are concentrated in the aromatic rhizomes, robust underground stems that often colonize old garden sites. But despite its long history of use, the mode of action of valerian is poorly understood, but it is based on a complex chemistry; active principles include various valepotriates, sesquiterpenes, and several aromatic oils. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) valerian fact sheet ( speculates that its efficacy may results from synergy among its chemical components. It also summarizes the positive outcomes of various studies on valerian as an herb for insomnia. In the U.S., valerian is currently sold as a dietary supplement that “promotes rest and relaxation”, “promotes relaxation in individuals leading a hectic lifestyle”, “helps support restful sleep”-- without specific medical claims. As with all herbs, valerian should be treated with respect; alcoholic tinctures may be more powerful than aqueous preparations, and side effects including headaches, dizziness, and gastro-intestinal upset may occur--regardless of whether valerian is used as capsules, tablets, extracts, or teas.


Can we imagine today dealing with nightly bombing raids? In fact, the English coped for years—beginning in the fall of 1940 and continuing through the early spring of 1945. In cities, there were communal shelters such as the underground tube stations that were deep below street level; many flocked to these sites at night to catch a few hours of sleep before another day of war work, ration queues, and making do. Fortunate people returned to their homes to find them undamaged, or at least still standing. Those with gardens often installed their own simple Anderson shelters several feet from the house. These were named for Sir John Anderson; at the time, he served the government as Lord Privy Seal, with special responsibility for sorting out air-raid precautions before the declaration of war in September 1939. A shelter for a family of six comprised fourteen corrugated sheets of galvanized steel, with end pieces and gas-proof curtains, (these were hung in the event of a mustard gas attack, which fortunately never occurred). Correct installation required excavation to a depth of four feet, with 15 inches of displaced garden soil covering the arched roof.


There was early concern that German airplanes would strafe sites with freshly overturned soil, so seeds were sown in haste to provide camouflage. In particular, marrows (various squashes) seemed to flourish in the warmth and good drainage provided by garden soil mounded over corrugated metal. But I also wonder if some Anderson shelters might have been banked by valerian; Anglo-Saxons ate the leaves as a “sallet” plant, and the species is well known for colonizing a garden corner. Either way, many who descended into shelters at night carried their valerian with them. As I continue to discover and document the botany of World War II, I often contemplate English endurance: courage and defiance in the face of fear and destruction. Valerian served them well, as an herb that eased frayed nerves during trying times.











 As in England and America, wartime vegetable gardens provided produce to urban German families, but there were  distinct contrasts with the victory garden movement in Allied countries. Many allotments in Germany were known as Schrebergarten, named for the nineteenth century naturopathic physician Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber who operated an orthopedic clinic in Leipzig. Schreber was a proponent of natural harmony, including fresh air and vigorous exercise; his ideas on childrearing included the notion that children should spend plenty of time outdoors in playgrounds supervised by a staff of teachers and military personnel. During the late 1800s, Schreber’s followers in Leipzig established parks with children’s gardens, but parents soon took over the cultivation tasks, growing vegetables and constructing simple structures on these allotments.


By the end of World War I, Schrebergarten were recognized as valuable assets worthy of protection, and the Small Garden and Small-Rent Land Law of 1919 solidified the rights and fees for leasing allotments. At a time of growing industrialization, Shrebergarten provided urban dwellers with fresh vegetables and modest outdoor space, and by the 1930s the movement had extended to other German cities, Switzerland, and Austria. Regarded by many as an emblem of the bourgeois, conservative middle class, the Schrebergarten movement served as a medium for the “blood and soil” militaristic patriotism that brewed in pre-war Germany.


Another garden movement originated in Berlin, beginning with land planned for development on the periphery of the city. Various agrarian groups and societies acquired land parcels that attracted working class families to spend time in these comparatively rural sites. During the 1870s, some urban-dwellers built colonies of summer houses (Laubenkolonien) on plots on the outskirts of Berlin; occupancy might have been temporary, so improvements were limited to simple structures and fenced gardens. These allotments produced sufficient vegetables to augment working class diets; leasing fees were high, but time in nature compensated for grueling hours spent in factory jobs.


As productive vegetable gardens away from city centers, Schrebergarten saved lives during both World Wars when chronic shortages, high prices, and a thriving black market posed significant problems to food security. As food supplies dwindled during World War II, gardening became subsistence agriculture, and a well-tended allotment on the edge of town both provided both food and shelter. Shrebergarten produced adequate vegetables for families who found little or nothing in the marketplace, but fertilizer shortages affected crop yield from these intensively cultivated sites. Imported nitrates were scarce due to Allied attacks on German vessels, and the few shipments that did arrive were directed to munitions plants rather than fertilizer production.  Thus desperate gardeners resorted to bartering for soil nutrients; an article in Collier’s mentioned a German newspaper advertisement offering to trade a service of valuable china for compost.

During the Allied bombing of German cities, some families relocated to their gardens, and the sites also sheltered and fed persecuted Jews who hid in Schrebergarten for months or even years. Post-war housing shortages meant that Schrebergarten continued as emergency housing for German families with no other options than to live in a simple structure erected on a garden site. Gardening continued as an essential postwar activity, even for families without an allotment on the edge of the city. Photographs and Deutsche Wochenschau newsreels showed vegetable plots cultivated by Hitler Jugend near the bombed remains of the Reichstag building in Berlin (Reichstagsgebaude), which had been used for Nazi meetings and functions. It was a target during the Battle of Berlin in 1945; the structure was rebuilt in the 1990s following German reunification and is now the Bundestag.



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