The Herbal Healing of Alchemilla

Alchemilla is a stalwart of the herbaceous border and cottage garden. Their bright green leaves and large sprays of acid yellow-green flowers in summer can be used as a foil to surrounding plants, or provide a bold display when planted en masse. They are easy to grow in full sun to partial shade, in most soil types, and are well suited to the cool and wet climate of Scotland. 

The most well known is Alchemilla mollis, native to the Balkans, and grown widely as a reliable garden plant across the UK for its ornamental value in the herbaceous border and cutting garden. Ask any gardener and this will be the staple species they will recommend you grow. There are, however, over 300 species within the genus that are widespread across Europe and sub-arctic woodland and mountainous regions around the world. Their full distribution range extends from the Andes in South America to Europe, Asia, and even the tropical mountains of Africa.

It is not surprising with the focus on the ornamental value Alchemilla offers in the garden that we might not at first consider it for its useful and medicinal properties, yet there are many species within the genus that can be beneficial for the treatment of minor ailments.

Alchemilla vulgaris 

Alchemilla vulgaris is one that may come to mind, as it is most commonly used in herbal medicine. It is considered to be a female tonic, excellent for the reproductive system, and the easing of the pains associated with the menstrual cycle and menopause. It has been used in commercial herbal remedies, including tinctures and teas, for centuries and has a long folkloric history that has claimed to cure infertility, treat ailments of the heart, and reverse diabetes. It is even said to restore the youthful beauty of women who strip naked and dip their little toe in the dew held in the leaves under a full Flower Moon in May.

Culpeper claims A. vulgaris is ‘one of the most singular wound herbs’ and recommends it for the drying up of wounds due its astringent properties. This has recently been confirmed in research that found an application of the herb accelerated the wound healing process. 

There is some disagreement though between botanists about whether A. vulgaris and A. mollis are the same plant. Although they look almost identical, it is said that the difference lies in the flowers, with A. vulgaris having slightly smaller flowers with a greater amount of green in them than yellow. The hardship in harvesting A. vulgaris from the wild lies in that A. mollis occasionally escapes from the garden into hedgerows and it can be difficult to identify the two. 

Alchemilla alpina 

One species, however, with a long medicinal history and one which I would absolutely suggest growing in Scotland is A. alpina, a native Alchemilla found in well drained soils across montane grassland, scree, cliffs, and rocky streams, stretching from the coastal Highlands in the North West to 1300m high on Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms. This much smaller species forms a neat clump of pale green leaves, divided into 7 leaflets, with stunning silver edges which are covered in silky hairs. Small clusters of chartreuse flowers held atop short stems appear through summer into early autumn. It is ideally suited to paths, border edges, and the rock garden where it can spread slowly with other small plants. 

Medicinally, A. alpina has much the same uses and applications as the other species but is noted to be more effective. It is rich in tannins and is therefore a highly effective astringent and styptic for the treatment of internal and external wounds and the freshly pressed juice from the leaves and roots has been used historically to treat skin complaints, such as acne. 

When taken over a prolonged period of time, it is seen to be an effective emmenagogue, stimulating the menstrual flow, and easing excessive menstrual cramps. The easiest way to consume it is to pick the leaves early in the morning and dry them over a period of a few weeks then use them in a herbal tea – a mixture of raspberry leaf and alpine lady’s mantle is said to offer gentle and effective relief during such periods. 

Alternatives to Alchemilla mollis

There are a few Alchemilla species that I would urge you to seek out if you are looking for an alternative to A. mollis in your garden. A. venosa is particularly attractive for its blue-green foliage, while A. erythropoda is a dwarf variety that is well suited to the rock garden and containers; A. alpina and A. conjuncta are both very similar and form a tight, compact clump with cream-green flowers that is perfect for a rock or alpine garden.

And if you already grow Alchemilla in your garden, I hope you might consider using it as part of your green pharmacy and herbal healing at home. 

Scott Galloway is a Glasgow based horticulturist and plantsman, specialising in kitchen garden production and herbs. He is particularly interested in the cross-cultural relationships people have with plants and how this defines their uses. 

Working with the National Trust for Scotland, he created a Scottish naturalised herb garden at Greenbank Garden, and is currently writing about plants for the RHS in his role as Plant Profile Writer. He is also building a National Collection of Bergenia in conjunction with Plant Heritage and hopes to be an authoritative voice on the genus.

You can keep up with Scott on his Instagram page and follow his page dedicated to bergenias right here.

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