Anemone (Wood)

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Anemone (Wood)

Botanical Name: Anemone nemorosa (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Ranunculaceae

Synonyms: Crowfoot. Windflower. Smell Fox.
Parts Used: Root, leaves, juice.

The Wood Anemone is one of the earliest spring flowers.

Description: It has a long, tough, creeping root-stock, running just below the surface; it is the quick growth of this root-stock that causes the plant to spread so rapidly, forming large colonies in the moist soil of wood and thicket. The deeply-cut leaves and star-like flowers rise directly from it on separate unbranched stems. Some distance below the flower are the three leaflets, often so deeply divided as to appear more than three in number and very similar to the true leaves. They wrap round and protect the flower-bud before it unfolds, but as it opens, its stalk lengthens and it is carried far above them.

The flower has no honey and little scent, and apparently relies little on the visits of insects for the fertilization of its one-celled seed-vessels, which are in form like those of the butter-cup, arranged in a mass in the centre of the many stamens, and are termed achenes. As in all the Anemones, there are no true petals, what seem so are really the sepals, which have assumed the colouring and characteristics of petals. They are six in number, pure white on the upper surfaces and pale rose-coloured beneath.

In sunshine, the flower is expanded wide, but at the approach of night, it closes and droops its graceful head so that the dew may not settle on it and injure it. If rain threatens in the daytime, it does the same, receiving the drops upon its back, whence they trickle of harmlessly from the sepal tips. The way the sepals then fold over the mass of stamens and undeveloped seed-vessels in their centre has been likened to a tent, in which, as used fancifully to be said by country-folk, the fairies nestled for protection, having first pulled the curtains round them.

The plant is very liable to attack from certain fungi: at times, a species of Puccinia settles on it, the result being that the stalks of infected leaves grow rapidly, high above the others, though the leaves themselves dwindle and lose their divisions. A species of Sclerotinia attacks the swollen tubers of the root, doing still more harm, for in the spring there arise not the delicate white flowers, but the ugly fructifications of the fungus.

Though so innocent in appearance, the Wood Anemone possesses all the acrid nature of its tribe and is bitter to the tongue and poisonous. Cattle have been poisoned, Linnaeus tells us, by eating it in the fresh state after having been underfed and kept on dry food during the winter, so that they were ready to browse on the first leaves they saw. A vinegar made from the leaves retains all the more acrid properties of the plant, and is put in France to many domestic purposes: its rubifacient effects have caused it to be used externally in the same way as mustard.

The Egyptians held the Anemone as the emblem of sickness, perhaps from the flush of colour upon the backs of the white sepals. The Chinese call it the 'Flower of Death.' In some European countries it is looked on by the peasants as a flower of ill-omen, though the reason of the superstition is obscure. The Romans plucked the first Anemones as a charm against fever, and in some remote districts this practice long survived, it being considered a certain cure to gather an Anemone saying, 'I gather this against all diseases,' and to tie it round the invalid's neck. Greek legends say that Anemos, the Wind, sends his namesakes the Anemones, in the earliest spring days as the heralds of his coming. Pliny affirmed that they only open when the wind blows, hence their name of Windflower, and the unfolding of the blossoms in the rough, windy days of March has been the theme of many poets: 'Coy anemone that ne'er uncloses Her lips until they're blown on by the wind.' Culpepper also uses the word 'windflower.' In Greek mythology it sprang from the tears of Venus, as she wandered through the woodlands weeping for the death of Adonis - 'Where streams his blood there blushing springs a rose And where a tear has dropped, a wind-flower blows.'

The old herbalists called the Wood Anemone the Wood Crowfoot, because its leaves resemble in shape those of some species of Crowfoot. We also find it called Smell Fox. The specific name of nemorosa refers to its woodland habits.

['Anemone nemorosa, Varieties in,' by E. J. Salisbury (Ann. Bot., October 1916, Vol. XXXX, No. CXX: figs.) - Two varieties distinct from the common form are mentioned as being fairly numerous in some of the Hertfordshire woodlands, and for which the author has proposed the names A. nemorosa, var. robusta and A. nemorosa, var. apetala. The former differs from the normal type in the lighter green colour and larger size of the vegetative organs and in the perianth segments, which are broadest above the middle and rounded towards the apex. The latter bears inconspicuous flowers, which are small purplish-green structures, and it is noted that these plants are usually associated with the more deeply shaded situations, but as this character is maintained when the coppice in which the variety grows is felled, it is not considered a mere effect of inadequate illumination. - G.D.L.]

Medicinal Action and Uses: Though this species of Anemone has practically fallen out of use, the older herbalists recommended application of various parts of the plant for headaches, tertian agues and rheumatic gout. Culpepper practically copies verbatim the some half-dozen uses of the Anemone that Gerard gives, saying:

'The body being bathed with the decoction of the leaves cures the leprosy: the leaves being stamped and the juice snuffed up the nose purgeth the head mightily; so doth the root, being chewed in the mouth, for it procureth much spitting and bringeth away many watery and phlegmatic humours, and is therefore excellent for the lethargy.... Being made into an ointment and the eyelids annointed with it, it helps inflammation of the eyes. The same ointment is excellent good to cleanse malignant and corroding ulcers.'

Culpepper also advises the roots to be chewed because it 'purgeth the head mightily'; he adds, 'And when all is done let physicians prate what they please, all the pills in the dispensary purge not the head like to hot things held in the mouth.' Parkinson writes: 'there is little use of these (the Anemones) in physic in our days, either for inward or outward diseases; only the leaves are used in the ointment called Marciatum, which is composed of many other hot herbs.... The root by reason of the sharpness is apt to draw down rheum if it be tasted or chewed in the mouth.'

Modern authorities would, however, hesitate to recommend the chewing of the root on account of the acrid, irritant poison known to be present in it.

Linnaeus noticed that in Sweden the Wood Anemone flowered at the same time as the return of the swallow, and that the Marsh Marigold was contemporaneous with the cuckoo. A British naturalist in this country has also remarked this. Another naturalist who took an annual account of the days on which various flowers came into bloom in spring, found that the Wood Anemone never blossomed earlier than March 16, and never later than April 22. His observations were made each spring during thirty years.

The English name is derived from its Greek signification (wind) and is due to the fact that so many of its species grow on elevated places exposed to high winds; other writers attribute the name to the trembling of the flower before the blasts of spring.