Holly, SeaBotanical Name: Eryngium maritinum, Eryngium campestre
Family: N.O. Umbelliferae
Synonyms: Eryngo. Sea Hulver. Sea Holme.
Part Used: Root.
Habitat: It abounds on most of our sandy seashores and is very plentiful on the East Coast, also on the sands of Mounts Bay, Cornwall, but is rare in Scotland.
Closely allied to the Wood Sanicle, not only belonging to the same order, Umbelliferae, but placed by Hooker in the same Tribe or subdivision of the order, Saniculae, is the Sea Holly (Eryngium maritinum).
This spiny plant, which at first sight might be taken rather for a thistle than a member of the umbelliferous order, is sometimes called by old English writers Sea Hulver and Sea Holme.
Description: The roots are perennial, large, fleshy and brittle, penetrating far into the sand, often reaching several feet in length.
The stems, 6 to 12 inches high, thick and solid, are branched at the summit. The radical leaves are on stalks, 2 to 7 inches long, the blades cut into three broad divisions at the apex, coarsely toothed, the teeth ending in spines and undulated. The margin of the leaf is thickened and cartilaginous. The lower stem-leaves are shortly stalked, resembling the radical ones, but the upper ones are sessile and half embracing the stem, which terminates in a shortly-stalked head, below which it gives off two or three spreading branches, all from one point, which is surrounded by a whorl of three leaves, spreading like the rays of the sun.
The heads of flowers appear in July and are at first round, afterwards egg-shaped, 3/4 to 1 inch across, the flowers stalkless, whitish-blue, 1/8 inch across. The calyx tube is thickly covered with soft, cartilaginous bristles; the calyx teeth end in a spine.
The plant is intensely glaucous tinged with blue towards the top, especially on the flowerheads and the leaves immediately below them.
The name of this genus has reference to its supposed efficacy in flatulent disorders, coming from the Greek word eruggarein (to eructate). Dioscorides recommended the roots for this purpose. Another derivation is from the diminutive of eerungos (the beard of a goat), possibly from its appearance. Plutarch relates a curious story about the plant, saying: 'They report of the Sea Holly, if one goat taketh it into her mouth, it causeth her first to stand still and afterwards the whole flock, until such time as the shepherd takes it from her.' According to Linnaeus, the young flowering-shoots, when boiled and eaten like asparagus, are palatable and nourishing. The leaves are sweetish, with a slight aromatic, warm pungency. The roots, boiled or roasted resemble chestnuts in taste, and are palatable and nutritious.
The roots are supposed to have the same aphrodisiac virtues as those of the Orchis tribe, and are still regarded by the Arabs as an excellent restorative. They are sold in some places in a candied form, and used to be obtainable in London shops as a sweetmeat. They are said to have been prepared in this manner by Robert Burton, an apothecary of Colchester, in the seventeenth century, who established a manufactory for the purpose, but the roots were in use long before, being considered both antiscorbutic and excellent for health, and we are told that the 'kissing comfits,' alluded to by Falstaff, were made of them. We read that once the town of Colchester presented royalty with a sample of their candied Sea Holly roots, whereon the sale of the article increased greatly, and many wonderful cures were supposed to be effected by the confection. Gerard says: 'The roots if eaten are good for those that be liver sick, and they ease cramps, convulsions and the falling sickness. If condited, or preserved with sugar, they are exceeding good to be given to old and aged people that are consumed and withered with age, and who want natural moisture.' He gives an elaborate recipe for 'conditing' the roots of Sea Holly or Eringos.
He also cultivated in his garden the Field Eryngo (E. campestre), a native of most parts of Europe, but not common in Britain, though a troublesome weed in the few spots where it does appear, as the roots run deep into the ground, and are not easily destroyed by the plough and spread greatly. The whole plant is very stiff and of a pale-green colour, less glaucous and more branched than the Sea Holly; the corolla are blue, sometimes white or yellow. It is taller and more slender, also, than the Sea Holly. By many authorities it is considered a doubtful native of these islands.
Cultivation: The Sea Holly, in common with the ornamental varieties, Eryngo, now cultivated, will grow in a garden, if planted in a warm, well-drained and preferably a gravel soil, but the roots will not grow as large or as fleshy as those which are found upon the seashore within reach of salt water. Plenty of sun is essential for all varieties.
The best time to transplant the roots is in autumn, when the leaves decay; the young roots are much better to transplant than the old, because, being furnished with fibres, they will readily take root. They will require no further culture than to be kept free from weeds.
If propagated by seeds, they are more likely to succeed if the seeds are sown in the autumn, as the germination is very slow. They may be sown where intended to grow and thinned out to about a foot or more apart, to avoid transplanting, as the long roots may break in the process. The seedlings are, in any case, not ready for transplanting for a year, so that the mode of propagation generally preferred is by division of roots in spring.Cuttings of the roots will succeed in light soil, if planted about 2 inches deep.
Part Used: The root, dug in autumn, from plants at least two years old. Culpepper says: 'The distilled water of the whole herb' (Sea Holly) 'when the leaves and stalks are young is profitably drank for all the purposes aforesaid, and helps the melancholy of the heart, and is available in quartan and quotidian agues; as also for them that have their necks drawn awry, and cannot turn them without turning their whole body.' Eryngo roots when dry are in pieces from 2 to 4 inches long, or more, transversely wrinkled, blackish-brown, crowned with the bristly remains of leaf-stalks. The fracture is spongy and coarsely fibrous, with a small radiate, yellow centre.
The taste is sweetish and mucilaginous, but the root has no odour.
The roots of both the Common Sea Holly and of the Field Eryngo are both sold under the name of Eryngo Root.
Medicinal Action and Uses: Diaphoretic, diuretic, aromatic, stimulant, expectorant. Eryngo promotes a free expectoration and possessing an aromatic principle is very serviceable in debility attendant upon coughs of chronic standing in the advanced stages of pulmonary consumption, in which it has been used in the candied form with great benefit.
It is useful in paralysis and chronic nervous diseases, alike in simple nervousness and in delirium produced by diseases.
Boerhaave, the celebrated Danish physician, much recommended Eryngo, considering that a decoction of the roots, drunk freely, acted on the kidneys and is serviceable in scorbutic complaints. It is used with good results in cases of bladder disease.
The roots are also considered good in obstructions of the liver and in jaundice, operating as a diuretic and a good restorative.
They have been pronounced balsamic, as well as diuretic, old writers telling us that bruised and applied outwardly, they are good for King's Evil, and that when bruised and boiled in hog's fat and applied to broken bones, thorns in the flesh, etc., they draw the latter out and heal up the place again, 'gathering new flesh where it was consumed.'
Of the foreign species, which are numerous, the most worthy of notice is E. amethystinum, so called from the brilliant blue tint not of its flowers only, but of the bracts and upper part of the stem; it is a native of Dalmatia and Croatia, but is frequently cultivated in English gardens; while E. Alpinum, a smaller plant of a still more brilliant colour, is a native of the Swiss Alps.
E. aquaticum (Button Snake-root), a North American plant, is used in Homoeopathy, a tincture being made from the root both fresh and dried.