Food, Medicine, Materials

The use of wild plants as food, medicines and materials is universal to all cultures across the world. Many of the wild plants of Britain are still used for these purposes and there has been a great resurgence of interest in recent years.

Elderflower wine and juniper berries for gin are well known but there is also birch wine, heather ale and rowan berry liquor. Hazelnuts are among the earliest plant foods found on prehistoric sites in Britain and candied sea holly root was a great delicacy in the Tudor period and later. Wild samphire is still collected as a luxury food and many people regularly collect berries, mushrooms and a selection of wild greens.

The range of wild plants used in medicine is vast and we can only scratch the surface of the subject in these factsheets. The druids are said to have favoured mistletoe and vervain (Verbena officinale) as spiritual and medicinal plants. The Roman army brought the herbal of Dioscorides to Britain and it remained in use until the 1500s. The Anglo-Saxons held nine herbs sacred (mucgwyrt, attorla∂e, stune, wegbrade, mæg∂e, sti∂e, wergulu, fille, finule) as described in the Lacnunga, and many of the printed herbals of the 14th century onwards remained in print for centuries. The use of medicinal plants is still a vibrant part of British culture.

Apart from timber and some use of thatch and dye plants, we use very few of our formerly important plant materials. One of the most ubiquitously used plants of the past, rush (Juncus species), is barely used now. In Roman Britain rushes were used to make baskets ‘bascauda’ that were exported to Rome and rushes lights were still used in parts of Britain until the early 20th century. Rushes were often used as flooring in homes and churches and are still part of the rush bearing ceremonies of England. The fairy tales Cap O’ Rushes and Rushen Coatie show that rushes were commonly used to make clothing in the past. Nettle is another formerly important plant, used for both fibres and food, that is rarely used now. There is a widespread interest in the use of plant based dyes in the UK>

Please download our factsheets to find out more about wild plants in food, drink, medicine, and materials.

Food & Drink
Materials and Dyes