The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

The medicinal use of plants

Our ancestors knew how to make the best use of all the resources that surrounded them. Plants were fed to the animals and were used in cooking. As well as this, they were used to cure illness and were the forerunners of modern medicine. Here, we will take a look at just a few of the plants native to Orkney and how they were used.

 Sphagnum Moss


Moss are the most common plant found in bogs. Each kind has a different head and long stems. Moss grows in areas where other plants are not able to grow as it is adapted to the low level of nutrients found in the waterlogged soil.

The parts of the plant growing under the soil do not decompose because the waterlogged conditions mean that the organisms that decompose plants can’t live in the bog conditions. The build up of moss eventually turns into peat 

It comes in many different colours, green, orange, pink and red. It grows packed tightly together in a cushion to keep them from drying out. Sphagnum mosses produce spores in tiny brown sacks which are released into the water and these form new moss plants.

Bogmoss acts like a sponge and can soak up as much as 20 times its own weight in water.  For this reason some types of moss have been used to dress wounds. During the First and Second World wars it was collected in many parts of Scotland and was sent south to be turned into dressings for wounds. Sphagnummoss was dried and carefully picked to remove any irritating bits. It was then placed in muslin bags. The bags were not filled to capacity as space had to be left for the moss to expand after absorbing fluids. The moss was also naturally sterile and this helped the healing process.

By using sphagnum for bandages, cotton could then be saved for making gun powder. It has also been used as a nappy for babies and as lamp wicks.

Bird's-foot trefoil

This bloom is made up of a cluster of bright yellow flowers at the end of the flowering stem. Due to the appearance of its seed pods, it got the name birds foot.  It was once used as a dye for wool and was fed to livestock.


Eyebright is specifically used to treat sinusitis and conjunctivitis. Having anti-inflammatory properties, the Greeks first used the juice of this plant to treat eye disorders. The herb was made into an eye wash or compress for inflammation. It has also been used orally for respiratory conditions such as allergies, colds and bronchitis. If used as a mouthwash it can be gargled and used for inflammation of the mouth and throat. If used internally it is good for treating catarrah.

Eyebright also has magical uses. If brewed it is said to aid mental clarity and psychic power. If the liquid is placed on cotton pads and then placed over the eyes it induces clairvoyance and it is believed that if it is carried on one’s person it will increase psychic powers and help the carrier to see through deception and lies.

Thrift or sea pinks


Thrift also known as sea pinks are mostly found on beaches and on the coast. It tolerates the salt spray well and this is why this is their native habitats. The plant is rarely used in medicine although the roots used to be boiled in milk and was used to treat tuberculosis.  The dried flowering plant has antibiotic properties and has been used in the treatment of obesity, urinary infections and some nervous disorders.

Wild Thyme

Wild thyme is used to flavour food and is used in heather ale. To control their nightmares, the Greeks drank thyme tea. It can also be used an aphrodisiac and taken with hot water can help to stop coughing.  It may also be used to treat sciatica, boils, rheumatism and mouth and gum infections.

A more palatable use for the herb is to make a poultice or paste by chopping fresh dried leaves with a little bit of water.  Then sandwich the paste between two layers of gauze and apply as hot as possible to the infected site.

A further use is as an insect repellent. Simply rub the leaves on to the skin to repel the blighter or dilute with a large quantity of water to make an infusion which can be used as a wash. If mixed with less water it can be used to clean wounds. 

Bog Cotton

Bog cotton is what is says it is – it’s a cotton flower that grows in boggy conditions. There are two kinds, the single headed and many headed. The single headed are found clumped together and thrive in a drier soil. They run the risk of dying out in times of drought so have leaves that are long and rolled into needles to conserve water.

The many headed cotton flower thrives in much boggier soil. The roots can be as long as 60cm deep and the plant lives by 'snorkelling.'  Air canals in the roots allow air to pass from the parts of the plant sticking out of the water to the roots. In the old days bog cotton had many uses such as stuffing for pillows.

Red clover

The leaves of the red clover can tell the observer which colour the flower will be when it blossoms.  The leaves of the red clover have a white 'V' shaped mark, called a chevron. If the leaves have no chevron, the flower will be white.

A  four leaved red clover is said to bring good luck and good health and is said to have great healing powers. It is good for skin conditions such as eczema, rashes and psoriasis.  If the flower is added to boiling water, the water is good used as a cough remedy or for bathing a sore.


The water forget-me-not is found on wet and soggy ground and has long been associated with love and friendship. It is said that the name was given to the flower after tragedy struck when a knight courting his love fell into a river and shouted, 'vergiz mein nicht'  as he threw to her a bunch of flowers. Vergiz mein nicht translates to 'forget me not'. In the past, the plant has been used for treating whooping cough, and bronchitis. Folk medicine involved using the plant to treat eye infections.

Dog Violet

The 'dog' violet was given its disparaging name because unlike the other species of violet,  it has no smell. The violet is associated with sadness and death but also with beauty and bashfulness. In Ireland the flower was used as a poultice to cure boils.

Milk wort

This flower was once though to cure warts and was also used as a tonic to nursing mothers as it was believed it increased the flow of their milk.  It is also known as 'Fairy Soap' as it was believed that the fairies made a lather from the roots and leaves.

Four leaved clover

The four-leaf clover is an uncommon variation of the common, three-leaved clover. According to legend, Eve carried a four leaf clover from the Garden of Eden and each leaf represents a positive emotion. The first is for faith the second is for hope the third is for love, and the fourth is for luck. They are said to bring good luck to the finder, especially if found accidentally.

The importance of the four leaf clover pre-dates Christianity and goes back to the Pagan period when the four leaved clover were kept as Celtic charms to protect them against malevolent spirits. Clover was also used in spells. The belief was that the four leaves represented the four elements of alchemy - earth, water, fire and air - and also the four seasons. Clovers can have more than four leaves. The most ever recorded is 56, discovered in Japan in May 2009.


Every part of the Foxglove plant is poisonous, so if you have inquisitive little kids or pets who are inclined to chew, this is not an appropriate plant for the garden. However, there are very few reports of animals ingesting it, suggesting that they somehow 'know' not to eat it .

Foxglove is beneficial for heart conditions and high blood pressure. However, it is a very dangerous herb that can be fatal. There is a very fine line between it being therapeutic or deadly and it  should not be used casually. 

In the 18th century an English country doctor, William Withering, was curious about the formula used by a local herbalist. He began to explore the plants potential and produced the heart medication that is in use today. It can also be used to treat wounds and abscesses as well as paralysis and headaches.

Grass of Parnassus or bog stars

Grass of Parnassus or bog stars are found in marsh areas. It is not a common plant but is found locally throughout Britain and Ireland and the island of Hoy provides a good habitat for them. The plant has mild diuretic properties and can be made into a sedative or tonic. Diluted it can be taken as a mouthwash. If dried and crushed the power produced can be sprinkled onto wounds to help the healing process. Distilled, it is good for using as an eye lotion. The name comes from ancient Greece as the cattle on Mount Parnassus developed a taste for the plant.

Marsh orchid 

When cooked the residue from the marsh orchid bulb is very nutritious – when dried the tuber can be ground in to a powder and the starch like substance can be added to cereals and bread. It is said that one ounce of the salep is enough to sustain a person for a day.


The primrose is believed to give protection against witchcraft and the flower was picked on the eve of Beltane, the 1st of May and displayed in a vase in the window of the home. It was thought unlucky to pick less than 13 so there would always be 14 or more in the vase. The leaves of the plant can be pounded and made into a salve which is excellent for treating wounds.