Icelandic Moss and Celandine [*]
Icelandic Moss in German Pharmacology ca. 1800
LICHEN ISLANDICVS (Lichen islandicus L[atin]). [German:] Isländisches Moos [Icelandic moss], isländische Flechte [Icelandic lichen], Purgiermoos [purgative moss], Heidegras [heath grass].
A leafy lichen that, besides in Iceland itself, also grows on the ground, rocks, and bolders in Germany, in various regions of the Harz Mountains, and in the Thuringian, Swabian, Swiss, and other mountain ranges. A pale, olive-colored, dry, hard, leather-like, pliable, chapped leaf with depressions, strongly striated, elevated edges and delicate, short, stiff, black hairs, occasionally also with white dots, smelling like most all other mosses and their derivatives and with an extremely mucilaginous, bitter, astringent taste.
This moss is gathered preferably on moist and rainy days because of the difficulty in removing it from its location in dry, sunny weather and its tendency to break and scratch the hands with its sharp edges. In Iceland it is gathered only every three years, and then always from the same place and only the largest plants. If kept over a longer period of time, it tends to lose something of its bitter, astringent taste, whereupon very little of that bitterness is then transferred into the water boiled with it, whereas quite a bit is if boiled fresh.
Its bitterness is greatly diminished when boiled with milk, and the milk itself is thereby prevented from curdling for three days or even more. The first infusion with water has an extremely bitter taste as well as purgative qualities. If one pours off that initial water, however, and then boils the plant in pure water, it is by far no longer as bitter and not at all purgative, though all the more concentrated with mucilaginous elements such that the water thus treated cools into a thick, reddish, bitter-tasting gelatin that spittle will then dissolve in a person’s mouth.
If one boils 1 ounce of Icelandic Moss in 1 pound of water for a quarter hour and then strains it, it yields 7 ounces of mucilage as strong as 1 part Arabic gum dissolved in 3 parts water, and equally as capable of rubbing off oils and camphor. If this moss is brewed first with hot water and then immediately boiled in milk, it yields a mash that though bitter, does have a pleasant taste.
Because of its high mucilage content, Icelandic Moss is an extremely nourishing, easily digested and, because of its bitter and astringent elements, also effective restorative agent. Hence it is used primarily in cases involving gaunt, wasted, coughing, consumptive persons; chronic, moist coughs that are inclined to pass into consumption; after neglected catarrh and lung inflammation if the expectoration becomes frequent and purulent; but above all in cases of spitting up blood, mucilaginous consumption, and suppuration of the lungs if fever is no longer present; further also in cases of consumption after measles, in cases of severely purulent wounds and ulcers, after hypersalivation, bleeding, after extended child nursing, after other exhausting evacuations and dissipations; in cases of diabetes, spine-marrow degeneration, English disease and child atrophy; dysentery and stomach fluid; stomach or calyx cough and chronic vomiting; intestinal colic after ingesting spicy foods and after poisoning with caustic poisons; kidney stones, urinary-tract scabies, burning urination, gonorrhea, constipation and bleeding piles, where in the case of the former it can simultaneously be spritzed into the urethra, of the latter into the anus.
Icelandic Moss is preferably prescribed as follows in extract. Steep 1 ounce for 24 hours in cold water, then bring to a boil a couple of times and pour off the water. Then, depending on whether the desired substance is a mash or a more or less thick fluid, boil this portion of the moss in 2–4 pounds of milk until a third of the milk is boiled off, then beat, strain, and sweeten it with sugar and use it during the day. Instead of sugar, one can also add syrup such as almond syrup, milk sugar, or, if it is also to loosen expectoration, sea-onion honey. For those who cannot tolerate milk, bring 1 ounce of the steeped and concentrated moss to boil in 24 ounces of water for a quarter hour, and at the end of this boiling, bring it to a boil a couple of times with 2 ounces of chopped licorice root and 1 ounce of milk sugar and then drink this in cup-sized portions over the course of the day. It can also be boiled in meat broth.
Stärk [?] also prescribes it as an infusion; though such an infusion contains very little in the way of mucilage from the moss itself, it is nonetheless useful if the Icelandic Moss is to be drunk as tea in connection with milkwort root, woody nightshade stems, and licorice. Icelandic Moss is administered in powder form using 1/2–1ounce, though rarely. The extract, though not too thick, is used for spritzing into the urethra in cases of gonorrhea and for clysters in cases of constipation and hemorrhoidal discomfort.
Icelandic Moss constitutes an almost daily part of the diet in Iceland. Two casks of this moss are allegedly as nourishing as one cask of flour. The most common food made from it is prepared as follows. After being steeped in water for a day, it is boiled into a paste, the gelatin drawn out with whey and eaten mixed with milk. Others, after parboiling the moss in water to diminish its bitter taste, dry it out in the sun or over the fire such that it becomes hard and brittle, then place it in a sack, where they beat and grind it into a coarse powder, which they then boil in milk, yielding thereby a pleasant, easily digestible and nourishing drink. Bread can also be made from it with grain flour, though such is not particularly common in Iceland. In Carniola [in what is today Slovenia], this moss is fed to horses, cattle, and pigs, which become quite fat from it.
Chelidonium majus (common Celandine)
Notwithstanding the extravagant eulogiums that have been bestowed upon this acrimonious plant by some of the modern, as well as ancient physicians, it is rarely administered internally. The virtues attributed to it are those of a stimulating aperient, diuretic, and sudorific.
It was formerly regarded as a powerful deobstruent, and supposed to be particularly efficacious in the removal of obstructions of the liver and other viscera, in promoting expectoration in dropsies, and in the cure of intermittents, in herpetic eruptions, and even pulmonary consumption. Tragus greatly extols its virtues in plague; boiled in vinegar, with the addition of theriaca, he affirms that it produced a profuse perspiration, and immediately removed the disease. It is said to have obtained a considerable reputation during the “sweating sickness” in this country, in which case it was accompanied with a specific.
It must, however, be observed, that some writers have considered it a dangerous remedy internally, if too large a quantity be administered; it will consequently require great caution in the use, beginning with small doses, and increasing them gradually. Some authors recommend an infusion of it in wine, as the best preparation; which will take off a great deal of its acrimony. Geoffroy prescribes the following in cases of obstruction of the liver, and suppression of the menses. Take of leaves of Celandine, a handful, cream of tartar, a drachm. Macerate them in six ounces of whey; to the strained liquor add an ounce of syrup of succory, and make it into a draught to be taken on an empty stomach.
For the above syrup may be şubstituted advantangeously that of orange-peel; but it is very evident, in our opinion, that the dose is much too powerful. Ettmuller particularly recommends the external application of the bruised plant for those œdematous swellings of the feet, which succeed to violent fevers and other severe diseases, especially long-continued tertian, or quartan agues. The use of the orange-coloured juice in the jaundice, was probably suggested by the absurd Rosicrucian doctrine of signatures.
Joseph Miller, in his “Botanicum Officinale, or Compendious Herbal,” published in London, 1722, speaking of Celandine, says, “it is aperitive and cleansing, opening obstructions of the liver and spleen, and of great use in curing the jaundice and scurvy. Some reckon it cordial, and a good antidote against the plague. Some quantity of it is put into aqua mirabilis. Outwardly it is used for sore eyes, to dry up the rheum, and take away specks and films, as also against tetters and ring-worms, and scurfy breakings-out.”
Externally, the juice has been long known as a popular remedy to destroy warts; and is said to be very efficacious in stimulating and healing old and indolent ulcers, speedily removing fungous flesh, and restoring a great degree of activity to the torpid and indolent granulations. For the removal of warts, the method of applying it is, simply to break any part of the stalk, and to touch the part affected with the yellow juice that exudes. Fabricius Hildanus employed this juice successfully.in opacities of the cornea; while Ettmuller, Geoffroy, and all the writers of that day, attest its efficacy when diluted with milk or some other bland fluid, in the removal of specks from that membrane. A cataplasm formed of the bruised leaves, and stalks, was formerly supposed to be an infallible remedy in herpes, and has been extolled for curing the itch.
[*] Christian Friedrich Niceus, “Lichen Islandicvs,” Pharmakologisches Lexikon oder medicinische und chirurgische Heilmittellehre in alphabetischer Ordnung für Aerzte, Wundärzte und Apotheker, ingleichen für Oekonomen, besonders für Thierärzte, 3 vols. (Hamburg 1802–3), 1:720–23. Illustration from English Botany; or, Coloured Figures of British Plants with their Essential characters, synonyms, and places of growth, with “occasional remarks by James Edward Smith,” vol. 20 (London 1805), 1330.
John Stephenson and James Morss Churchill, “Chelidonium majus,” Medical Botany, vol. 2 [London 1831], s.v., no. lxxxvi; illustration ibid. Back.
Translation © 2013 Doug Stott