Sandy’s Garden ... Tormentil

Sandy Simpson

Sandy Simpson

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The crossword clue for 2 down was, “Small yellow flower comes from extreme suffering on Italian lake,” (9 letters).

And after a moment’s thought I worked out that ‘Italian lake’ is crossword compilers’ speak for the letters ‘i, l’; and ‘extreme suffering’ could be … and in this instance, is … ‘torment’. The answer then is ‘tormentil’; and tormentil is indeed a small yellow flower.

Now I had heard of tormentil, although I have no idea where I had heard of it; and I knew nothing about it beyond the fact that the plant carries small yellow flowers during the summer months. What better time to find out more?

It turns out that tormentil is common throughout the British Isles and northern Europe and is, “a common, low-growing and creeping perennial of acid grasslands, heaths and moors, as well as roadside verges,” to quote the Wildlife Trusts’ website. It is a member of a large family of plants called Rosaceae and is indeed a member of the same family as the roses we grow with pride: but tormentil is a wild plant, known to proper botanists as Potentilla erecta, while its sister trailing tormentil is, properly, Potentilla anglica. And, given that the name Potentilla comes from exactly the same Latin word as the English adjective ‘potent’ … powerful … there has to be a reason for this. And of course there is.

But first, as they say, a further word about the plant. Despite including the word erecta in its pukka name, tormentil is usually described as being a creeping plant – that word erecta is used to differentiate tormentil from creeping tormentil. The stems seldom rise more than 25cm above the ground … 10 inches in old money … and carry yellow flowers whose four open petals resemble a Maltese cross and which attract bees. The glossy, deeply toothed leaves actually have only three lobes, although two large, leaf-like stipules … outgrowths borne on either side of the base of a leafstalk … make it look as if each stalk carries five leaves. Mrs. C. M. Grieve, in her wonderful ‘Modern Herbal’ first published in 1931, writes that, “The name tormentil is said to be derived from the Latin tormentum, which signifies such gripings of the intestines as the herb will serve to relieve, likewise the twinges of toothache.” And what a wonderfully descriptive phrase ‘gripings of the intestines’ is!

Mrs. Grieve goes on to summarise the medicinal uses of tormentil in these words. “There is a great demand for the rhizome, which in modern herbal medicine is used extensively as an astringent in diarrhoea and other discharges, operating without producing any stimulant effects. It also imparts nourishment and support to the bowels. It is employed as a gargle in sore, relaxed and ulcerated throat and also as an injection in leucorrhoea. A strongly-made decoction is recommended as a good wash for piles and inflamed eyes. It may be used as an astringent gargle. The fluid extract acts as a styptic to cuts, wounds, etc. If a piece of lint be soaked in the decoction and kept applied to warts, they will disappear.” Nor is that the end of the list of the plant’s medicinal uses, for Mrs. Grieve knew of many more! (The curious male may need to be told that leucorrhoea is a common female complaint.)

As ever, I do not endorse any of these claims but simply report them; and I strongly recommend that advice is sought from a recognised authority before using any of the current products derived from tormentil. So that’s tormentil, the plant and its medicinal uses; and I am pleased at what I can be encouraged to discover as a consequence of doing crosswords.