Sandy’s Garden ... Eyebright

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Earlier this year, Angus Smith described the Kinneil Local Nature Reserve – the Kinneil LNR – to the members of the Probus Club of Polmont.

Momentarily when he displayed the title of his talk on the screen, I misread it as Kinneil LNER and my railway-interested mind conjured up a very brief vision of a talk about, perhaps, the small engine shed which the London & North Eastern Railway maintained at Kinneil – Kinneil LNER. But no, Angus intended to talk about Kinneil LNR, telling his rapt audience about the many aspects of wildlife to be found there by those who know what to look for.

Among the many varieties of wildflower to be seen in Kinneil LNR is one called ‘eyebright’ - Euphrasia officinalis to the true botanist. The name Euphrasia originates in Greece from the word for ‘gladness’ while officinalis comes from Latin and denotes ‘for medical use’. The common name eyebright arose, to quote the website of an organisation called Herb Wisdom, because it “has a long history of use for eye problems; when used appropriately, eyebright will reduce inflammation in the eye caused by blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelash follicles) and conjunctivitis (inflammation or infection of the membrane lining the eyelids). It can be used as an eyewash, as eye drops, or plant infusions taken internally for ophthalmic use.” (Let me emphasise that I am quoting the words of others and not … definitely not … suggesting that you, gentle reader, should try this for yourself.)

So what is eyebright? It is a tiny, white or pale purple wildflower with a bright yellow centre, which is to be seen in bloom between June and September on heaths and meadows. It actually needs to live on grassland for, despite its lovely appearance, it is a semi-parasitic plant whose roots latch on to the roots of grasses and steal some of their nutrients. It is to be found growing wild throughout Europe, North America and much of Asia, reaching a height … if that be the correct word … of anything between 5cm and 20cm – say, between 2 inches and 8 inches in old money. It belongs to a family of plants commonly known as the figworts, the best-known member of which is probably the foxglove. On mountains and near the sea or in poor soil, one would expect to find the smaller-growing version of eyebright, which only grows to resemble a very small shrub in rich soil. That most distinguished seventeenth century English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer Nicolas Culpeper wrote, in his Complete Herbal, “If the herb was but as much used as it is neglected, it would half spoil the spectacle maker’s trade and a man would think that reason should teach people to prefer the preservation of their natural eyesight before artificial spectacles.”

Eyebright really won’t grow in a well-tended garden because of its semi-parasitic nature; and, despite its name and the beliefs of our ancestors, modern herbalists may suggest that it is used to treat a very different condition. The United Kingdom government, in a scheme entitled ‘Herbal medicines granted a traditional herbal registration,’ (THR) granted Certificate THR 21710/0014 to a very well-known firm of contemporary herbalists for a product derived from Euphrasia officinalis to be used, and I quote, “For the relief of blocked sinuses and catarrh.” There is a caveat that, “This is based on traditional use only.”

Well, I don’t intend trying to make capsules containing a dried extract from eyebright: but I may just be tempted to look for this little wildflower in the coming weeks now that I know what to look for among the grasses of Kinneil Local Nature Reserve; and I am grateful to Angus for telling me about things which are before my eyes but which I have never seen!