Flowering Scilly

Eyebright – Euphrasia officinalis (Scrophulariaceae family)

"Then purged with Euphrasy and Rue, His visual orbs for he had much to see."
Most of our visitors find great pleasure walking the sea paths around the islands and strolling over the heathy headlands. Amongst the short turfy grass is a fairly insignificant little plant. It could be easily overlooked were it not for its pretty little bright flower. Because of its ability to interbreed, yet at the same time forming micro-species in isolated communities, differentiating types can be a problem, even for a specialist. Within these islands we have slender, English, sticky, hairy leaved, broad leaved, short haired and even little kneeling eyebrights. For convenience I shall class them under the more generalised name of Euphrasia officinalis.

The eyebrights are annuals, growing in spring and often flowering into autumn. A small plant, it may only be a mere ten centimetres in height, although this may vary according to growing conditions. Because of its semi-parasitic nature, whereby it suckers on to grass for much of its nutrients, it has a weak root system and the whole can be easily uprooted. Unlike most wholly parasitic plants, the eyebrights do have green leaves. These are stalkless and found in opposite pairs along branching stems. Roughly oval and much serrated, they are generally a dark green, but may have a bronze tinge to them. The stalks tend to have a slightly blackish hue. From the leaf axils arise stems which culminate in loose terminal clusters of flowers. An overall suggestion of pink or lavender is given to the corolla, because of faint streaks of these shades on the normally white petals. The upper part of the flower is two lipped and the lower part cleft in three, each segment twin lobed. In the throat of the lower lip is a distinctive blotch of yellow.

The generic part of the flower’s botanical name Euphrasia, was taken from one of the daughters of the Greek god Zeus. These were the three graces. "The triple incarnation of grace and beauty." They were Agalia, splendour, Thalia, good cheer, and Euphrosyne, joy and gladness. It was this last daughter that gave her name to the little flower, from the Greek word Euphraino, to gladden. It was mentioned under the name Euphrosyne in the book Lilium Medicinae of 1305.

The specific part of the botanical name, officinalis, immediately points to it belonging ‘to the shop’, implying that it was commonly sold in a herbalist’s or apothecary’s shop, being used as a medicine from earliest times to the present day. The streaks of lavender and pink discolouring the white petals and the additional yellow blotch suggested to early herbalists that, since the flower resembled a blood-shot eye, it could be used to cure the same. At one time, it was referred to under the names of Opthalmica, Ocularia and Luminella. Ordinary country names are rare, although it was known as Ilygad Christ, Christ’s eyes and Golwg Christ, Christ’s sight.

The lines of the poet Milton, quoted at the head of this article represent the Archangel St. Michael as clearing the vision of Adam by anointing his eyes. This happened after Adam’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Writers tend to quote this herbal folklore, but fail to add the more prophetic lines "Including three drops from the well of life so that he could see death and the miserable future of mankind." One rather wonders whether Adam would have preferred to do without the interference of St. Michael on his behalf.

Numerous herbalists laud the efficacy of the eyebright as the cure for all afflictions of the eyes. From Arnoldus de Villa Nova we have "It restoreth the sight of them that hath been long blind." The herbalist William Coles in the seventeenth century stated that "If it were properly understood, spectacle makers would be ruined." The same man entered into flights of fancy in his book, Adam in Eden, with the suggestion that "birds, particularly linnets, would feed it to their nestlings to ensure good eyesight." I much enjoyed the comment made about this by another Scillonian flower lady in the early days of ‘Scilly up to date’ in which she wrote, "Since short-sighted linnets are not easy to identify, we cannot argue with his reasoning." There are various suggestions for the preparation of eye-lotions, usually involving the boiling of flowers in distilled water or milk, then straining and cooling the infusion before use as an eye-wash for conjunctivitis, photophobia (sensitivity to light) and tenderness of the eyes. (My advice is always the same, never meddle with eyes, see a doctor.)

Its medicinal value, thought to have been of paramount importance for the eyes, was none the less prescribed for a much wider field. Internally it was supposed to be good for headaches, hysteria and insomnia. Added to wine or broth, it "improved brains and memory" and gypsies would mix it with coltsfoot to make tobacco to ease asthma. The only culinary use I could find, was to candy the flowers with sugar for decorative purposes. On a final note, I found a suggestion that Eyebright could be added to beer, as was often done, using wormwood, scurvy grass, ground ivy and sage. When tunned, it would work wonders "making old men read small letters." I am very suspicious of any suggestion that beer would improve reading powers – my belief is quite the reverse!


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