Herb Profile: Wood Avens

Botanical Name: Geum urbanum

Common Names: Avens, Herb Bennet, Colewort, Benedict’s Herb, Radix caryophyllata

Family: Rosaceae (The Rose Family)

Parts Used: Root, leaves

Botany & Identification: A hedgerow and woodland herb found over most of Europe. Common in Britain, this downy perennial reaches up to 70 cm with leaves made up of three toothed lobes. Wood Avens flowers in May or June with small yellow flowers appearing in cymes. They are typical of the Rose Family with a relationship to the number 5, with 5 loose petals and 5 long sepals. The fruits tend to be more noticeable as brown burrs of seeds covered in small hooks.

Growing & Harvesting: When harvested at different times of the year and at different ages, Polish research conducted in 2015 showed no effect on the amount of eugenol present in the herb. The Brunton-Seals however have experienced variation over time and place and also suggest that if there is no scent to the root it could be a non-fragrant hybrid – Geum x intermedium. Hoffmann writes that the root should be harvested in Spring when they are richest in volatile oils, and the aerial parts in July when the flowers are at their best. Care must be taken to dry the root slowly so as to minimise volatile oil loss. Store the roots in larger pieces and chop up when using for this reason.

Water Avens Geum rivale

Related Species: Water Avens Geum rivale, pictured above, growing in damper and shadier habitats is used for similar ailments. It is more bitter and less aromatic as contains less eugenol in the root. Water Avens also lacks the fever reducing ability that Wood Avens holds.

Edibility & Nutrition: Wood Avens was used widely as a potherb.

Constituents: Tannins (approximately 15%), essential oils including eugenol, bitter principle, resin, organic acids and sugars. Polish research in 2013 showed eugenol making up 65-75% of the essential oil in the herb.

Qualities: Drying, Warming, Tightening

Tastes: Sweet, Pungent, Astringent

Medicinal Actions: Astringent, antiseptic, aromatic, diaphoretic, febrifuge, nutritive tonic, stomachic, styptic, Anti-inflammatory (to the intestines and bowels).

Uses

Wood Avens was a revered herb of Medieval times, both for medicine and for protection against evil spirits. It subsequently fell out of fashion for many of its uses, but with its safety and abundance the Brunton-Seals suggest it is time to bring it back to the forefront. The eugenol in the root gives them their clove-like smell. It is found in many herbs and spices including cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, basil and lemon balm.

‘It has been said that avens is a plant that is often undervalued. There is some truth in this, for it is a sure ally against intermittent fevers, colic, diarrhoea, dysentery, circulation and liver disorders, gastric disability following acute illness, states of weakness and exhaustion, and moreover has the advantage of being easily available because it grows wild everywhere in Great Britain and Europe. – Palaiseul (1973)

Warms & Tones The Mucous Membranes

  • Wood Avens’ strong astringency combined with its aromatic digestive qualities lends itself to intestinal ailments such as diarrhoea, dysentery, mucous colitis etc.
  • Culpepper writes Avens is used to ‘expel crude and raw humours from the belly and stomach, by the sweet savour and warming quality’ and also ‘it helps indigestion, and warms a cold stomach, and opens obstructions of the liver and spleen.’
  • An infusion is used as a douche for leucorrhoea
  • Used to settle nausea
  • Added to a bath for haemorrhoids

A Rose Family Astringent for Wounds

  • Wood Avens is useful as a vulnerary herb. The high tannin content creates a temporary coat on the tissue surface creating a barrier to infection as the skin heals whilst reducing inflammation.
  • Culpepper writes that it ‘dissolves the inward congealed blood happening by falls and bruises…’

Influenza & Fevers

  • Wood Avens has been used to treat intermittent fevers, feverish colds and catarrh
  • There was a large tradition of using Wood Avens, Agrimony and Potentilla to treat Malarial fevers, with accounts of it having greater effect than Quinine bark when the latter was scarce.
  • Avens hot infusion is used in the early stages of influenza, especially when runny mucous and loose stools are present. The cold infusion is indicated in the recovery after an exhaustive influenza to gather strength and appetite.

Mouth Ailments

  • The clove-like properties of the root make it useful as a gargle for sore throats, mouth ulcers and gum problems. The analgesic, antiseptic and anti-viral properties help this.

History & Folklore

  • The scent of Wood Avens root was used to ward off evils spirits and dangerous beasts
  • The genus name Geum is thought to be derived from the Greek geno meaning to smell pleasant.
  • The traditional day to harvest the root is March 25th
  • The root was used readily to flavour wine and beer
  • Wood Avens root and herb was used to deter moths

Preparations & Dosages:  Tincture 1-3 ml, 3 times a day

Infusion (herb) 1-2 tsp per cup, half-1 cup 3-4 times daily. For fresh plant double the amount of herb.

Decoction of the root

Julie Brunton-Seal and Matthew Seal have a chai recipe that replaces some common kitchen spices with wild species here. Add the following to a pan of boiling water. Simmer and then add milk and honey to taste.

  • Wood Aven roots (to replace black tea and cloves)
  • Alexander seeds (to replace black pepper)
  • Common Hogweed ripe seeds (to replace citrus/cinnamon)
  • Ginger root

Cautions & Contraindications: Wood and Water Avens are both considered safe for everyday use. No contraindications known. Culpepper writes it is ‘very fit to be kept in every body’s house’.

References:

David Hoffmann (1991) The New Holistic Herbal. Element.

Henriette Kress (2013) Practical Herbs

Julie Brunton-Seal & Matthew Seal (2017) Wayside Medicine. Merlin Unwin Books

Matthew Wood (2008) The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants  

Nicholas Culpeper (1653) Culpeper’s Complete Herbal

Potter’s Herbal Cyclopaedia (2003) Saffron Walden

Thomas Bartram (1995) Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine

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