Alchemilla vulgaris was thought to have three general uses in the seventeenth century: healing wounds and illnesses, helping expectant mothers, and – more unusually – breast reduction.
It was said to be useful for a wide range of medical problems: inflammations, infections, bleedings, ruptures, bruises “by fals or otherwise”, vomiting, and “the overmuch flowing of the natural sicknesse”. Small wonder, then, that the apothecary John Parkinson hailed it as “one of the most singular wound herbes that is”.
Parkinson also described the use of Alchemilla for women struggling to have children: “the distilled water drunke continually for twenty daies together, by such women as are barren and cannot conceive, or retaine the birth after conception ... will reduce their bodies to so good and conformable an estate that they shall thereby be made more fit and able to retaine the conception, and beare out their children”.
One of the plant’s stranger uses was in a seventeenth-century cosmetic procedure. The herbalist John Gerard wrote that “it keeps downe maidens paps or dugs,” and Parkinson cleared up any potential misunderstandings by writing, “It helpeth also such maides or women that have overgreat flagging beasts, causing them to grow lesse and hard”.
The Names: Alchemilla through the ages
Alchemilla vulgaris appears as ‘Alchimilla’ in the original 1648 catalogue of the Botanic Garden, and ‘Alchymilla’ in the 1658 edition (in this period the letters ‘i’ and ‘y’ were often swapped around according to the writer’s taste). The first dried specimen of the plant from the Botanic Garden was labelled ‘Alchimilla vulgaris’ by the then-Director as it was the most common sort of ‘Alchimilla’ known; Linnaeus used the same convention for naming more common species, so Alchemilla vulgaris became the accepted scientific name for the species.
The Latin name is thought to come from Alchemilla’s popularity with alchemists, who thought that the dew drops on its leaves could help their work. Its common name, lady’s mantle, probably comes from the shape of the leaves, which would have resembled the edges of a lady’s cloak.
The species growing in the Garden today is Alchemilla mollis. Alchemilla vulgaris is similar to A. mollis, but tends to have a looser, more spreading habit.