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Astrantia flowers

Dr Henry Oakeley

Download this image from Wellcome Collection.

Photograph of flowers from the plant Astrantia major. This particular variety is called Hadspen Blood, and is also known as Masterwort, Gentleman's Melancholy, Hattie's Pincushion, Mountain Sanicle or Black-root Sanicle. It is an herbaceous perennial native to central and eastern Europe. Astrantia blooms from June to August and produces star-shaped flowers that look like pincushions. It was once used to treat many different conditions, including cramps, heart failure, ulcers, infected wounds, bad breath and toothache - but it is not used anymore as it has a strong laxative effect and may also induce abortion. It is in the family Apiaceae along with Hemlock and Giant Hogweed, which are both toxic. This image was taken in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians in London.

How was this image captured?

This photograph was taken in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians in London during the month of June. Henry used a hand-held Canon EOS 5D SLR with a 50 mm macro lens, a small aperture and a fast shutter speed to gain maximum depth of field. The photograph was taken in daylight, but the contrast between the brightly lit image and dark background was achieved by illuminating the flowers using a ring flash. A ring flash is, as the name suggests, a flash in the shape of a ring that wraps around the end of a camera lens to produce a ring of light that evenly illuminates the subject being photographed. Each flower is about 2 cm across.

What other conditions was Astrantia major used to treat in the past?

The name Astrantia comes from the old apothecaries' name for this plant, Magistrantia (Masterwort), implying its suitability for use only by those proficient in herbalism. Historical uses for Astrantia were very wide-ranging, as described by different herbalists in the 17th to 19th centuries. Masterwort was cultivated as a potherb, and was recommended by Culpeper (1650) for "cold griefs and diseases both of the stomache and body". The roots were used as a purgative (Lindley, 1838) and an infusion from the whole plant as a diuretic. Parkinson (1640) recommended it for colds, dyspnoea (shortness of breath), renal stones, inducing menses or expelling a dead fetus, hysteria, cramps, heart failure, epilepsy, purulent (pus filled) wounds and ulcers, quartan fevers (cyclic fevers recurring every four days in people infected with Plasmodium malariae), colic, and for purging the brain. Pommet (1712) gave a completely different list: he said it could be used against poisons, stinking breath, malignant and pestilential diseases, vertigo, apoplexy (sudden stroke), palsies, toothache and scabby head - but agreed with its use for ulcers.