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Fumitory

Fumitory

The common Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) is a small grey-green plant, bearing well known little flowers, rose coloured, and tipped with purple, whilst standing erect in every cornfield, vineyard, or such-like manured place throughout Great Britain.

It is so named from the Latin fumus terroe, earth smoke, which refers either to the appearance of its pretty glaucous foliage on a dewy summer morning, or to the belief that it was produced not from seed but from vapours rising out of the earth. The plant continues to flower throughout the year, and was formerly much favoured for making cosmetic washes to purify the skin of rustic maidens in the spring time:—

"Whose red and purpled mottled flowers
Are cropped by maids in weeding hours
To boil in water, milk, or whey,
For washes on a holiday;
To make their beauty fair and sleek,
And scare the tan from summer's cheek."

In many parts of Kent the Fumitory bears the name of "Wax Dolls," because its rose coloured flowers, with their little, dark, purple heads, are by no means unlike the small waxen toys given as nurslings to children.

Dioscorides affirmed: "The juice of Fumitory, of that which groweth among barley, with gum arabic, doth take away unprofitable hairs that prick, being first plucked away, for it will not suffer others to grow in their places." "It helpeth," says Gerard, "in the summer time those that are troubled with scabs."

Pliny said it is named because causing the eyes to water as smoke does. In Shakespeare the name is written Fumiter. It continues to flower throughout the year, and its presence is thought to indicate good deep rich land. There is also a "ramping" Fumitory (capreolata) which climbs; being found likewise in fields and waste places, but its infusion produces purgative effects.

The whole plant has a saline, bitter, and somewhat acrid taste. It contains "fumaric acid," and the alkaloid "fumarina," which are specially useful for scrofulous diseases of the skin. A decoction of the herb makes a curative lotion for the milk-crust which disfigures the scalp of an infant, and for grown up persons troubled with chronic eruptions on the face, or freckles.

The fresh juice may be given as a medicine; or an infusion made with an ounce of the plant to a pint of boiling water, one wineglassful for a dose twice or three times in the day.

By the ancients Fumitory was named Capnos, smoke: Pliny wrote "Claritatem facit inunctis oculis delachrymationemque, ceu fumus, unde nomen." They esteemed the herb specially useful for dispelling dimness of the sight, and for curing other infirmities of the eyes.

The leaves, which have no particular odour, throw up crystals of nitre on their surface when cool. The juice may be mixed with whey, and taken as a common drink, or as a medicinal beverage for curing obstinate skin eruptions, and for overcoming obstructions of the liver and digestive organs. Dr. Cullen found it most useful in leprous skin disease. The juice from the fresh herb may be given two ounces in the day, but the virtues remain equally in the dried plant. Its smoke was said by the ancient exorcists to have the power of expelling evil spirits. The famous physician, John of Milan, extolled Fumitory as a sovereign remedy against malarious fever.

It is a remarkable fact, that the colour of the hair and the complexion seem to determine the liability, or otherwise, of a European to West Coast fever in Africa. A man with harsh, bright-coloured red hair, such as is common in Scotland, has a complete immunity, though running the same risks as another mall, dark and with a dry skin, who seems absolutely doomed. A red-haired European will, as a rule, keep his health where even the natives are attacked. Old negresses have secret methods of cure which can, undoubtedly, save life even in cases which have become hopeless to European medical science.

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