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Our abundant English grasses furnish nutritious herbage and farinaceous seeds, whilst their stems and leaves prove useful for textile purposes. Furthermore, some few of them possess distinctive medicinal virtues, with mucilaginous roots, and may be properly classed among Herbal Simples, including Vernal Grass, Couch Grass, and the Bearded Darnel.
The Sweet-scented Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum, with Yellow Anthers) gives its delightfully characteristic odour to newly mown meadow hay, and has a pleasant aroma of Woodruff. But it is specially provocative of hay fever and hay asthma with persons liable to suffer from these distressing ailments. Accordingly, a medicinal tincture is made from this grass with spirit of wine, and if some of the same is poured into the open hand-palms for the volatile aroma to be sniffed well into the nose and throat, immediate relief is afforded during an attack. At the same time three or four drops of the tincture should be taken as a dose with water, and repeated at intervals of twenty or thirty minutes, as needed.
The flowers contain "coumarin," and their volatile pollen impregnates the atmosphere in early summer. The sweet perfume is due chiefly to benzoic acid, such as is used for making scented pastilles, or Ribbon of Bruges for fumigation.
Again, the Couch Grass, Dog Grass, or Quilch (Triticum repens) found freely in road-sides, fields, and waste places, has been employed from remote times as a vulnerary, and to relieve difficulties of urination. Our English wheat has been evolved therefrom.
In modern days its infusion—of the root—is generally regarded as a soothing diuretic, helpful to the bladder and kidneys. Formerly, this was a popular drink to purify the blood in the Spring. But no special constituents have been discovered in the root besides a peculiar sugar, a gum-like principle, triticin, and some lactic acid. The decoction may be made from the whole fresh plant, or from the dried root sliced, two to four ounces being put in a quart of water, reduced to a pint by boiling. A wineglassful of this may be given for a dose. It certainly palliates irritation of the urinary passages, and helps to relieve against gravel. A liquid extract is also dispensed by the druggists, of which from one to two teaspoonfuls are given in water.
The French specially value this grass for its stimulating fragrancy of vanilla and rose perfumes in the decoction. They use the Cocksfoot Grass (Dactylis), or pied de poule, in a similar way, and for the same purposes.
Also the "bearded Darnel," Lolium temulentum ("intoxicated"), a common grass-weed in English cornfields, will produce medicinally all the symptoms of drunkenness. The French call it Ivraie for this reason, and with us it is known as Ray Grass, or in some provincial districts as "Cheat." The old Sages supposed it to cause blindness, hence with the Romans, lolio victitare, to live on Darnel, was a phrase applied to a dim-sighted person. Gerard says, "the new bread wherein Darnell is eaten hot, causeth drunkenness."
From lolium the term Lollard given in reproach to the Waldenses, and the followers of Wickliffe, indicated that they were pernicious weeds choking and destroying the pure wheat of the gospel. Milne says the expression in Matthew xiii. v. 25, would have been better translated "darnel" than "tares."
A general trembling, followed by inability to walk, hindered speech, and presently profound sleep, with subsequent headache and vomiting, are the symptoms produced by Darnel when taken in a harmful quantity. So that medicinally a tincture of the plant may be expected, if given in small diluted doses, to quickly dispel intoxication from alcoholic drinks; also to prove useful for analogous congestion of the brain coming on as an illness, and for dimness of vision. Chemically, it contains an acrid fixed oil, and a yellow glucoside.
There is some reason to suspect that the old custom of using Darnel to adulterate malt and distilled liquors has not been wholly abandoned. Farmers in Devonshire are fond of the Ray Grass, which they call "Eaver" or "Iver"; and "Devon-ever" is noted likewise in Somersetshire.