In the second world war tonnes of deadly nightshade leaves and roots were collected to extract atropine, a drug used for eye operations. Foxgloves were harvested for digitalis, the powerful drug used for regulating abnormal heart rhythms – abundant foxgloves found in the Chilterns were rich in digitalis. And in the first world war sphagnum moss found in bogs was used as a highly absorbent and naturally antiseptic wound dressing, and a million dressings a month were sent to military hospitals around the world by the end of the conflict.
These were some of more than 80 wild plant species recruited during the world wars to make up for the vital pharmaceutical supplies that had been imported from Germany but which were cut off in wartime. There were other valuable wild plants, such as rose hips made into a syrup rich in vitamin C, which was in short supply because of severely limited fruit supplies.
Peter Ayres, in his book Britain’s Green Allies: Medicinal Plants in Wartime (Matador, 2015), described these plants and how an army of scouts, girl guides, Women’s Institutes and other volunteers foraged for the plants.