Category Archives: Natural Herbal Living Magazine Articles

Yellow Dock’s Versatile History

Yellow dock provides such interesting contrast in color and texture to a garden.

Yellow dock provides such interesting contrast in color and texture to a garden.

I don’t put a lot of my plant articles on my blog because they are usually long and heavily referenced, but  one of my publishers Amanda does allow us to  publish the articles we write for Natural Herbal Living Magazine on our own websites.  You should definitely check it out if you are interested in more great articles about Yellow Dock!  You can subscribe to upcoming issues of the magazine and order backcopies!  Today I am posting this article because I went out to pick some rue and took a picture of my yellow dock I wanted to share with readers. 

The herb yellow dock has a long and interesting history of use that might actually surprise some people who only use the root, but I first want to explain that when you start looking into this history, it can be a bit confusing. For example, Chin-ch’iao-mai is sometimes given as the Chinese name for yellow dock, but this name is also used to refer to Fagopyrum cymosum (golden buckwheat).1 This seems to be a regional difference with at least one source mentioning “at Peking this is Rumex crispus.”2 This confusion continues to occur in modern times. Here in Iowa, you frequently hear old-timers calling Rumex crispus “sour dock” despite Maud grieves’ assertion that sour dock was a name reserved for sorrel (Rumex acetosa).

Historically, the name dock seems to apply broadly to various member of the Rumex species including Rumex obtusifolius (broad dock) Rumex verticillatus (swamp dock) and Rumex crispus (yellow dock). For example, the Anglo Saxon manuscripts mention dock, but which species this refers to is unclear.3

The Greek Dioscorides didn’t specifically mention a curly-leafed dock in De Materia Medica, although his entry on “lapathum” mentions four different kinds of Rumex including one that resembles plantain.4 It seems likely that these docks were used somewhat interchangeably throughout history. In fact, William Cook writes in the Physio-Medical Dispensatory “the roots of these several species are of the same general characters, though that of the crispus is decidedly the most effective and least astringent.”5

If you are searching specifically for Rumex crispus in sources from the UK you will want to look for the common names of “curled dock,” “curly dock,” or “narrow-leaf dock.” In Irish, Rumex crispus is also copóg chatach which again means “curled dock,”6 and in Scotland, it is called simply docken or copag.7 One herbal historian mentions that children in northern England would draw dock stalks through their fingers to “milk” out the sap and call the plant “curly-cows,” leading one to believe they were speaking specifically of the curly leaves of yellow dock.

A Tonic Root
In On Regimen in Acute Disease, Hippocrates noted that people who have skipped lunch are unlikely to be able to digest their dinner and recommended that “Such persons should take less supper than they are wont, and a pudding of barley-meal more moist than usual instead of bread, and of potherbs the dock, or mallow.”8  This advice makes sense, given yellow dock’s actions in improving digestion which you can read more about in the article on Yellow Dock syrup on page 39.

Culpeper was a fan of all of the docks (he seemed partial to herbs ruled by Jupiter) but asserted that yellow dock was best for those whose “blood or liver was affected by choler,”9 meaning that it countered excess yellow bile due to its cooling properties. According to Greek medicine, yellow bile was a bodily substance that was hot and dry in nature and when present in excess resulted in hot conditions such as fever or irritability. Many modern herbalists take this to mean that yellow dock cools liver heat. He suggested boiling meat with any dock root to make it boil sooner and strengthen the liver but then complained that women wouldn’t add dock to food because it “makes the pottage black.”10

Culpeper was by no means the only herbalist to embrace the root as a liver tonic. Centuries later, the physiomedical physicians such as Cook and the eclectic physicians such as King, Scudder, and Fyfe, classified yellow dock as an alterative which was “especially valuable in cases in which there is evidence of bad blood.” 11 The root was also prescribed by eclectic physicians for a peculiar malady called “melancholia dependent on brain anemia.” This condition, asserted some, was brought on by excessive activity of the mind and excessive excretion of phosphorous resulting in “a diminution of the mental capacities.” 12

Specific Indications
In the days before antibiotics, the dried root was frequently included in formulas that were meant to address specific complaints-most likely because of the root’s perceived ability to cleanse the blood. By 1890, Park, Davis & Company in the US was producing and marketing many different preparations of the root including a fluid extract, a solid extract, and a rumicin concentrate. Yellow dock root was also an ingredient in two of their compound formulas—one being a syrup that contained a few other interesting herbs, including bittersweet nightshade and Virginia creeper:

Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) 60 grams
Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) 30 grams
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) 15 grams
Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) 15 grams
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) 60 grams

This formula and others like it were widely used to relieve symptoms of scrofula or skin diseases associated with syphilis. Yellow dock preparations were also mentioned as being specifically useful to those who had a hereditary predisposition to glandular swellings, referred to as strumous diathesis.13

More than Just Root Medicine
Yellow dock probably springs to most herbalists’ minds as a root remedy, however that is really selling this plant short. Dioscorides mentioned the seed of lapathum as being useful against dysentery and other gastrointestinal complaints.14 Culpeper agrees, saying the seeds “stay lasks and fluxes of all sorts,” and “is helpful for those that spit blood.” 15 Maud Grieves confirms the seeds are useful against dysentery.16 Given the prolific number of seeds this plant produces, modern herbalists should investigate these uses. Just keep in mind that the seeds are useful due to astringency, so don’t overdo it.

Another very interesting use of the seeds mentioned in the Anglo Saxon manuscript The Lacnunga is mixing dock seeds and Irish wax and, after a short ritual, placing it on the wounds of a horse that has been elf-shot. This term was used to explain many different illnesses that set on suddenly in both Anglo Saxon and Norse lore.17 In this particular case the term likely refers to a horse suddenly going lame for some reason.

Bald’s Leechbook also mentions dock as being a remedy for water-elf sickness a term that was used during medieval times to refer various illnesses that were accompanied by skin eruptions chicken pox, measles and possibly St. Anthony’s fire, the vernacular name for ergotism.18 The following elf-charm was to be recited after applying the remedy:

“I have wreathed round the wounds the best of healing wreaths, so the baneful sores may neither burn nor burst, nor find their way further, nor turn foul and fallow, nor thump and throb on, nor be wicked wounds, nor dig deeply down; but he himself may hold in a way to health . Let it ache thee o more than ear in earth acheth.
Sing also this many times, “May earth bear on you with all her might and main.” These galdor a man may sing over a wound.19

More frequently though, the Anglo Saxon manuscripts mentioned dock leaves for addressing swellings such as boils or as a remedy for burns and nettle stings.20 This practice carried on in the UK.

The leaves were commonly used as poultices or plasters for various conditions in the early 1900’s. Gabrielle Hatfield’s ethnographic survey of East Anglia revealed that people in that area used the leaf frequently. One respondent sharing “Another remedy I remember was the cure for all bumps, cuts and bruises, was the dock leaf, these too were applied to the wound like plasters, and stopped the bleeding and brought down the bump.” 21  In Ireland, the juice of the leaves would be squeezed onto a cloth and used as compress for bruises.22

Healing Ointments
The plant also has a long history of being included as an ingredient in healing salves. English sources report “the poultice made from narrow-leaved dock ‘has been known to cure a growth on a man’s hand.” 23 Scottish healers also made a healing ointment by boiling the root until it was soft and mixing it with fresh butter.24 Grieves recommends boiling the root in vinegar and then mixing the pulp in lard. The leaves are also useful in salves, herbalist Ryan Drum still includes yellow dock leaves in the recipe for Dr. Drum’s All-Purpose Healing Salve.25

Dock in Nettles Out
Many healing charms in the UK involve taking a bit of dock and rubbing it on nettle stings to relieve the pain. This is an ancient practice first mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Leechbook. In Cornwall, a common healing charm “Dock leaf, dock leaf, you go in; sting nettle, sting nettle, you come out,”26 while in other areas of England, you might hear: “Out nettle in dock; Dock shall have a new smock.”27 One old-timer explained to a researcher that most people didn’t do this right, saying: “The real cure was where a new leaf was growing down at the ground, there was a drop of liquid in it, and this liquid rubbed on the sting cured it.”28 I have to admit that I had used dock somewhat unsuccessfully on nettle stings until trying this trick and I find that it does seem more effective.

Dock in Folklore
In many Irish folktales, you see the phrase bán ag dul ar scáth na copóige, referring to a bright moonlit night. It is a shortened version of a longer Irish saying which translates to, “the moon seeking the shade of the dock and the dock receding from it.”29 Dock also figures prominently in Scottish tales, which credit the plant with being able to break a fairy’s hold over a child. Possession by fairies was a frequent theme in Gaelic lore.
The stories sometimes passed along practical knowledge as well. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Happy Family” talks of the dock forest planted by the people who lived in the manor house as a home for the snails,30 which probably speaks to a once common practice of using docks as shelter plants in heliciculture, the farming of edible terrestrial snails.

1 Shiu-ying Hu, Food Plants of China, Chinese University Press (2005) p 370.
 2 Shizhen Li, Porter Smith, and George Arthur Stuart, Chinese Medicinal Herbs: A Modern Edition of a Classic Sixteenth-Century Manual. Dover Publications (2003) p 385.
 3 Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing Anglo-Saxon Books (2008).
 4 Dioscorides, Translated by Tess Anne Osbaldeston, De Materia Medica. - Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation, IBIDIS Press (60AD) p 263.
 5 William Cook, The Physio-Medical Dispensatory: A Treatise on Therapeutics, Materia Medica, and Pharmacy, in Accordance with the Principles of Physiological Medication, Wm. H. Cook (1869) p 457.
 6 Niall Mac Coiter, Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends and Folklore, The Collins Press (2008).
 7 Mary Beith, Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands, Birlinn (2004) p 214.
 8 Hippocrates, Translated by Francis Adams, “On Regimen in Acute Diseases,” 400BCE.
 http://classics.mit.edu//Hippocrates/acutedis.html.
 9 Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician [1981 Reprint], J. Gleave and Son, Deansgate (1826).
 10 Ibid.
 11 John William Fyfe, John Milton Scudder, Specific Diagnosis and Specific Medication, 2nd ed., John K. Scudder (1909) p 699.
 12 Waldo Forbush, “Rumex crispus,” Journal of Therapeutics and Dietetics II. (1908) p 169.
 13 George S. Davis, Organic Materia Medica: Including the Standard Remedies of the Leading Pharmacopoeas as Well as Those Articles of the Newer Materia Medica ... and of the Preparations Made Therefrom, 2nd ed., Park, Davis & Company (1890).
 14 Dioscorides, Translated by Tess Anne Osbaldeston, De Materia Medica. - Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation, IBIDIS Press (60AD).
 15 Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician [1981 Reprint], J. Gleave and Son, Deansgate (1826) p 64.
 16 Maud Grieve, A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs, & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses Vol. 1., Dover (1971).
 17 Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, Boydell Press (2007).
 18 Audrey Meaney, “Extra-Medical Elements in Anglo-Saxon Medicine,” Social History of Medicine 24(1) (2011) 41–56.
 19 Thomas Oswald Cockayne, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England : Being a Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in This Country before the Norman Conquest Vol. 2 Longman (1864) pp 353-354.
 20 Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing Anglo-Saxon Books (2008).
 21 Gabrielle Hatfield, Memory, Wisdom and Healing: The History of Domestic Plant Medicine (Kindle Locations 1974-1976), The History Press (2012), Kindle Edition.
 22 David Elliston Allen, Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland, Timber Press (2004) p 97.
 23 Mark R. Taylor, Taylor MSS (1920), Norfolk Records Office, Norwich, England 4322.
 24 Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, “18th Century Book of Herbal Remedies: Complete Transcription,” (trans. 2012) Accessed April 10.
 https://www.rcpsg.ac.uk/Librar.
 25 Ryan Drum, “How to Prepare Dr. Drum’s All-Purpose Herbal Salve,” Island Herbs (2010).
 http://www.ryandrum.com/salve.htm.
 26 Niall Mac Coiter, Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends and Folklore, The Collins Press (2008).
 27 William Black, Folk-Medicine: A Chapter in the History of Culture, Elliot Stock, (1883) p 194.
 28 Roy Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-Lore, Oxford University Press (1995).
 29 Niall Mac Coiter, Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends and Folklore, The Collins Press (2008).
 30 Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales from Hans Andersen, Oxford University Press (1999).