Through the ethnobotanical trail of past herbalists, i.e. the canon of medicinal, magical and crop plants of the Carpathians

The trail we suggest is a trip to encounter the medicinal, magical and crop plants of the Carpathians. read more

This allows you to become acquainted with the lesser-known aspects of former Carpathian trails and traditions, which are often hidden for various reasons. Several important Carpathian plants have been chosen, and the encounters with them can be a great experience. Some of these plants have certain properties which are good to know due to the danger of poisoning or the ability to use in need. Some of them are also used in wilderness survival training.

This trail intends to focus on the old relations between plants and people (which are covered by the knowledge field called ethnobotany) and introduces the value of adventure into the exploration and discovery of the indicated plants. The listed plants are rather easy to find, but travel upon this trail can be enriched with plants difficult to find.


Considering the reluctant, or even incomprehensibly hostile approach to the native world Nature, which can be seen in Poland pretty much every day, it is important to recall even the smallest traces of the positive relations with the plants which used to be closer to man.

            The reluctance toward Nature and its sources were well-described by Jacek Olędzki: “/…/particularly reluctant attitude towards trees, bushes, relatively even wildly growing plants (in the best case, coloured with imagined utilitarianism) usually appears, together with the dislike of various small creatures, small rodents, snails, clams, insects, does not have to hold specific historical conditioning, and results from the traits of our human condition, its limitations and weaknesses. The emotional immaturity, negative mental states leading to pathological excitement, frustration, can determine the ways of reacting to the wonderful world of Nature. Such symptoms of negative disintegration – as is well known – are best cared for by killing or approving acts of killing weak and harmless beings. The loosening of the regulations of social life, mood instability, as well as shortage of goods, services, and abundance of opinions, beliefs, models of lordship (aloofness), all known so well in our homeland, did not benefit kindness toward Nature. The last half-century brought a blossoming of stupidity previously unseen in Poland.[1]

            The trail and its several versions are based on the places of the appearance of important Carpathian plants: angelica, elder, carline, wort, juniper, and henbane. You should know a few thing about them during your encounters and carry an atlas of plants in order to be sure of their proper recognition. You can find the basic information on selected plants below, but they are worthy of expansion by clicking the adequate entries in Wikipedia.


Angelica (Angelica archangelica)

This is one of the biggest herbaceous plants growing in the Carpathians. It can reach two metres of height, has thick, hollow sprouts and a grand inflorescence referred to as a compound umbel. Angelica is a biennial plant: during the first year, it forms strong sprouts and big leaves, the length of which can reach almost one metre. It can be distinguished from other umbelliferrae (particularly from its close relative, the wild angelica) by its round flower umbel, stem size and occurrence. The entire plant has an aromatic scent and all its parts are used as herbal material, spice, salad plant, and even as construction material for unusual instruments. The magical application of the angelica has been known for a long time: it protected the wearer from black magic. Supposedly, the most effective way was to wear the root on your neck as a talisman. All of the geographical names originating from the word litwor (angelica), and there is many of them in e.g. the Tatras: Litworowy Wierch, Litworowy Staw, Litworówka... indicate the past numerous locations of this interesting plant. You should be careful when identifying this species, since it can be mixed up with its relative from the Caucasus – Sosnowsky's hogweed, which has stinging properties and is one of the plants artificially brought to Poland by people conducting fodder experiments. The hogweed is usually much larger and does not appear high in the mountains. Angelica is not easy to find, but it is easy to confuse with its close relative – wild angelica. On the suggested trail, it sometimes appears in damp locations (near streams and by mountain swamps), and it can be difficult to see!


Elder (Sambucus nigra)

You can encounter elder pretty much everywhere: in city green areas and in neglected gardens, near old rural houses and wild streams, but also in the mountains, far from men. It would be difficult to find a more common, useful, and mythological plant.

            From the end of May, the elder draws attention to its white, umbrella inflorescence with a very characteristic aroma. The strong concentrations of aromatic oils responsible for the scent of the elder’s flowers may cause headaches and strong reactions bordering on nausea. The white parasols of the flowers with heady scent attract numerous species of insects, and they should be kept in mind when picking the flowers for household purposes. Since the flowers of the elder are white, the Slovakians refer to it as white instead of black. However, the source of the name is not the flowers, but the black, shining fruit gathered in the large umbels. The fruit appears on the bushes gradually, and sometimes one plant has flowers and ripening fruit at the same time. However, there comes a time, when the bushes covered with heavy bunches of fruit appear to be shining black from a distance. This is the time for harvesting and preparing numerous elder medicinal products. Their base is composed of the juice and pulp of the fruit without seeds. The content of the seeds produces contrasting information on certain elder products; this particularly concerns wine. Some believe it to be the old, ritual drink of the Slavs; others say it is poisonous. Yet, the medicinal effectiveness of the products of the flowers, fruit juice, and fruit pulp after the removal of the seeds is commonly known and confirmed. What is more, the elder wood is used to make traditional wind instruments and their parts in both Poland and Slovakia. The seekers of adventures in the Carpathians may find it interesting to know that, as the legend has it, old and specially shaped elder trees have the ability to transport the people falling asleep under them to other places. After such a nap, the person sometimes wakes up many kilometres away from the original location. This would be a great way of inexpensive travel, if not for the fact that only a few know how to control the direction and distance of the dream journey...

The elder is present along the entire suggested route.


Stemless carline thistle (Carlina acaulis)

This is a thistle with a characteristic, radial leaf rosette and flat flower head surrounded with leaves of the involucres (mistaken for the flower), spread on the ground. The flower head contains dozens of individual small tubular flowers. It grows in the alpine zone in south and central Europe. In Poland, it appears mainly in the Carpathians and the Sudetes, sparsely and in isolated patches also in other areas, for example, it grows on the Woźnicko-Wieluńska Upland. The flower head is big and reaches up to 15 cm in diameter. The length of spreading leaves oscillates around 20 cm, which, together with the shield of the flower head, gives a large plant, that is easy to notice. The carlines prefer dry soil with a rather alkaline reaction and sunny places, old boundary strips rising somewhat above meadows, rocky spots, gorge scarps and slopes. The typical form of the carline does not have a clear stem and the flower head and the leaves lay on the ground, creating an effective, rather regular rosette. A variation with a clear stem is common, the length of which reaches as much as 10 cm. This subspecies is described by botanists as Carlina acaulus subsp. caulescens. It could be said that this is botanical nonsense: stemless carline thistle with a stem!  


The Polish name dziewięćsił (nine powers) refers to the magical application and belief that carline has nine times the medical abilities of other herbs, and some magical practices recommend that you carry the carline with you to multiply your powers. The specific name Carlina has a rather unclear origin and may refer to Charlemagne or Charles V, who allegedly utilized the properties of this plant. Perhaps it was the eating of the meaty flower heads of the carline that saved Charlemagne’s army from exhaustion, and reinforcement with this delicacy, which is referred to in alpine lands as Swiss artichoke, saved the soldiers from pestilential plague. Łukasz Łuczaj, who has prepared soup from thirty flower cups of carline picked in the Apennines, liked it very much, as it tasted like kohlrabi soup.[2] 


The carline also had many uses in magic, cuisine and natural medicine in the Carpathians, but is currently just one of the few symbolic plants. The leaf rosette with the round shield of the mock flowers was recognised as a ready, natural solar symbol, and has been artistically processed in hundreds of ways. Its relationship to the sun is indicated by the behaviour of the plant: in the sun, the involucres leaves (regarded as flower petals) part and reveal the bright, yellow shield of the flower head, while on cloudy days, the leaves close up and cover the clump of the small, tubular flowers with a cone-like protection. This behaviour is sometimes harnessed, as some consider it a natural hygrometer, and therefore they use it in establishing local weather trends.


The meaty and relatively thick bed of the flower head was allegedly cooked and eaten as a vegetable under the name of hunter’s bread. It seems that carline had and continues to have more applications in the Beskids and Pieniny than the Tatras. In the surroundings of Szczawnica and Cerveny Klastor, it is the main source of visual identification of the so-called highland. Carline grows on sunny pastures, road scarps and in the rock turf and prisms of stones arranged on boundary strips along the entire suggested route.


St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)

This is a commonly known and valued herb, and is the main component of the ritual bouquets made today for the Assumption holiday (15th August), according to the rhymed conviction that każdy kwiat w sierpniu woła: nieście mnie do kościoła (every flower in August calls: take me to the church).[3]

            It was used in the days of old as a medicinal and magical plant in Europe and Asia[4] and must have been highly valued, since it was a part of the obligatory contribution from Siberia for the Tsar of Russia. The Kazakhs knew it as djerabai – wound healer, but its properties were also known in the Balkans and Slavic countries. The worts grow almost everywhere: in Europe, Asia, America and Africa, and there are numerous varieties and species of this plant. The Carpathians are home to small, several centimetre tall specimens, as well as ones reaching almost one metre of height.


The Polish name “dziurawiec”, comes from the visible (when held up to the light), transparent oil containers, which were considered as holes (dziury) in the leaves of this herb. Indeed, these translucent spots on the leaves provided for the descriptive German name of the plant, Tausen-dlochkraut – the herb of a thousand holes. The existence of the mock holes is explained in a story, according to which, the devil gouged them on the wort’s leaves, attempting to deprive the herb of its medicinal and protective properties.


In folk names, blood refers to hypercinum, the red dye appearing after breaking or crushing the flowers. The green plant with beautiful yellow leaves, dripping with red, bloody juice attracted understandable interest. The history of the names of the wort, but also their distribution by herbalists and botanists, says a lot about the phenomenon of cultural acquisition of valuable elements of disappearing cultures and customs. Many authors write without thinking that this herb blossoms on the Birthday of John the Baptist (24th June) and is therefore called St John’s, forgetting that the celebration of the summer solstice in Europe has a much older tradition, and June is the month when a great majority of all plants blossom. This is likely why no one minded fortunes told from the amount and colour of the juice which ran from the wreaths weaved from the work for St. John’s Day. Elements of women’s magic and fortune-telling from the herb picked on the night of the summer solstice were also known. If the worts kept strong and blossomed in the house, marriage was almost a certainty, if not, the future was spinsterhood.


The wort is considered a panacea for almost all ailments and is used to make brews, oil extracts (Oleum Hyperici with a pink shade), powder added to food, and many other products. Its magical effect can be attributed to the ability to put people in what is currently called a good mood, as well as to increase the blood supply of internal organs. Used internally, the wort helps to cure depression, insomnia, migraines, regulates menstruation, and improves sexual performance, which was used in the work on Viagra. Centuries before the arrival of Viagra, it was believed that the wort juice intensifies the love of a given person.


The herbal resources are the wort’s herb and flower, but the smoke from dried seed and bouquets of the blossoming plant were also used in magic as an effective protection for houses and farmsteads from evil influences, which included fires.


You can find worts on the meadows along the entire suggested trail.


Common juniper (Juniperus communis)

In the Carpathians, the juniper can reach several metres of height and an age of 100 years. It profusely fructifies, and its values are still remembered. The most frequently applied are the aromatic, spherical and small berry-like cones. During the first year they are green and do not blossom until the second year, when they become dark navy blue. They make for a tasty spice, and when eaten several times a day, they are refreshing and curative to the stomach. The juniper sprouts are full of aromatic oils and give off a thick aromatic smoke when lit. For this reason, they are used in all kinds of smoke fumigation and cleansing, but also in food smoking. A liqueur from juniper fruit can have special heating properties and a positive influence on digestion and stomach problems, however, juniper products are not recommended to those with kidney ailments. Besides the aforementioned, juniper branches were used to make the so-called rods, which were believed to prove reliable weapons against evil spirits. Furthermore, the elastic wood was used to make whips and small objects of everyday use.


There are not too many traces left of the old uses related to juniper, but certain applications have been preserved, although slightly altered, adapted to current religious practices. On Good Friday, the hill farmers’ wives would cut the juniper branches in order to have them consecrated with food on Holy Saturday. The consecrated juniper was needed later to fumigate sheep before the trailing of the sheep, as well as to fumigate the shepherd huts. There is a variety of juniper called Siberian encountered high up in the Carpathians.


Junipers used to be planted in gardens or saved on household pastures as they were considered useful and liked plants. Anywhere they grow, junipers are valuable plants with multiple applications. You can encounter junipers in many locations along the top trail over Szczawnica, but a particularly valuable position is located on Wysoki Wierch (the majority is on the Slovak side).


Henbane bell (Scopolia carnicola)

The henbane bell is sometimes confused with the deadly nightshade. It actually looks similar to its bigger, magical sister in the spring with its first flowers. The plant is present in large numbers in the Eastern Carpathians and the Caucasus, probably also in the Julian Alps. The western border of its range runs through the Pieniny.


The henbane bell likes warmth, bright mountain forests, and is present in large numbers on small areas. In the Pieniny, you can encounter dozens of plants in a few regular, but dispersed locations, and not encounter it at all beyond them.


All parts of the plant have been used for medicinal and magical purposes, particularly the highly developed root-stalks and dried leaves. The plant is fatally poisonous and is particularly quick on children. In Slovakia, Ukraine, and perhaps in Slovenia, it is sometimes grown in home gardens and, according to collected information, is used as a cure for the so-called hangover. Maybe this use is confirmed in another English name for the henbane bell – nightshade leaves?  


The henbane bell was also grown in the herbal gardens of Cerveny Klastor. It is a popular species in the Eastern Carpathians and the traces of its traditional cultivation in the Ruthenian villages on the border of the Pieniny and the Tatras provides for the conclusion that its large Pieniny population may have partially descended from the wild escapees from herbal gardens. The easiest way to encounter clumps of beautiful henbane bells is to take a walk along the Dunajec on the first few downstream kilometres from Cerveny Klastor.


Thyme (Thymus sp.)

Large thyme (Thymus alpestris) grows high up in the mountains, over the border of the forest. Sometimes it composes hybrids with lemon thyme. The thyme herb is used to soothe headaches, treat colds and coughing, and is generally considered a positive proprietary drug with anti-spell properties, as it was defined so by Saint Hildegard. Thyme is also an excellent spice to improve the taste of dishes and support the digestive process. Thus, the thyme herb is commonly used as an important part of brews used in Bulgaria, but also in Slovakia. The latter are recommended for women and their traditional usefulness in soothing female ailments is contained in the Slovak name of thyme – materina dúška.


You can easily find thyme on road scarps, warm meadows and near rocks and stony boundary strips. You can get packed teas with thyme in the stores in the village of Cerveny Klastor and the reception area of the museum. Furthermore, it is good to buy the ready “tea”, because, as the famous seer Hildegard of Bingen recommends: when the brain is ill and somewhat empty, you should powder the sand thyme and mix the powder with wheat flour in water, then make small pies from it and eat them often, and the brain will get better.[5]

[1]              J. Olędzki, “Filόdzōon. Ciesząca się życiem albo Ogławianie. Kultura wierzby” (Filόdzōon. Enjoying Life or Heading. The Culture of Willows), “Konteksty. Polska sztuka ludowa” (Contexts. Polish folk art), 3-4/1994, p. 19

[2]              Ł. Łuczaj, Dzikie rośliny jadalne Polski (Wild Edible Plants of Poland), Krosno 2004, p. 63

[3]     L.Koziarska, “Natura i Zdrowie” (Nature and Health), MPK Nowy Sącz, Nowy Sącz 2009, p. 10

[4]     C.Müller-Ebelingová, C.Rätsch, W. D. Storl, Čarodějná Medicina, Volvox Globator, Praha 2000.

[5]              Hildegard of Bingen, Zioła (Herbs...) ibidem, p.134

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