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Masterwort

Nowadays, masterwort (Imperatoria ostruthium) is a rare cultural relic, surviving only in old gardens in Central and Northern Europe. It was once planted as a cultivated herb by the peasantry and used especially for veterinary purposes. The plant is perennial with large rhizomes and a round stalk that grows 39 inches high. The stalk is erect, hollow, round, leafy, and slightly branched. Lower leaves are on long stalks, twice ternate. The upper leaves are less compound, on shorter stalks, with a sheathing, membranous dilatation at the base. Umbels are broad and flat, of about 40 smooth general rays, 8 or 10 inches wide when in fruit. Flowers are small, white, or pale flesh colored, almost perfectly uniform and regular. In Scandinavia, the plant blooms rarely and often grows in pure vegetative stocks. The fruit is elliptical with an almost smooth surface and wide wing-like edges. The entire plant smells strongly like celery.

Origin and History

Its commanding name arouses interest, and there is a slightly archaic and mysterious aura surrounding this species. Very little is actually known about its history as a cultivated plant. It is native to the mountains of Central Europe, and it grows especially in woodlands and meadows. It was being used as a medicinal plant during the Middle Ages according to German and Danish herbal books. Some authors regard it as a plant spread through monastic herbal gardens. Its medieval Latin name Imperatoria (from imperatoris meaning “ruler” or “master”), translated into French as imperatoire, and rendered in English as masterwort, German meisterwurz, Danish mesterrod, Swedish masterrot and, Slovak vseliek hojivy, and Turkish kral otu, alludes to its reputation as a plant with superior healing properties. It was known by these names because it was regarded as a divine medicine. Master was once a title for physician. Some local names have been recorded in Great Britain, like felon-grass (Yorkshire and Roxburgshire) and felonwort (Cumberland).

The oldest evidence for masterwort as a cultivated plant is in the early Middle Ages. Archaeological findings show that it had been introduced into the British Isles by the 10th century. Seeds dated about 850 to 950 CE have been found in Antrim, Ireland. It is mentioned in several herbals and medicinal handbooks during the late Middle Ages, for instance in a Danish manuscript by 13th- century canon Henrik Harpestrang at the Roskilde Cathedral as a medicinal plant. It is mentioned as being grown in Danish herbal gardens in the 1530s, Swiss natural historian Conrad Gesner describes it as a cultivated plant in 1560, and it was grown in rural gardens on the island of Bornholm in the 17th century.

It became popular as a cultivated plant in the early modern era, spreading throughout Northern Europe. In the 16th century, German botanist Jakob Taber- naemontanus propagated for its usefulness for making remedies. So did Italian physician Pietro Andrea Matthioli (1501-1577). In the late 18th century, it was planted not only in villages but also at mountain cabins used for summer pastures in northern Scandinavia. William Woodville said in 1810 that it was frequently cultivated in the British Isles. It is still found in villages in the eastern alpine region of Europe. It was introduced into the eastern United States and Canada (Newfoundland) in the 19th century.

Medicinal Use

The rhizomes contain essential oils (sabinene), 4-terpineol, a-humulene oxypeu- cedanin, ostruthin, and ostruthol. The coumarines give masterwort its characteristic flavor. Masterwort is primarily a medicinal plant. It is mentioned in several medieval and Renaissance herbals for various ailments. Powdered masterwort roots were for instance added to wine as a protection against malaria. English herbalist John Gerard wrote in his herbal from 1597 that “the rootes and leaves stumped, doth dissolve and cure all pestilential carbuncles and botches, and such other apostemetions and swellings.”

The rootstock, collected in spring or fall, has been known to hold many medicinal properties such as being antiseptic, diuretic, and emmenagougue. Although regarded as obsolete in scholarly medicine, it was still in the late 20th century available in some pharmacies in Europe as Radix imperatoriae. The plant was, and in some circles still is, used for asthma, bronchitis, hepatitis, kidney and bladder stones, as well as flatulence. In Scandinavia, it was used in the 20th century for colic. It was also considered an aphrodisiac by the early authors. Tea made of mas- terwort is said to reduce migraines and act as a sedative. It has also been used externally against herpes and wounds. Its bitter juice was prized by country people in Kent for toothache. Spirit of the rhizomes was used as medicine in northern Sweden in the 1930s.

Although masterwort has a reputation as a medicinal plant for humans, especially in Germany, it seems to have been planted among the peasantry in England and Scandinavia mainly for veterinary use with cattle and for diseases of swine and horses. French physician Jean Ruel (1479-1537) as well as other Renaissance authors recommended it for horses. It is mentioned as an ingredient in remedies for sheep diseases in the 17th century. Austrian peasants gave a piece of bread with masterwort to a cow after giving birth to a calf. Masterwort was quite common in Scandinavian rural gardens in the 19th century because of its reputation as a medicinal plant for folk veterinary purposes. It happens that Austrian farmers even now use it as a homemade remedy for sick cattle. The fresh root is still used in Italy crushed and mixed with salt as a digestive for cattle and sheep. It can still be found in some rustic gardens.

Food and Ornamental Uses

Masterwort has been and still is used as a condiment in food in various parts of Europe. The whole plant can be used for that purpose, although the leaves and flowers are the mildest. The rhizomes of masterwort are also used as a flavoring for schnapps (known in German as Meisterwurzbranntwein), especially in Austria, and for various liqueurs. Masterwort is also used to flavor cheeses. In Tyrol, Austria, and in some parts of Switzerland, the houses were ritually smoked with its rootstocks around Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Epiphany.

The masterwort has been associated with the rural gardens and farmhouses of preindustrial Europe. However, it can still be used as an ornamental plant, which has given it some popularity. A recent variegated cultivar Daphnis from France has increased interest in gardening with masterwort. The species is also used in alpine and rock gardens, and seeds are available through some specialized nurseries.

Ingvar Svanberg

Further Reading

Cisowskia, Wojciech, Urszula Sawickaa, Marek Mardarowicz, Monika Asztemborska, and Maria Luczkiewicz. “Essential Oil from Herb and Rhizome of Peucedanum ostruthium (L. Koch.) ex DC.” Zeitschrift fUr Naturforschung 56 (2001): 930-32.

Hiermann, Alois, Dominik Schantl, Manfred Schubert-Zsilavecz, and Josef Reiner. “Coumarins from Peucedanum ostruthium.” Phytochemistry 43 (1996): 881-83.

Poncet, Anna, Susanne Grasser, and Caroline Weckerle. “Masterwort and Palm Fronds: Examples of Plant Burning in Alpine Regions of Austria and Switzerland.” Revista de Fitoterapia 10 (2010): 175.

 
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