Culpeper’s Color Herbal, edited by David Potterton

A most pleasant and serendipitous discovery has provided the topic for this week’s article. While perusing the stacks at the library seeking a book for research on an upcoming article, I happened upon this book, mis-shelved so that it was next to the book I actually wanted. While browsing through it, I realized that not only is it lovely, it is a treasure trove of information for Regency authors. I knew I must share this charming find so that authors with an interest in herbal remedies will be aware of this useful reference.

And so, some of the delights of a colorful Culpeper …

Most people with any interest in plants with medicinal properties are aware of The Complete Herbal, a comprehensive book on medicinal herbs and other plants first published by Nicholas Culpeper, in 1649. The book has seldom been out of print in the more than 360 years since the first copies came off the press. There were several editions of The Complete Herbal published during the Regency. It was still considered an important reference by both professional apothecaries and those who made their own home remedies.

Nicholas Culpeper was a remarkable man. He was born into the Culpeper family of Surrey in 1616. One of his collateral ancestors was the Thomas Culpeper who was accused of adultery, and thus treason, with Catherine Howard, the last wife of Henry VIII. Despite this, the Culpeper family of the early seventeenth century enjoyed comfortable circumstances. Nicholas Culpeper’s father was a clergyman who sent his son to study medicine at Cambridge. Nicholas was an excellent student, until struck by a terrible tragedy. His fiancee was killed during a thunderstorm and he was so devastated by her loss that he was unable to continue his studies. He eventually moved to London, where he served an apprenticeship with an apothecary. When he set up his own London apothecary shop, Culpeper was appalled at the poverty endured by many among the working classes. He was even more appalled by the other apothecaries whom he considered charlatans because they routinely gouged these poor people by charging them very high prices when they were in need of medicines. Culpeper roundly condemned these dishonest practitioners and made his herbal remedies available to everyone at reasonable prices. For those who could not afford even his low prices, he would provide instructions on how to find the plant(s) needed for a specific cure, how to prepare the medicine, and the frequency of the dosage. Needless to say, he was widely hated by most of the London apothecaries. Eventually, he decided to write a comprehensive herbal in which he recorded all his knowledge for the benefit of everyone. In seventeenth-century terms, it was a runaway best-seller.

As books became less expensive to publish, The Complete Herbal went through many editions during the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. By the Regency, most homes would have had a copy of The Complete Herbal in their library or on the still-room bookshelf. Therefore, Culpeper’s Herbal is an ideal reference for Regency authors in need of illnesses, injuries and the medicines to cure them. The language of the majority of the Regency editions of The Complete Herbal was somewhat modernized from the seventeenth century original, but quite a number of the medical terms from that original edition were retained. Some even had additional information added to bring them up to date. These editions ran to over 400 pages, and though the listings were in alphabetical order, and they included an index, it would still take a great deal of searching to determine which plants could be used to treat which illnesses and injuries.

Culpeper’s Color Herbal, edited by David Potterton, a certified herbalist, is a valuable resource for a Regency author for a number of reasons. This edition includes a Glossary which provides modern definitions of many of those early medical terms. If you would like to know the meaning of terms like the "King’s-evil" or a "bloody flux," just consult the Glossary of Culpeper’s Color Herbal. But even more valuable for Regency authors is the section "Illnesses and Their Herbal Treatments According to Culpeper." Within these pages, in alphabetical order, are to be found a wide selection of injuries and illnesses with the names which Culpeper, and even those living in the Regency, would have known. Each of these entries is followed by a list of the plants which can be used to treat each, and the page number on which that specific plant’s details can be found. Whether an author wishes to have a character suffer an impostume, an ague, a quinsey or a toothache, they can locate the plants needed to cure the condition or ease the pain it causes. Following that section is a listing of "Illnesses and Their Modern Herbal Treatments." This section lists injuries and illnesses by their modern names, which will enable an author to find an illness by a name more familiar to them. As with the previous section, each illness or injury is followed by a list of the plants which can be used to treat the condition and the page number in the book where the details for that plant can be found.

Culpeper’s Color Herbal is an abridged version of Culpeper’s original herbal. However, David Potterton, the editor and a certified herbalist, has simplified and standardized the entry for each plant, so that each is clear and easy to understand. Similar to Culpeper’s work, each entry in this book includes both the Latin and the common name for each plant, Nicholas Culpeper’s original remarks about each plant, and the plant’s physical description. Following this are the details about where each plant can be found, when it flowers or releases its seed or any other important features of the plant required to gather and prepare a medicinal preparation from it. The "Astrology" entry provides the name of the planet which governs each plant and any other pertinent information. Culpeper, like most apothecaries of his age, believed strongly in astrology and was convinced illness and its treatment were closely bound up with astrology. This information may be very useful to authors who write Regencies with paranormal or magical overtones. Next is the "Medicinal Virtues" section, which is Culpeper’s instructions on how the plant should be used. The last section in each plant entry is "Modern uses," which is an explanation of how each plant would be used today. In many cases, these plants are used to treat the same conditions as they were in the Regency and before. But some are now known to be poisonous or have other detrimental effects. Having the modern information about these plants could be quite helpful to a Regency author, especially since this modern knowledge enables an author to develop a character with healing skills who can be very forward thinking in their medical practices, even though they are using only natural materials.

Without doubt, my favorite part of this book are the wonderfully detailed and carefully colored images of each plant which are included with that plant’s entry. These images are all the work of illustrator Michael Stringer and each one is a delicate delight. Most editions of Culpeper included drawings, some even hand-colored, of the various plants mentioned in the text. But none of those images was ever integrated with the text in those early editions so that the details of each plant was juxtaposed with a realistic and accurately colored drawing. The lovely images in Culpeper’s Color Herbal will enable a Regency author to provide a very clear and realistic description of a medicinal plant which a character may be seeking in the kitchen garden or a nearby meadow or woodland.

Though Culpeper’s Color Herbal is an abridgement of the original herbal, it is still filled with a plethora of plants which can be used by Regency authors when they find themselves in need of an ailment for one of their characters and a natural remedy for that ailment. With the "Illness" lists at the back of the book, an author can easily find a period-accurate name for an ailment and the plant(s) which would have been used to treat it. Next to each entry can be found a fetching and faithful depiction of each plant, in color. Culpeper’s Color Herbal should serve the needs of most Regency authors.

Culpeper’s Color Herbal is not available online, but it has been reprinted several times. An inexpensive copy can be acquired from a local used bookstore or from one of the online bookseller aggregators, of which Biblio is my favorite. For those who simply must have a copy of the the full length original herbal for reference, Google Books has a full copy of the 1816 edition, which includes charming hand-colored drawings of most of the plants mentioned in the text. It, too, is quite lovely, though lacking the valuable Glossary and Illness lists of the Color Herbal. I certainly intend to add a copy of Culpeper’s Color Herbal to my reference library very soon.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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18 Responses to Culpeper’s Color Herbal, edited by David Potterton

  1. That sounds a very exciting find, and more extensive than my 1850’s copy, which is definitely abridged. And there’s a link here to the commonplace book, because any heroine might copy out a few of Nicholas’ notes into her commonplace book if she finds a copy in the lending library…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I love the link to the commonplace book, it is exactly what someone living during the Regency might do. Maybe your heroine lives in a village with only a small lending library, but a lady of the local aristocracy has befriended her, and has given her free access to the still room in the great house. Mayhap she will encounter the hero there on one of her visits?



      • Nice plot bunny, Kat! I am considering using the book in passing in my Charity School series, of which I am currently engaged on writing the first, as an educational aid to the girls. [I’m on chapter 14 of 30 or so, so it’s going well]. Maybe I might have one of the girls make a mistake at some point with two similar herbs and accidentally poison someone a little bit.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I love that phrase, “accidentally poison someone a little bit.” I do hope whoever gets poisoned “a little bit” is someone who deserves it. Unless the victim is the hero and the heroine has to step in to save him.

          Good luck with the rest of the book.


          • Haha, I have 9 children in this first one between 6 and 14, including a pair of fairly reckless twins… actually as my hero is a doctor, I might have him rescue one of the less salubrious suitors to my heroine, who manages to get the dreamy twin’s accidental poisoning in a sandwich… and Felicity has to show the doctor the picture she used to identify the salad leaves she picked… definite possibilities, I am planning a trip from Richmond to Eel Pie Island on the Thames for the girls, courtesy of the said suitors, vying for my Heroine’s hand by being nice to her orphans. a light tea on the way back would be an opportunity to have herbal mayhem.

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              I can only say it sounds like your heroine is going to feel like she is herding cats, trying to handle nine children! She is certainly an ambitious woman. I do have to admit, I like the idea of the unwanted suitors getting a belly-ache in return for the headache they are probably giving the heroine.


  2. Plot bunny; the villain, hoping to inherit a title, feeds herbs that are abortifacient to the heroine who is with child by her titled husband, because he has discovered in this book those herbs that ‘bringeth down the courses’ like tansy, yarrow and so on…. I’ve used similar, actually, in a written but yet unpublished Renaissance mystery…

  3. Query: the facsimile copies available on Amazon say 1826 not 1816.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am sorry, I cannot answer that question. I have no use for Amazon and avoid it like the plague.

      My conjecture would be that, since there were dozens of editions of The Complete Herbal published over the centuries, they chose the first one they found, or used one to which they had access.


  4. One wonders what the Prince Regent’s reaction would be (in a novel) when he would be addressed by a parent (who had read Culpeper’s book) to heal a baby afflicted with „The King’s Evil“ by touching it. A scene with great potential for comedy or princely grace or political crises….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I like the plot bunny, but not having a very high opinion of the Prince Regent myself, I find the idea that he could exhibit any “princely grace” highly unlikely. 😉

      However, I have read that he could be quite thoughtful and considerate at times, and I do suspect that he would probably have been pleased to be asked to cure “the King’s-evil” since the request would allow him to demonstrate his “kingly” powers.



  5. KWillow says:

    Thanks so much. I just ordered a copy of Culpeper’s Color Herbal from Biblio. Great site, too.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My pleasure! I think you will enjoy the book just for the illustrations alone, but the information on the plants and the afflictions which they can be used to treat can add a lot of realism to a story.

      As far as I am concerned, Biblio is the best of the online bookseller sites. If you set up an account with them and check the box to get emails, you will get coupons from time to time.



  6. After heavy hints I have a birthday present in the post for next month… I’ve been puzzling about my terrible twins poisoning someone accidentally a little bit [you can hear 12 year olds putting it like that, can’t you?] because the only herbs I could think of that they might gather for a salad for a picnic that might be easily confused are those which are just a teensy bit deadly, like foxglove for comfrey, or hemlock for wild parsley [and I have trouble telling the umbelliforms apart so that’s an easy mistake]. However, research has rescued me, and they can poison someone with digitalis and the unfortunate fellow can be rescued with the application of emetics and smelling salts. He’ll feel as though someone has turned his stomach and lungs inside out, but hey, the guy I’m aiming it at probably deserves it.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad to know you are safeguarding the twins from any accusations of murder! 😉

      I do feel sorry for the fellow who will eat that salad, since it sounds like the cure will be at least as painful and undignified as the actual poisoning. Though I would think it will certainly put him off the heroine!


      • I might make the twins comment that another time he should have a slug in his salad as he’s slimier… but it does get rid of him. Not as fast as finding out that the heroine has entailed her fortune for the orphanage though. That made him sicker than the mustard in water emetic…

  7. Pingback: History A'la Carte 5-15-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

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