The majority of bogbean's common names derive from the shape of its leaves, which resemble those of broad beans (the emergent leaves are trifoliate, having three oval leaflets). Its Latin name, Menyanthes, comes from two Greek words: men, which translates to 'month', and anthos, meaning 'flower'. It has been suggested that the plant was so named, because it remains in flower for a month and because it supposedly regulates the menstrual cycle. The first explanation is not quite true, as we now know that bogbean blooms for a longer period of time than four weeks, the second is difficult to verify. In Scotland, the plant will be more likely referred to as 'Bog-nut', 'Craw-shoe' (in Orkney), 'Trefold' or 'Gulsa girse' (in Shetland) or 'Water-triffle'. In Northern England and parts of Europe it may be also known as 'Bog Hop', when it was used as an important beer flavouring agent, instead of hops.
This relatively tall (up to 40 cm) and long (up to 2 m ) aquatic perennial can bring the green waters of a pond to life in spring. It can be found in shallow ponds, fens, bogs and marshes. It blooms from May until July, with its flower spikes growing above the water on tall stems. The white, star-shaped flowers are often subtly brushed with pink, and crowned with a distinct, ragged, and frilly fringe. It has green, round and shiny seed pods and rubbery leaves.
Bogbean was once an extremely important source of medicine in the Highlands and Islands, where its bitter-tasting roots and leaves have been keeping Hebrideans healthy for generations. The best time to pull the roots is July, when the flowers are gone and the fruits have already formed. These are then cleaned and simmered in water for three or four hours before squeezing , straining and bottling. The resulting brew is apparently, thoroughly disgusting, but its properties are very impressive, ranging from blood cleansing to soothing stomach pains, treatment of skin disorders, arthritis, tuberculosis, urinary complaints, scurvy, or headaches; in Lewis it was said to be good for drawing out pus, in Badenoch the root was used as a stomachic bitter and tonic in all cases of convalescence and debility. Animals who had a blockage through overeating were also fed bogbean. In addition to all the foregoing uses, Lewis folk say it is good for asthma and heart problems as it 'helps to open up the tubes'. Indeed, bogbean is probably as close to a cure-all as anything in British flora. Providing one can overcome the taste of the remedy:
'The roots of bogbean boiled for an hour in water and left to cool. The dose- one wine glass full twice daily. When my neighbour John was given this remedy by his sister he took one gulp and said: Since I was young I have suffered from a bad stomach, even had a perforated ulcer and rushed to hospital but never have I been in such distress as I am at this moment..; and so saying rushed out of the room' (from 'Hebridean Cookbook' by Lilian Beckwiths, 1978)
After living in Lewis for a couple of years myself, I can personally confirm that bogbean is still being used as a tonic or tea, and its skin healing and soothing properties have been greatly appreciated in the locally made herbal cosmetics. Bogbean dislikes shade and the plants of this species may become invasive as they spread very rapidly through their long, crawling thick rhizomes. It is an extremely resilient herb that has the aptitude to endure temperatures as low as -25°C. Moreover, it attracts bees and, interestingly, cats too. It has been found that chemicals in the plant attract them in the same way as catnip.
'Flora Celtica, Plants and People in Scotland' - W.Milliken & S.Bridgewater, 2013
'Healing threads' - M. Beith, 1995
'Vickery's Folk Flora' - R. Vickery, 2019
'Scottish Plant Lore' - G. J. Kenicer, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 2020
'Hebridean Cookbook' -L. Beckwiths, 1978
'The Illustrated Book Of Wild Flowers' - edited by P.Bristow from a text by Z.Podhajska, 1987
The Wildlife Trust