Thrift, also know as sea pink, is a versatile, short tufted perennial, found mainly in salt-laden environments, as well as shallow and nutrient-poor soils, where access to fresh water is scarce. It tolerates unusually high concentrations of heavy metals and sometimes shows naturally on mining spoils. Thrift grows in clumps with compact pink flowers (April to August), appearing on top of leafless stalks that can reach up to 30 cm high. During summer months Orkney coastline reveals a thick, pink carpet made out of sea pinks that stretch along the cliffs, crags and narrow ravines- it is a sight to see. No wonder it is known as 'tonna chladaich' in Gaelic, which means ' beach waves'.
'At the high spring tide of an early June morning these flowers can be submerged by seawater, and then, at the low tide of the afternoon, these same delicate flowers form a carpet abuzz with bees seeking the water-clear and musky nectar. it is the plants' aromatic oils, secreted in the nectar and present often in minute quantities, that impart the specific flavours of honey'. (Andrew Abraham's notes on beekeeping, Isle of Colonsay, Flora Celtica, 2013 p.73)
Thrift was widely used in traditional medicine across Scotland. Its thick roots were sliced, boiled in milk and used to treat tuberculosis in Orkney several centuries ago. The dried flower was considered to have antibiotic properties and was used in the treatment of obesity, some nervous disorders and urinary infections. On Tiree, seemingly thrift was used in medical folklore, to treat barr a'ceann - a condition recognised locally, in which children showed symptoms of general apathy and melancholy, usually related to bad shock or fright. Record of such remedy was passed on to Effie MacDonald of Middleton on the back of an envelope (Flora Celtica Archive, 2013). . The note read:
'The plant used is sea pink (thrift), and green roots are used. Wipe the soil off them. Thirty-five to thirty-six roots is enough as you only need twenty-four to work with. Count out singly the roots until you have the ninth in your hand. Throw the ninth away and put the eight in a heap beside you. Repeat that two more times, leaving you with twenty-four in the heap which you pound down with a stone until it's like sand. Put that in a wee bag and tie it around the child's neck, back or front it doesn't matter. Three days of that performance is required on a Sunday, Thursday and Sunday or Thursday, Sunday and Saturday - according to the day you started the treatment. Always pick the herb on these days, even if you don't use it right away. You can post it to Australia if it's needed there. Don't throw what's in the bag away. Keep adding to it, until the child is better.' (Flora Celtica Archive, Flora Celtica, 2013 p.211)
Early records of the medicinal use and curing properties of thrift can be found in James Wallace 'An Account of the Islands of Orkney' written in 1700, in which an Orkney 'miracle drink' ( involving thrift ) is described. It was meant to cure 'an anguish distemper' and present healing properties for the liver, head, heart and spleen conditions.
Margaret Fay Shaw during her stay on South Uist in the 1930s, recorded local sailor's tip for a general pick-me-up cure drink made out of sea pinks; the advice was as follows:'Take a bunch of sea pinks, pulled with roots. Boil for an hour or more. Leave to cool. Drink slowly and you are ready for the next night ashore'.
'Flora Celtica, Plants and People in Scotland' - W.Milliken & S.Bridgewater, 2013
'The Orkney Book Of Wildflowers' - T. Dean & A. Bignall, 2019
'Flora Orcadensis' - Magnus Spence , first published 1914, 2015 re-print