Species: Geum urbanum
Related genera: Agrimonia, Alchemilla, Argentina, Fragaria, Potentilla
Names: Wood Avens (or just Avens), City Avens, Cole Wort, Clove Root, Echte Nelkenwurz, Golden Star, Harefoot, Herb Bennet, St. Benedict’s Herb, herba benedicta, Blessed Herb, Mannskraftwurzel, Way Bennet, Weinwurz, Wild Rye
Description: perennial, 20 to 60 cm tall, leaves divided into three. Blooms between May and August, small flowers have five bright yellow petals. They are hermaphrodite and pollinated by bees. The fruits have burrs, which help distribution by getting caught in the fur of animals. The root is aromatic, resembling the scent of cloves, and is added to soups and used for flavouring ale and added to wine for slowing down acidification. It was also used as a mothproofing agent, e.g. for perfuming linen sheets.
The name Geum comes from Greek ‘geno‘, meaning to yield an agreeable fragrance. The name Herb Benedict is connected to a story in the life of St. Benedict. Not to be confused with the German Benediktenkraut (Cnicus benedictus).
Folklore and symbology: Due to the strong scent of the root, wood avens was thought to banish evil spirits, and protect against rabid dogs and venomous snakes. The root was carried as a protecting amulet against the devil and malign spirits. In Germany a so-called “Malefizpulver” was made from the root. Hildegard von Bingen also considered the root an aphrodisiac and it was carried as an amulet for increasing male potency. In Christian symbology the leaves represent the Holy trinity and the flowers the Five Wounds of Christ.
Magical associations: protection, banishing, cleansing, amulet making, “Malefizpulver”
Herbal medicine: According to Culpeper avens is good for treating diseases of the chest or breath and for the stitch. The root boiled in wine was used as a cordial against the plague. Today the main usage centers on the tannin effects, supported by Eugenol, which acts antiseptic. It’s added to toothpaste, mouthwashes and gargles. A tea is drunk against fever, coughs and ailments pertaining to the digestive system, e.g. it’s employed against diarrhea. The root extract is applied externally in poultices and washes for treating various skin conditions.
Biochemistry: Wood avens is rich in tannins, mainly Gallotannins. The essential oil contains eugenol, myrtanal and myrtenol. Eugenol has antiseptic properties and is the constituent causing the clove-like flavor. The herb also contains sugar in the form of vicianose, a disaccharide.
In the garden: Wood avens is considered a weed. It spreads readily by seed and is soon to be found all over the garden. The leaves attract mildew, possibly due to their sugar content. I pull out the plants frequently, leaving but a few, which always produce plenty of new plants in the following year.