A number of fruits and vegetables which are part of our regular diet were more prized in past centuries for their medicinal qualities. The strawberry is one of the gastronomic highlights of the British summer, but until the early 19th century the fruit was just as much cherished for its varied therapeutic uses. One Anglo-Saxon medical text contains this recipe for an eye-salve:
Take the lower parts of strawberry plants,and pepper, knead them well together, put them in a cloth, tie them up fast, lay them in sweet wine, let one drop fall on the eye.
The fruit of this plant is delicious, and being of a cooling and laxative nature may be considered as medicinal. If freely eaten, they impart their peculiar fragrance to the urine, and when retained in the mouth for some time, dissolve tartareous concretions on teeth. They are of great service in cases of scurvy.
The New Family Herbalist, by Matthew Robinson and published in 1870, goes even further:
It is said of Fontenelle that he attributed his longevity to them, in consequence of their having regularly cooled a fever which he had every spring; and that he used to say, “If I can but reach the season of strawberries, I shall do well.” Boerhaave regarded their continual use as one of the principal remedies in cases of obstruction, and viscidity, and in putrid disorders. Hoffman furnished instances of obstinate disorders cured by them, even consumption in its incipient stages; and Linnaeus says, that by eating plentifully of them, he kept himself free from gout.
In fact, it seems that there is little that the strawberry cannot cure.
They cool the stomach, the liver, and the spleen, quench thirst, and regulate the kidneys. The juice dropped into foul ulcers, tends to cure them. It is good to stay catarrhs, or defluxions of rheum in the lungs. The juice is good for inflamed eyes, if dropped into them. Strawberries make a good wash for inflamed parts, and take away redness of the face, spots, &c.
It’s little remembered today, but strawberries were long believed to be the best ingredient for toothpaste. This point was made by the Scottish pot-boiler writer Colin MacKenzie, in his 1823 compendium Five Thousand Receipts in all the useful and domestic arts:
The common strawberry is a natural dentifrice, and its juice, without any preparation, dissolves the tartareous incrustations on the teeth, and makes the breath sweet and agreeable.
No doubt it freshens the breath; but, as we now know, rinsing your teeth in sugar twice a day is not a great idea.
It was not just the fruit which was used medically. In 1848 a physician from Georgia in the US claimed that strawberry leaves gave dramatic results in curing dysentery. Writing in the Southern Medical Journal, Dr J.C.C. Blackburn explained that
I have used the strawberry leaves in every form, for the cure of dysentery; but the formula most desirable is as follows: one pound of the green leaves, add to them one quart of good French brandy, and boil to one pint. Give of the strained liquor one table-spoonful every three hours, until the disease in question be relieved of its distressing symptoms.
Dr Blackburn supports his argument by giving a single example:
Mr. B., a volunteer returned from Mexico, was taken with dysentery at Matamoras last August a year ago. He was placed under the direction of the Surgeon to the Georgia Regiment, who attended him until he pronounced his case incurable… He reached home last July, with a constitution almost broken down, and placed himself under my care. I resorted to the use of every agent within my knowledge for the cure of his disease, but without success. I at length determined to try the strawberry leaves, as in the formula above-mentioned. He had taken but ten spoonfuls when he commenced to improve, and speedily recovered. He is now entirely cured, and able to attend to the duties of his calling. I have used the strawberry leaves in many cases since, with the same happy result.