This little flowering plant is actually a member of the rose family (Rosaceae), though you wouldn’t connect them to any of their larger cousins when you spot them growing at the edge of the lane. They’re a cheerful flower that looks a bit like a buttercup. Cinquefoil is native and widespread across Europe and western Asia, and was introduced to the Americas by European settlers who viewed it as an important herb. They’re frequently found growing on road verges, waste areas, bare ground, and on neglected grassy patches. They spread easily, able to cover up to 10 square metres in a growing season, and they do this both through seed dispersal and by sending out stolons, or ‘runners’ – stems that grow along the surface of the soil and send down roots that then grow into new plants. You can see them flowering in the UK from June to September. The flowers are sequential, appearing as a solitary burst of yellow on a carpet of five pronged compound leaves.
Cinquefoil is a relatively easy plant to identify and remember. Their five slightly notched yellow petals and their five spiky leaflets actually give them their common name of Cinquefoil – which means ‘five-leaved’.
They’re also known as Common Cinquefoil, Creeping Cinquefoil, Oldfield Cinquefoil, Synkefoyle, Sunkfield, Synkfoul, Five Fingers, Five-finger Blossom, Five-finger Grass, Five-leaf, and Mary’s Five Fingers, Hand of Mary, Witches Weed, Bloodroot, Cinq Feuilles, Crampweed, Silverweed, Goosegrass, Goose Tansy, Moor Grass, and Pentaphyllon. Their latin name is Potentilla reptans.
I say that they are ‘relatively easy to identify’ as there are a few other species that might be mistaken for Common Cinquefoil. Tormentil is a close relative (Potentilla erecta) with a very similar appearance, but it has only four petals, rather than five. Buttercups (of a variety of species) have five yellow petals, but their leaves are not the five leaflets of Cinquefoil and so can be easily discounted. If you’re determined to have a precise species identification of your Cinquefoil as Potentilla reptans, then there’s also Hybrid Cinquefoil to take into account. This is an interbreeding of species – usually Common Cinquefoil and Tormentil – that requires close examination to determine. Some of its flowers will have five petals like Cinquefoil, but others will have only four, or six. The same is the case with its number of leaflets. I think that we may have some hybrid Cinquefoil around here, as a few of the flowers that I’ve recently spotted have had an extra petal.
Like many wildflowers, gardeners sadly tend to view Cinquefoil as an invasive weed and they drive it out of their gardens with weed killer. They’re currently growing on the path outside the wildflower meadow. Hopefully they’ll make their way inside – it’s the perfect place for them to flourish.
But why should we want it to flourish?
The RHS has it classed as a ‘plant for pollinators’, as, like most wildflowers, it fills a vital role in our ecosystems. It provides nectar and pollen for the bees and the butterflies, as well as food, shelter, and breeding grounds for various insects. Since the 1970s we’ve lost 50% of the UK’s insects, and 41% of those remaining are endangered. When you consider that 1/3 of our food crops are pollinated by these same insects, and 87% of all plants by animals, mainly insects, then these are worrying statistics.
By encouraging the growth of ‘plants for pollinators’ like Cinquefoil, then our insect life is being given an opportunity to recover.
There are other reasons, as well, for why Cinquefoil should be allowed to grow unhindered.
For foragers, the young shoots and leaves of the Cinquefoil plant are edible, either in a salad or whizzed up in a smoothie. They can also be cooked as a pot herb. For this purpose, they’re best picked before the plant begins to flower, as the high tannin content of the older plant makes it bitter and unpalatable.
The thick rhizome of the plant can also be harvested to produce a red dye that has been used for centuries in order to colour leather.
In folklore, Cinquefoil has traditionally been used in love and prosperity potions, and for romantic divination. It is said to ward away evil witchcraft, and when tied to a fisherman’s net it will increase the size of the catch. It is also one of the ingredients listed in witches flying ointment, an hallucinogenic ointment said to have been used by practitioners of European witchcraft.
The ointment that witches use is reported to be made of the fat of children digged out of their graves, of juices of smallage, wolfe-bane, and cinque foil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat.by Francis Bacon (writing as Lord Verulam)
The Roman general Agrippa also included Cinquefoil in a recipe for Mercury incense, and said that the herb drives away devils and helps a person to resist poison. In the Victorian language of flowers, Cinquefoil stands for ‘beloved daughter’.
Modern magickal practitioners use Cinquefoil as an aid to prophetic dreaming. You can add the herb to your bath water, burn it as an incense, or include it in dream pillow along with other herbs such as Mugwort, Wormwood and Lavender.
Cinquefoil is also useful as a medicinal herb. The Latin name Potentilla translates as ‘powerful’, and it was given this name because it has always been recognised as being a potent herb. It acts as an anti-inflammatory, astringent, antiseptic, antispasmodic and diuretic. It also acts as a mild febrifuge.
In more plain English this means that, internally, it can be used as a herbal tonic for swelling and pain in the mouth and bleeding gums. It can also help with diarrhoea, inflammation of the digestive tract and stomach cramps. Cinquefoil is also recognised as being a useful and effective means of detoxing. It has been found to be helpful in reducing withdrawal from addictive alkaloids, such as nicotine and cocaine. It’s a good tea to drink during the cold or flu as it can sooth pain and lessen swelling in the throat as well as soothing the stomach. Combine it with honey to make a homemade cough syrup.
To make an infusion (tea) of Cinquefoil, brew one tablespoon of either the dried root or leaf of the plant in a cup of boiling water and leave to steep for 15-20 minutes. If using fresh herb, boil it for 5 minutes.
Alternatively, you could make an extract of Cinquefoil. To do this, crush the fresh roots or leaves and put them in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Cover them in vodka and leave to footle for a fortnight, shaking daily. After two weeks the plant matter can be filtered out using cheese cloth. As the extract is far more potent than the infusion, a single teaspoon is equivalent to a cup of the tea.
Cinquefoil can also be used externally to control the bleeding, pain and inflammation of a wound. The powdered or crushed root of Cinquefoil helps small cuts to stop bleeding by causing blood vessels to contract. It can be used for bruises, insect bites and stings, itchy skin, gout, arthritis, sciatica, boils, and acne. To relieve skin irritation, you can apply it as a compress using a pad of an absorbent material soaked in some of the cooled infusion, or directly to the skin as a poultice.
Alternatively, the leaves and roots of Cinquefoil could be infused into a carrier oil and from there made into a topical salve. To do this, fill a tight fitting jar 3/4 full of the dried herb, cover it in a carrier oil (such as olive, coconut or almond oil) and leave it to footle in a cool, dark place, out of direct sunlight, for two to six weeks. Do not leave for longer than six weeks, as after this time the oil will start to turn rancid. Alternatively, place it in a slow cooker / crock pot for 1-3 days. Once infused, strain the oil through cheesecloth to remove the plant matter. To make it into a salve, warm the oil in a double burner or in a bowl over a pan of water, and add beeswax. You will need approximately 1oz of beeswax for 8oz of infused oil. You could also add a few drops of essential oils if so desired. Oils such as Lavender and Geranium are popular for inclusion in skin salves. Once combined, pour the salve into tins or jars and allow to set. It can be used for treating issues such cuts, sores, and itchy skin.
There seem to be no side effects associated with the use of the Cinquefoil, so overdose or prolonged use is not an issue. However, as with all herbal medicines, check with your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking any medications or are soon to undertake surgery. Seeking the advice of a professional herbalist is also always advisable before diving headfirst into self medication. And, if you are ever uncertain in your identification plant that is growing wild, leave it where it is.
If you would like to read more about Cinquefoil, these are some useful sites that you could take a look at:
This post is for day 82 of 365 Days Wild.