Remedy for the water

Dropsy causes swelling, which can occur both locally and throughout the body. It occurs in various ailments.The diuretic recipe described here from the early 19th century has elderberry bark as its main ingredient, which was still an official medicine at the time.This remedy comes from a private recipe book, namely that of Cornelia Anna van Westrenen (1777-1839).

Nettie Stoppelenburg en Maaike van Kregten
Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Fytotherapie 2022 nr. 2

The author has attempted to translate early modern Dutch into English. For any or other mistakes please contact me, it will be appreciated.

Many documents that have been preserved often belonged to rich(er) people. Like Cornelia; she was married to Willem Hendrik de Beaufort and lived from 1810 on Den Treek estate in Leusden (The Netherlands). The descendants of this couple include Ella van Heemstra; the mother of actress Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) [1].

Her recipe book dates back to the early 19th century. It mainly contains culinary recipes, but also a few medicinal ones. These are located in a separate section of the handwritten booklet, after quite a few blank pages. The five recipes cover the most diverse problems; there is hardly any coherence to be discovered. For example, there is a ‘Remedy for whooping cough’ and a recipe called ‘Icelandic moss’ written above the remedy for whooping cough and possibly also used for cough. There is a ‘Stomach and fever remedy’, a ‘Prescription for a woman who has kept something with her after childbirth’ and the ‘Remedy for the water’ discussed here. In addition, she also describes the rescue of someone who had almost drowned [2]. Recipes were widely exchanged and it is not known who gave them to her.

Remedy for the water
A plate full of the second bark*of elder, a handful of unwashed currants and a loot** of aniseed, let steep in a pint of genever. A small half teacup in the morning taken sober and in the evening before one goes to sleep another half teacup.  

* Middle bark, between bark and pith, like cinnamon.
** an old weight/measuring unity

The following plants from the remedy have been studied for their diuretic effect: elderberry bark, currants and aniseed. Genever has been left out of consideration, except for the alcohol, because its composition is unknown. Two Dutch-language herbal books were consulted, followed by pharmacopoeias that were common in the same period. For example, the Pharmacopoeia Batava from 1805 was consulted. This replaced the former, city based pharmacopoeias and was therefore the first national pharmacopoeia of the Netherlands. In 1823 the Pharmacopoeia Belgica was published, which succeeded the previous ones. The Nederlandsche Apotheek (The Dutch Pharmacy) from 1826 is a translation of this [3]. In this article the Batavian pharmacopoeia [4] and the Nederlandsche Apotheek (NA) [5] have been used. Finally, PubMed was searched for the botanical name and keywords such as diuretic and diuresis.

Elder bark is described by Dodonaeus (1517-1585) as follows: “The green middle bark of the twigs of Elder (..) with violence and turbulence drains the water when one ingests it.”[6]. Blankaart (1650-1704) comments about it: “The middle bark of the branches (…) must then consist of particles, which move due to its stimulation and movements of the stomach and intestines and cause convulsions. That is why they were prescribed in dropsy persons.” [7]. Both pharmacopoeias list the inner or middle bark as an ingredient. The NA says that “The bark of the branches, deprived of the epidermis, is white, sweetish at first, then persistently pungent, and bitter in taste.” [4.5]. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) indicates that elder bark contains cyanogenic glycosides that can cause nausea, vomiting or severe diarrhea [8].

Currants are the dried fruits of Vitis vinifera L. var. Apyrena. According to Dodonaeus, the effect is similar to that of raisins (Vitis vinifera L.). He describes this as soothing for, among other things, the stomach, intestines and bladder. He also mentions that: ‘some wash them with water or wine’. He gives no explanation for it; it appears to be optional [9]. The vine is not discussed in Blankaart’s book, but the plant does appear in both pharmacopoeias. There are indications that grapes could have a diuretic effect [10,11].

Aniseed “makes water and the stone to rise”, “is very good when the dropsy use it”, according to Dodonaeus [6]. It also gives indications of a spasmolytic effect and it ‘stops diarrhea’ [9]. According to Blankaart, “[it] Quiets pain of the abdomen.”[7]. Anise seed can be found in both pharmacopoeias. The EMA lists its traditional use as a diuretic, but also cites a study showing that aniseed oil reduces urine volume in rats. The essential oil (EO) does have a spasmolytic effect on smooth muscle tissue and can, for example, counteract abdominal pain [12]. Because alcohol is used in this recipe, we can assume that it contains EO.

Elder bark therefore seems to be a powerful diuretic. It cannot be conclusively established whether the other two ingredients have a diuretic effect in this preparation. But because elder bark alone has such a strong effect, it seems that they were added to weaken the strong effect of the elder bark. The currants may have been used against irritation of the mucous membranes and fennel as a spasmolytic to reduce cramps. The remedy described is a 1:1 tincture, but how concentrated it was, is not entirely clear, because it does not state how long it should steep, nor whether the ingredients should be removed from the gin, or left in it. So it can be a weak substitute, or get stronger over time. However, a small half teacup is about 50 ml. A shot glass in the morning on an empty stomach: these authors prefer to stick to a cup of coffee or tea…

1. Het Utrechts Archief: toegang 53 Familie De Beaufort, inventarisnummer 10.

2. Het Utrechts Archief: toegang 53 Familie De Beaufort, inventarisnummer 453.

3. Vree, P.H. Proefschrift. ‘De vermeerdering onzer kennis’: Bereiding en onderzoek van geneesmiddelen in Nederlandse farmacopees (1851–1966). Universiteit Leiden; 21-10-2020.

4. Brugmans SJ. et al. Pharmacopoea Batava. Amsterdam:  Johannes Allart; 1805.

5. Brugmans SJ. et al. Nederlandsche apotheek. ‘s-Gravenhage: Algemeene Lands Drukkerij; 1826.

6. Dodonaeus R. Cruijdeboeck. Antwerpen: Jan van der Loe; 1554. In te zien via:; Geraadpleegd: 29-03-2022.

7. Blankaart S. Den Neder-landschen herbarius ofte kruid-boek. Amsterdam: Jan ten Hoorn; 1698. In te zien via:

8. EMA/HMPC. Assessment report on Sambucus nigra L., fructus. 2014.

9. Dodonaeus R. Cruydt-boeck. Antwerpen: Balthasar Moretus; 1644. From:; geraadpleegd op 29 maart 2022.

10. Pop AL. et al. The influence of Vitis vinifera extracts on diuresis on rats. Nutriterra. Via:; Geraadpleegd: 31-03-2022.

11. Kateel R. et al. Evaluation of diuretic activity of gallic acid in normal rats. J Sci Innov Res. 2014;3(2):217-220.

12. EMEA/HMPC. Assessment report on Pimpinella anisum L., fructus and Pimpinella anisum L., aetheroleum. 2013.