The origin of the name Pimpinella is unknown. Some linguists trace it back to the Latin for ‘pepper’, due to the root's taste on the tongue: spicy at first followed by a burning sensation.
The name first appears in the 7th century in the writings of the Italian physician, Benedictus Crispus. But the names pipinella, bibenella, etc. were used for a great variety of plants. Today it is no longer possible to determine which species were meant in individual references. From the 16th century on, the saxifrage is clearly identified in all books on herbs. In Matthiolus' ‘Kreuterbuch’ (Book of Herbs) of 1626, it is mentioned in the treatment of phthisis, fever, shock, and externally for weak eyesight and insufficient secretion of milk. In common usage, the name was as a term of derision. Examples are the Alsatian nickname ‘Mamsell Bimpernell’ and the Swiss term of contempt for a fat woman, ‘Pimpernell’.
The name saxifrage derives from saxífragus, which means ‘rock splitting’, ‘growing in cracks in stone’, or ‘stone breaker’. The pimpernel and other saxifrages, also known as stone breaker, (for example, Saxifraga granulata) were regarded as a remedy for bladder stones. Hieronymus Bock wrote in 1551: “Bibernell (pimpernel) is the ideal plant for breaking up and getting rid of stones.”
Pimpinella major (L.) HUDS. the greater burnet saxifrage and Pimpinella saxifraga L. the lesser saxifrage are both botanical names for the root remedy. Both species exhibit a great variety of forms and subspecies. There are three known subspecies of P. saxifraga alone: ssp. eusaxifraga, ssp. alpestris, and ssp. nigra.
The lesser saxifrage is a perennial and grows from a thick, branched tap root. Its stalks, 30 to 70 cm high, are grooved and often lightly hairy. The lower leaves are simply imparipinnate with three to nine long-oval, serrated leaf segments. The degree of segmentation in the lower and upper leaves varies considerably. The umbels, which are white in colour, turn to a reddish colour higher up are apical and, in autumn bear 2mm long fruits with lengthwise grooves. In contrast to the lesser saxifrage, the stalks of the greater saxifrage are tubular and hollow, with deep, angular grooves. Pimpernel flowers from June to October.
Of the species-rich Apiaceae family, Pimpinella, the greater and lesser saxifrage, are almost the only representatives native to Europe. All other members of the species are indigenous to Asia.
In contrast to the greater saxifrage, the small saxifrage prefers dry barren pastures and sparse forests in lowlands and up to an elevation of 2000m. It is found all over Europe and western Asia and has established itself in North America. The greater saxifrage is rarer.
Due to the variety of species of pimpernel (including those not officinal), hybridizations and the similarity to other species for example Heracleum sphondylium L. (pigweed) and Pastinaca sativa L. (parsnip) substitution and adulteration often occur. Positive identification, if at all possible, can only be done by means of chromatography.
A.Vogel uses fresh, organically grown roots that are dug up in the autumn to produce a mother tincture. Using our own method of cultivation ensures the genetic uniformity of the plant, rules out substitution and adulteration and guarantees constant quality.
Pimpernel roots can be prepared as a tea. They are also used in the production of liqueurs. The powdered root mixed with honey can be sucked to relieve hoarseness. The fresh leaves can be used as a condiment and as greens in soups.