“And because the Breath of Flowers is farre Sweeter in the Aire (where it comes and Gose, like the Warbling of Musick) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for delight, than to know what be the Flowers and the Plants that doe best perfume the Aire.” ~Frances Bacon
My fascination with herbs is largely prompted by my absorption with all things historical and the thrill of seeing, touching, sometimes tasting, and above all smelling the same plants known by the ancients. Herbs have changed little, if at all, over the centuries and offer us a connection with the past that precious little does in these modern days. It’s pure intoxication to rub fragrant leaves between my fingers and savor the scent while pondering the wealth behind these plants.
Simple wayside flowers, even weeds, have a far greater heritage than most people realize. We cannot begin to grasp the enormous part that herbs, any plant with leaves, seeds, roots, or flowers used for flavoring food, creating medicine, or for their scent, played in times past; the not so distant past. Herbs were vital to every single aspect of life. Think about it. Every one.
There were no Wal-Mart’s or drugstores to run to for health and beauty aids, no cures to be had at every corner. Remedies for everything from colds to the bubonic plague were brewed and made into teas, tinctures, or salves. Not to neglect the importance of love potions, charms, and protection from the dark forces, including witches, vampires, and werewolves. You can never be too careful.
Time out of mind, herbs have figured prominently in mystery and romance. Shakespeare is probably the most famous author to incorporate the juice of monkshood as the deadly elixir in Hamlet. Mandrake, the screaming roots in Harry Potter, made up the sleeping potion that sent Juliette into a death-like slumber. Poor Romeo, if only he’d known before he drank belladonna, a member of the deadly nightshade family, or wolfsbane. It seems no one is quite certain what the ill-fated lover knocked back.
Whimsical fancies sprang up around the shape of plants. The bell-like flowers of foxglove were thought to be the minute gloves that fairies wore, especially as foxglove blooms in shady woodlands where everyone knows the little folk dwell. Commonly called digitalis, this now famous plant is widely used to treat heart disease. But too strong a dose and bang––you have a murder mystery. In Pocketful of Rye, famous mystery author Agatha Christie favored a poisonous concoction made of yew disguised in marmalade. The author hid deadly hemlock in a bottle of cold beer in Five Little Pigs. If you’re in an Agatha Christie novel, don’t eat or drink anything she gives you.
On a happier note, many herbs also had romantic uses. The love potion in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been analyzed by a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in England. Doctor Sell thinks it was made up of heart’s ease (violas) blended with the sweetness of musk roses. In the play, Oberon drops the flowery decoction onto the eyelids of the sleeping Titania, but the good doctor cautions against trying this at home. Rather, opt for the nape of the neck or the décolleté––breasts pushed up by a tightly drawn corset for those of you who didn’t realize.
Speaking of romance, it was thought that a young maiden could toss a sprig of St. John’s Wort over her shoulder and soon learn the name of the man she was to marry. Leafy branches of this herb were also hung in windows to ward off evil spirits and burnt to protect against devils, goblins, and witches. Bear this in mind, if you’re troubled by them. Legend has it that angelica was revealed in a dream by an angel to cure the bubonic plague. All parts of the plant were deemed of great value against enchantment. And don’t forget boughs of the sacred rowan tree to ward off evil spells.
Feeling timid? Anoint your feet with catnip tea to embolden yourself. Fennel seed is said to boost desire Lavender is “of ‘especiall good use for all griefes and paines of the head.” For those of you who would be true, rosemary is the symbol of fidelity between lovers. Traditionally, a wreath of the aromatic herb was worn by brides. Rosemary is also the herb of remembrance and left at the grave of loved ones. We have observed this solemn rite.
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.” ~Spoken by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s tragic play Hamlet
Historical writers, especially, can incorporate the use of herbs to flavor their stories, but anyone can mix in a love potion or fatal elixir to spice up the usual suspects in a suspense or murder mystery. If you do so in real life, don’t tell me about it.
I hope my enthusiasm will enrich your lives with a deeper awareness of those people who dwelt on this earth long before us and inspire you to plant herbs in your gardens. For authors, herbs may help you contrive new plot twists or add authentic touches to your stories. My love of herbs and herbal lore spills over into my books.
One of my novels with a pronounced use of herbs is ghostly, time travel, murder mystery romance Somewhere My Love. The story also has Hamlet parallels because I always wanted to write a story that does, and so I did.
I also wrote an herbal, in eBook and now in print at Amazon.
Book Description: An illustrated collection of plants that could have been grown in a Medieval Herb or Physic Garden in the British Isles. The major focus of this work is England and Scotland, but also touches on Ireland and Wales. Information is given as to the historic medicinal uses of these plants and the rich lore surrounding them. Journey back to the days when herbs figured into every facet of life, offering relief from the ills of this realm and protection from evil in all its guises.