With daughter Elise’s invaluable help, the print version of my herbal, Plants For A Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles , is filled with images and available in print. The kindle version also has many pics. ***Note: A number of these herbs later made their way to America and are in use today. They’re not solely relegated to the Middle Ages. That’s just the main focus of the book.
From the Introduction:
The Middle Ages span a large chunk of time. In European history, the Medieval period lasted from the 5th to the 15th century and is subdivided into the Early, the High, and the Late Middle Ages. The plants grown in a Medieval herb or physic garden depended on time and place, as well as the availability of the plants. The Crusades played a vital role in the introduction of new varieties. Some of the herbs we consider inherently English, notably, rosemary, sage, and thyme, were introduced to Britain with the return of the Crusaders (the 11th through the 13th century). Before the Crusades, fewer plants were available for an herb garden. Lavender, such a favorite, didn’t arrive on the scene in England before the mid-16th century.
Spices, so common today but rare then, also made their first appearance with the Crusaders. Among these were nutmeg, ginger, and peppercorns, only afforded by the wealthy. Medieval England was mad for these new taste sensations that added zest to their food and helped disguise spoiled meat. Nutmeg was touted as a cure for the plague. Ginger also made that claim, and peppercorns were worth their weight in gold. Wars were fought over spices, but back to the plants. Unless an individual lived in an isolated region and gleaned only native species, a Medieval physic garden would have had many varieties.
The herbs weren’t grown for their beauty alone, so much as for their healing properties. To the modern eye, they might appear rather weedy. Plants were peoples’ medicine kits, and aesthetics wasn’t the focus. These were not the opulent luxury gardens, but humble and earthy.
Not all of these herbs grow year round in winter, so root stock, cuttings, or seed would have been saved for the next season. Depending on what part of the plant was desired, the leaves, roots, bark, seeds, fruit, etc, determined whether they were used fresh or preserved. Methods of preparation include: waters (simple or distilled), infusions, decoctions, cordials, syrups, conserves, tinctures, oils… ‘Simples’ are the use of one herb, rather than a combination.
18th century botanist and apothecary Sir John Hill in his book, The Family Herbal, says, “In general, leaves, flowers, and entire plants whether fresh or dried, are used in infusions; the roots and bark in decoctions.” So decoctions are for the tougher materials. When fresh roots are used, he advises first cutting them into thin slices. Fresh bark should be shaved down to better prepare it. Grind dried roots into a coarse powder before using them in a decoction.
A decoction might be infused with nut oil, wine, vinegar, alcohol, or water and then dispensed by the spoonful or wineglassful in the proportions deemed appropriate. This was guesswork. Tinctures are concentrated and dispensed by drops. Only a skilled herbalist was able to more accurately judge how much was enough. In the case of potentially poisonous herbs, too much was lethal. And still is. Dosage is critical.
Herbs were dispensed singly or as a mixture. If an external dressing was needed, a poultice or compress might be applied. Herbal ointments were commonly made with lard. The wealthy might employ more exotic ingredients such as nut oil, wax, and resin. Medicinal baths were also used, or the patient breathed in the vapors of a steeping herb or the smoke from burning leaves. How the curative powers were delivered depended on the plant and the ailment or injury being treated.
I’ve compiled a list of many herbs, including some trees, that could have been grown in an English Medieval Herb Garden after the Crusades. These have been noted, also whether the plants were indigenous, and, if not, when they arrived in England. Many would have been cultivated in other regions of the British Isles, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, depending on climate conditions and access to seeds.
Where possible, I noted that too, particularly Scotland. Medical properties and uses are given after each one. I’ve listed the plants in alphabetical order. Or tried. The complete plant index is at the end of this work. Some plants make appearances in reference to others because herbs are often used in combinations in medical applications. And, depending on the full name, they may not appear in the order you expect.
***Disclaimer: I am not advocating the medicinal use of these plants, only providing information about their age-old uses. Any applications are strictly up to you. Added cautions are provided for potentially poisonous herbs. Heed them.
***Amazon Link: Plants For A Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles