Well hasn’t the weather been putting a crimp in our gardening year? Here the ground has either been under snow, frozen solid or waterlogged and it has at times been impossible to do any work in the Garden. Still, there has been plenty to do with chitting potatoes, seed sowing and pricking out and potting on.
Now we have had some nice days and so everyone has been out weeding and hoeing and raking and getting the Garden prepared for the season ahead. I have been in the Physic Garden, our tribute to plants with medicinal purposes featuring plants used by medieval herbalists.
The winter has left it looking somewhat bedraggled so I’ve been cutting back and weeding and generally tidying. It got me thinking as it often does how people worked out which plants could help with which conditions. I can only shudder to think how herbalists worked out that rhubarb was edible but the leaves were poisonous. But then one had more leeway in a world where people felt that everything that happened was God’s will including whether you lived or died.
But herbalists such as the twelfth century abbess Hildegard of Bingen who wrote several works on herbal medicine were often right and some of the remedies she and others used are still in use today.
For example, a tea made from powdered cowslip root was prescribed by Hildegard as a cure for colds and depression. Whilst we would not use it as a first port of call for depression, research has shown that cowslip tea is helpful in alleviating a persistent cough. You’ll find cowslips in the coughs and colds bed of the Physic Garden.
Lavender is another herb used in medieval times: to scent linen, keep moths from woollens, relieve the symptoms of colds and aid insomnia, all ways in which we still use lavender today.
The flowers of the cornflower, once familiar on the edges of every field would be made into a decoction to use as an eyewash and parsley was used as both a tonic and as a remedy for rheumatic pains. Angelica would have been used to aid digestion and mint as an inhalant for heavy colds and in an infusion for digestive problems, uses we would still find familiar today.
I find reading through the old herbals absolutely fascinating and researching for this article I’ve found another book by Hildegard I didn’t know about. So I’ll be ordering that to add to my collection of herbals. I’m not a herbalist by any stretch of the imagination but I find it fascinating and looking after the Physic Garden a real joy.
So come and enjoy the fruits of my labours and see how many plants you recognise in the Physic Garden. Not all of them would be recommended in modern medicine but you may be surprised at just how many are things we all grow in our gardens. Until next time, I’m off to plant some rosemary and sage, happy days.
Tricia Harris April 2018