By Joe Gilford, Hare Nurseries, Newburgh
This paper was prepared by Joe Gilford in Newburgh’s anniversary year.
Life for ordinary people in the early 14th century was more about survival than relaxation, and medicine and food crops were far more important than ornamentals. Most of the plants we know as having been cultivated then had medicinal or edible qualities as well as being, in some instances, ornamental – what we would refer to today as “herbs” – and would have been dual or even tri-purpose.
The aristocracy did, however, grow flowers and we can imagine Lathom House having a “Lady’s Garden” or “Flower Mere,” but it was not until the later 16th century that we see widespread references to cultivated flowers.
Evidence as to which plants were grown years ago is widespread from the 16th century onwards, but sparse prior to that. In fact, evidence from writers such as Pliny tells us more about crops in Roman times than we are able to find for the medieval period, but we do know that many of these crops were still in use in the 14th century.
All remaining references were hand-written (printing did not come about until 1440) and mainly from monks. All names were common names only – modern Latin taxonomy did not arrive until Linnaeus in the mid 18th century – and, with local variations rife, can be highly confusing. The word ‘Camomile,’ for example, can apply to at least three totally different types of plant.
We have found references to all the plants we’ve noted here having been grown in the UK at some time during the 14th century, though the dates of their introduction are not usually recorded. A good proportion are native British plants, as you would expect. The exact forms or varieties of popular plants won’t be available to us now, having been local variants from self-saved seed; most then are modern variations, but are nevertheless very similar to what would have been seen then.
In researching this exercise, I came to realise that literally every plant referred to as having been grown then would be relatively easily grown from seed. In other words, no more sophisticated propagation (in relative terms), like cuttings, would have been needed.
This leads me to speculate whether they would have been cultivated, as we would understand it now, or simply grown from roughly broadcast seeds. Perhaps the currently fashionable idea of the “Flower Meadow” is older than we think.
Plants in 1304
COMMON SPEEDWELL (Veronica officinalis): Known as “herba veronica majoris” in the Middle Ages.
A native wild flower and a hardy perennial.
Was imbued with all sorts of medicinal powers in the Middle Ages, most of which seem to have been discounted by modern herbalists (what do they know!).
Still occasionally used as a dried herb added to tea blends.
SWEET BASIL (Ocimum basilicum)
Probably introduced by the Romans – there are many different types of basil.
Leaves, seed, oil and the whole plant are used for a wide range of culinary and medicinal purposes, including treating snakebites.
We may think it’s fashionable now, but it’s been popular for at least two millennia.
COMFREY (Symphytum officinalis)
A native wild flower used as a (powerful) medicinal plant, banned here for use in tablet or capsule form.
Was widely used in a range of ailments, particularly to reduce inflammation and bleeding. Even now its active ingredient is synthesised to make preparations treating Haemorrhoids and sore breasts.
The young leaves, like those of so many plants, can be chopped and used in salads, and cooked like spinach. The roots were used in chutney and to make wine.
Hardy perennial and ornamental.
A very variable genus now after centuries of breeding. Some, e.g. Viola arvensis, the Field Violet, were annuals; others, like Viola cornuta, were perennials. It’s difficult to say exactly which ones were grown then, but our money goes on Viola tricolor, “Heartsease” or “Wild Pansy”.
Like so many herbs, it’s amazing just how many complaints were treated by it. Here is a list of some uses:
· As a laxative and diuretic.
· To lower fever, clear toxins, reduce inflammation and promote healing.
· For bronchitis, whooping cough, rheumatism, ulcers, skin complaints (especially weeping eczema), urinary complaints, capillary fragility and auto-immune disease involving one or more of the above.
Far better than aspirin!!! Self-seeds prolifically.
FORGET-ME-NOT (Myosotis arvensis)
Believe it or not there are no less than 10 species of forget-me-not growing wild in Britain. Commonest were probably Myosotis arvensis (Field Forget-Me-Not), Myosotis sylvestris (Wood Forget-Me-Not) and Myosotis scorpioides (Water Forget-Me-Not). Some are annuals, some biennials and some perennials; all are short lived. We’re not aware of medicinal benefits, though undoubtedly they were associated with various romantic notions.
COMMON TANSY (Tanacetum vulgare)
This is a pretty powerful herb which should be used with caution. It used to be used to flavour puddings, cakes, stews, salads and omelettes. Don’t overdo it if you experiment.
Was used to expel parasites and was associated in medieval times with cleansing rituals at Easter.
A native ornamental perennial.
THYME (Thymus vulgaris)
Ornamental, commonly used herb in many different species and cultivars, loved by bees and making an excellent tea.
Widely used for centuries to flavour (or hide the flavour!) of a wide range of dishes.
Used medicinally for lung complaints, and still used as Thymol (Thyme Oil) in toothpaste manufacture.
BORAGE (Borage officinalis)
Young leaves impart a cucumber flavour and are delicious in salads (old leaves are sharply hairy and horrible). Both leaves and flowers are used in cooling drinks (try with elderflower cordial). The flowers were believed to drive out melancholy. Used medicinally for bronchial infections and other problems.
A decorative hardy annual which will self-seed. In the UK since at least 1200, and possibly a native.
HYSSOP (Hyssopus officinalis)
First recorded in the UK in 1200, but an ancient herb mentioned in the Old Testament.
Used in pot-pourri and chopped finely, in soups and salads. Said to be excellent with eels!
Produces volatile oils which are of use for a variety of purposes including as a tonic and to reduce inflammation. Used in production of Chartreuse.
Ornamental and a hardy perennial.
LOVAGE (Levisticum officinale)
The “Maggi” plant, giving a celery flavour for soups and casseroles. The leaves are added to a range of savoury dishes, and the seeds added to bread. Young shoots are blanched and eaten as a vegetable, whilst the stalks can be candied.
The oil is still used quite widely for food flavourings and alcoholic drinks.
A hardy perennial.
SWEET MARJORAM (Origanum majorana)
Another ancient plant (mentioned by Theophrastus in 400 BC). Used in bouquets garni, pot-pourri and as a flavouring for a variety of foods.
Native to the UK (and most of Europe) and first recorded here in 995 AD.
Like a number of herbs, believed to be a uterus relaxant and given to women in childbirth. Its oil was used to kill lice. Still widely used in food and medicine, and its oil used in the manufacture of men’s perfumes.
DIANTHUS PlUMARIUS “Cottage/Wild Pink”
Referred to by Chaucer in “Canterbury Tales” in 1383, so could have been around in the early part of the century. The parent of most modern garden pinks, and prized for its scent as much as for its flower.
A hardy perennial.
HELENIUM AUTUMNALE “Helen’s Flower”
Definitely an ancient plant but we’re just not sure when it was first cultivated here.
We had to include it for its story, though: it was reputed to spring from the ground watered by Helen of Troy’s tears.
PARSLEY (Petroselinum crispum)
We tend to think of using its leaves, but the roots, seed and oil all have uses. In earlier times it would have been relatively coarse-leaved, so this type has come back into fashion.
Claimed to have wide medicinal powers including reducing spasms and inflammation, clearing toxins, stimulating digestion and the uterus during childbirth.
MARGUERITE, OX-EYED DAISY (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, if the taxonomists haven’t changed it since yesterday)
Another UK wild flower captured for domesticity. Perennial and ornamental.
Young leaves can be chopped and used (sparingly) in salads.
Has been used medicinally in treating whooping cough, asthma and nervous excitability, also as a lotion on bruises, wounds and ulcers.
SAGE (Salvia officinalis)
Referred to in the UK in 995 AD.
A very wide range of medicinal uses, particularly as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory.
The oil is now used as a fixative in perfumes and added to other cosmetics and toothpaste.
Used widely as a flavouring throughout Europe.
PULSATILLA VULGARIS (the “Pasque-Flower,” or formerly “Pasque-Floure”)
An ornamental native perennial. Once known as “Palsywort,” or the posher “herba paralysis” through its uses to control spasms, cramps and paralysis. Used also for calming the nerves and lung problems.
A green dye used to be extracted from it which was used to colour Easter eggs
RUE (Ruta graveolens) “Herb of Grace”
Used for a whole range of complaints including corpulency, thread worms and hysteria. Attractive in its own right with its grey foliage and small yellow flowers.
A potent herb used as an antidote to poisons, witches and plagues.
Still used to flavour Grappa in Italy. Technically a hardy shrub.
VALERIAN (Valeriana officinalis)
A native wild flower, scented and ornamental.
References date back to 4th century BC, and it has been used as an analgesic since Roman times. Its roots are the main parts used to treat a wide range of complaints including hysteria and insomnia. One source says it is “best for people of a cold disposition”.
Extracts still widely used in flavourings e.g. ice-cream and soft drinks, and used to treat shellshock in WWI.
SWEET ROCKET (Hesperis matronalis)
First recorded in the UK in 1375, but probably here earlier. (Not to be confused with salad rocket, widely eaten since Roman times.)
Very strongly scented and an ornamental favourite of Marie Antoinette whilst in prison.
Strictly perennial, but usually grown as a biennial or even annual.
PRIMULA veris (“ Fairy Cups”, “Key of Heaven”, “Cowslip”)
PRIMULA vulgaris (“Primrose”)
Both these plants are British natives, and both have been used medicinally as well as ornamentals for centuries. The first UK use of the Cowslip in herbals is in 995 AD, but they were probably in use well prior to that – Pliny, for example, recommended them for gout.
Both plants have similar properties and were largely used for the same thing, but the Cowslip was significantly more powerful and was generally preferred.
The flowers were regularly used in wine, which then (surprise, surprise) had a sedative effect. They were also used in conserves.
Both are perennials.
WALLFLOWERS (Cheiranthus cheirii)
One of the earliest recorded ornamentals, but not normally used as a herb.
The ones they had would have looked very different to today’s!
Reproduced with kind permission of Joe Gilford, Hare Nurseries