Sunday, February 11, 2007
The Romance of Herbs
It's been back to winter again during the last few days but after the previous weekend that I spent working in the garden in warm sunshine, I'm really turning my thoughts to spring and summer. The scene outside the window doesn't fit in with these thoughts so I've resorted to looking through some of my books to tide me over.
I was looking through a herb book I have by Lesley Bremness and came across the herb 'melilot' which immediately conjured up in my mind a picture of a medieval lady walking in a flowery mead. Melilot is such an evocative name and I started thinking of other herb names that conjure up similar visions for me.
Sweet Cicely is another pretty name and this produces a mind picture of a quiet, shady country lane with the wonderful smell of aniseed drifting on the air. It drifts on the air in my garden too as it is one of the herbs that I grow. In fact when I think about it most of the herb names which conjure up country lanes and Tudor country gardens for me have the word 'sweet' in them - meadowsweet, sweet rocket,sweet violet, sweet woodruff - and sweet briar rose, this always brings a vision of a Shakespeare's bank
'where the wild thyme blows,
where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
quite over-canopied with lush woodbine,
with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight.'
Can you think of a more beautiful vision for a cold February day? A vision to hold onto until the reality becomes available.
One of the phrases I love that also conjures up wonderful mind pictures for me is 'the Tudor stillroom'. These must have been such pleasant places to work in filled as they would have been with flowers and herbs drying and waiting to be made into all kinds of sweet bags,medicines, lotions,ointments,pot pourris and perfumes - the stillroom produced an endless stream of supplies for the Tudor household.
Lavender and roses have always been among the most popular flowers for making pot pourri and sweet bags to scent the linen. I grow the Apothecary's Rose which is thought to be the oldest cultivated rose in existence and it is also the Red Rose of Lancaster which, along with the White Rose of York, gave its name to the Wars of the Roses between the great houses of York and Lancaster in the 15th century. The photograph above is actually Reine des Violettes which only dates back to the 1860s. It has a wonderful perfume though, this is the most important thing for me in the roses that I grow.
A Tudor herb garden would have been full of many kinds of herbs, they were used much more then than they are now, many plants that we regard as ornamental were then important herbs. Cowslips for instance were used in salves and to treat whooping cough and bronchitis, and Ladies Mantle( Alchemilla mollis) was a 'women's herb' and was also used as a wound herb. I love Ladies Mantle, it's beautiful both in leaf and flower and grows practically anywhere. The photo above is the period garden outside Bayleaf farmhouse at the Weald & Downland Museum. Those of you who have been with me some time will probably remember the descriptions of my visits there last summer.
Herbs are not all just summer plants, above is one of my rosemary bushes after the snowfall last week. Sage also can be picked all year round, the sage bush in flower at the beginning of this post provides me with leaves for the turkey stuffing every Christmas Eve.
Just so that you can be prepared - if you plant an elder (the Elder Mother is the protectress of all herbs)in your garden and stand under it at midnight on Midsummer Eve you will see the King of the Fairies and all his courtiers go by.