Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

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.


Janet said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. You have such a knowledge of plants and herbs....and I'm quite envious! I know next to nothing about them.
I love the sound of Sweet Cicely! That just conjures up all sorts of pleasant images.
I do have rosemary growing in my yard! And I can actually identify it! Mostly from the aroma! Now I'm off to locate an elder. I want to see the King of the Fairies!!

Sheila said...

A lovely post Rowan..xx
There is something about a herb garden that is evocative ..days of yore and still rooms, such as you describe. Will you be attending more of those workshops this year..?
I do hope so, it is the only way I will be able to 'attend' them..!
I am reading Patrick Suskind's PERFUME, and while it concerns murder, the story tells in detail of how perfume is extracted from flowers in the 18th century. It might be something you would enjoy reading.

Tea & Margaritas in My Garden said...

Wonderful post and pictures Rowan! I`ve always been fascinated with herbs and their uses. Interesting history! Plants are truly amazing.


VintagePretty said...

I love your post ~ I've been studying herbs and their uses for so long they seem like old friends. Our bookcase has a whole shelf dedicated to herbs and their uses. I really love feverfew (it grows like a heavenly-scented weed in our garden, although the smell does take some getting used to!) and lawn chamomile. I cannot list all the herbs I really adore, because there would not be enough room, but I know I couldn't have a garden without them :)

Bovey Belle said...

I've always loved herbs too, and have two small herb gardens, though one is over-run with chocolate mint! We have Elder growing wild in our hedgerows and at the bottom of our yard, so I shall hide out and see the King of the Fairies this year! I use the flowers steeped in melted down lard as a cream for when you get sore dry fingers in the winter (like right now).

peppylady said...

I'm thinking gardening but real can't take much action for gardens until the snow melts.

Lynda (Granny K) said...

A lovely post Rowan. I love herbs and old roses too! I wish I had room for more. We have Albertine, Gloire de Dijon and Gertrude Jekyll. The scent of old roses is just wonderful. I'm looking forward to hearing and seeing more about your garden as the year unfolds.

Remiman said...

I can think of no better way to wile away a winter's day than to image the herb garden and recall the aroma of each plant as we walk by and rub a leaf or two of each.
My favorite is "sweet" basil, next, sage, then lavender, sweet woodruff, and thyme. Their smells are so invigorating.
I do enjoy reading your descriptions of the things that bring you pleasure.

Blue the Spa Girl said...

...nodding violets...sweet violets. Just give me violets!
I adore them.
I agree about the allure of herbs...they are so fresh, so fragrant, and full of life. They can be eaten, looked at, inhaled and displayed. They can even cure.
You have put me in the mood for a walk down a country lane in springtime! Hurry up Spring!!! xo

UKBob said...

You have some nice pictures and thoughts there Rowan. I hope to do a bit more with the herb garden at work this year, we planted a few things late last year so they haven't grown much yet.

Love Bears All Things said...

Thanks Rowan, for sharing with me. I feel as if I'm on those walks with you. The Bull Finch was beautiful and Biblo Baggins, what a delightful name. Seeing your country through your eyes is almost like a visit. Keep it up.
Mama Bear

Rosa said...

What a wonderful post on herbs. So informative. I finally just cut my rosemary back as it was taking over! Rosemary and lavender are my favs. Thank you so much for your kind comment on my Bev. I'm sorry you had to come at a sad time to my blog. xo

KerrdeLune said...

Herbs and roses in the garden - it will be a very long time before they make their appearances here, but there are books on herbs, veggies and roses open everywhere here, and I am dreaming of spring and gardens. This was a lovely thoughtful post, and thank you for gifting it on this snowfall day.

Daisy Lupin said...

Good to be able to visit again. I love the idea of Sweet Cicely, but it is one herb I have never had success with, and I can never work out why! I have just ordered some plants for the spring all of them highly fragranced so I can drift off into a fairy dream on warm summer days in my garden.

Nature Girl said...

Love the herbs love the roses love this post! Happy Valentines Day! hugs NG

littlejennywren said...

I just love reading about the history and uses of herbs. The thing I like best about them is that many of them are so hardy.