Tudor Herbs

Anne-Karoline Distel
(2020)

My name is Anne-Karoline Distel and today, I’m going to tell you a few things about three Tudor garden plants.

If you have ever visited Rothe House Garden, you were very likely impressed by the variety of plants there. Apart from having to buy exotic herbs and spices like pepper, households were pretty much self-sufficient with their gardens. And that included the use of plants not only in the kitchen, but also as medicine and for cosmetic application.

Lady’s bedstraw in full bloom

My personal favourite in Rothe House garden is lady’s bedstraw. The Latin name is Galium verum. This is a medicinal plant growing 15 cms to 1 m in height with yellow flowers which is in bloom around this time of year, which would be July. The flowers smell like honey and the plant is popular with bees. It is related to the common woodruff and their stems and leaves are very similar, if you have a look and a feel. The stem’s cross section is square and the leaves radiate out in both plants. The name lady’s bedstraw gives away one of the purposes of this plant. Due to its sedative effect, women during childbirth kept it under their pillow. In Scandinavia, the plant is associated with Freya, the goddess of marriage and childbirth. Another reason to stuff the Tudor mattress with it was its use as a flea repellant. Tudor women also used the plant to dye their hair blonde, which does not seem to be a very recent fashion so. We have yet to find a volunteer to get into that area of experimental archaeology. It was also used to dye fabric, yellow being a very popular colour for the léine as I talked about at an earlier stage.

The German name Labkraut (meaning “rennet herb”) and the French name Caille-lait jaune (“yellow milk curdler”) refer to its use as a plant based rennet. It is still used in the production of French comté and English Chester cheese.

It likes lime soil and I have personally seen it growing in three locations in Kilkenny and Carlow along roads and the Barrow. A real allrounder, this plant is.

Rosemary

Another, more well known herb is rosemary. It is native to the Mediterranean where it can also grow wild. It likes loam soil and prefers good drainage and can withstand long periods of draught. The easiest way to grow it is from clippings, because the germination rate is rather low. In Tudor times and before it was used to spice all kinds of meat dishes. Its intense aroma probably helped covering up the smell and taste of slightly gone off meat. Its aroma has been compared to that of mustard. In folklore, there is a long tradition of associating rosemary with remembrance. Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Perdita in the Winter’s Tale mention it. Before the time of sanitizers, back in Tudor times, people used a mixture of salt, vinegar and rosemary to scrub their wooden tables. Without them knowing the chemistry behind it, the vinegar desinfected the wood, and the rosemary probably helped cope with the strong smell of vinegar. Rosemary was also used on floors, especially in sick people’s rooms, when walking on the twigs would release the aromatic smell. We mustn’t forget their believe that good smelling air was healthy and bad odours made you sick. This was also the reason why plague doctors stuffed herbs like rosemary into their masks that were shaped like a bird’s beak.

Borage blossoms

The third plant I want to mention is borage. Because of the shape of its mostly blue flowers, it is also known as the star flower. It has hairy leaves which are edible. The leaves taste like cucumber – I’ve tried it myself which is reflected in one of its German names (literally cucumber herb). Nobody really knows where the name borage comes from, but there is one belief that it derives from the Celtic word borrach for bravery. It grows up to 70 cms tall and flowers from May to September and is popular with bees and bumblebees. It originated in Northern Africa, but since the Middle Ages has found its way too almost all continents. The beautiful blue flowers are used today to decorate salads or in ice cubes. In earlier times, it was associated with joy. The botanist John Gerard said in 1597 “Ego Borago, Gaudia semper ago (I, Borage, bring always joys )”. He continues saying “Those of our time do use the flowers in salads to exhilerate and make the mind glad. There be also many things made of these used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for the driving away of sorrow and increasing the joy of the mind. The leaves and flowers of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadness, dullness and melancholy, as Dioscorides and Pliny affirm. Syrup made of the flowers of Borage comfort the heart, purge melancholy and quiet the frantic and lunatic person. The leaves eaten raw engender good blood, especially in those that have been lately sick.“ However, some of its ingredients are toxic for the liver, so just like the merry making with alcohol, dosage is everything.

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