Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dreaming Of The Medieval Physic Garden

Wintertime sets in, beckoning us to dream. With a cup of linden tea and a cozy shawl on my shoulders, I write this to inspire a bit of armchair travel to a time and garden that holds great purpose.

Special Gardens, Specialized Gardeners

Physic refers to the use of garden harvests for physical healing. In history, these gardens were kept by apothecaries and their apprentices. Apothecaries were, and still are, traders and dispensers of medicinal herbs. They have always been trained in the identification and quality purchasing of herbs, and so avoiding adulteration, poisoning and ineffective treatment. Physic gardens were established to train apprentices, in assisting with the ability to recognize each herb and in growing herbs for the production of medicines.
Physic gardens were also established at monasteries. Although herbalism was practiced and hospitals existed prior to the establishment of churches, in the medieval era hospitals were formed in connection with monastic institutions. Each monastery had an infirmary where treatment was available with herbal medicines from the herbs cultivated in their physic gardens. The German abbess, author and herbalist Hildegard von Bingen who lived from1098 to1179 CE surely had a physic garden. Her two books Physica and Causae et Curae on the curative powers of natural substances are very inspiring and enlightening reading.
In 1164CE The House Of The Holy Trinity At Soutra was founded in Scotland near Edinburgh by King Malcolm IV as an Augustinian hospital, monastery and church complete with physic gardens. The remains of these physic gardens and the hospital, now called Soutra Aisle, was reviewed by Archeo-botanist Brian Moffat in the 1990’s. He revealed similar herbs Irish monks in Switzerland planted in the monasteries there were being grown and used in Scotland at Soutra. These Swiss monastic physic gardens contained over 30 herbs and vegetables including beets, cabbage. celery, chervil, climbing beans, coriander, costmary, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, iris, lettuce, lilies, lovage, various mints, onion, parsley, parsnip, pennyroyal, pepperwort, poppies; including opium variety, radishes, roses, rosemary, rue, sage, shallots and watercress.

You may have many of these very same herbs and vegetables growing that were in the physic gardens of the medieval era. Maybe this little article will inspire you to create a medieval physic garden of your own.

The Grand Garden Dream

As the winter is a splendid and creative time to plan medicinal gardens, start dreaming of yours now. Garden plans are good to have and can always be adjusted, but with out one there is a tendency to run into troubles and realizing something important too late. This helps prevent the potential of wasting of energy, and the unfortunate occurrences, which turn into obstacles needing to be dealt with, which adds to our work and frustration. Ultimately its best to create this plan in the winter so you will be ready for herb planting come spring-time, keeping in sync with natures cycles.

To begin the process, explore a plant conservatory, botanical garden, arboretum or physic garden near you, taking notes all the while. There are many indoor gardens and some that can be viewed online. 

Milk Thistle detail from the The Unicorn in
Captivity tapestry The Cloisters Museum

Some Places To Explore

The Cloisters Museum & Gardens in Northern Manhattan is a beautiful start. The buildings are reconstructions of historic monasteries and the gardens are well researched and well planted. May and June is the best time for an in-person visit, with all the new herbs up and beginning their bloom.

The Cloisters
99 Margaret Corbin Drive
Fort Tryon Park
New York, New York 10040

Information: 212-923-3700

In the1670’s Andrew Balfour and Robert Sibbald studied and grew many of the healing plants indigenous to Scotland. They established a physic garden that started with 800 to 900 plants, growing at one time to the size of 2000 plants. This would evolve into the Royal Botanic Garden Of Edinburgh, which has been used by generations of students to learn botany and herbalism.

Royal Botanic Gardens
20a Inverleith Row
Edinburgh EH3 5LR
0131 552 7171

The Apothecaries Garden established in 1673, now called the Chelsea Physic Garden originally contained mints, sage, pennyroyal, sweet marjoram and rue among hundreds of other herbs. The book The Apothecaries Garden by Sue Minter chronicles this garden, its herbs and tradition from its beginnings to its modern keeping.

Chelsea Physic Garden
66 Royal Hospital Road
Chelsea, London

Here is their incredible 360 degree pan around of the garden

Spring Parterre Linnaeus Gardens
Swedish botanist and physician Carl Linnaeus, a historically significant developer of botanical nomenclature, studied and went on to be a professor in Uppsala Sweden in the 1700’s. His garden is still maintained and can be visited. Arranged to his own system of botanical order, approximately 1300 plant species known to have been cultivated by Linnaeus are grown.

The Linnaeus Garden
Svartbacksgatan 27
SE-755 98 Uppsala

Once your mind is blooming with the possibilities, consider what inspired you about these gardens. What herbs do you love the idea of having growing right near you and that you use regularly yourself? As you are envisioning this garden, also consider the growing conditions and the soil type you have. This will help you narrow your selection of herbs for your garden plan. You can change the soil some with amendments to accommodate the herbs you will grow, however don’t try to change the soil too much.

Next, map out the garden on paper. Start small such as a 4’x6’ plot and don’t get too ambitious. It’s stressful if the garden is taking too much of your time or if it is too expensive to plant. Make sure that the center of your garden will be able to be reached from both sides, or if it is a border garden, that you can reach to the back of it. It’s location and size needs to be so that you can reach all parts of it without stepping into it and destroying the soil texture.

Your own physic garden design can to be structural and formal, or sort of wild or informal looking. Make distinct garden shapes with your plantings like squares, circles or triangles or follow the natural contours of rocks, mounds, stumps and trees. It can be then categorized by botanical genus or flower colors or by herbs that are used on a specific body system. You may want to clip some pictures from herb start and seed catalogs, books and magazines to help you begin to visualize. Come early spring, you will be prepared for the work ahead and can enjoy and be healed by the herbs you that have dreamt.

A Few Medieval Physic Garden Herbs & Their Uses

Peppermint  ( Mentha piperita) also known in Gaelic as Lus an Phiobair or herb of the piper is a native European perennial. The plant spreads by way of underground and over ground runners, doing best in rich moist soil. As an Anti-viral and Decongestant its blended with other herbs for coughs, colds and flu, and for decongesting both upper and lower respiratory tracts. A favored drink in Britain before tea was common, it’s a Nervine Stimulant loaded with the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium and the B vitamins niacin, riboflavin and thiamine.

Rose  (Rosa arvensis, Rosa canina, Rosa centifolia, Rosa gallica, Rosa rubiginosa, Rosa villosa) also known in Gaelic as An Fheir Dhris or the fragrant flower. Native to Europe, Britain and temperate regions of the world, it prefers rich soil in the woods, thicket and hedgerows as a trailing or upright deciduous perennial shrub. The fruit forms after the fully open petals drop. These ‘hips’ are oval and begin green, ripening to a rich red to be harvested after the first frost. The flower petals are Anti-depressant and filled with aromatic compounds, volatile oils and Vitamin E. The alcohol or vinegar extract of these petals is effective for most kinds of headaches, restlessness, insomnia and depression. As an Immunomodulator and Nutritive the ripe hips are loaded with flavinoids and minerals such as calcium, chromium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, selenium, zinc and with Vitamin C. They help to remedy fragile capillaries, which can help to prevent bruising. They can also be used with good results for colds, influenza, other infectious diseases, coughs and sore throat. 

Spearmint (Mentha Spicata) also known in Gaelic as Meannt Garraidh or garden spear mint is native to Britain, Europe and Asia. A perennial that is easily identified by its slightly wrinkled bright green lance shaped leaves, it thrives in ditches and meadows, preferring cool, moist, lightly shaded and protected situations. Like peppermint, the herb spreads by way of underground and over ground runners. It is best to plant these two mints away from each other, as the mingling of the two may taste fine, but diminishes the medicinal properties of both. As a Carminative and Cholagogue it’s used to strengthen the appetite and to assist in the digestion of meat and animal fats when used in culinary applications such as in infused vinegar or being made into a jelly. The Renaissance era Herbalist and Apothecary Nicholas Culpepper says it ‘stirs up bodily lust’ raising emotions and desires. As a relaxing Nervine it is uplifting, brings joy, is restorative and nerve strengthening.

Here is a recipe to sooth nerves and assist with the dreaming process in a fine herbal bath mixture using all three ‘physic’ herbs.

Herb Bath

Rose Petals
Combine equal parts of each herb and fill a cloth bag with the mixture. Tie the bag closed and put under the faucet when filling a bathtub. Squeeze water through the bag and use as a body sponge and aromatherapy inhalation.

Sweet and fragrant garden dreams to you...

All contents copyright Heather Nic an Fhleisdeir. First published in The Essential Herbal Magazine
November-December 2011

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