Archive for October, 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

Weed Eating

Portulaca oleracea Chenopodium album Chenopodium bonus-henricus

The edible weeds that grew among the cultivated vegetables in the medieval kitchen garden were also harvested and used as potherbs. Above, from left to right: purslane, a succulent weed of fertile soils, is a common weed in our own vegetable gardens; lamb’s quarters, also known as “fat hen,” is now a very common weed in the United States; Good King Henry is related to the nutritious lamb’s quarters and was cultivated as a vegetable. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

A weed is a plant you don’t want. An herb is a plant with a use. But many of the “weedy” species that are considered garden nuisances today were actually valued in the Middle Ages. Edible weeds growing in the kitchen garden, along with the cultivated vegetables, were used in pottage, a basic medieval dish. (For more on pottage, see last week’s post, “Colewort and Kale.”) Read more »

Friday, October 22, 2010

Colewort and Kale

Collard Profile Collard Seen from Above Sea Kale

The Brassicaceae, or mustard family, contains many vegetables with a long history in the European diet. Cabbage, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower are all forms of a single polymorphic species, Brassica oleracea. Above from right to left: Collard is the closest available approximation to the colewort, the primitive cultivated cabbage of the Middle Ages. The tight, heading cabbages we know today were developed from the colewort. Sea kale (Crambe maritima), which was gathered from the wild, belongs to a separate genus within the Brassica family.  Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

Cabbages and kales have been eaten, improved, and eaten some more for centuries. The medieval cabbage, or colewort, (see the first image for the etymology of “colewort”) was one of the mainstays of the medieval diet, at least for those ordinary mortals outside courtly circles, whose more refined cuisine has been preserved in cookbooks—such as the famous Forme of Cury—of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The greens were cooked and eaten alone, or were included in pottage—sometimes spelled “potage”—a kind of thick soup or porridge made from vegetables boiled with grain. Read more »

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mutter Natur

<i>Pisum sativum arvense</i>, "Blue Pod Capucijners" Madonna lily (<i>Lilum candidum</i>) Milk thistle (<i>Silybum marianum</i>)

Many of the healing herbs, flowers, and foodstuffs mentioned by the twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen in her great work Physica are grown in Bonnefont garden at The Cloisters. Above, from left to right: Field peas (Pisum sativum arvense, variety ‘Blue Pod Capucijners’); Madonna lily (Lilium candidum); milk thistle (Silybum marianum).  Photographs from the Gardens archives.

It is the first book in which a woman discusses plants and trees in relation to their physical properties. It is the earliest book on natural history to be done in Germany and is, in essence, the foundation of botanical study there. It influenced the 16th-century works of Brunfels, Fuchs, and Bock, the so-called “German fathers of botany,” but the fact is that German botany is more indebted to a “mother.”
—Frank Anderson on the Physica, from An Illustrated History of the Herbals

Certain plants grow from air. These plants are gentle on the digestion and possess a happy nature, producing happiness in anyone who eats them. They are like a person’s hair in that they are always light and airy. Certain other herbs are windy, since they grow from the wind. These herbs are dry, and heavy on one’s digestion. They are of a sad nature, making the person who eats them sad. They are comparable to human perspiration. Moreover, there are herbs which are fatal as human food . . . they are comparable to human excrement.
—From Book I of the Physica, translated by Priscilla Throop

Hildegard of Bingen, Benedictine abbess, visionary, poet, dramatist, composer, and the most learned woman of the twelfth century, wrote the Physica, or Natural Science, about the year 1150. Read more »

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Monarchs Rule!

Monarch: Ventral View Monarch: Dorsal View Monarch Feeding

The monarch is the most widely known and readily recognizable butterfly in the eastern United States. Between August and November each year, virtually the entire North American population of the species migrates to winter roosts in fir forests in the mountains of Mexico. Above, from left to right: Ventral view of an adult monarch feeding on a Japanese anemone in Cuxa garden; dorsal view of a male monarch hovering near a crabapple shoot; ventral view of a monarch feeding on a tubular flower of Abelia x grandiflora. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

The annual northern and southern migrations (see image) of the monarch (Danaus plexippus), the most beloved and familiar of North American butterflies, are monitored not only by professional lepidopterists, but also by many citizens and students across the country. In late summer and autumn, monarchs in the millions make for their ancestral wintering roosts in forests of oyamel fir trees (Abies religiosa) which grow at heights of ten thousand feet in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Mexico. Read more »