Archive for the ‘Food and Beverage Plants’ Category

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 »

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Salvia, Save Us

Salvia officinalis Detail from The Unicorn is Found Salvia fruticosa

Sage, known by Latin epithets such as Salvia salvatrix, was a healing plant of great renown throughout the Middle Ages, although it was also valued as a culinary herb. Above, left: Salvia officinalis, the common garden sage, growing in a bed devoted to kitchen plants in Bonnefont garden; center: a detail from The Unicorn is Found, showing Salvia officinalis in flower; right: Greek sage or three-lobed sage (Salvia fruticosa) is not hardy in our climate, and is grown in pots and brought under cover in winter. The medicinal properties of this species were celebrated in antiquity and were conflated with those of S. officinalis.

Why should a man die in whose garden grows sage?
Against the power of death there is not medicine in our gardens
But Sage calms the nerves, takes away hand
Tremors, and helps cure fever.
Sage, castoreum, lavender, primrose,
Nasturtium, and athanasia cure paralytic parts of the body.
O sage the savior, of nature the conciliator!

—From Page Ten of the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum (A Salernitan Regimen of Health). See the Gode Cookery website to read the entire poem.

Cur moriatur homo cui salvia crescit in horto? (Why should a man die who has sage growing in his garden?) This much-quoted Latin adage is from the famous medieval didactic poem on maintaining good health, the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum. Read more »

Friday, August 13, 2010

Cornelian Cherry

Conus mas Cornus mas fruit Cornus mas fruit (detail)

Above, from left to right: A mature cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) established against the east wall of Bonnefont garden; the foliage of Cornus mas is typical of the dogwood family to which it belongs; the tart red fruits, known as cornels, don’t ripen fully until after they fall from the tree in late July and early August. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

A native of dry, deciduous forests in central and southern Europe and western Asia, the cornelian cherry is a relative of our own flowering dogwood, Cornus florida. The fruit of the cornelian cherry is classified botanically as a drupe, as is the fruit of the true cherry, Prunus cerasus, but the two plants are in no way related. Although the fruits are unfamiliar to Americans, Cornus mas is very widely grown in this country as a small ornamental tree or as a multi-stemmed shrub, prized for the host of little yellow blossoms that veil the naked stems and branches in early March. Read more »

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Elecampane

Inula helenium Inula helenium detail

Above, left: Elecampane growing in a bed in Bonnefont garden devoted to medieval vegetables. The bright yellow flowers of this striking plant are borne high on tall stems that can reach an imposing height of six feet. Right: Detail of the fringed flowers, typical of the daisy family. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

The tall and showy elecampane (Inula helenium) is a striking presence along roadsides, in pastures, and on waste grounds both in Europe and in the United States, where it is considered an invasive weed by the U.S.D.A., especially in the moist and shady situations it prefers. It is nevertheless still widely planted in ornamental gardens for its imposing height, bold foliage, and bright yellow flowers, which come into bloom at midsummer. Read more »

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Salute to the Skirret Root

Skirret Foliage and Roots Skirret Root Texture

Above, left: a view of the complete skirret plant; right: a closer look at the texture of the skirret root. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

Skirret (gerla) is hot and dry. Eaten in moderation, it is not very helpful or harmful. If someone should eat a lot of it, its heat and dryness would stir up fevers in him and harm his intestines. A person whose face has weak skin, which easily splits, should pound skirret in a mortar and add oil. When he goes to bed at night, he should rub it on his face, continuing until he is healed.

—Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica

Read more »

Monday, February 1, 2010

Love’s Herb

Myrtus communis Myrtle Blossoms Fruits of the Myrtle

Above, from left to right: common myrtle is grown in pots at The Cloisters and brought indoors before frost; detail of the ivory-white blossoms of Myrtus communis; detail of the blue-black fruits of the common myrtle.

In myrtle shades oft sings the happy swain,
In myrtle shades despairing ghost complain.
The myrtle crowns the happy lovers’ heads,
Th’ unhappy lovers’ graves the myrtle spreads.

—Verses Written at The Request of a Gentleman to whom a Lady had Given a Sprig of Myrtle, by Samuel Johnson

This eighteenth-century verse is a deft summation of many centuries of the myrtle’s association with love, lovers, and the goddess of love. Read more »

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hips and Haws

Rose hips in Bonnefont Cloister Detail of Rose Hips

Above, from left: The ripe fruits of the white rose tree in Bonnefont garden are held on their stems late into the fall, and provide food for birds and wildlife; the fleshy red fruits of the rose are known as “hips” and contain seeds that were used medicinally in the Middle Ages.

Apples, roses, and hawthorns are all members of a single botanical family, the Rosaceae. The fruits of the hawthorn are known as haws. The fruits of the rose are known as hips, a word of Germanic origin that appears in the glossary compiled by the Anglo-Saxon grammarian Aelfric in the ninth century.  (The Romans had designated the rose hip as malum roseum, or “rose apple”.)

While all roses bear hips, it was the fruit of wild roses such as the briar rose or eglantine (R. rubiginosa) and the dog rose (R. canina) that seem to have been used for food and medicine. The cookbook of Apicius, compiled in the fourth or early fifth century A.D., includes rose hips in several recipes, but in both ancient and medieval cuisine rose petals are used more often than the fruits. Wild roses seem to have been a famine food gathered in case of need rather than a delicacy. In the fourteenth-century Middle English translation of the Romance of William of Palerne, two lovers, William and Melior, flee to the woods disguised in bearskins, where William is given advice by his cousin—who has been transformed into a werewolf—as to what foods they may sustain themselves on, in addition to their love. It is suggested that they forage for wild plums, blackberries, hips, haws, acorns, and hazelnuts (”haws, hepus, & hakernes & hasel-notes”):

(For acorns as famine food, see last week’s post, “Pigs and Pannage“.)

William Turner, in his New Herbal of 1565, warns that those who make tarts out of hips should take heed to remove all the “down” from the fruit. These little hairs inside the hips are quite irritating to the skin. (I once made hedgerow jelly from hips, haws, and sloes, while in England, and found the process of removing the fibers from all those little hips pretty unpleasant, as well as tedious.) Dioscorides also recommended that this wooly matter be removed before the fruits were dried as a medicament to “stop the belly.”  Albertus Magnus specified the seeds contained in the hips as a remedy for diarrhea in infants.

Rose petals and oil of roses are more frequently recommended in medieval herbals than the fruits. Although garden roses were characterized as cold in the humoral theory of the Middle Ages, wild roses were classified as hot. Hildegard of Bingen says that the hips are very hot. As such, they would be considered efficacious in a complaint of  “a cold cause,” such as catarrh.) Hildegard recommends rose hips as a cure in Book LII of the Physica:

One who has pain in his lungs should crush rose hips with their leaves. Then he should add raw honey and cook these together. He should frequently remove the froth, then strain it through a cloth and make spiced wine. He should drink this often, and it will carry off the rotten matter from his lungs, purging and healing him.

Despite the flower’s ubiquity in medieval art, rose hips are rarely depicted in paintings or illuminations. However, a leafy stem of rose hips does appear in an early sixteenth-century book of hours commissioned by Anne of Brittany and painted by Jean Bourdichon. The painter shows a single “robin’s pincushion” or rose gall, formed by a parasitic wasp. (For the illumination, see the British Library Images Online.)

The gall, which is especially common on the wild field rose (R. arvensis) and the dog rose, is created when the wasp deposits its eggs in autumn. The larvae overwinter in the plant tissue, which provides both food and shelter until they hatch out in spring. This rose gall, known as a “bedeguar,” was powdered and used to treat internal ailments.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Fisher, Celia. The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library, 2007.

Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.

Touw, Mia. “Roses in the Middle Ages,” Economic Botany, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan.–Mar., 1982).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Late Bloomer

Arbutus unedo 'Compacta' Detail from The Unicorn at Bay  thumbnail Detail of Arbutus unedo in fruit and flower

Above, from left: A strawberry tree growing in a sheltered corner in Trie garden; Arbutus unedo in fruit in the woodland of The Unicorn At Bay; the evergreen strawberry tree bears flowers and fruit simultaneously in late October.

A native of the Mediterranean, the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is valued as an ornamental evergreen whose late-blooming flowers and red fruits enliven the garden in late fall and early winter, when few other species are of interest. The common name derives from the description of the tree made by Pliny the Elder, who compares the fruit, with its thin, rough, red rind, to that of the strawberry, Fragaria vesca. Read more »

Thursday, October 1, 2009

He-Hop, She-Hop

Hop Bines in Bonnefont Cloister Column in Saint-Guilhem Cloister Male Flowers of the Hop (Humulus Lupulus)

Above, from left to right: Hop bines grown in Bonnefont Cloister garden send out new shoots in March, reaching the roofline by the end of May and dying back to the ground in late autumn; a hop bine bearing female flowers, called cones, adorns the abacus of a column from Saint-Guilhem Cloister; detail of a bine bearing a male flower.

Hop (Humulus lupulus) has been used as a vegetable (according to the Roman natural historian Pliny, the young shoots of the plant were eaten), as both fodder and bedding for cattle, as a dye, and, like its close relative hemp (Cannabis sativa), as a fiber plant. It also appears as a medicament in medieval and Renaissance herbals. The fifteenth-century Herbarius Latinus recommends hops for purifying the blood, opening obstructions of the spleen, easing fever, and curing both headache and jaundice. However, the most important economic use of hops in the Middle Ages and at the present writing is in brewing beer. Read more »

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Far from Home

Curcuma longa in flower

Turmeric (Curcuma longa), a native of India, flowering in the arcade of Bonnefont Cloister. Turmeric and other tender exotics in the collection are grown in pots.

The plant collection at The Cloisters includes a number of exotic species that would not have been grown in medieval European gardens, but whose dried roots, seeds, bark, or other parts were imported for use in food and medicine. Read more »