Archive for the ‘Medicinal Plants’ Category

Friday, October 21, 2011

Gathering In

Gathered Rose Hips

A tub of rose hips, gathered from roadsides and abandoned pastures upstate, and stripped of their thorns. The hips will be used to decorate the Museum this winter. Photograph by Carly Still

The rose hips used in the winter holiday decorations at The Cloisters allude to the rose symbolism prevalent in medieval Christmas carols. Although we grow medieval rose species in the gardens and on the grounds, their hips are too fleshy for our purposes, and don’t keep well.  We gather stems of Rosa multiflora, which bear many small, hard, hips, in October, and strip them of their thorns. They are stored in a cool, dry place until December, when the Museum is decked for the season.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Manna

Gathering Manna (small) Storing up Manna (small)

The marvelous food depicted in these two panels of Late Gothic German stained glass may have been of vegetable origin. Left: Gathering Manna. Moses, holding the staff received from God on Mount Sinai, presides over the gathering of a miraculous fall of quail and manna from heaven. Right: Storing up Manna. Two men bear a large wooden tub of manna into a tent; a third man carries a great basketful in his arms.

The identification of Biblical plants has occupied investigators for centuries; the identity of manna is one of the most intriguing and most debated of ethnobotanical mysteries, although some interpreters have suggested that the substance is of insect rather than vegetable origin. Read more »

Friday, September 23, 2011

Figs and Fig Leaves

fig-in-fruit_225 figs_225

A young fig tree flourishing in a sheltered corner of Bonnefont garden; detail of the ripe fruit (click to see full image)—note the tiny hole in the base of the fig at the lower right, and the milky sap that exudes from the stems when the figs are picked. This latex was a medicament and a rennet; it was also used as a mordant in medieval gilding and as a binder in the preparation of egg tempera.  Photographs by Deirdre Larkin

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.

—Genesis 3:6, 7

Much of the plant lore of the Middle Ages, like many other aspects of medieval culture, was a synthesis of classical and biblical tradition. The Tree of Knowledge is not named in the biblical account of the Fall; more than one species has been identified with the forbidden fruit, and the fig is among them. In Greco-Roman culture, the fig was associated with fertility and with the female genitalia. D. H. Lawrence explores this complex of cultural associations in his remarkable poem “Figs” (listen to a reading of this poem on YouTube).

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Venus Maidenhair

maidenhair fern maidenhair fern detail

The lovely Venus maidenhair is not quite hardy for us at The Cloisters, and is grown in pots in the medieval gardens. The pinnules of this graceful fern, which flourishes in moist and rocky situations in many parts of the world, repel water.  Photographs by Carly Still

The southern or Venus maidenhair (Adiantum capillis-veneris) belongs to a large genus of ferns that includes two hundred species. The botanical name given to the genus Adiantum is from the Greek for “unwetted,” since any water falling on the foliage of these ferns beads up, leaving the leaf surfaces dry. This species was already known by that name in classical antiquity; the Roman natural historian Pliny marveled that a plant that grew in moist places exhibited such a marked antipathy to water. According to Pliny, the plant was known to some as “beautiful hair” or “thick hair.”  A decoction of the fern, made by simmering it with celery seed in wine and oil, was used both to dye the hair and to prevent it from falling out (Historia naturalis, Book XXII, 62–65). Read more »

Friday, July 8, 2011

Welcome to the Beer Garden

Humulus lupulus Tanacetum balsamita

Hops (Humulus lupulus), considered today to be crucial to beer brewing, were not commonly used until the fifteenth century. Before that time, brewers added different herbs, such as alecost (Tanacetum balsamita), to their beer to improve its flavor. Several of these medieval brewing herbs can be found in Bonnefont garden.

Ale is made of malte and water; and they the which do put any other thynge to ale then is rehersed, except yest, barme, or godesgood, doth sofystical theyr ale.

—Andrew Borde, The fyrst boke of the introduction of knowledge, 1452

Beer was a staple drink for medieval Europeans, as it provided much-needed calories to the often undernourished population and was cleaner and safer to drink than water. Then, as now, beer was made by brewing malted barley in boiling water to make sugars more available for yeasts to consume (see an image of Jorg Prewmaister tending his brew in a page from a fifteenth-century German manuscript, Amb. 317.2). This sugary, malty potion, known as “wort,” eventually becomes beer after the yeasts eat the sugars, releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol as byproducts of fermentation. On its own, wort is fairly flat in flavor, so brewers add additional ingredients, such as hops and spices, to enliven a beer’s taste.

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Friday, July 1, 2011

Holy Vervain

Verbena officinalis

The medieval vervain was identified with the “holy herb” known to the Greeks and Romans. Despite its unprepossessing appearance, common vervain is one of the great magico-medical plants of the Western tradition.

Many odde olde wives tales are written of Vervaine tending to witchcraft and sorcerie, which you may read elsewhere, for I am not willing to trouble your eares with supporting such trifles as honest eares abhorre to heare.

—John Gerard, The Herbal or Generall Historie of Plants, 1597

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Beneficent Betony

Wood betony (Stachys officinalis)

Wood betony (Stachys officinalis) enjoyed a considerable reputation in antiquity and the Middle Ages as both a medicinal and a magical herb, and was believed to have many virtues. Photograph by Nathan Heavers.

In the mountains and woods, in the meadows and depths of the valleys—
Almost everywhere, far and wide, grows the precious abundance
Of betony. Yet I have it too in my garden, and there
It learns a softer way of life in the tended soil.
So great is the honor this genus has won for its name
That if my Muse wished to add to it she would find herself
Defeated at last, overwhelmed; and soon she would see
She could add nothing more to the value it has already.

Perhaps you pick it to use it green, perhaps
To dry and store away for the sluggish winter.
Do you like to drink it from cloudy goblets? Or do you
Prefer to enjoy what it gives after long and careful
Refining? Whatever your fancy, the wonderful powers
Which this herb has will supply all your needs.

—From Hortulus by Walahfrid Strabo. Translated from the Latin by Raef Payne. The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Saint or sprite?

Geranium robertianum

Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), called ruprechtskraut in German, is sometimes said to derive its name from the seventh-century Saint Rupert or Robert of Salzburg, but the plant is also associated with the German hobgoblin Knecht Ruprecht and his English counterpart, Robin Goodfellow.

Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Hart’s Tongue

Asplenium Scolopendrium

The hart’s tongue fern, named for a fancied resemblance to the tongue of the male red deer, was used medicinally for centuries but is now grown as an ornamental plant. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt

Hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium, also known as Phyllitis scolopendrium) is a European member of a very large family of ferns, the Aspleniaceae, or spleenwort family. The family includes nine genera and some seven hundred species. The straplike leaves were employed in ancient and medieval medicine. Dioscorides remarks on the bitterness of the leaves, but recommends that they be drunk with wine as an antidote to snakebite; he also prescribes a draught of ‘phyllitis’ for dysentery and diarrhea (De Materia medica, III.121). The fifteenth-century Herbarius Latinus advocated a decoction of A. scolopendrium, drunk for forty days, to dissolve blockages of the spleen. The fern was also said to ease gout, clear eyes, heal fresh wounds, cool fever, and remove warts and pustules. The U.C.L.A. Index of Medieval Medical Images includes a realistic representation of lingua cervina, or deer’s tongue, from an Italian herbal dated to about 1500.

The leathery, undulating fronds of this attractive, easily grown woodland plant are not divided, as many ferns are; ornamental forms with exaggerated undulations (see image) or crested tips have been developed. Although the fern is hardy to U.S.D.A. Zone 5 and is evergreen in milder climates, we find it necessary to remove all the old fronds in early spring.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Griffiths, Mark. The New Royal Horticultural Society Index of Garden Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1992.

Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Swallow Wort

Greater Celandine Broken Stem of Greater Celandine (detail)

Greater celandine, or swallow wort, has an ancient association with the common European swallow; it was believed that mother birds dropped the juice of the celandine into the eyes of their blind fledglings. The plant and the bird were linked for many centuries, and celandine’s reputation as a sovereign remedy for clearing eyes and sharpening the sight outlasted the Middle Ages.  Photographs by Corey Eilhardt

It seems to be called Chelidonia because it springs out of the ground together with ye swallows appearing, & doth wither with them departing. Somme have related that if any of the swallowes’ young ones be blinde, the dames bringing this herbe, doe heale the blindness of it.

—Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Book II: 211

The greater celandine, Chelidonium majus is native to Europe and western Asia, but is widely naturalized in waste places in the eastern United States, where it is commonly known as “swallow wort.” For more information, see the U.S.D.A. Plants Database. (Chelidonium majus is characterized as greater celandine, to distinguish it from an altogether different species, Ranunculus ficaria, widely known as lesser celandine.) Read more »