Archive for the ‘Medicinal Plants’ Category

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 »

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Herb Paris

Paris quadrifolia Paris quadrifolia flower Paris quadrifolia fruit

Above, from left to right: Herb paris (Paris quadrifolia) flourishing in the dappled shade of a quince tree in April (although typically four-leaved, five- and six-leaved forms of herb paris like these are not uncommon); a detail of the narrow-petaled, star-like green flower with golden stamens; detail of the single black fruit, ripening in late June. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

Herbe Paris riseth up with one small tender stalke two hands high; at the very top come forth foure leaves directly set one against another in the manner of a Burgundian Crosse or True-love knot: for which cause among the Antients it has been called Herbe True-love.

—John Gerard, the Grete Herbal, or Generall Historie of Plants

Trew-loue among men is that most is of lette,
In hates, in hodes, in porses, is sette.
Trewe-loue in herbers spryngeth in May.
Bot trew-loue of herte went is away.

—Popular Middle English rhyme.

The leaves of herb paris suggested both the the cross of Christ and the true-love knot to the medieval mind, and both these resemblances were exploited allegorically. The popular Middle English rhyme quoted above alludes to the custom of placing the spring-blooming herb paris in hats, hoods, or purses as a charm for luck in love, while stressing how quickly such love is lost. 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 »

Friday, June 4, 2010

Horned Poppy

Glaucium flavum

Horned poppy (Glaucium flavum) flowering in Bonnefont Garden in a sunny bed devoted to medicinal plants. Like other members of the poppy family, the horned poppy contains poisonous alkaloids.

The yellow horned poppy hath whitish leaves very much cut or jagged, somewhat like the leaves of garden Poppie, but rougher and more hairie. The stalks be long, round, and brittle. The floures be large and yellow, consisting of foure leaves; which being past, there come long huskes or cods, crooked like an horn or cornet, wherein is conteined small black seede. The roote is great, thicke, scalie, and rough, continuing long.

—John Gerard (1545–1612)

The Elizabethan herbalist John Gerard’s meticulous description of the plant which he names in Latin as Papaver cornutum flore luteo, “the horned poppy with the yellow flower,” was based on personal observation. He notes that it “groweth upon the sands and banks of the sea,” and lists the many places along the English coast where he found it growing. Read more »

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hell Flowers

Helleborus foetidus Helleborus niger Helleborus orientalis

Above, from left to right: Detail of stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, the first to bloom of the three hellebore species grown in Bonnefont garden; detail of the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, in blossom; detail of the flowers of the Lenten rose, Helleborus orientalis.

The name “hellebore” does not derive from the Anglo-Saxon word “hell,” although hellebore might well be described as hellish in some of its actions and associations. Some older sources derive the generic name of the plant from the Greek elein (to injure) and bora (food), indicating its poisonous nature. However etymologists now conjecture that hellebore is derived from ellos—a young deer—and bora, meaning “the food of fawns”. I’ve asked Alain Touwaide, a classical scholar and an authority on ancient medicinal herbs, whose work on an important medieval medical text is featured on the Science at the Smithsonian website, to comment on this derivation.

The magico-medicinal character of hellebore, a poisonous member of the Ranunculaceae, a botanical family which includes other deadly species such as aconite, was established in Greek antiquity. Read more »

Friday, January 22, 2010

Butcher’s Broom

Ruscus aculeatus Ruscus aculeatus tapestry_detail_150

Above, from left: Butcher’s broom growing in a pot indoors in Cuxa Cloister; detail of the stiff, sharp “leaves,” which are actually modified stems; detail from the tapestry The Hunters Enter the Woods showing Butcher’s broom.

An odd-looking little shrub, Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus), which reaches a height between one and a half and two feet for us here at The Cloisters, was also known as knee-holly, because of its short stature and prickly nature. (Another old name is “pettygree” or “pettygrew.”) Usually included in the very large lily family, butcher’s broom is a botanical curiosity as well as a household and medicinal plant with a long history of use. Read more »

Friday, December 18, 2009

Boxwood

Boxwood Shrub Boxwood-covered Arch Rosary bead

Above, from left to right: Boxwood shrub growing in Bonnefont Garden; fresh boxwood installed on the Main Hall arches for the holidays; detail view of a minutely carved boxwood rosary bead in The Cloisters collection. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is most familiar to us as a foundation planting, or as a low edging for garden beds, a practice that became common in the sixteenth century and continues today. Boxwood has also been a popular subject for topiary work since Roman times. There are many varieties of box, including dwarf forms and forms with variegated foliage. (For more about B. sempervirens and other ornamental species, visit the website of The American Boxwood Society.) 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 »

Friday, October 23, 2009

Wild Teasel

Dipsacus fullonum Detail from The Hunt of the Frail Stag Detail of Dipsacus fullonum

Above, from left: The medicinal teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, growing in Bonnefont garden; a teasel depicted in the foreground of The Hunt of the Frail Stag: Vanity Sounds the Horn, and Ignorance Unleashes the Hounds Overconfidence, Rashness, and Desire, South Netherlandish, about 1500–1525, Wool and silk, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950 (50.145.4); detail of the flower head, whose straight spines distinguish this species from D. sativus.

The principal medieval uses of the wild teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, were medicinal. (See last week’s post for uses of the cultivated form.) Read more »