Archive for the ‘Useful Plants’ Category

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Hallowed Yew

Yew Tree in Bonnefont Garden Fruit of the Yew Tree

Above, from left to right: A large yew tree (Taxus baccata) growing near the portcullis on the lower drive of The Cloisters; a detail of the yew in fruit in mid-November. The gelatinous red flesh surrounding the seeds is as sweet as it looks, and is innocuous, but the seed itself is very toxic, as are the leaves.

There is here above the brotherhood
A bright tall glossy yew;
The melodious bell sends out a keen clear note
In St. Columba’s church.

—Fragment of an Irish poem, ca. 800–1000

Read more »

Friday, October 16, 2009

Two Teasels

Dipsacus sativus Dipsacus Dipsacus fullonum

Above, from left to right: The seed head of the cultivated form of teasel (Dipsacus sativus) in a bed devoted to plants used in medieval arts and crafts (2006); detail of the seed head of the teasel growing in the same bed this year; detail of the seed head of common teasel, or fuller’s teasel (D. fullonum), now in the medicinal bed.

Visitors to Bonnefont Garden are often surprised to find plants that they recognize as common weeds being carefully cultivated in the beds here. One ubiquitous weed found growing in waste places throughout this country is the common or wild teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, a plant which had various medicinal applications in the European Middle Ages. 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 »

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Thistle Tribe

Cotton thistle flourishing in Bonnefont Garden. The leaves of the cotton thistle are thickly felted with white down.

The most imposing of the several thistles we cultivate at The Cloisters, the stately cotton thistle has a presence that appeals to modern sensibilities. The silvery-white leaves are deeply cut and very handsome: the species name acanthium denotes their resemblance to the foliage of the acanthus. Some value cotton thistle as an ornamental in contemporary gardens, although others consider Onorpordum acanthium to be a weed. (A weed is a plant you don’t want, while an herb is a plant with a use. Many of the plants we grow in the gardens of The Cloisters are considered weeds in our time and place, but were herbs in the Middle Ages.) Once the purplish-pink flowers of the cotton thistle have withered, it is important to remove the heads so that the many seeds do not disperse to the four winds and colonize the world. Read more »