Posts Tagged ‘Dioscorides’

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Mandrakes Bloom Again…

mandrake_in_bloom_detail_225 mandrake-flowers_detail_225

The mandrake, credited with both medicinal and magical powers over the course of many centuries, has accumulated more lore than any other plant in the Western tradition. Above: One of a colony of five spring-blooming mandrakes in Bonnefont garden. In March, this famous member of the nightshade family produces tight clusters of short-stemmed bell-shaped flowers.

Mandrake (mandragora) is hot and a little bit watery. It grew from the same earth which formed Adam, and resembles the human a bit. Because of its similarity to the human, the influence of the devil appears in it and stays with it, more than with other plants. Thus a person’s good or bad desires are accomplished by means of it, just as happened formerly with idols he made. When mandrake is dug from the earth, it should be placed in a spring immediately, for a day and a night, so that every evil and contrary humor is expelled from it, and it has no more power for magic or phantasms.

—Hildegard of Bingen, Physica (translated by Patricia Throop)

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Evergray

Santolina foliage Dwarf Santolina Topiary

The ‘evergray’ santolina is cold hardy in our climate, but dislikes our wet winters. We prefer to grow this aromatic herb in pots and bring it indoors in autumn. Above, left: Santolina is also known as cotton lavender, because of its dense, whitish-gray foliage and strong fragrance; Right: A santolina topiary made from a dwarf form of the species.

A compact, woody plant of dry ground and stony banks, the Mediterranean santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus) is cold hardy in our USDA Zone 7 gardens, but dislikes wintering over in wet soil; we prefer to grow it in pots and bring it indoors in autumn. Santolina’s slender stems are densely covered with short, thick, cottony leaves. This low-growing evergray species lends itself to shaping and shearing, and was widely used as an ornamental edging plant in Renaissance knot gardens. It’s also an excellent subject for topiary work, especially the dwarf form of the species, S. chamaecyparissus ‘Nana.’

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Friday, February 10, 2012

The Virtues of Rosemary

Rosemary

In the later Middle Ages, the leaves, stems, and flowers of this aromatic member of the mint family were used to effect cures for many ills, and provide protection from both spiritual and bodily harm. Photograph by Nathan Heavers

Libanotis which the Romans call Rosmarinus & they which plait crowns use it: the shoots are slender, about which are leaves, small, thick, and somewhat long, thin, on the inside white, but on the outside green, of a strong scent. It hath a warming facultie . . .

—Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Book III: 89

It is an holy tree and with folk that hath been rightful and just gladly it groweth and thriveth. In growing it passeth not commonly in height the height of our Lord Jesu Christ while he walked as a man on earth, that is man’s height and half, as man is now; nor, after it is 33 years old, it growth not in height but waxeth in breadth and that but little. It never seareth all but if some of the aforesaid four weathers make it.

—Friar Henry Daniel, “little book of the virtues of rosemary,” ca. 1440

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Green Victory

Laurus nobilis Madonna and Child with Saints

The evergreen bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), a symbol of victory and eternal life, is not as tender as some other Mediterranean species, but it must be grown in pots and wintered over indoors at The Cloisters. Above, left: Bay laurel topiaries like this one spend the winter in the glassed-in arcades of Cuxa cloister and return to Bonnefont herb garden in May. Right: The magnificent bay tree that flourishes at the center of Girolamo dai Libri’s Madonna and Child with Saints represents Resurrection, and is juxtaposed with the naked limbs of a dead tree.

The laurel itself is a bringer of peace, inasmuch as to hold a branch of it out even between enemy armies is a token of cessation of hostilities. With the Romans especially it is used as a harbinger of rejoicing and of victory, accompanying despatches and decorating the spears and javelins of the soldiery and adorning the generals’ rods of office. From this tree a branch is deposited in the lap of Jupiter the All-good and All-great whenever a fresh victory has brought rejoicing, and this is not because the laurel is continually green, nor yet because it is an emblem of peace, as the olive is to be preferred in both respects, but because it flourishes in the greatest beauty on Mount Parnassus, and consequently is thought to be also dear to Apollo, to whose shrine even the kings of Rome at that early date were in the custom of sending gifts and asking for oracles in return.

—Pliny, Historia Naturalis, Book XV, 133

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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, 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 »

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pretty Poison

Nerium oleander Nerium oleander (detail)

Above, from left to right: Nerium oleander, a tender evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean, is grown in pots at The Cloisters and brought indoors for the winter. Oleander belongs to the Apocynaceae, or Dogbane family, which contains many poisonous species. The five petals of the oleander flower are fused at the base and form a tube; the form of the flower is typical of this botanical family. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

Nerion, which some call Rododaphne, some Rhododendron . . . grows in enclosed greens and sea-bordering places & in places near rivers. But ye flower and the leaves have a power destructive of dogs & of Asses & of Mules & and of most four-footed living creatures, but a preserving one of men, being drank with wine against the bitings of venemous beasts & ye more if you mixed it with Rue, but ye more weak sort of living creature, as goats & sheep, die, if they drink ye maceration of them.

—Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Book IV, 82

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