Herbal Gardening - Herbs: A Modern and Medieval View
The heyday of herbs, at least in western civilization, must be the medieval ages, and a there is a modern place to see what a medieval herb garden was like.
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| As you are well aware, growing
and harvesting herbs has been carried out for thousands of years in all
cultures around the world. In medieval Europe, however, it was raised
to a high art. Without the sort of medical knowledge and technology
that was known even to the Greeks, the Middle Ages depended heavily on
herbs as their medicines. Their use of medicinal
herbs, however, while a mixture of experience and nonsense,
also made use of much that was valid.
Whether they were used for medicine, seasoning or just to aid quiet contemplation, the Medieval herb garden was generally both a useful and
lovely place. A modern example of what one would have been like can readily be found in New York's Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York which is devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Though constructed in
the 1930s, The
Cloisters was actually
designed and built to resemble its historical counterpart as closely as possible. The designers achieved their goal superlatively.
The Cloisters has several sections, with the herb garden prominently a
part of the Bonnefont cloister. Over 250 species of herbs are grown there, and they
thrive well despite New York's cold winters, hot and muggy summers, and the spotty rainy seasons of Fall and Spring.
The garden is based on many different sources and duplicates no single
one exactly. The result is raised
fences and a central wellhead
common features of any historical herb garden archetype. Surrounded by
orchards and many other plants, the herbs form the centerpiece of a
garden any home practitioner or herbologist must envy.
Many herbs there are contained in appropriate pots resembling those one
might have found in the period. This allows the herbalists to bring the more
fragile ones in for the winter, when temperatures in New York can dip
below zero Fahrenheit and snow is not uncommon.
Herbs grown during the Middle Ages would sometimes have been used
for such useless purposes as attempting to ward off evil spirits, but
their modern descendants provide a much more practical purpose. Even
when they are not being used in cooking and curing, these fragrant plants with lovely
flowers can provide an oasis of peace in a sometimes frenetic city.
At the Cloisters the herbs are arranged in nine sections, corresponding
to common groupings of the period. The first contains Absinthe
the second those considered medicinal
herbs, such as St. John's Wort and Liquorice.
The third houses aromatic
herbs such as Lavender
and Lemon Balm.
Other categories hold herbs for art and some that have purposes that
today would be somewhat questionable, such as encouraging Love and
Marriage, such as Meadow
Rue and "magic" plants like Herb Robert.
The last category holds those useful for cooking, or culinary
herbs, such as Caraway
and Fennel, Parsley and Borage.
By the way, although they are not likely to bring it up at The
Cloisters, even in our modern ere, some herbs are almost felt to have
magical powers. Fennel, a culinary herb, as mentioned above,
is actually touted for breast enhancement, and is actually an
ingredient in some herbal breast enlargement products.
The next time you're in the Big Apple, America's number one city,
travel uptown a bit and visit a bit of history. The herbalists there will
you with their encyclopedic knowledge.
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