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 CloistersThe Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture (Metropolitan Museum of Art Series) 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 beds, wattle fences and a central wellhead that are 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 and Thistles, 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 astound you with their encyclopedic knowledge.

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Herbal Gardening - Medieval and Modern Uses of Herbs
Page Updated 7:47 PM Thursday 5/15/2014