The power of herbs

For thousands of years herbs have been grown for food, medicine, their aroma - and even to guard against evil! Able to provide indispensable cures for all kinds of ailments, they have always had a special place in gardening history.

While nowadays the garden has mainly a decorative function, in earlier times those plants that were useful were always far more important than those that were simply pretty. The separation of decorative and useful herbs only started a few centuries ago, but in all the early civilisations of China, India and Egypt, the power of herbs was at the centre of the practice of healing. In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates was known for his extensive knowledge of plants and both the Greeks and Romans referred to herbs as 'green medicines'. Dioscorides, a healer who accompanied the Ancient Greek army, developed detailed teachings on this subject, describing the medicinal purposes of over 600 plants in his 'Materia Medica'. This work was regarded as the most important of the literature on medicine for many centuries. However, with the fall of the Roman Empire, Western European medicine, and with it interest in medicinal plants, became firmly relegated to the back burner.

The Roll of Convents
By the 6th century AD, herb gardens had begun to come back again into fashion. In convents, in particular, courtyard gardens were developed, surrounded by a gallery. Herbs were grown here for food, medicine and religious rituals. A very famous one, which survives from this period, is the Benedictine convent garden in Sankt Gallen in Switzerland where herbs like savoury, fennel, mint, parsley, sage, rue and even plants like iris and lily are present. More remote monasteries, which had to be fully self-sufficient, often grew vegetables, herbs and fruit as well as plants that contained dyes or oils, disinfecting herbs and herbs used in making beer (such as ground ivy, yarrow, gale, lovage, tansy and rosemary).
Nursing was also a task often carried out by monks or nuns and as herbal prescriptions were supplied to patients, the knowledge of their medicinal value gradually spread beyond the convent walls. Poor people would grow their own medicinal herbs, while the rich bought medicinal herbs when necessary and fragrant herbs to spread around their houses.
Eventually, caring for the sick became a secular responsibility and pharmacists set up their own herb gardens in or nearby towns to supply their professional requirements.

From the late dark ages, interest in the value of herbs grew enormously and information, and the herbs themselves, were increasingly the subject of exchanges between monasteries and of the growing number of books that were becoming available. 'The Herbal' by the British authors John Gerard and Nicholas Culpeper was a respected member of this group, but not all were so accurate and some herbal stories developed erratically, like Chinese whispers. Many books of the time, for example, claimed that anyone digging up a mangrove root would drop dead on the spot! But reliable herbals were becoming increasingly recognized as valuable educational material for doctors and gradually their information became more scientific and the illustrations more accurate. In the 15th century the process was significantly assisted by the invention of printing, which made medical knowledge accessible to a much larger public.

Herbs Move into the Garden
By the 17th century, gardens had come to be regarded as a creative pastime for the wealthy, with herbs and exotic plants kept as interesting curiosities. As aesthetic value became paramount, attractive herbs such as marigold and camomile, might retain a relatively prominent garden location, but others like mint and soapwort, were banished into ever more lowly positions. Eventually, overshadowed by much more glorious blooms, herbs were removed from most formal gardens and only those of culinary value retained - now banished to special 'kitchen gardens'.

Nevertheless, gardens have not heard the last of herbs! In this new millennium the trend appears to be to move herbs back into the ornamental borders.

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