Winter work in the Physic Garden

Alexanders: The Smyrnium olus-atrum is wild throughout Southern Europe, in Algeria, Syria, and Asia Minor.
Origin of Cultivated Plants, Alphonse De Candolle. 1908

Winter work continues in the physic garden; cutting back and clearing, beginning to replant where necessary, and starting to weed again. The Alexanders (Smyrnium alusatrum) are beginning to emerge, both where we want them, and where we don’t, a large patch appearing in the wood chip path we’ve laid. A vigorous plant, it was introduced to Britain by the Romans, thrived and became naturalised. Of all the Umbellifers used as vegetables, this was one of the commonest in gardens for nearly fifteen centuries, and it is now abandoned. (De Candolle, 1908: 91)

Alexanders medicinal, and culinary use, has a long history. Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC) was aware of, and wrote about it’s  medicinal value. Pliny the Elder (c. AD 23 –  AD 79) notes that, among other remedies, Olustrum, usually known as hipposelinum, is particularly repulsive to scorpions. The seed of it taken in drink, is a cure for griping of the stomach and intestinal complaints, and a decoction of the seed drunk in honied wine, is a curative in cases of dysuria (painful urination).
Columella, (1st. century AD), in his treatise on agriculture states that, Alisander […] ought to be sown in seed, in a place that is well trenched, especially hard by a wall; because it rejoices in a shade, and thrives and grows strong in any place, how indifferent so ever: and when you have once sown it, if you do not pull it all up by the roots, but leave, and set apart, stalks of here-and-there for seed, it will last an age. He also gives detailed instructions for preserving and pickling the root.
Gerard notes both the medicinal and culinary uses of Alexanders. He quotes Dioscorides who, saith that the leaves and stalks are boiled and eaten, and dressed alone by themselves or with fishes, [ and ] in our age served to the table raw for a sallad herbe.

A common garden plant, and versatile, but its usefulness was on the wane by the 17th century, beginning to be replaced by celery, with which it shares some similarity of taste. Also of ancient origin, celery was considered a medicinal plant until the early years of the 17th century, when it’s food value became increasingly recognised, and European growers began cultivating it as a vegetable for the table, initially for the rich. Lewes Sturtevant, writing in The American Naturalist (1886) notes that, Ray in his Historia plantarum, 1686, says the smallage transferred to culture becomes milder and less ungrateful, whence in Italy and France the leaves and stalks are esteemed as delicacies, eaten with oil and pepper.
By the early 18th century celery had became more widely available; Alphonse de Candolle, commenting on the disappearance of Alexanders states that, At the end of the eighteenth century the tradition existed in England that this plant had been formerly cultivated; later English and French horticulturists do not mention it.

Cultivation techniques; plant breeding; changes in eating habits, all affect the fortunes of plants. While there are directions on the web for foraging the plant in the wild, and plenty of recipes too, Alexanders is no longer cultivated as a vegetable; the plant remains an echo of older practices and diet.




Leac-garths: on the centrality of Leeks

The labels given to everyday food crops seem unimportant, mundane, when, as gardeners, what we really want to know is how to grow them; yet, our own cultural histories are embedded in their naming and their use. Leeks have had a significant cultural presence in our lives, over time. They are synonymous with a northern British working class culture of prize leek cultivation; a regionally inflected cultural memory, of the man, his whippet and his leek patch, reflected in my childhood experiences of a family allotment on Tyneside, during the 60s and 70s. I remember winter meals of steamed leek pudding, with gravy and potatoes; of bacon broth, full of leeks, carrots, potato, split peas, all the veg nurtured by our collective labour: I sense a recipe developing, a cultural history stewing….

Historical evidence
It’s known that the Romans brought leeks to the British Isles along with onions, brassicas such as turnips and kale, lettuce, artichokes and Asparagus. Excavations at Fishbourne Palace in Sussex, have suggested a sophisticated understanding of cultivation techniques, transposed from Italy and adapted to the British climate.

We know leeks were grown during the medieval period because of their importance in the kitchen gardens of monasteries, in particular, records kept by Benedictine Monasteries. The Rule of St Benedict prescribed a well-ordered life with the day divided into specified activities, including working in the gardens, which were, of necessity, productive as they grew much of the food for the monastic community.

Another important source as evidence for cultivation of vegetables is found in an early 9th century plan for an idealised monastery, the St Gall Plan (815-20); this shows the layout of the different gardens needed by the monastic community. The gardens’ ground plan covers approximately 3 acres: south of the refectory, but within easy distance, is a large square vegetable garden, with 18 beds individually named, arranged in neat rows, onions, garlic, leeks and shallots allocated a bed each. Jenny Uglow points to the lack of records of British monastic life before the Conquest, but monastery culture would have been similar to that of Europe, so the St Gall plan is indicative of what might have been grown in British monastic gardens before 1066 (Uglow; 21).

Monastic kitchen gardens during the 10th century were mainly planted out with Alliums – leeks, onions and garlic – alongside peas, evidence of which was found at Bede’s Monastery at Jarrow, and an early ancestor of the broad bean, or ‘bene’. The medieval kitchen garden was known as the ‘curtilage’ or as the ‘leac-garth’ or leac-tun, from ‘leac’, an Anglo-Saxon root meaning plant or herb and garth, geard, zeard or tun (yard or enclosure) (Susan Campbell, 2005: 101). Maggie Campbell-Culver, in ‘The Origin of Plants’, explains how [l]eeks were so fundamental to the good life that kitchen gardens of all descriptions were often called leac-garths, in the same way as we sometimes cultivate our ‘cabbage patch’ (Campbell-Culver, 2001: 42).

Alexander Neckam, Augustinian abbot at Cirencester, teacher at the universities of Oxford and Paris, wrote his De Naturis Rerum during the late 1100s, in which he listed both existing plants in cultivation in Britain, alongside recent newcomers. His list of those plants that [t]he garden should be adorned with, included vegetables, alongside herbs and aromatic flowers, but dominated by alliums: There should also be planted beds with onions, leeks, garlick, pumpkins, and shallots (quoted in Uglow, 2004: 32). Piers Plowman’s ‘Vision’ (late 1300s) describes the harvest from his croft as peas, beans, leeks, parsley and shallots, alongside ‘chiboles [small onions] and chervils’ (Uglow, 2004: 49).

From Archaeological excavations of deserted medieval villages we have some idea of their layout and of the existence of early versions of the cottage garden:
At the back […] lay another enclosed garth, a long rectangular plot, stoutly protected against wandering horses, cattle, sheep and geese with ditches and wooden palings, and prickly hedges of thorn and holly. Inside the small patches were a jumble of herbs, vegetables and flowers […] villagers grew cabbage, kale, onions and garlic and leeks (by far the favourite, tastiest, most fragrant vegetable) (Uglow, 2004: 49).

Kitchen gardens were also important to large landowners, as they were needed to feed their servants, just as monastery gardens fed the monastic community. Alliums continued to be central to vegetable cultivation, as indicated by the seeds ordered for the royal palace at Rotherhithe in 1354, which included 12 pounds each of onion and leek seed (Uglow, 2004: 50).

My conclusion? That my love of leeks is not accidental, but culturally inspired, nurtured through my mother’s cooking, my desire to fill our allotment with as many varieties as I can muster, an attempt to reproduce the vegetable plantings of my childhood. Such an impossibility now inspires my first attempts at growing heritage leeks for seed saving, rediscovering old skills & vegetable varieties to invigorate my very own leac-garth.

Susan Campbell (2005) A History of Kitchen Gardening, Frances Lincoln; London.
Maggie Campbell-Culver (2001) The Origin of Plants, Headline Books; London.
Jenny Uglow (2004) A Little History of British Gardening, Chatto & Windus; London.

A miscellany of Garlick

I complete my journey through garlic’s pungent history with a brisk summary of historical & literary references, intended to illustrate garlic’s extensive cultural influences:

According to Cassell’s Dictionary of Superstitions, there is an Islamic myth that suggests that, when Satan left the Garden of Eden after the Fall, garlic sprang from the spot where he had placed his left foot, and onion from the spot where he had placed his right.

Garlic’s medicinal properties were described in the Navanitaka text written in the 4th century AD, by Buddhists. This large medical treatise forms the second part of the Bower Manuscript written in a mixture of Sanskrit and Prakrit. The Bower Manuscript (mss), named after its discoverer, Lieutenant H. Bower, was found in 1890, in Kuchar, in Eastern Turkestan, on the caravan route to China.

The Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang, visiting the Indian sub-continent in the 7th century AD,  stated that the food use of garlic was unknown, which would have been particularly true of the Buddhist circles in which he moved.   These attitudes changed and by the period of Muslim rule, garlic, ginger and onion were an indispensable trio of flavours in South Asian cooking.


Cult images and altars of Hecate in her triplicate or trimorphic form were placed at crossroads, (though they also appeared before private homes and in front of city gates). Hecate was also closely associated with plant lore and the concoction of medicines and poisons. In particular, she was thought to give instruction in these closely related arts, and was said to favour offerings of garlic, which was closely associated with her cult.


The genus name Allium, the Latin name of garlic, gave rise to garlic’s name in Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese.  The French name Ail, Thériaque des pauvres (Theriac of the poor) reflects the medical value of garlic; Galen eulogised garlic as ‘the rustic’s Theriac’ or ‘Heal All’.  In the Middle Ages, an expensive and complicated mixture of mostly very exotic ingredients called ‘theriac’ was believed to be extremely powerful against every kind of illness (snake bite, bone fracture, plague, etc…).

Garlic was used to treat leprosy during the Middle Ages, so that garlic and leprosy became inseparably associated. From this we get the term ‘pil-garlic’, signifying one who is shunned like a leper, because lepers were compelled (by the force of circumstances) to peel, or pil, their own garlic and commonly these outcasts were dubbed ‘pil-garlics’ Ref:  Brewer’s dictionary of phrase and fable.

Garlic formed the principal ingredient in the ‘Four Thieves’ Vinegar’, a protection against the plague, so named because in Marseilles (or Toulouse) four thieves who were arrested for robbing corpses credited their immunity to wearing masks soaked in vinegar, garlic and other herbs; this took place anytime between the 14th and 18th century depending upon the storyteller!

References to garlic eating as a term of abuse seems to have historical roots. The Romans were said to feed garlic to their workers to improve their strength and to their soldiers to make them courageous. Apparently in ancient Rome the Latin expression allium olere (stinking of garlic) was used to refer to people belonging to the lower social classes.

After the Age of Exploration (15th-17th centuries), its use spread rapidly to Africa and both Americas. There are references to garlic in reports of Cortes in Mexico, although it is not native to the country and therefore probably an introduction. Garlic was not considered an essential cooking ingredient in general use in the United States until the first quarter of the twentieth century, and was used almost exclusively in ethnic dishes and in working class districts. Derogatory slang from the 1920s referencing garlic’s class and ethnic origins in the US, referred to it as Bronx vanilla and Italian perfume, echoing the Latin slang of ancient Rome.

Garlic has a distinguished literary history that also echoes its cultural roots outlined above (I quoted Beowulf previously) :

Chaucer says of the summoner:

“Wel loved he garleek, oynons, and eek lekes,” a spiritual failing that aggravates his physical problems.

In Finnegans Wake, Joyce puns: “I knew I smelt the garlic leek!”

Garlic never really goes away: archaeobotanical finds!

After my earlier efforts exploring the ancient origins of garlic I did a bit more detective work & ended up collating the information I discovered: I’m posting this in bitesize chunks, rather than an indigestible mass – be thankful for small mercies! For those of you who care about these things I’ve also included a list of sources at the end.


We have significant knowledge of Egyptian kitchen gardens and their contents due to the excellent conditions of preservation of plant remains, but also because of the way in which  Egyptian society meticulously recorded every aspect of daily life in tomb models, wall paintings, carvings, papyri and rock inscriptions. The variety of funeral offerings in the tombs of wealthy Egyptians of the 3rd and 2nd millennia are also most likely to reflect their diets during their life times (Leach, 1982: 7).

Archaeological finds of white-painted, unbaked clay models of, what have been interpreted as, cloved garlic bulbs from the Predynastic sites of el-Mahasna, Naqada and the cemetery at Umm el Qa’ab at Abydos are considered to be the earliest known record for Garlic (Ayrton and Loat, 1911). The first archaeobotanical evidence is from 18th Dynasty tomb finds, while the first textual record for garlic in Egypt is from the 20th Dynasty text, the Papyrus Harris (Tackholm and Drar, 1954: 94). Well-preserved, later archaeobotanical specimens have also been found at Deir el-Medina and in the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) (Hepper, 1990: 50)

Archaeobotanical finds of garlic from the Pharonic period appear to be cloved varieties of garlic; garlic species had been valued for the medicinal properties of their volatile oils since at least the New Kingdom, onwards (Pliny N.H. XX, XXIII in Darby et al, 1977: 657; see also Nunn, 1996: 14). Hepper notes that garlic was valued for its properties as a preservative and was used during the embalming process (Hepper, 1990: 55).

Large scale cultivation of garlic, particularly in the Faiyum area, was introduced into Egypt by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC, and many texts of the Greco-Roman period allude to its cultivation (Crawford, 1973).  Garlic is most likely to have been grown in the flood basins after the flood waters receded and in small market gardens away from the flood basins, intercropped with other plants such as grape vines (Crawford, 1973). Leach (1982) suggests that the vine-dressers in the Faiyum area gained additional income by selling surplus vegetables; as most of these workers were Greeks it is likely they would perpetuate gardening practices from their Greek homeland, including the cultivation of garlic. Lease agreements from the Ptolemaic period also suggest January was the usual month for the garlic harvest (Crawford, 1973: 355).

The Bible mentions garlic as a food eaten by the Israelites during their exile in Egypt. Shortly after they had been delivered from slavery by Moses, while wandering through Sinai, suffering from hunger, they recalled the food they had eaten while in slavery:
We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick (King James Bible, Numbers 11:5)


Ayrton, E.R., and Loak, W.L.S. (1911)  Pre-dynastic cemetery at El Mahasna, London.

Crawford, D.(1973) ‘Garlic-Growing and Agricultural Specialisation in Graeco-Roman Egypt’, Chronique d’Egypte, Vol 48, No 96, Juillet 1973 pp. 350-363.

Darby, W.J., Ghalioungui, P. and Grivetti, L. (1977) Food: The Gift of Osiris, 2 vols, Academic Press; London.

Hepper, F.N. (1990) Pharoh’s Flowers: the Botanical Treasures of Tutankhamun, The Stationary Office; London.

Hoernle, A. F. R. 91909) The Bower Manuscript. Reprinted in Studies in the History of Science in India. (1982) Vol. I. (Ed.) Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. New Delhi: Editorial Enterprises. pp. 116- 140.

Leach, H.L. (1982) ‘On the Origins of Kitchen Gardening in the Ancient Near East’, Garden History, Vol. 10. No.1 (Spring, 1982) pp.1-16.

Nicholson, P.T., and Shaw, I. (2000/2006) Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge.

Nunn, J.F. (1996) Ancient Egyptian Medicine, University of Oklahoma Press.

Renfrew, J.M. (1985) ‘Preliminary report on the botanical remains’, in B.J.Kemp (ed.) Armarna Reports II, Occasional Publications2, pp.175-190. Egypt Exploration Society; London

Tackholm, V., and Drar, M. (1954) Flora of Egypt, Vol 3, Faculty of Sciences of the University, Cairo.

Garlic: ancient origins

Ancient origins

De Candolle, in his Treatise on the Origin of Cultivated Plants, began the early work on plant geography; his botanical thesis was later refined by Vavilov, in the USSR in the 20th Century, as the concept of geographic centres of origin for plant species. Candolle & later Vavilov, placed the origin of garlic’s wild progenitor in the Kirgiz desert of Western Russia /Central Asia, from where it spread into Europe and became naturalised. This geographic region is also home to Allium longicuspis, believed to be a wild ancestor. The species name sativum means planted, cultivated or sown, hence domesticated.

However, according to Leach (1982), it is difficult to find direct evidence of domestication for kitchen garden plants such as garlic. The most acceptable form of evidence, the remains or impressions of plants themselves, is scarce for green and root vegetables, although plentiful for grain; an assessment of their importance in Bronze and Iron age economies relies on documentary evidence and artistic representations from the 1st 3 millennia BC (Leach, 1982:2)

Apart from finds of onion bulb scales, a garlic bulb and cloves, in what is described as a Chalcolithic context (c.3500-3000 BC) at the Cave of the Treasure near the Dead Sea, and the recovery of what are thought to be kurrat leeks in Early Bronze Age Jericho, there are no unequivocal records of cultivated vegetables before 3000 B.C. The discovery of garlic in such an early context is particularly important for it could only be grown from cloves or inflorescence bulbils and this would mean that it would be subject to actions characteristic of horticulture. (Leach, 1982: 10).


Leach, H.L. (1982) ‘On the Origins of Kitchen Gardening in the Ancient Near East’, Garden History, Vol. 10. No.1 (Spring, 1982) pp.1-16.

Etymology of Garlic


The word ‘garlic’ originated from the Anglo-Saxon gar-leac or spear plant: from gār ‘spear’ (because the shape of a clove resembles the head of a spear) + lēac ‘leek’. It is closely related to Old Irish gae ‘spear’ and Latin gaesum ‘heavy javlin’, which is often thought to be a Celtic loan. The element -lic is derived from leek with similarities across other Germanic languages (German lauch, Swedish lök, Dutch look). In Swedish, vitlök and Norwegian, hvitløk, the first part of the name means ‘white’; Finnish valkosipuli (valkea ‘white’ + sipuli ‘onion’) follows the same pattern.

Garlic’s linguistic origins are alluded to in the first line of Beowulf:

Hwæt! We Gár-Dena, in geárdagum, þeódcyninga þrym gefrunon
Lo! We have heard of the renown of the Spear-Danes’ great kings in days of yore

With thanks to polyglotveg; see their blog for a more extensive exploration of garlic’s etymology