We’ve recently started to volunteer at Michelham Priory, in Sussex, taking on responsibility to restore the Physic Garden. Bounded by the Refectory and an old stone wall which ends abruptly, a gently curving yew hedge completes the garden’s sense of separation from the rest of the grounds. It’s a quiet place to work, peaceful, but also a long term commitment; over the years the planting has become congested and overgrown.
Although there is no archeological, or other evidence, to indicate the presence of a physic garden on the site, it is highly likely, following the general layout of monasteries and priories, that one would have existsed to provide medicinal herbs for everyday use. The present planting, rather than being a working physic garden, is indicative of herbs, both medicinal, and household, in common use during the period when Michelham functioned as a priory.
Working from a copy of the original planting plan, when the garden was established in 1981, we’re finding out what has migrated, or disappeared, as the more vigorous and unruly plants have come to dominate this enclosed space. While we’re familiar with a number of the herbs, this is also a learning process and exciting for that; understanding the conditions that each herb thrives in, as well as beginning to research their medicinal uses; but that’s for later, as, for now, we have some very practical problems to address.
The herbs have been grouped according to their uses: childbirth and children’s diseases; rheumatism, gout and painful joints; household tasks; the heart, lungs and blood disorders. Solomon’s Seal, Herb Robert, and Comfrey, among others, were used to treat wounds and broken bones, but a dense patch of Comfrey now dominates this area and the other plants struggle to compete. It is Symphytum x uplandicum, Russian Comfrey, probably Boking 14, a cultivar developed by Lawrence Hills in the 1950s, not the native species, Common Comfrey Symphytum Officinale, that would have been familiar in a monastic physic garden. Some of its common names: knitbone, knitback, bruise wort, boneset, tell of the medicinal value attributed to this herb.
In A Modern Herbal, Maude Grieves states:
‘Country people cultivated Comfrey in their gardens for its virtue in wound healing, and the many local names of the plant testify to its long reputation as a vulnerary herb – in the Middle Ages it was a famous remedy for broken bones. The very name, Comfrey, is a corruption of con firma, in allusion to the uniting of bones it was thought to effect, and the botanical name Symphytum, is derived from the Greek, symphyo (to unite).’
Given the difficulty in eradicating the Comfrey already in the garden, we now have the opportunity to re-introduce Symphytum officinale alongside Symphytum x uplandicum. Comfrey flowers early, and is one the first food plants for bumble bees, so let’s see what the next few seasons bring as Common Comfrey grows alongside Russian Comfrey and the bees happily forage between them.
For now, the comfrey patch has been cleared as much as possible, and mulched with compost; we’ve also made a comfrey feed by filling an old dustbin with leaves, ramming them down and filling the bin with water. It’s been a few weeks since that was started so we’ll decant the liquid and mulch the brassicas in the kitchen garden with the remaining comfrey sludge. However, even with the most careful of weeding, Comfrey roots are deep and so there’ll be roots left in the ground and no doubt, over the next few weeks, we’ll begin to see shoots appearing in the area we’ve cleared. For now, a sense of order is beginning to emerge.