A quiet morning, before the gatehouse doors open, and people enter the garden. We’ve been moving Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) to make way for White Horehound (Marrubium vulgare), weeding and tidying; it’s the time of year. And then we’re distracted, captivated by a Hummingbird Hawk moth hovering next to the Lavender, mesmerised by its feeding habit, and then it’s gone and we need to get on with our work.
This garden poses problems; seeing the herb in the weed, the medicinal in the commonplace, is a common thread in conversations we have with people visiting the garden. Why are we clearing Chickweed from the area where Daisies are growing, both are considered garden weeds. ‘And what about the patch of Herb Robert?’ a woman asks in passing. ‘That’s a nuisance. Gets everywhere, it’s a weed. And what’s that?’ pointing at the Orach (Atriplex hortensis) we’ve been clearing from the Bistort (Persicaria bistorta); one has a place, the other isn’t welcome. Native to Asia, there is evidence to suggest that Orach was in general cultivation in the Mediterranean by the 6th century BCE, and common enough in England by the 16th century for William Turner, in 1548, to observe that, Atriplex called…in english Orech or Orege…groweth in gardines and in some Cornefieldes. It remained an important cultivated crop until replaced by spinach in the 18th century. Like many of the other herbs in this garden it is now considered a weed.
Suggestive rather than productive, the planting in Michelham Priory’s Physic Garden is indicative of herbs, both medicinal and for the household, that might have been in common use during the period that Michelham was a functioning Priory, from it’s founding in 1229 to the Dissolution in 1537. Bounded on three sides by a yew hedge and an old stone wall, a sense of enclosure is completed by the Refectory. Sheltered, so that even on the coldest days it’s still a pleasant place to work, to sometimes stop and talk with people about the garden, or just listen as they walk through. Plants provoke memories; Dock leaf for Nettle stings, don’t pick Dandelions they’ll make you wet the bed; remnants of a folk tradition that throw into relief the gap between herbs in the contemporary garden, and a time when they were essential to the well-being of the monastic, and wider community of which they were a part. Teresa McLean suggests that, the Medieval herb defies modern classification. It might be a flower, vegetable, fruit or grass as well as what we think of as a herb...the best broad definition…is that it was a very useful plant; this garden is indicative of that broad definition.
Necessary to a degree that we no longer appreciate, plants were food and medicine, part of manufacturing processes too: Alexanders (Smynium olusatrum), native to Southern Europe, introduced by the Romans, a common vegetable before celery replaced it in the 18th century, the plant was also valued for its medicinal properties; Borage (Borago officinalis), also a native of the Mediterranean region, introduced in the 13th century, grown for its flowers, but also useful as a restorative; Dyers Madder (Rubia tinctorum), another native to the Mediterranean region, cultivated in England since Anglo Saxon times, and important to the textile industry. Deep rooted and long lasting Elecampane (Inula helenium) was valued by the Romans and Anglo Saxons, as a source of food and medicine. These herbs, introduced through colonisation, trade, and ecclesiastical exchange, have a deep history if we care to listen.