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.

 

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Dandelion

We’ve been making hazel hurdles, to replace the rotting stakes and rope used to divide the physic garden. The planting plan for this garden separates medicinal from culinary herbs; for childbirth and children’s diseases; for rheumatism, gout and painful joints; for depression, insomnia and nightmares; for the heart, lungs and blood disorders; for wounds and broken bones; for digestion, stomach and liver; for the head, hair and skin; for ears, eyes and teeth; for animal husbandry; for the household.

Mornings can be quiet; there might be someone sitting on one of the benches in front of the house, reading a paper, maybe one or two people wandering through the physic garden on their way to other parts of the Priory. They’ll pause, scrutinise a label, then the plant, or seed heads at this time of year, carry on through the garden. Sometimes people stop, and then one thing leads to another. Plants provoke memories:

‘Burdock, Nasty stuff, boys’d throw those burs at each other, at us.
‘Dandelion and Burdock.’
‘Sandy sandwiches.’
‘Tizer.’
‘Where’s the Dandelion?’

Conversations meander, wander, as they do, still laughing, off to the cafe. And we wonder why there’s no Dandelion, haven’t noticed the absence until now. Chickweed, Daisy, considered by many to be invasive, along with so many of the plants in this garden, but no Dandelion. It seems all the more curious, after reading the extensive entry in A Modern Herbal, in which Maude Grieve mentions that Dandelion was much valued as a medicine in the times of Gerard and Parkinson. Gerard, borrowing from Pliny the Elder, recommends Dandelion for dysentery, especially beeing boiled with lentils. Pliny refers to, a sort of wild endive, too, with a broader leaf, known to some persons as “hedypnoïs.” Boiled, it acts as an astringent upon a relaxed stomach, and eaten raw, it is productive of constipation. It is good, too, for dysentery, when eaten with lentils more particularly. As with all the herbs in this garden, Dandelion serves several different needs.

Considered an extremely invasive weed, the delicate seed head set free with a breath of wind, make it a particular nuisance for the gardener; yet useful, all parts having both culinary and medicinal uses. Clarence J. Hylander writing in the Macmillan Wild Flower Book (1954) states that, It hardly seems necessary to describe this ubiquitous Composite which has become an obnoxious garden and lawn weed throughout the eastern states. Few European species have spread as rapidly in the United States as this immigrant. A more sympathetic response is found in Edward Step’s Wayside and Woodland Blossoms (1895): We may not like to find the Dandelion taking possession of our lawns, but we should regret to miss it from the odd corners by the fence and the roadside.

According to the Invasive Species Compendium, Many botanists believe that T. officinale complex originated in Greece, or perhaps the northern Himalayas, and spread across temperate areas to Europe and Asia Minor, […] and it is thought to have colonised the Americas post-Pleistocene via Beringia. […] Later introductions of T. officinale to North America are obscured in conflicting claims.

Although it is claimed that Dandelions arrived with the Vikings, the Mayflower narrative endures; Dandelions were taken to North America by the Puritans in the early seventeenth century. And while it may be considered an obnoxious garden and lawn weed, many American states now host Dandelion festivals; Vineland, New Jersey appearing to be the first to do so, in 1973. Vineland also claims to be the Dandelion capitol of the world, growing Dandelion as a cash crop to, supply restaurants and markets in Baltimore, New York City and Philadelphia.

In an article for the American Naturalist 1886, E. Lewis Sturtevant traces the cultivation of Dandelions during the nineteenth century. Primarily concerned with North America, he also refers to developments in Europe during the same period. Although he is aware that people have made use of the Dandelion in its wild state, as a vegetable, from remote times, […] its culture is modern. He goes on to describe Dandelion grown for the Boston market with, seed obtained from the largest of the wild plants. Its appearance in seed catalogues is also noted, including one variety described as common; almost certainly the ubiquitous Composite colonising American lawns, referred to by Hylander, earlier.

Its culinary uses were also noted by Eleanor Rohde, in A Garden of Herbs (1921); it had been valued as a pot herb in broths, also much more than they are now in salads. In A Modern Herbal (1931), Maude Grieve refers to the cultivation of the plant, recommending soil types, and best age to harvest roots (from two year old plants). To grow Dandelion as a crop she recommends about, 4lb. of seed to the acre […] sown in drills, one foot apart […] making sure the flower heads are picked off as soon as they appear. Writing during the early years of the twentieth century, Grieve suggests the edges of fields when room is allowed for the plough-horses to turn, could easily be utilised if the soil is good and free from stones for both Dandelion and Burdock, as the roots are much branched in stony ground. She also points out that Dandeions are an important food source for bees, providing considerable quantities of both pollen and nectar in the early spring, when the bees’ harvest from fruit trees is nearly over. […] a small succession of bloom is also kept up until late autumn, so that it is a source of honey after the main flowers have ceased to bloom. An obnoxious weed to be eradicated, cultivated for its culinary and medicinal virtues, Dandelion occupies a conflicted place in [horti]culture.

As they were leaving the physic garden the women talked about games they played as children; blowing the seed heads off Dandelions to tell the time; to ask if he loves me, he loves me not; to wonder how many years they had to wait till they were married. ‘If I knew then what I know now. Not sure I’d be asking that.’ Laughter echoes across the green separating the physic garden from the tea shop.

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Work an Eye Salve for a Wen

So the passing days find us here again working in the physic garden, cutting back and clearing, gathering herbs together, making progress. Hypericum, seeded in different parts of the garden; Common Mallow, migrated from the original planting place, and now grouped together in the preferred spot; Solomon’s Seal, congested and in need of thinning out; Herb Robert and Chickweed, considered common weeds, have a place in this garden. As does Elecampane, of ancient medicinal repute, having been described by Dioscorides and Pliny, according to Grieve, and Agrimony, known to the Anglo-Saxons as a vulnerary; all point to an older, more intense awareness of the immediate environment.

The ground we’ve been working today has become compacted over time, turning it over throws up Alexanders and Chicory roots; as with the other herbs, we’re learning to recognise different roots, to name them. There’s a toad population we have to watch out for too; one was nestling in the comfrey we had ‘cleared’. Moving it to the yew hedge wasn’t too much of a problem. And the comfrey patch has been dug over, again.

People wander through the garden, occasionally stop, chat, then leave to visit another part of the Priory, but most of the time we’re left alone. Today people want to talk, which is fine; nothing quite like nattering, in between gardening. We talk about the older medical knowledge these plants represent, how some of these practices are still with us, in the herbal mixtures, tonics, balms, bought from the chemist, or off the web, alongside the antibiotics we consume all too readily. Conversations circle around the same question, posed in different ways; where did this knowledge come from? One man thinks, ‘Maybe they knew something we’ve lost,’ while we talk about treating nettle stings with Dock leaves; shared knowledge, strands of a folk medicine that’s still alive.

Suggestive rather than productive, this garden speaks of a time when people were careful husbandmen [who] out of sheer necessity […] made the greatest possible use of the resources they had available to them; it follows that they had an intense familiarity with the plant and animal life around them. What Stephen Pollington is describing, in the context of medicinal knowledge in Anglo Saxon England, seems nothing but the echo of a memory now, filtered through images of the pastoral idyll; imagined geographies tapping into ever-present anxieties about the pace of change to the environment we inhabit.

This garden owes much to Gerard’s Herball. Although John Gerard was accused of plagiarism when he first published the Herball in 1597, sixty years after the dissolution of Michelham Priory, the book nevertheless proved extremely popular, and has endured. Eleanour Rohde, writing in the 1920s, acknowledges and forgives those criticisms, setting aside, Gerard’s possible duplicity in the never failing charm of the book, noting that it contains Gerard’s own observations as well as a good deal of contemporary folklore. For Rohde, that mixture of medicine and magic which informed Anglo Saxon medical practice, the belief in the efficacy of herbs used as amulets, survives in the Herball, although Gerard does sometimes doubt the efficacy of what he terms, Physick charms, relying instead on his religious faith to cure him of, a most grievous ague […] for these medicines and all other such things did me no good at all.

If Gerard is present in this garden, so are the vernacular traditions embodied in the folklore he drew on, echoes of those older practices to which Rohde and Pollington refer. And while it’s true that magic was a component part of all ancient and medieval medical practices, M. L. Cameron questions the extent to which it played the dominant role in Anglo Saxon medicine, suggesting that sound observation and experience also underpinned that practice. He analyses a remedy, taken from Bald’s Leechbook, a manuscript possibly compiled towards the end of the 9th century, intended to treat the microbial infection that cause styes: Staphylococcus aureus.

Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, both of equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand for nine days in the brass vessel, wring through with a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn, and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye: the best leechdom.[1]

Cameron states that the remedy, contains four antibiotic agents, two of them (onion and garlic) especially active against staphylococci, bull’s gall destructive of bacteria generally and the fourth (copper salts) toxic to all cells. […] Applied to a stye, this medicine should have helped to destroy bacteria at the site of the infection and to have prevented the spread of infection to other sites. Nine days allowed the copper salts to form.

In 2015 Freya Harrison conducted an experiment that excited attention in the international press. Harrison, together with Christina Lee, a medieval scholar, and colleagues in the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, at the University of Nottingham, and at the Texas Tech University, USA, reproduced the stye remedy. Substituting cow’s bile for bull’s gall, and glass bottles containing squares of brass sheet instead of the brass vessel specified, after nine days the solution was tested on fragments of skin infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The remedy successfully killed 90 per cent of the bacteria. Vancomycin, the antibiotic generally used against MRSA, killed about the same proportion when it was added to the skin fragments. Harrison, speaking at the Society for General Microbiology Annual Conference in 2015, stated, ‘Our results highlight the untapped potential of pre-modern antibacterial remedies for yielding novel therapeutics.’
This isn’t isolated research, increased antibiotic resistance is an international problem, encouraging researchers to look at the potential of older traditional medicinal practices, and not just in relation to antibiotic resistance. Yung-Chi Cheng, professor of pharmacology at Yale School of Medicine is developing a new cancer treatment based on an ancient Chinese recipe.

The weather changes, clouds gather, we continue working, quietly now that people have wandered off to different parts of the Priory. We collect together Motherwort, Sweet Cicely, thin out Lemon Balm, clear a space for chickweed; someone walking through the garden comments, ‘Its like cultivating weeds, isn’t it?’ Pauses, ‘I like flowers.’ And then she’s gone before we can respond. These plants persist, they grow and spread, become a nuisance to the gardener, are consigned to the compost heap. They colonise roadside verges, field boundaries, are sprayed in an attempt to eradicate what is seen as untidy, a menace. Rampant, unruly, they disrupt the boundaries we draw between nature and culture; weeds, mobile, prolific, genetically diverse. They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It’s curious that it took so long for us to realise that the species they most resemble is us.

Considered disruptive, in this herb garden, Chickweed, Dandelion and Daisy, Herb Robert, cultivated alongside Hypericum, Mallow, Sage and Thyme, suggest another way to engage with the ordinary and the everyday.

[1] Cockayne, O. Leechdom, Wortcunning, and Star Craft of Early England. Vol.II. p35. Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green. London 1865. In a footnote Cockayne suggests uncertainly that Allium oleraceum might be the cropleek known to Saxon leechs. He points out that wisps or styes are called wuns in Devon.

Marigold

A Lichen Covered Bench

Sunlight on lichen. Lunch time, we’re sitting in the shade of the orchard, next to us our old metal teapot, red plastic plates, two chipped enamel cups; remnants of camping holidays, and still useable. Over the last couple of months we’ve sat in various parts of the gardens, but the orchard has become the preferred place; watching the play of sunlight on the lichen covering these bench slats. As with herbs, so Lichens are used in medicinal remedies, having antibiotic properties. Maude Grieve specifies two types; Litmus, Rocella Tinctoria, useful in treating coughs and catarrhs, and Liverwort, Peltigera Canina, as a remedy for liver complaints. But these are not the lichens we share this bench with.

We continue to work our way around the Physic garden, thinning out Marshmallow, Hop, Soapwort, Dyers Madder, moving Hypericum which has migrated over time. The garden’s starting to look more organised. We’ve laid a wood chip path next to the wall, for easier access to the plants as they begin to grow and spread again in the coming year. And as expected, the comfrey has emerged again. From past experience on our allotment, while the young shoots are often quite easy to remove, comfrey is deep rooted, and stubborn with it.

The comfrey we’re dealing with is a relatively modern introduction. Lawrence Hills, in Russian Comfrey, (1953), details its history from an agricultural perspective, beginning in the late 18th. century when Joseph Busch, a nurseryman and gardener, left England to become head gardener for Catherine the Great. He sent back several varieties of Symphytum as garden plants, including the largest, Prickly Comfrey, S. Asperrimum, a native of the Caucasus, and recommended as an ornamental perennial, capable of thriving in any soil.

The possibility that these new introductions might be grown as a fodder crop emerged at much the same time, with Hills citing nurseryman James Grant from Lewisham, as the first to discover the agricultural potential of the imported plant. However, because the plant is propagated vegetatively by division, or root cuttings, it was expensive, and the high price demanded by nurserymen meant only small quantities were bought for agricultural trial, which limited research. Interestingly, he points out that this also accounted for, ‘the quite extraordinary number of clergymen in the history of Comfrey. The country parson with his glebe land, his horse, and his Gilbert-White-like interest in Nature and the Useful Arts, was the most frequent buyer.’ Because of the prohibitive costs, eventually both clergy and farmers began to collect Common Comfrey, S. Officinale, from the wild, which increases its yield when cultivated. Hills suggests that this move was largely responsible for ‘the hybrids, with S. Asperrimum as the pollen parent, which are found in many districts more commonly than the true plant [S. Officinale].’

In about 1870, Henry Doubleday imported a hybrid of S. Officinalle and S. Asperrimum, known as S. x Upplandicum from St. Petersburg. The plant was sent to Doubleday by one of the successors to Joseph Busch. Doubleday, and Thomas Christy, a writer, botanist, and nurseryman, between them named this new variety Russian Comfrey, to distinguish it from the earlier introduction, Prickly Comfrey. This naming was against the background of a proliferation of hybrids and a lack of understanding about their use or which hybrids were being grown, evident in the agricultural press at the time. Although there were a number of others carrying out similar research, Henry Doubleday was the first person to select Comfrey by roguing out to improve stock, as well as methodically recording yields.

While Lawrence Hills’ primary interest and research was in the agricultural potential of Comfrey, it’s medicinal value was also recognised. Referencing a recipe in Gerard’s Herball of 1597 that called for the extracted juice of the plant in wine, to aid internal bleeding, Hills points out that, what ‘Master Gerard was prescribing [was] an 0.06 per cent dose of diureide of glyoxylic acid called ‘Allantoin’ to-day. This is present in both the roots and leaves of this plant, and the agricultural species, and its value as a cell-proliferant in making the edges of wounds grow together, healing sores, and internally for gastric and duodenal ulcers and intestinal irritations causing diarrhoea, is still recognised in pharmacy.’

Joseph Payne, in the first of the Fitzpatrick Lectures of 1903 to the Royal College of Physicians, took as his subject Anglo Saxon medicine. Payne drew attention to the fact that the body of knowledge contained in the surviving Anglo Saxon medical texts, was ‘founded on an empirical knowledge of the virtue of herbs, […] the Anglo Saxons took a keen and genuine interest in the study of plants for medicinal uses. […] Their knowledge of botany was not only much more extensive than has been supposed, but it was original.’

During his lectures, Payne made reference to Comfrey’s reputation as a vulnerary herb in Saxon England and, linking the plant across time, he quoted from personal correspondence with a doctor in Sussex, on the continuing use of the plant in diagnosis, ‘The local modus is to scrape the root and put the scrapings (not unlike a dish of horseradish) on the part alleged to be ‘sprained’. If it adhere there is unquestionable evidence of the sprain; if not there is no sprain whatever, the patient may suppose. As a matter of fact the scraped-wort poultice does harden very notably on a hot inflamed area, and sticks for a considerable time.’

Eleanour Rohde suggests that Anglo Saxon medical texts, written in the vernacular, fell into disrepute after the Norman Conquest. The Old English medical texts may have been abandoned for Latin texts, but it’s interesting to speculate on the extent to which the vernacular knowledge of pre-conquest England continued to exert an influence on the monastic physic garden, and the collection of herbs in the wild, for medicinal uses.

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Physic Garden, Michelham Priory

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.

 

Physic garden [1]