A Quiet Morning

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Herbs grow, colonise, move around the garden, always pushing beyond the artificial boundaries we attempt to impose. Common Mallow (Malva silvestris) threatens to engulf Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and Iris (Iris florentina), Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) overruns the House Leek (Sempervivum tectorum); there’s a balance to be struck between natural growth and the organised nature of the physic garden. We’re attempting to restore that balance, clearing Calendula from the House Leek, thinning out the Common Mallow, and weeding out the Orach (Atriplex hortensis) which has emerged again among the Bisort (Polygonum bisorta).
Feverfew and Yarrow, Hypericum and Salad Burnett, Herb Robert, grow in the gaps between paving, disrupting the divisions between pathway and bed, and there’s something in this unruly habit that’s to be welcomed; leave them, let them grow, within reason, acknowledging the tension between artifice and unconfined growth.

The Physic garden’s function is primarily aesthetic and informative, which sometimes poses problems. Many of the plants are regarded as weeds; numerous conversations with people visiting the garden bear this out, as well as the surprise and delight that weeds such as Herb Robert in flower can look so extraordinary, a mass of feathery red foliage studded with geranium pink flowers. Common Mallow is associated with the peripheral zones of the urban environment. Edward Step, in Wayside and Woodland Blossoms (1930), believed that one of its common names, Rags and Tatters […] could only have been suggested by one of the unfortunate specimens that have chanced to grow between the roadside and the ditch […] liberally coated by road dust they do present a forlorn and ragged appearance. Among the common names listed by Geoffrey Grigson in The Englishman’s Flora (1955) are, Chucky Cheese, Old Man’s Bread and Cheese, referring to the seeds, which develop after flowering. Children still eat these discs or ‘cheeses’, as they are known from Cornwall to the Border. Valued medicinally, the foliage can also be eaten as a vegetable; ragged on the roadside, but also a useful plant.

Working in this garden, weeding, tidying, replanting where necessary, we are aware of what little connection there is to a time when these plants, considered unruly and invasive by some of our visitors, were food and medicine. Teresa McClean suggests that, so many medieval plants were so variously used that almost all of them were classified as herbs, including those grown in the specialised area of the monastic infirmary garden.
John Gerard’s Herball, first published 60 years after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, informs the original planting in the physic garden; the decision resting on the understanding that many of the plant remedies listed in the Herball were already considered traditional, having the authority of the classical Greek and Roman texts that the friars may have been familiar with. But Gerard wasn’t concerned with the monastic garden. A 9th century poem in Latin, by Walafrid Strabo, On The Cultivation of Gardens (Hortulus), offers an insight into that intense familiarity, born out of necessity that McClean alludes to. Walafrid was Abbot of the Abbey on the island of Reichenau in the Bodensee, southwest Germany, when he wrote the poem, some four centuries before the founding of Michelham Priory.

On the Cultivation of Gardens (Hortulus) is anchored in the physical processes of gardening, an activity central to the monastic ideal of prayer and work familiar to the friars at Michelham Priory: as long as you aren’t afraid of going outdoors and getting calluses all/over your grubby hands […] I gained my expertise through hard work and experience. He clears nettles that are, covering the whole area with stinging poison, carefully prepares the ground, making raised beds by edging them, with some planks. He works rich yeasty fertiliser into newly turned earth, and begins to plant out his garden. We try to coax forth some of our herbs from seeds, other we try to rejuvenate from old roots. Although separated by centuries, the poem’s intimate connection to the earth and growing resonates; time taken in careful preparation ensures that, the garden has brought to life all/the shrivelled stocks and seeds assigned to it […]. But now all my skill is required-and my learning/and eloquence as well-to present the names/and virtues of the gathered fruits, and thus/to grace these small things with my reverence for them.
He lovingly describes the plants in his small plot, mingling medicine and everyday magic with an awareness of wider economic interests. Among them Pennyroyal; a commercial commodity, reportedly valued as highly by the physicians of India/as a whole sack of black pepper amongst the Gauls; it’s medicinal actions carminative, useful to cure a sluggish stomach; and with magical properties. According to his informants, If you stick a twig of pennyroyal behind your ear, it will combat the effects of a hot summer sun.
The herbs Walafrid lists, including Agrimony, Betony, Catmint, and Sage, would be as important to an infirmary garden, as they were to his courtyard plot. They are also among the herbs we tend in this garden.

We’ve weeded out the Feverfew and Yarrow, Hypericum and Salad Burnett, Herb Robert; the paths are cleared, aesthetics triumphs, at least for the moment.

 

 

 

 

A Quiet Morning

1

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.

 

 

On a Cold Day

A cold day, and with rain a distinct possibility. We’ve finished the hurdles, separating planting areas in the physic garden; we’ve been weeding, transplanting, generally tidying. In this late winter light, the Stinking Hellebore are luminous; violets are flowering, the wild strawberry is just beginning to put out flowers.
Delicate, unassuming, a source of food and medicine, and an ancient plant. There is archaeobotanical evidence for the consumption of wild strawberry in the Mesolithic period (about 10,000 to 5000 BCE). Evidence too, from the Anglo Saxon period, whether wild, or cultivated in gardens and orchards […] the Saxons utilised a considerable range of fruit, including the strawberry. Faecal material from a dig in Beverley, Yorkshire, produced, walnut, hazel (Corylis Avellana), plum, strawberry (Fragaria vesca), as well as a range of other fruit.
Stephen Pollington argues that, for the Anglo Saxons, dependent on an intimate knowledge of their environment, requirements of specific activities such as dyeing, thatching, […] baking, tanning and so on, would have encouraged the development of cultivated plots. An essential part of that knowledge would be the medicinal uses of plants. Medical texts form a substantial part of what survives of the vernacular writing from this period; glossed remedies, short treatises, and four long works, three of which are unique manuscripts. Translated into modern English, in three volumes, by the Rev. Thomas Oswald Cockayne, in the nineteenth century, one of these books, The Leechbook of Bald includes this prescription for an eye salve:

Thus shall a man work an eye salve, take the nether part of strawberry plants and pepper, pound them well, put them on a cloth, bind them fast, lay them in sweetened wine, make somebody drop one drop into the eyes.

And this prescription, from the Herbarium of Apuleius, translated into Old English from a fifth century Latin text, changed in the process, to make it a more useful pharmacopeia for the Saxon leech.

Medicinal value of strawberry
This wort which is named fraga (fragaria) and by another name strawberry, is produced in secret places and in clean ones, and also on downs.
For sore milt (spleen), take the juice of the same wort, which we named fragaria, honey; give to drink; it benefits wonderfully.
Juice of the same wort, mingled with honey, along with pepper benefits much when drunk, for oppression of the chest and sore inwards.

In the preface to the first volume, Cockayne indicates that these medical texts were intended for trained physicians, the frequent expression, “as the leech knows how,” shows that they received professional education.

Eleanor Rhode suggests this rich medical knowledge was abandoned after the Norman Conquest, but perhaps the reality was more complex, as society adjusted to the cultural shifts that took place from the eleventh century onwards. The Rev. John Earle, in English Plant Names from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century (1880), states that, early botany is inseparable from medicine […] rested mainly upon a knowledge of Herbs […]. This priority of herbal medicines has left its trace in the vocabulary of our language.
And the wild strawberry continued to flourish; at least as early as the fourteenth century wild plants were collected, and brought into gardens for cultivation. Strawberries were being sold; The London Lackpenny dating from the early fifteenth century, and attributed to John Lidgate, includes these lines;

Then unto London I dyde me hye,
Of all the land it bearyeth the pryse;
‘Gode pescode,’ one began to cry —
‘Strabery rype’, and ‘cherrys in the ryse’.

Gerard’s Herball informs this garden; in the choice of plants, and the descriptions of their medicinal uses. But an earlier, and perhaps more interesting figure, is William Turner. His major work, A New Herball (1551) is considered to mark the beginnings of the serious study of botany in England, post Conquest.
In an earlier, slimmer volume, The Names of Herbes (1548), there is a short entry; Fragraria is called in English a Strawbery […] Every man knoweth wel inough where strawberries grow. It would seem the plant was familiar enough, to make identification of habitat unnecessary. In the preface, he states that he had intended to publish his little boke in Latin, but on the advice of physicians delayed until, I had sene those places in Englande, wherein is most plentie of herbes, that I might in my herbal declare to the greate honoure of our countre what number of sovereine and strang herbes were in Englande. […] and because men should not thynke that I writue of it that I never saw. He published in English, not Latin as originally intended. Answering criticisms for writing in English, he asks, in A Newe Herball; How many surgianes and apothecaries are there in England which can understand Plini in Latin or Galen and Dioscoridies? saying that anyway, they rely on the old wives who gather herbs; on old and local knowledge. And a herbal, written in English, will benefit everyone concerned with medicine; is for the comon profit. His Protestantism shines through; his reasoning resonating with the production of the Old English manuscripts, begun under Alfred’s programme of translation, to make significant texts accessible in the vernacular.

Turner studied plants in their locality, writing from careful observation; proper identification being essential to the physicians and apothecaries who would use his herbal, and in this he echoed the desire to inform that characterises the Anglo Saxon Leech Books.
In A Newe Herball, under his entry for strawberry, he notes the rough stalk, and in the toppe of it grow whyte floures; the berries turning from green to red; the leaf indented, and always thre of them grow together,
[and some of] The Vertues of Strawberries.
Strawberies leaves taken in meate, helpeth thê that are diseased in the milt, and so doth also the juice dronke wyth hony. The same is good to be geven wyth peper for them that are short winded. Strawberryes quenche thirst, and are good for a cholerike stomack.

There are striking similarities between the medicinal use of strawberries in Turner’s Herball, written in the sixteenth century and their medicinal value in the Herbarium, dating to the tenth century.

And then there was a break in the clouds, a brief scattering of sunshine, before they closed again, the sky darkened and it started to rain, heavily.

 

wild-strawberry_1

 

Food For The Birds

Plants (or some plants) were necessary to a degree that we are forgetting.[1]

Chickweed; from the Old English cîcene mete, cîcene-mete chicken food.
Daisy; from the Old English dægeseage (about 1000, in Ælfric’s Glossary), and dæges êage day’s eye, in allusion to closing of petals in the evening, and their opening in the morning.[2]

Days of sunshine days of rain, the week passes and we’re here, again working in the physic garden. We have a routine now, time set aside; this week we’ve concentrated on the areas where Chickweed and Daisy should be growing. Chickweed, most troublesome according to John Hutchinson, but also of considerable economic and biological interest, representing a high stage of evolution. The seeds provide food for small birds nearly all the year round.

Chickweed, unsightly for some, disruptive; Daisy, a familiar flower in the memory, a flower of childhood meadows, but not welcome in the garden. Both are valued here, but no longer where they should be, no doubt casualties of over enthusiastic weeding in the years since the herb garden was established. The planting plan tells us where they should be, so do the small metal plaques growing out of bare soil. So, with hand forks and a small trug, we go for a walk around the Priory grounds, by way of the orchard where we find what we’re looking for, and then back to the Physic garden.

A man, walking through the garden, is surprised that we should think of cultivating rather than weeding out these perennials.
‘Of all things. Can’t get rid of them in our garden, thought of spraying but haven’t, yet.’
‘Good. You shouldn’t spray.’
The conversation turns on weeds and why we might want to eradicate them.
‘Nothing but a Nuisance, why would you want them in the garden, growing over everything’.
It depends on what’s considered a nuisance, an eyesore. We wouldn’t have a herb garden if we agreed with that point of view; most of the plant here being considered too unruly, would overrun the bedding plants, colonise the lawn.
‘And anyway they’re unnecessary now, we can call in at the chemist, can’t we?’
But he thinks we’re doing a fine job tidying this part of the Priory, taking care of our weeds.

Chickweed (Stellaria media); this unassuming plant has a long history. Sir Harry Godwin, in The History of the British Flora states, Stellaria media has been recorded from the Cromer Forest Bed series […]. It is apparent that S. media has been persistently native up to and through the Weichselian glaciation, […] The numerous interglacial records give striking proof of the plant’s capacity to exist here independently of human influence. Troublesome as this plant might be to some, it’s been here at least as long we have, and thrived, been useful too.
Gerard recommends: The leaves of Chickweed boiled in water very soft, adding thereto some hogs grease, the pouder of Fenugreek and Lineseed, and a few roots of Marsh Mallowes, and stamped to form a cataplasm or poultesse, take away the swellings of the leg or any other part. He also states, the leaves boiled in vinegar are good against manginesse of the hands and legs.
James Britten and Robert Holland in their Dictionary of English Plant Names (1886), under the entry for Chickweed, say, the name was formerly applied to many small plants of similar habit, such as the annual species of Veronica […]. 
For Geoffrey Grigson, Chickweed is everywhere, winter green and happy even in the coldest months.

Daisy (Bellis perennis), Wordsworth’s little Cyclops, may be older, or rather the Asteraceae family to which Daisies belong, research into fossil pollen found in Antarctica suggesting that the Asteraceae family is about 80 million years old. The dating of this fossil pollen, together with similar finds in Australia and New Zealand, is helping to show how the Daisy family spread across the world, and the potential influence on the evolution of pollinators. Asteraceae is believed to have played a major role in the diversification and evolution of animals such as bees, hummingbirds and wasps.
For Maude Greave, the Daisy along with Ox-Eye Daisy, had a reputation for healing fresh wounds. Gerard suggests Daisy, which he calls by its English name Bruisewort, as a remedy to, mitigate all kinds of paines. A decoction, made in water and drunke, is good against agues, inflammation of the liver and all other inward parts. The decoction, in ale rather than water, was a common folk remedy for jaundice. Contemporary herbal medicine recommends the Daisy, often as a tincture, or as a tea, for a range of ailments including coughs, colds, and intestinal inflammation.

Geoffery Grigson, in The Englishman’s Flora, explores our relationship with plants, through their own human dossier, those common names that speak eloquently of the role plants have, or at least had, in our daily lives.
Among the local common names Grigson lists for Chickweed, are; Clukenweed, Cluckweed, Clukenwort, in Northumberland, Mischevious Jack, in Somerset. For Daisy; Little Open Star, Little Star, in Somerset, Mary Gowlan, in Northumberland. Naming is knowing, expressing an intimate connection with our immediate environment.
First published in 1955, when many of the local names listed might already have become obsolete, An Englishman’s Flora acts as a record of that passing, and in the process, underscores a loosening of ties with the local and familiar, perhaps inevitable in an increasingly urbanised society. We can remake these connections, through our work in the physic garden, which otherwise will remain, to many, merely a collection of weeds.

[1] Grigson, G. The Englishman’s Flora, London, 1987
[2] Barnhart, K. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, London. 2000

 

chickweed_physic-garden1