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, 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.
Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Synonyms: Goosegrass. Barweed. Hedgeheriff. Hayriffe. Eriffe. Grip Grass. Hayruff. Catchweed. Scratweed. Mutton Chops. Robin-run-in-the-Grass. Loveman. Goosebill. Everlasting Friendship.
(A Modern Herbal. Maude Grieve)
An insistent rattle echoes across the green, between the moat and the physic garden; a woodpecker, battering the bark of an old oak bordering the moat.
The garden is growing again after the winter months; Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) is emerging, and needs thinning, to stop it dominating ground shared with Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum); Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is growing vigorously; Elecampane (Inula helenium) shoots disturb the soil; and Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) is already colonising part of the wood chip path laid around the perimeter of the garden.
We’ve been transplanting herbs, and weeding; Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), and Cleavers (Galium aparine), considered invasive weeds, as are most of the plants in this garden. Small, bounded by a yew hedge and an old stone wall, limited space encourages the need to be selective, to exclude the more vigorous plants, including Cleavers, because of its extremely unruly habit. It can be a troublesome plant, clinging to clothing, but playful too. It’s very familiarity prompted Edward Step to include aparine in Wayside and Woodland Blossoms (1930), and for another reason: The rambling botanist, when playfully inclined, detaches a yard-length from the hedge, and deftly throwing it against his unconscious companions back, causes a hundred hooks to catch in the warp or weft of his coat.
Following Cleavers’ spreading habit is fascinating; it’s specific name aparine, is derived from the Greek aparo, to seize, a characteristic Theophrastus observed in the 2nd century BCE. Pliny the Elder, and Dioscorides, both writing in the 1st century CE mention this characteristic, as well as its medicinal value; Pliny specifies the seed, to neutralize the venom of serpents, being taken in doses of one drachma, in wine: it is useful also for the bite of the phalangium; Dioscorides recommends the whole plant, seed, stalks and leaves […] juiced (taken as a drink with wine) to help those bitten by harvest spiders and snakes; both recommend drops of the juice to cure earache. Dioscorides also prescribes the pounded herb, mixed with swines’ grease, as a remedy for scrofulous tumors. Pliny mentions: The leaves, applied topically, arrest haemorrhage from wounds. Contemporaries, but with no evidence to suggest they met or corresponded, it seems possible that, in their separate commentaries, they were drawing on common knowledge, as well as observation.
Continuity and change; knowledge travels, manuscripts are annotated, translated, commentaries written. The printed English Herbals, from the 16th century onwards, rely heavily on these classical authors, while registering changes and developments too, in a broader European context. Eleanor Rohde suggests that English herbalists owed a great deal to Europe, particularly the herbalists of the Netherlands, Rembert Dodeons amongst them; but knowledge is shared. William Turner, in The Names of Herbes (1548), includes Cleavers ability to, scoureth away and dryeth, perhaps a reference to what had become its general use in treating skin diseases. Something Rembert Dodeons acknowledges, in A Newe Herball, or, Historie of plants, translated from the French by Henrie Lyte (1586), when, in the entry for Cleavers, he quotes William Turner (1551): pound with hogges grease, it dissolveth and consumeth the disease of the knecke, called the Kinges evil, and all hard kernels and wennes wheresoever they be, if it be layed thereto, as Turner writes.
Gerard, in his Herball (1636), simply quotes from the classical authors, adding to the herbs vertues what may be a folk remedy: Women do usually make pottage of Clevers with a little mutton and Otemeal, to cause lanknesse and keep them from fatnesse.
William Coles, writing in the 17th century repeats the standard medicinal uses of Cleavers, adding; A handful of Cleavers boiled in a quart of Ale, with a little paired liquorice, and some currants to the one halfe, and then strained, may be successfully drunk morning and evening for the cough, and removing phlegm from the stomack. He also writes of its common use as a ‘spring drink’, fitting the body for the season that followes, by purging away those excrementitious dregs, which winter hath bred in them.
Benjamin Barton and Thomas Castle, writing in the 19th century, refer to its use, among country people for scorbutic complaints. In the preface to The British Flora Medica (1845), they state their intention: to furnish an accurate description of all the medicinal plants indigenous to Britain [and] the estimation in which they were held by the greatest and most skilful of the old physicians. For this they claim a degree of originality, as far as the term will apply to publications whose chief value consists […] in affording a record of the experience of the past (their emphasis).
Older knowledge informing current use; with Cleavers it was its value as an external application in the treatment of cancer; the herb’s cleansing capabilities, already noted by William Turner, to scoureth away and dryeth, accompanied by internal treatment, either the juice, or a decoction of the herb for which they provide a recipe.
Aparine has a place in current herbal practice, it’s healing properties still very much valued; but it will remain outside this herb garden, or at least that’s the idea. Look again, that patch of ground we’ve weeded, leave it a few days and no doubt the Goosegrass will emerge, and left to its own devices, will be weaving its way across the beds, covering, enveloping, clinging; an invitation to play.