As I stood in the border this week untangling bindweed from the still to bloom Michaelmas Daisies I realized how many plants in Hill Top garden have uses beyond just looking pretty. Apart from the obvious fruit and vegetables there are a number of plants which have medicinal or household uses.
The most noticeable one at this time of year is the Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) which spreads rather alarmingly around the borders and flops gracefully onto the paths at every opportunity. It's a perennial plant introduced to Hill Top by persons unknown which goes by a multitude of other names including 'Bouncing Bet', 'Fuller's Herb', 'Latherwort', 'Crow Soap', 'Farewell To Summer' and the rather bizarre 'Jill Run By The Street'!
It was apparently brought to England during the Middle Ages by Franciscan and Dominican monks who brought it as “a gift of God intended to keep them clean" and by the end of the 16th century it had become widespread in England, where it was used for cleaning dishes and laundry and presumably the grubby populace too. The leaves and roots when boiled in water make a mild soap solution which is still used today for cleaning delicate textiles like lace. Gerard's Herbal also recommended it as a topical disinfectant for “green wounds” and “filthy diseases”, and it was also used for the treatment of acne, psoriasis, eczema and boils amongst other things.
Also flowering in the garden now is the Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) which in frost-free climates is a short lived perennial but in Britain has to be treated as an annual and grown from seed every year (the plants at Hill Top are all descended from some seeds I brought back from a trip to Tunisia 20 years ago).
Calendula is said to be useful for disinfecting and treating minor wounds, conjunctivitis, cuts, scrapes, chapped or chafed skin, bruises, burns, athlete’s foot, acne, yeast infections, bee stings, nappy rash, and other minor irritations and infections of the skin. And if that wasn't enough the petals can be used as a substitute for saffron, hence the common name 'Pot Marigold'. Some claims should be taken with a pinch of salt though, especially the one made by 13th century Roman poet Aemilius Macer who wrote that merely gazing at the flowers "will draw wicked humours out of the head, comfort the heart and make the sight bright and clean".
Another late-flowering (and annoyingly floppy) resident of Hill Top is Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) which was first recorded as being grown by the Ancient Greeks, and by the sixteenth century it was considered "necessary for a garden" in Britain.
Tansy was also used as a 'strewing herb' to be scattered on the floors of houses to keep away insects (fleas especially) and to release a scent when walked on which would mask the unpleasant odours common in the days when you shared your living room with goats and chickens and flushing toilets hadn't been invented yet. Think of it as a kind of early Shake 'n' Vac!
Tansy leaves were also made into a tea and incorporated into cakes and puddings commonly eaten around Easter as a remembrance of the bitter herbs eaten by the Jews at the passover.
I have to say I've never tried any of the above remedies so please don't try any of them at home, except perhaps gazing at Marigolds!
I'm not having a musical link this time but instead including a short poem which seems appropriate for a gardening blog at the end of another summer. It's by Robert Herrick (1591-1674) who was probably no stranger to a strewing herb or a tansy pudding and is ostensibly a piece of advice to young ladies to marry whilst still 'in their prime' (he'd never get away with that these days)! But read between the lines and it's also about making the most of whatever time we have and 'seizing the day'.
To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
Enjoy what's left of the summer, see you next time.
Words and pictures by Pete the Gardener / Robert Herrick.