The Herbalist's Kitchen, by Francesca de Onorati

As we do research into areas that fascinate us, we discover any number of related areas that also become interesting. As I do research for recipes in my time period I have become fascinated by herbs and spices, and their usage in curing various illnesses (real and imagined!). I've put together a list of some of the more common plants that you might have found in a medieval garden, and some interesting facts about them.* Hopefully someday I will be able to take you on a walk through a garden of Francesca's time.

Herbs were grown to add taste to various foods (or cover the taste up in some instances!), and some of them provided a pleasure to look at as well.

Borage which is used in salads has bright blue flowers that may be candied and bloom all summer.

Basil has small white flowers in tall white spikes that smell wonderful. It 's leaves are used in salads, vinegars, soups and stews. It also has mild antiseptic powers, and if made into a tea and sipped it is suppose to relieve nausea.

Bay is a beautiful evergreen shrub that does well in warm climates, and has to be grown as a tub plant in this latitude. It's a wonderful addition to stews, and rice, but it can very nauseating if too much is used.

Chamomile used to grow wild until someone tried making it's dried flowers into a delicious tea. The tea is used to help insomnia, and teething babies (in very small amounts), and is suppose to be an aid to digestion. Externally it can be used as a complexion brightener or for "giving life" to tired blonde hair.

Coriander may have been one of the first herbs ever used in cooking by the Chinese more than 5000 years ago. It has fragile pink flowers, and while the fresh seed smell like old cloth, the dried seeds are delicious in meats, cheeses, soups, and salads. This is one of the ingredients used in making curry powder, and it is suppose to help with arthritis, and also work as an antacid.

Dill is probably one of the herbs that were introduced into Britain and Northern Europe by the Romans. Dill tea was used for centuries for fretful infants. The young leaves improve the flavor of fish and soups delightfully, and the seeds are used in pickles, sauces and sauerkraut.

Fennel comes in two varieties. Sweet fennel is a beloved seasoning of the Italians, and they use the leaves with fish, the seeds with cheese, eggs, fish, in cakes and on vegetables. The other type of fennel is a root vegetable and is used much the same as the sweet fennel.

Garlic has had many names, but there are very few that don't find it's pungent flavor appealing in stews, salads, and sauces. Garlic has been called a panacea for all ills by some and it has been found to have great antiseptic properties. It is said to keep fleas off of dogs and cats, and possibly even humans!

Horehound has been known since ancient times as a medicinal plant, but has only recently (19th century) been used for flavorings for candy. It was used as a syrup for head colds to clear the phlegm out of ones head and throat.

Marigold produces bright orange and yellow flowers and may be used sparingly to replace saffron in dishes. It was also thought to be a good combatant against the plague. A tincture of it's flowers can be used to take the sting out of insect bites, the pain out of burns and scalds, and as a styptic to stop bleeding from deep knife wounds.

Parsley can make an interesting border, and it's uses are many and varied. It was a cheap means of coloring foods, and is known to be helpful for those who suffer from urinary tract problems.

Rosemary or Mary's Mantle is a beautiful fragrant shrub, with small blue blossoms that resembles an evergreen. It can be used in stews and sauces, and made into lotions for the skin and hair. It was even thought to help "grow hair on bald pates."

Roses, the name alone manages to conjure the smell in your memory, and infusions of various parts of the plant have been around for centuries. Rose hip tea was good for calming, and an excellent source of Vitamin C. Rose syrup, or syrup of roses was thought to be good for melancholy. Rose petals can be candied or made into a conserve. Rose water was used in many medieval recipes as a flavoring.

This has been just a small glimpse into the medieval garden, and these are just a few of the more common plants that were available to almost everyone no matter what position they held in society. Great care was taken harvesting these plants, some were picked with the dew still on them, others had to be taken on the night of a full moon, or using the left hand. The rituals that surrounded that gathering of some of these plants is as interesting as the lore that is ascribed to them.

*NOTE: Some of the cures mentioned wherein should be discussed with a competent herbalist. This article is not intended as medical advice, nor as a substitute for medical care provided by a physician.

Copyright © 1996 by Norma Jean Storms. All Rights Reserved. Republished by permission of the author.