Early Period Herbs

by Kiera Hafoc

The following is a listing of herbs known and written about before 1066A.D. One of the oldest of these listings, which are called herbals, was 'Pharmacopoeia' by Emperor Shen Nung circa 3000 B.C. Other early writings about herbs were done by the Greek Hippocrates and the Roman Pliny. Their works influenced doctors, dyers and housewives to the end of medieval times and beyond.

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupathoria)
This was an ingredient in the Anglo-Saxon 'Holy Salve" which protected from evil and poison. King of Pontus, Mithridates Eupator discovered its use and the Greeks used the herb to treat cataract. Agrimony also contains tannin and was used in leather production. Also called church-steeples, cocklebur, sticklewort and liverwort.

Bay (Laurus nobilis)
This herb was known in roman times as a preventative against the plague. Theophrastus wrote the people kept a bay leaf in their mouths as an antiseptic. A wreath of bay leaves in Rome was an academic distinction and a sprig of bay denoted victory.

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
The Saxon name was mathem. In 900 B.C., Asclepiades recommended it for medical use. It is one of the oldest garden herbs. It was used for toothache, swellings, nausea, and in shampoo to highlight hair. The Greeks called it 'earth apple' because of the scent and believed it kept other plants in the garden healthy.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Also called cilantro and Chinese parsley. It may well have been one of the first herbs used in cookery. 5000 years ago the Chinese ate the boiled roots and the Romans were the first to bring it to England. Hippocrates used it for medicine and the seeds were used to flavor other medicinals.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
This herb is mentioned in Anglo-Saxon herbals. It was used for jaundice, hiccups and as a laxative. Grown since roman times as a pot herb. In mythology, Prometheum brought fire to a man in a hollow fennel stalk. One to three drops of fennel oil in a tablespoon of honey is good for a cough.

Garlic (Allium sativum)
The Egyptians placed it among their deities and none of their priests could eat it. It was a staple of Egypt and the pyramid builders went on strike when garlic was withheld from their diet. One legend was that when the Devil left the Garden of Eden that onions grew in his right footprint and garlic in his left. Pliny recommended it for 61 ailments and it was carried as a talisman in China, Japan and Greece.
    To grow: Plant individual cloves in full sun in spring or fall in moist, sandy soil no closer than 3 inches apart and at a depth of 2 inches. Harvest bulbs when tops die in late summer. The bulbs can be tied in bundles and stored by hanging in a well-ventilated place.

Houseleek (Sempervium tectorum)
Also called 'hens and chickens'. Charlemagne ordered every householder to grow it on the roof against lightening and fire. It was grown in Rome in outside vases and was used for St. Anthony's fire, gout, ulcers and burns. It will grow in the poorest soil if it is well-drained.

Lavender (Lavandula vera)
Romans used it to perfume baths. It was used to avert the evil eye, but it was also dedicated to Hecate, goddess of witches. Lavender water is the oldest English perfume and the plant itself was burned in hospitals for incense.
    To grow: Lavender can be grown from stem cuttings or from seeds. Plant in full sun and sandy soil. Pick the stalks in midday when the oil is most concentrated-that is, before the flowers are fully open. It is used in potpourri and dried flower arrangements.

Rue (Ruta graveolens)
Monk Walahrid of Strabo grew in his garden at Reichenau in the 9th century as a poison antidote. Priests used the branches to sprinkle holy water, giving the herb the name 'herb o'grace'. The Greeks belieed the way to make it grow well was to steal it from a neighbor's garden. Pliny wrote it was eaten by artists in his time to improve eyesight and for protection against the 'evil eye'.

Thyme (Thymus species)
The name could come from either the Greek thymon for courage or from a word that means 'to fumigate', because it was used as an incense. It was a favorite strewing plant and the leaves were rubbed on beehives. Pliny wrote, "Honey-mistresses and such as keep bees hope to have a good year, when they see the Thyme to bloom abundantly".

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Also called staunchgrass or soldiers' woundwort. Achilles is said to be the first to use it for healing wounds. One of the favorite herbs of the Saxons. It was used for burns and small wounds and the bitter leaves were used to flavor beer.