Time was when every English home had its own herb garden, from the tiny patch outside the cottage kitchen to the large intricate beds in monasteries and grand houses. Herbs were an essential ingredient in cooking, adding an extra flavoursome dimension to the simplest stew, as well as providing the healing properties for all manner of medicines and potions.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal
Nicholas Culpeper was a herbalist, botanist, physician and astrologer who lived in England in the seventeenth century. He dedicated his life to the study of herbs using them to treat patients for all their ailments. His Complete Herbal was published in 1652 and is a comprehensive guide to every herb to be found in the English garden and countryside. He fathered 8 children before he died aged 38 but, sadly, only one lived to adulthood – which may not be the best recommendation for his herbal treatments!
Much of the information here on old English herbs is drawn from Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and A Modern Herbal by Mrs Grieve, published in 1931.
Traditional old English herbs
During the Middle Ages angelica was one of the most important herbs in the garden. The root, stem and leaves were all used in the treatment of digestive, bronchial and circulatory problems. The root and seeds were sometimes burned to perfume the home and the leaves used to add a sweetness to sour fruits in cooking.
- Tie some angelica leaves in a muslin bag and float it in warm water for a relaxing bath.
- Crystallise angelica stems for cake decoration. Cut the stems into finger-length pieces, place in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave to stand until they’re easy to peel (this could mean overnight). Dry well and boil in a sugar syrup made of equal quantities of sugar and water, until the stem has absorbed as much syrup as it can. Leave to cool and use as required.
There are lots of beliefs associated with parsley including the one, from Tudor times, that it could cure baldness. Unfortunately time has proven that to be a myth, but parsley maintains its credibility in other areas.
Parsley has diuretic properties, is an antioxidant, and is rich in folic acid and vitamins C and A. Culpeper believed it could relieve menstrual cramps and ease stomach pain caused by excess wind. He recommended distilled parsley water be given to babies – or the elderly – suffering from colic and he suggested using a paste of cornmeal and parsley leaves to bring down swelling or redness in the eye area. Parsley leaves were also reputed to be good for the relief of mastitis although Culpeper did recommend frying them first in butter.
We know from historical records that thyme was being grown in England before the sixteenth century. A sweetly-scented herb, it’s useful in cooking, especially with eggs and fish, and treating ailments. It was generally used in combination with other herbs, often as a tisane or tea. According to Culpeper, thyme ‘purgeth the body of phlegm and is an excellent remedy for shortness of breath.’
Culpeper also recommended thyme for:
- relieving intestinal colicky pains;
- treating colds and fever by inducing a sweat;
- the removal of warts.
We now know it has anti-fungal properties – useful for skin complaints – and is high in vitamins – which fight the cold virus.
Today camomile is probably best known for the tea made with its flowers. Culpeper wrote in extravagant praise of camomile identifying it as a cure for many sorts of ailment, including fever and menstrual cramps. ‘The flowers boiled in posset-drink provoke sweat, and help to expel all colds, aches and pains whatsoever, and is an excellent help to bring down women’s courses.’
Culpeper’s theory seems to have substance according to recent research. Scientists at London’s Imperial College looked at the effects of drinking 5 cups of camomile tea a day and the indications were that it raises the level of chemicals within our bodies that help ease muscle spasms and have an anti-inflammatory effect.