Category Archives: Herbs

Some Medicinal Herbs

Garden rosemary from The herball or, Generall historie of plantes by John Gerard 1597. Images courtesy of The Getty Institute via archive.org

Here’s fine rosemary, sage and thyme.
Come buy my ground ivy.
Here’s fetherfew, gilliflowers and rue.
Come buy my knotted marjorum, ho!
Come buy my mint, my fine green mint.
Here’s fine lavender for your cloaths.
Here’s parsley and winter-savory,
And hearts-ease, which all do choose.
Here’s balm and hissop, and cinquefoil,
All fine herbs, it is well known.
Let none despise the merry, merry cries
Of famous London-town!

The Cries of London Anon. (17th century) from Poems on the Underground (Cassell,1997)

When traders’ cries like these were a familiar sound on London’s streets, herbal remedies were central to our treatment of disease.  Ordinary plants like sage, thyme and ground ivy were grown in gardens, gathered from hedgerows or, as the poem demonstrates, sold door to door for domestic use as medicine.

The herball or, Generall historie of plants (1597) by John Gerard is a rich source of plant based cures and treatments considered effective against illness in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  It’s also a reminder of the important practical role gardens had in relation to our health in the past, and the ongoing quest for cures which continues to this day.

The herbs mentioned in the poem are listed here with woodcuts and excerpts from Gerard explaining some of their medicinal purposes.   There’s a link below to the 1597 version of The Herball from The Getty Foundation.

Of Sage.
Gerard’s evocative description of the texture of sage leaves: ‘The great Sage is very full of stalks, fower square, of a woodie substance, parted into branches, about the which grow broad leaves, long, wrinckled, rough, whitish, very like to the leaves of a wilde Mullein, but rougher, and not so white, like in roughness to woollen cloth thread bare;’  He confirms that none of the sage varieties are native to England, but they are widely grown – ‘I have them all in my garden, most of them are very common.’


Of garden Time.
‘Time boiled in water and honie and drunken, is good against the cough and shortnesse of the breath.’  Dried thyme was used to make a medicine called Oximell, used as a cure for a range of ailments from intestinal worms to pains in the head and melancholy.  ‘Made into powder and taken in the waight of three drams with Meade or honied vineger, called Oximell’


Of Ground Ivie, or Alehoofe.
‘Ground Ivie is commended against the humming noise and ringing sounde of the eares, being put into them, and for them that are hard of hearing.’  Gerard also recommends the leaves of ground ivy steeped in water for eye complaints – interestingly, not just for humans but for ‘horse, or cowe, or any other beast’.


Of Feverfew.
As Gerard observes, to grow well this plant requires sharp drainage: ‘The common single Feverfew groweth in hedges, gardens, and about olde walles.  It joyeth to grow among rubbish.’ As its common name suggest, this herb is used to drive away ‘agues’ or fevers.


Of Wall flowers, or yellow stocke Gilloflowers.
‘These kindes of stocke Gilloflowers do grow in most gardens throughout England.’
‘.. yet are they not used in phisicke, except amongst certaine Empericks and Quacksalvers, about love and lust matters, which for modestie I omit.’

Of Rue, or herbe Grace.
‘Sage and with it herbe Grace or Rue,
Make drinks both safe and sound for you.’
Gerard records multiple uses for this herb, used both on its own or in combination with other ingredients.  ‘Rue boiled with Dill, Fennell seede, and some Sugar, in sufficient quantitie of wine, swageth the torments and griping paines of the belly, the paines in the sides and breast, the difficultie of breathing, the cough, and stopping of the lungs, and helpeth such as are declining unto a dropsie.’


Of Marierome.
‘The leaves are excellent good to be put into all odoriferous ointments, waters, powders, broths, and meates.’  ‘There is an excellent oile to be drawen foorth of these herbes, good against the shrinking of sinewes, convulsions, and all aches proceeding of a cold cause.’


Of Mints.
Some uses of mint recorded by Gerard include stomach complaints and headaches:  ‘Mint is marvellous wholsome for the stomack.’  ‘.. being applied to the forehead, or to the temples, as Plinie teacheth, doth take away the headache.’  Children’s ‘sore heads’ could also be treated with this herb.


Of Lavender spike.
Gerard records that lavender conserve was used for a variety of complaints affecting the head, including headaches, dizziness and fainting.  Pill sized amounts of the conserve were to be taken daily: ‘Conserve made of the flowers with sugar, profiteth much against the diseases aforesaid, if the quantitie of a beane be taken thereof in the morning fasting.’


Of Parsley.
‘The leaves of garden Parsley are of a beautiful greene, consisting of many little ones fastened together, divided most commonly into three parts, and also snipt rounde about the edges:’  Parsley was believed to be a cure against venom and poisons, and could be effective for a cough if mixed or boiled with other medicines.  Gerard observes that the roots of the plant were also used, ‘if they be boiled in broth; they be also delightfull to the taste, and agreeable to the stomack.’


Of Savorie.
Gerard describes winter savoury as ‘hot and drie in the third degree’ and having the same uses as thyme.


Of Harts ease, or Paunsies.
‘It is commended against inflammations of the lungs and chest, and against scabs and itchings of the whole body and healeth ulcers.’  Common names for the plant Gerard mentions include ‘Herbe Trinitie by means of the triple colour of the flowers’ and ‘three faces in a hood’.


Of Bawme.
‘Bawme drunke in wine, is good against the bitings of venemous beasts; comforteth the hart, and driveth away all melancholie and sadnesse’.  Today we know this plant as lemon balm or Melissa officinalis.


Of Hyssope.
‘A decoction of Hyssope made with figs, water, honie, and rue, and drunken, helpeth the inflammation of the lungs, the olde cough, and shortnes of breath, and the obstructions or stoppings of the breast.’


Of Cinkefoile, or Five Finger Grasse.
‘The juice of the rootes while they be yoong and tender, is given to be drunken against the diseases of the liver and lungs, and all poison.  The same drunk in meade or honied water, or wine wherein some pepper hath beene mingled, cureth the tertain and quartaine fevers:’

Further reading:

The Herball, or Generall historie of plantes

Parkinson’s Kitchen Garden

1. Brassica capitata Close Cabbage, 2. Brassica patula Open Cabbage, 3. Brassica sabandica crispa Curled Savoye Colewort, 4. Caulis florida Cole Flower, 5. Caulis crispa Curled Colewort, 6. Caulis crispa variata Changeable Curld Colewort, 7. Rapocaulis Cole Rape

At this time of year I feel a certain nostalgia for my old allotment.  Late July would usually see a harvest of beans, courgettes, beetroot and lettuce.  And if the crops were disappointing, there was always the consolation of blackberries which could be gathered in abundance in the hedges around the perimeter of the site.

These woodcut illustrations from John Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (1629) convey the character of home grown vegetables so successfully.  Many plants are drawn with their roots, foliage and flowers, giving a sense of their true scale, in contrast to the trimmed vegetables we find in supermarkets today.   Bold, dark lines evoke the texture of the cabbage leaves and the strong artichoke stems bearing their enormous flower heads.

Written in English, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (or, Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise) by apothecary and botanist John Parkinson, describes how English gardens were cultivated in the early 17th century. Divided into three sections Parkinson discusses the flower garden, kitchen garden and fruit garden with instructions how to ‘order’ or set these out, as well as giving advice about improving the soil, garden tools and the cultivation of plants.  Most of the illustrations were original woodcuts by the German artist Christopher Switzer.  Parkinson’s garden was in Long Acre, London, close to Trafalgar Square.

Parkinson has plenty of advice to those wanting to establish a kitchen garden, or garden of herbes and his first consideration is where this section of the garden should be situated.  Parkinson has already suggested that the flower garden

‘be in the sight and full prospect of all the chiefe and choicest roomes of the house; so contrariwise your herbe garden should be on the one or other side of the house .. for the many different sents that arise from the herbes, as Cabbages, Onions, &c are scarce well pleasing to perfume the lodgings of any house;’

As well as the disadvantage of the smell of cabbages, Parkinson also points out that a kitchen garden is by its nature in a state of transition, with plants continually being sown and harvested, so it will not always always be neat and pleasing to look at – another reason for siting this garden away from the house:

‘As our former Garden of pleasure is wholly formable in every part with squares, trayles and knots, and to bee still maintained in their due forme and beautie: so on the contrary side this Garden cannot long conserve any forme, for that every part thereof is subject to mutation and alteration.’

As well as supplying the house with produce, another priority for Parkinson’s kitchen gardener is saving seed for future use. He recommends that the largest and best plants are chosen to set seed.  Here he explains how to harvest seeds of lettuce

‘Before your Lettice is shot up, marke out the choysest and strongest plantes which are fittest to grow for seede, and from those when they are a foote high, strippe away with your hand the leaves that grow lowest upon the stalke next the ground, which might rot, spoyle or hinder them from bearing so good seede; which when it is neere to be ripe, the stalkes must be cut off about the middle, and layde upon mats or clothes in the Sunne, that it may there fully ripen and be gathered; for it would be blowne away with the winde if it should be suffered to abide on the stalkes long.’

As an apothecary, Parkinson is well placed to advise on medicinal or physicall herbes.  He records that some country gentlewomen grow these herbs in sufficient quantity for their own families and to share with less well off neighbours.

‘These (herbs) are grown ‘to preserve health, and helpe to cure such small diseases as are often within the compasse of the Gentlewomens skils, who, to helpe their own family, and their poore neighbours that are farre remote from Physitians and Chirurgions, take much paines both to doe good unto them, and to plant those herbes that are conducing to their desires.’

The useful herbs Parkinson recommends include angelica, rue, chamomile, spurge and celandine.

The following images show some of the staple vegetables that would have been grown in 17th century England such as cabbages, root crops like carrots and parsnips, onions and leeks, together with more exotic introductions like potatoes and melons.  There are also indigenous wild plants like goat’s beard which are no longer grown for food.  The complete text can be found at the Biodiversity Heritage Library – see link below.

1 Cucumis longus vulgaris The ordinary Cowcumber. 2 Cucumis Hispanicus The long yellow Spanish Cowcumber. 3 Melo vulgaris The ordinary Melon. 4 Melo maximus optimus The greatest Muske Melon. 5 Pepo The Pompion. 6 Fragari vulgaris Common Strawberries. 7 Fragari Bohemica maxima The great Bohemia Strawberries. 8 Fragari aculeata The prickly Strawberry

Parkinson acknowledges that melons would be difficult to grow in the English climate and suggests a south facing slope with plenty of manure added to the ground.

1 Fabasatina Garden Beanes. 2 Phasioli satsui French Beanes. 3 Pisum vulgare Garden Pease. 4 Pisum umbellatum sine Roseum Rose Pease or Scottish Pease. 5 Pisum saccheratum Sugar Pease. 6 Pisum maculatum Spotted Pease. 7 Cicer arictinuum Rams Ciches or Cicers

Cicers or Ciches are chickpeas.

1 Raphanus rusticanus Horse Raddish. 2 Lepidium sine Piperitis Dierander. 3 copa rotunda Round Onions. 4 copa longae Long Onions. 5 Perrum Leekes. 6 Allium Garlicke. 7 Rapunculus Rampions. 8 Tragopogon Goates beard.

The roots of Goat’s beard or Jack Go to Bed at Noon were eaten cooked in butter.  This plant is related to salsify.

1 Carum Carawayes. 2 Battatas Hispanorum Spanish Potatoes. 3 Papas seu Battatas Virginianerum Virginia Potatoes. 4 Battatas de Canada Potatoes of Canada or Artichokes of Jerusalem.

1 Sisarum Skirrits. 2 Pastinaca latifolia Parsneps. 3 Pastinaca tenuifolia Carrets. 4 Kapum Turneps. 5 (unclear) 6 Raphanus niger Blacke Raddish. 7 Raphanus vulgaris Common Raddish

1 Portulaca Purslane. 2 Dracho herba seu Tarchon Tarragon. 3 Eruca sativa Garden Rocket. 4 Nasturtium sativum Garden Cresses. 5 Sinapi Mustard. 6 Asparagus Asparagus or Sperage.

The nasturtium (4) does not look like the plant we think of as a nasturtium today.

1 Cinara satina rubra The red Artichoke. 2 Cinara satina alba the white Artichoke. 3 Cinara petala The French Artichoke. 4 Cinara silvestris The Thistle Artichoke. 5 Carduus osculentus The Chardon

Portrait of John Parkinson

Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (John Parkinson) at the Biodiversity Heritage Library. (The section about the Kitchen Garden begins on Page 461).

Cold Remedies from Culpeper

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician: or medical herbal enlarged with several hundred additional plants principally from Sir John Hill medicinally and astrologically arranged, after the manner of Culpeper : and, a new dispensatory from the ms. of the late Dr. Saunders (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage Library).

As January brings its seasonal coughs, colds, chills, and fevers what does Culpeper’s Herbal suggest by way of a remedy?  Plenty as it turns out –  feverfew, poppies, and verbascum, to name but a few – are said to offer some relief to the sufferer.

Culpeper’s Complete Herbal which is still in print today was first published in 1652 as The English Phyisitian.  Priced at three pence Nicholas Culpeper’s purpose was to make accessible to the public information about the medicinal properties of plants that were readily available, and teach them how they might use these to treat common illnesses. Culpeper also encouraged others to help those who could not afford to pay high fees for medical treatment – as we see in the entry for butterbur which suggests that gentlewomen might preserve some of the root to share with their poor neighbours.

Published without illustrations, which would have made The English Physitian too expensive for ordinary people to buy, Culpeper gives instead detailed descriptions of most plants, although he considers some ‘so generally known to most people that I shall not trouble you with a description thereof’.  Later editions of the book expanded the list of plants, as new plants were introduced, and some carry illustrations.  According to the University of Virginia, over 40 editions have been published.

Culpeper (1616-1654) trained as an apothecary and set up his practice in Spitalfields, just outside the city of London.  His translation of the official textbook for pharmacy, the Pharmocopoeia Londinenis from Latin to English challenged the authority of the medical establishement and made Culpeper a hugely controversial figure.

Readers of the herbal will notice that Culpeper’s philosophy of medicine is informed in part by astrology.  It’s worth remembering that modern medicine, based on the science of anatomy, biology, pharmacy, pharmacology, and psychology, is very different to to the systems of belief that underpinned medicine in the 17th century.

In Culpeper’s time conventional medicine was based on a belief in the four humours, earth, air, fire and water.  Developed in Ancient Greece this system taught that a balance of the four humours was needed for good health, and that an imbalance was the cause of disease.  Treatments were an attempt to restore a correct balance.  Diseases and their medicines like plants and minerals were classified by their ‘temperature’; so that garlic, considered ‘vehement hot’ by Culpeper, was effective against ‘cold’ diseases such as ‘jaundice, falling-sickness, cramps, convulsions, the piles or hemorrhoids’.

Another system which ran alongside the belief in humours was astrological physick which held that the twelve signs of the zodiac, the sun, moon and planets were influential over different parts of the body.  Simon Forman (1552-1611) and Richard Napier (1559-1634) were well known astrologer-physicians of their day.  Napier was a clergyman as well as an astrologer, showing the overlap that was tolerated at this time between Christianity and astrology.  Their case notes are preserved in the Bodleian Library (see link at the end of this post).

William Lilly (1602-1681) published Christian Astrology in 1647 which includes a section on health and disease and explains how the aspiring astrologer could create charts to find out ‘whether the Disease will be long or short’ or ‘whether the sick would live or die’.  Lilly lists over 80 plants that can be used to treat disease.

Christian Astrology by William Lilly (2nd Ed 1659)  from archive.org

Astrological chart showing whether a sick person would live or die. Christian Astrology by William Lilly, (2nd Ed 1659)  from archive.org

Here follow some cold remedies from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792), which contains hand coloured illustrations.  (Personally, I would hesitate to try any, before understanding if the plant is toxic, or if it could react adversely with any other medicines you might be taking.)

Elecampane  (top picture)    It is under Mercury.  The fresh roots of Elecampane preserved with sugar, or made into a syrup or conserve, .. help the cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing in the lungs.

Butterbur    It is under the dominion of the Sun, and therefore is a great strengthener of the heart and cheerer of the vital spirits;  .. the decoction of the root, in wine, is singular good for those that wheeze much, or are short-winded.  It were well if gentlewomen would keep this root preserved to help their poor neighbours.  It is fit the rich should help the poor, for the poor cannot help themselves.

Poppy   The herb is Lunar; and a syrup is made of the seed and flowers, which is useful to give sleep and rest to invalids, and to stay catarrhs and defluxions of rheums from the head into the stomach and lungs, which causes a continual cough, the forerunner of comsumption;

Feverfew    Venus commands this herb .. The decoction thereof, made with some sugar or honey put thereto, is used by many with good success to help the cough and stuffing of the chest, by colds; 

Hawkweed    Saturn owns it.  The decoction of the herb taken in honey digests phlegm and with hyssop helps the cough.

Verbascum  or Mullein   It is under the dominion of Saturn.  A decoction of the leaves, with sage and marjoram, and camomile flowers, and the places bathed therewith, is good for colds, stiff sinews, and cramps.

Purple Sea Rocket  It is a martial plant, of a hot nature, and bitterish taste, opening and attenuating, good to cleanse the lungs of tough, viscid phlegm

Sheep’s Rampion   It is under the dominion of Mercury, and of a bitter, light, astringent quality, excellent in disorders of the breast, such as coughs, asthmatic affections, difficulty of breathing, &c, for which purpose an infusion of the flowers is the best preparation.

Silverweed    This plant is under Venus, and deserves to be universally known in medicine.  An infusion of the leaves .. sweetened with a little honey is an excellent gargle for sore throats.

Sea Starwort   This is under the dominion of Mercury.  A slight tincture or infusion of the plant promotes perspiration, and is good in feverish complaints.

Field Scabious, Lesser and Greater   Mercury owns the plant.  It is effectual for all sorts of coughs, shortness of breath, and all other diseases of the breast and lungs, ripening and digesting cold phlegm, and other tough humour, voiding them forth by coughing and spitting;

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792)  (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London, via the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Nicholas Culpeper

Culpeper’s English Family Physician 1792

Christian Astrology by William Lilly 1647

The Casebooks Project

The Casebooks Project is a digital edition of Simon Forman’s and Richard Napier’s medical records 1596 – 1634 (held at the Bodleian Library).

Kew’s Library, Art and Archives Blog

Post about Nicholas Culpeper