Herbs are a wide ranging subject and one which is best discussed over various blogs. An herb is generally considered to be a plant with medicinal, culinary or cosmetic uses. However, it can also be defined as any annual, bi-ennial or perennial plant which has a soft stem that dies down in the winter. For example, herbaceous perennials are plants such as border or hardy geraniums; the top growth above ground dies back overwinter to sprout up again the following spring. In this blog we’re interested in the former definition where an herb is a plant specifically noted for a use other than the purely ornamental or indeed edible.
Many plants can be functional in other ways, for making furniture or baskets, but these are not usually considered as ‘useful herbs’ in the same sense, although some are useful to us in more than one way. For example, willow (Salix) is used for baskets, fencing, cricket bats, reducing pain and curing headaches. Willow bark was mentioned (ie written on clay tablets) as being used for pain relief, especially for rheumatism, over 5000 years ago by the Sumerians. The Sumerians lived in the ‘land between the two rivers’ the fertile river plain of Mesopotamia.
So the benefits of herbs have been documented for thousands of years. They were in use long before then as archaeological evidence shows at Neolithic sites. In Iraq, the Shanidar cave discovery of Neanderthal bodies included plant remains which were very likely used for medical purposes as the species found are known for their healing properties. By the by, the discovery of this cave and its 60,000 year old inhabitants inspired Jean Auel to write the novel ‘Cave of the Clan Bear’.
Early humans were hunter-gatherers and their diet was largely plant based. By a process of elimination they would have discovered not only which plants were edible and which were poisonous, but also which plants healed. This could be something as simple as rubbing dock leaves (rumex obtusifolius) on nettle stings (urtica dioica) to take away the heat and itching. It’s a simple remedy that we have probably all tried at some time, especially as children playing among undergrowth, in fields and on waste land.
Nettles are an incredibly useful plant and are most definitely herbs as we are defining the term. They have been used in cloth manufacture from the Bronze Age until the early twentieth century; and are rich in vitamins and iron. Nettle has anti- inflammatory properties and was used to treat arthritis.
Herbal remedies for ailments have been well documented. The Egyptians, Greeks Romans, Indian and Chinese provide us with many uses for herbs, culinary and medicinal, and there was a great swell of Herbals in Europe with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. These herbals were largely based on research rather than just repeating earlier works; for example there may be detailed descriptions of different types of soil and which might be suitable for a particular plant.
Herbals document both the plants themselves and the ailments which they can help treat; the herbal remedy is generally referred to as a ‘simple’. This means that it is a remedy to be prepared at home, by a non-professional, and doesn’t require complicated equipment. Some of the remedies can be complicated or time consuming to prepare, but the term still applies. ‘Housewives simples’ is another term used, often disparagingly by the (male) professionals, but it is also a descriptive one, as it was the woman of the household who would have been in charge of her family’s health.
Many of these simple remedies are still in use today and some have led to the development of modern drugs. Aspirin was developed from Willow bark and the flower heads of Meadowsweet, both of which contain salicylic acid.
Interestingly, Meadowsweet (filipendula ulmaria) is named not for the meadows it inhabits but for its use as flavouring in mead and beer. It’s been in use in this way for 5000 years or so, as pollen was found in the remains of a mead like drink in Bronze Age burial sites in Fife.
Plews can offer garden designs to include a separate herb garden or mixed borders with a range of plants. Or have a look at our recipe for herby lavender biscuits: yum.