The Nine Most Popular Modern Herbs
The most useful herbs...
The Lacnunga or Lay of the Nine Herbs is a tenth-century poem, written in Old English. The text combines spells and charms with knowledge of herbs and herbalism. Various translations are in existence, and I have chosen the one available at Odin's Gift (find link below). In this text, are references to the magic numbers of three and nine, and to the power of the plants against poison and infection. The text mentions “the loathsome foe”, a number of times. Because of the inexact translations from Old English to our modern-day language, opinions vary on the exact herbs referred to in the text. However, the Odin's Gift translation uses the following selection.
Mugwort (OE mucgwyrt, Latin Artemisia vulgaris) is also known as wormwood, identified by its woody stem and silvery-green leaves. In addition to its medicinal uses, the plant is used in brewing the intoxicating drink, absinthe.
Watercress or stune is an edible plant, often used in salads.
Atterlothe has never been formally identified, but experts agree that it was a plant that provided an antidote against the venom of the adder snake.
Renowned for its powerful sting, boiled nettle or netel leaves make a nutritious mineral drink. In medieval times, fibres from the tough stem of the plant made a type of linen.
We use plantain for culinary purposes today.
In autumn, crab apples make a delicious jelly.
Both chevril or cerfille and fennel or fingul are still used in cooking.
The Lacnunga states: “that never a man should lose his life from infection after chamomile was prepared for his food”. Today, chamomile or wergulu is used in both cooking and medicine, which is why I am making it the first in my list of “The Nine Most Useful of Modern Herbs”.
You can identify the perennial chamomile by its yellow centre and apple-like scent, often inhaled to alleviate asthma. Chamomile tea is still drank as a relaxant, while chamomile eye baths fade dark circles under the eyes. Soak hands in a chamomile infusion to whiten skin and relieve sunburn with a chamomile bath.
Beauty and calm...
Lavender (lavendula) is perhaps the most versatile of all herbal plants. Identified by tiny purple and mauve flowers on thick stems, lavender is used in cooking, in cosmetic and bath preparations, in perfumes and in medicines. In the middle ages, carrying a nosegay that included lavender sprigs was considered effective in warding off plague, while bedding and household linens were rinsed in lavender water. Now, experts know lavender to have antibacterial and antiviral properties. The flower and its oil have a remarkable smell, sweet and slightly heady, calming yet invigorating. For unbroken sleep and sweet dreams, use a lavender pillow. Make one by machine-stitching two squares of fabric together along three edges. Fill it with dried lavender florets and hand-stitch the remaining edge. Simply unpick this edge when you want to replace the florets, possibly once every year. Suspend lavender sachets from a bedpost. Or simply sprinkle a few drops of the oil on a clean tissue or handkerchief, place on your pillow and inhale.
Historic Rose (Latin Rosa)
The genus rosa encompasses over 150 species of flower, with names as beautiful as the blossoms: Bourbon, Damask, China and Moss. The variety of colours is bewildering also, from gentle white through lemon and peach, golden yellow, every shade of pink, to deep and richest red. The rose has always been associated with love and beauty, and lovers often exchange bunches of the blossoms. Indeed, a single, red rose carries the message “I love you”. In spite of these associations, the most infamous of medieval wars became known as “the wars of the roses”, since the opposing houses involved, York and Lancaster, had as emblems a white rose and a red rose, respectively.
Roses love heat and the plants flower profusely in summer gardens. Candied rose petals are edible; rosewater is used in cosmetics and cooking, while the hips of wild roses are full of Vitamin C.
Garlic, pungent and potent...
An allium or member of the onion family, garlic is busting with vitamins and iron. Though not as sweetly scented as rose or lavender, garlic has a long tradition as a nutritious and useful plant. In ancient times, builders and soldiers were fed on garlic for strength, while horror film fans will know that wreaths of garlic kept the vampires at bay. Plant garlic cloves in spring, in rows about 30 cm apart. Water well and extract bulbs from the soil in later summer. Dry them upon a wooden rack for two or three days, and then hang them in bunches in a shed or outhouse. Use garlic to flavour salads and sauces. The herb is reputed to aid digestion and ward off colds.
Mustard, the sauce with an edge
Three main varieties of mustard seed exist, black, brown and white, with the black seed having the strongest flavour. At its mildest, mustard is fiery, tangy and delicious on cold meats and cheeses – no wonder the ancients used mustard as an aphrodisiac. Hundreds of mustard sauces are in existence, from "plain" sauce, to fruit and even alcoholic mustards. Nutritionally, mustard contains omega-3, selenium and antioxidants. Used medicinally, mustard poultices relieve the pain of arthritis and rheumatism
Aloe vera, for health and beauty
Aloe vera is unmistakable; fleshy, green fronds sprouting from its heart, like a mythical sea creature. Today, the plant is the mainstay of face and body creams, shampoos and cosmetics. This is because aloe vera gel contains saponin, a substance that works as an antimicrobial agent on the skin. It also contains lectin, a nutrient that is responsible for cell growth and repair. You can buy products containing aloe vera from the shops, but you may want to make your own preparations. You need a greenhouse environment to grow the plant; be aware that the fronds may not sprout for a year following planting. Try the following facial remedy.
When the fleshy, green fronds are ripe, take one and cut it open to extract the gel. At night, wash your face with warm water to open the pores of your skin and apply the gel. It invades your opened pores immediately and breaks the cycle of oil over-production and the infection and inflammation of acne.
Rosemary for Remembrance...
When Ophelia said: "There's rosemary: that's for remembrance" in William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, she was close to the mark. Scientists have established that rosmarinus officinalis or rosemary is rich in carnosic acid, an ingredient that can protect the brain from the degenerative changes leading to Alzheimer’s disease. An evergreen perennial, tiny, blue and pink flowers growing along stems of stiff, dark-green spiky leaves characterize the rosemary plant. Resinous with a pungent odour, rosemary was burned in sick rooms to purify the air. Added sparingly to meat dishes, the leaves aid the digestion of fats. Pounded rosemary leaves taste delicious in fruit purees.
Tasty, Mediterranean Basil
Basil is easily the most popular of culinary herbs. Its varieties include lemon basil and dark opal basil. Genovese basil grows readily in pots in summer gardens. For best results, plant in spring and keep in a heated indoor environment until frosts are over. Its unremarkable white flowers appear in late summer. The pungent flavour of basil in combination with tomato characterizes the majority of Mediterranean dishes. Torn basil leaves release their flavour readily, adding a delicious edge to salads. Infused basil aids digestion and the herb is used in aromatherapy.
Magical evening primrose
This simple, yellow flower of oenothera biennis or evening primrose has always had a magical aura, the blossom opening only in the evening and staying that way through the summer months. The oil of the seeds of the flower contains gamma-linolenic acid or GLA, one of the omega n-6 fatty acids, an essential fatty acid or EFA. It reduces the risk of blood clots and cholesterol production, expands blood vessels and respiratory passages so preventing the formation of mucous, infections and asthma attacks. Oil of evening primrose improves the immune system and boosts the effects of insulin – whew! In addition to its uses in medicine, all parts of the plant are edible. In the springtime, plant the seed in trays and replant in a sunny spot, in summer.
The present-day Lacnunga...
This story is by no means over; our tastes are changing all the time and new discoveries about ancient herbs are made every day. In a future feature, I am going to try to work out who the "loathsome foe" might be - watch this space.
Further information on the Lacnunga