In the past, our ancestors’ herb gardens were vital to their household. Obviously plants were grown to eat. Spices would be beyond the budget of many families and herbs could be used to make the diet less bland. A number of plants were used in the process of making clothes, for washing or carding fleeces or for dyeing wool. Other herbs had household uses. The bulbs of bluebells, for example, were boiled up and used as glue. Still others had superstitious associations. The bay was planted either side of the cottage door to, quite literally, keep the witches at bay. The fig tree was handy for tying mad bulls to, in order to calm them and the elder tree provided a home for witches.
The herb garden was also the family’s medicine cupboard. Instead of paying the apothecary for a herbal remedy, the thrifty housewife would make her own. It was necessary to know which plant to use and which part of the plant. Herbals, such as those by Gerard and Culpeper, provided this information but few housewives could read. Herbal lore had to be learned, remembered and passed on to the next generation. Medicinal herbs were best used fresh but when the required plant was not in season, women depended on those they had dried, distilled or otherwise preserved during the previous season.
Although many of the cures of the past now seem ridiculous, if it was not thought that they worked, the remedies would not have been tried more than once and no-one would have recorded them for posterity; there would be no point in passing on an ineffectual remedy. Whether they acted scientifically or psychologically is another matter. It is important to remember that there are herbal elements in modern mainstream medicines; digitalin, from the foxglove, in heart medicine, for example. In any case, our ancestors had to make use of what was available to them and this was, by and large, the herbal remedies.
To Make an Ointment
Bruise those herbs, flowers or roots, you will make an ointment of, and to two handfuls of your bruised herbs add a pound of hog’s grease dried or cleansed from the skins, beat them very well together in a stone mortar with a wooden pestle, then put it into a stone pot, (the herb and grease I mean, not the mortar,) cover it with a paper and set it in the sun or some other warm place; three, four or five days that it might melt. Then take it out and boil it a little. Then whilst it is hot, strain it out, pressing it out very hard in a press. To this grease add as many more herbs bruised as before. Let them stand in like manner as long, then boil them as you did the former. From Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal
The juice mixed with vinegar and holden in the mouth, easeth much the pain of the tooth-ache. The herb chewed and held in the mouth bringeth mightily from the brain slimie flegm. From John Gerard’s Herbal
A Remedy for the Plague
Steep one pound each of:- rue, rosemary, sage, sorrel, celandine, mugwort, the tops of red brambles, pimpernel, wild dragon, agrimony, balsm and angelica. Hannah Wooley