While herbs have many medicinal uses that I talk about there are other uses that have been passed down through the centuries in poems and stories that show how they really were used by the people, the folk uses.
The neighb’ring nymphs each in her turn…
Some running through the meadows with them bring
Cowslips and mint.
There are so many mints out there and they all are used for different things. Mint’s would be laid around churches and used in bath water to remove evil. Perhaps this is why it was thought that if you lay it near cheese it would prevent the cheese from going bad. Mint would be used for bites from mad dogs, serpents, and sea-scorpions but should not be used on people with wounds because they would then never be cured!
The spring is at the door,
She bears ag olden store,
Her maund with yellow daffodils runneth o’er.
After her footsteps follow
The mullein and the mallow,
She scatters golden powder on the sallow.
Bring, too, some branches forth of Daphne’s hair,
And gladdest myrtle for the posts to wear,
With spikenard weav’d and marjorams between
And starr’d with yellow-golds and meadows-queen.
The smell of meadow-sweet makes the heart merry. This is why it is suggested that Queen Elizabeth desired it more than any other herb to have in her bed chambers. Icelanders say that if thrown into water on St John’s Day it will reveal a thief, sinking if it is a man, floating if it is a woman.
Sweet Basil (Ocymum basilium)
Madonna, wherefore hast thou sent to me
Sweet basil and mignonette?
Embleming love and health which never yet
In the same wreath might be
-To Emilia Viviani
Basil was said to ‘breed scorprions’ and they would commonly be found living under pots of basil. Even with this negative connotation, confirmed by a variety of dukes and famous herbalists including Culpepper and Galen, basil, when touch by a fair lady, was though to bring fresh life into the plant.
Samphire (Crithium maritimum)
Half way down
Hangs one that gathers Samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
This is St Peter’s Herb, growing on sea-cliffs, the patron of fishermen. This plant can be eaten with it’s thick leaves similar to purselane. It has a salty taste due to it’s growth location.
Lavender is for lovers true,
Which evermore be faine,
Desiring always for to have
Some pleasure for their pain.
We now use lavender for a lot of things but it was commonly put into sheets to imbue them with it’s scent. It was also brought into churches in Spain and Portugal and burned on bonfires on St John’s Day. Tuscan peasants believed it would prevent the Evil Eye from hurting children.
Bay (Laurus nobilis)
Then in my lavender I’ll lay,
Muscado put mong it,
And here and there a leaf of bay,
Which still shall run along it.
Bay was commonly paired with rosemary at weddings and funerals. It was an herb to adorn both the house of God as well as man himself. Both women and men would bathe in bay and anoint themselves with it. It would be eaten, drunk, and worn as garlands on the head of the living and also to adorn the dead. Romans called it the Plant of the Good Angell but a withering tree was an ill omen. In 1629 all the bay trees at the University of Padua died shortly before a great pestilence broke out. Even with all of this it was thought to keep away disease and this is why it was so commonly worn by both the living and dead and was present at many ceremonies of blessings.
Jillian Carnrick, founder and manager of The Dancing Herbalist, has a Masters of Science Degree in Herbal Medicine, practices as a nutritionist, and is a Certified Personal Trainer and Exercise Is Medicine Professional through the American College of Sports Medicine. Join her for live classes and The Dancing Herbalist’s home herbalist courses online for more learning opportunities.
All the information in this entry comes from The Book of Herb Lore by Lady Rosalind Northcote originally published as The Book of Herbs in 1912