Family Fagaceae, Beech
OTHER NAMES: English oak, pedunculate oak, gospel oak. There are several hundred species of trees that have the common name oak. The genus Quercus is native to the northern hemisphere, and includes deciduous trees and evergreens such as holly.
DESCRIPTION: A long-lived deciduous tree which can grow well over 100 feet (30 m) tall, with lobed leaves and familiar nut-like fruit known as acorns. Its wood is particularly tough and hard, leading to its name of robur, robust.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper relates: “Jupiter owns the tree. The leaves and bark of the Oak, and the acorn cups, do bind and dry very much. The inner bark of the tree, and the thin skin that covers the acorn, are most used to stay the spitting of blood, and the bloody-flux. The decoction of that bark, and the powder of the cups, do stay vomiting, spitting of blood, bleeding at the mouth, or other fluxes of blood, in men or women; lasks[diarrhea] also, and the nocturnal involuntary flux of men. The acorn in powder taken in wine, provokes urine, and resists the poison of venomous creatures. The decoction of acorns and the bark made in milk and taken, resists the force of poisonous herbs and medicines, as also the virulence of cantharides [Cantharis vesicatoria—‘blister beetles’ or ‘Spanish flies’], when one by eating them hath his bladder exulcerated, and voids bloody urine. Hippocrates says, he used the fumes of Oak leaves to women that were troubled with the strangling of the womb; and Galen applied them, being bruised, to cure green wounds. The distilled water of the Oaken bud, before they break out into leaves is good to be used either inwardly or outwardly, to assuage inflammations, and to stop all manner of fluxes in man or woman. The same is singularly good in pestilential and hot burning fevers; for it resists the force of the infection, and allays the heat. It cools the heat of the liver, breaking the stone in the kidneys, and stays women’s courses. The decoction of the leaves works the same effects. The water that is found in the hollow places of old Oaks, is very effectual against any foul or spreading scabs. The distilled water (or concoction, which is better) of the leaves, is one of the best remedies that I know of for the whites [fluor albus—vaginal discharges] in women.” Oak bark is a powerful astringent, and has been used by herbalists for thousands of years. Decoctions of oak bark are used for throat infections, acute diarrhea and bleeding, and have been studied for use in kidney infections and stones. The juice from crushed oak leaves can be applied directly onto wounds and the leaves can be soaked in boiling water, allowed to cool and the liquid used to relieve tired and inflamed eyes. The same liquid can ameliorate cuts and burns, be used as a mouthwash for bleeding gums, a gargle for sore throats and for bathing hemorrhoids and varicose veins. A decoction of the bark can be used for reducing fevers, diarrhea, dysentery, tonsillitis, pharyngitis and laryngitis. The bark also yields a tannin which was used extensively for preparing leather and twine. Oak galls (formed by larvae of the gall wasp) yield a black ink, and a coffee substitute can be made from acorn kernels.
HISTORY: Of all the trees in prehistoric times, the oak was the most widely venerated, as it was believed that the oak was the first tree created and that man sprang from it. It was sacred to the Hebrews. The Greeks dedicated it to Zeus, to the Romans the oak was the tree of Jupiter, and to the Teutonic tribes, it was the Tree of Life, sacred to Thor. It was the most sacred tree of the Celtic Druids, who collected rainwater from hollows in the trunk and branches to ritually cleanse themselves. Until men devised iron cutting tools, the oak resisted all attempts to fell it, but then became the main construction material for houses, churches and ships. Its elasticity and strength made it particularly advantageous in shipbuilding, and the oaks of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire provided much of the raw material for the Royal Navy’s “wooden walls of England.” Philip of Spain gave special orders to the Armada to burn and destroy every oak in the forest. In England, the oak has assumed the status of a national emblem, since the future King Charles II hid from Parliamentarians in an oak tree at Boscobel House in 1651 after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester during the English Civil War.
Life in an Oak Tree
The pedunculate oak supports the highest biodiversity of insect herbivores of any British plant, with over 400 species recorded in a single tree. The acorns also are a valuable food resource for several small mammals such as squirrels and some birds, notably jays. Jays were the primary propagators of oaks before humans began planting them commercially, because of their habit of taking acorns from the umbra of a parent tree and burying them undamaged elsewhere.
Family Poaceae, True Grasses
OTHER NAMES: Groats, oatmeal, oatstraw, wild oats.
DESCRIPTION: An annual grass growing 2–4 feet (60–120 cm), with narrow pale green leaves and seeds borne on nodding heads, which thrives in damper climates.
PROPERTIES AND USES:
Culpeper tells us that they are principally used as food for man and beast, but: “…fried with bay salt, and applied to the sides as warm as can be endured, take away the pains of stitches and wind in the sides and colic in the belly. A poultice made of the meal of Oats, and some oil of Bay helps the itch, leprosy, fistulas of the fundament, and dissolves hard imposthumes [abscesses]. The meal of Oats boiled with vinegar, and applied, takes away freckles and spots in the face, and other parts of the body. It is also used in broth or milk, to bind those who have a lask [diarrhea], or other flux; and with sugar is good for them that have a cough or cold.” Oats have always had a reputation as a wholesome, healthy food, being a rich source of complex sugars needed to fuel a working body, some of which are also important for immune system stimulation. Its B vitamins help fight stress and build body tissue, and it is one of the best foods if not pre-packaged and refined. Oats help to regulate the thyroid, soothe nervous and digestive systems, stabilize blood sugar levels and are said to reduce cigarette cravings. Oat extract is often used in skin lotions to soothe skin conditions. Oat grass has been used traditionally to help balance the menstrual cycle, treat dysmenorrhoea, and for osteoporosis and urinary tract problems. Oat straw baths are used for rheumatic problems, lumbago, paralysis, liver ailments and gout, kidney, eczema and neuralgia problems. Porridge, oatcakes and muesli are especially beneficial meals, with detoxifying and cholesterol-lowering properties.
HISTORY: In the 1800s doctors advocated oat straw tea, made from young oat stalks and unripe grain, as a nerve tonic, which is sold commercially today for mild anxiety. Samuel Johnson included this celebrated entry for oats in his A Dictionary of the English Language: “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” The Scottish riposte was “England is known for the quality of its horses, and Scotland for its men.”
It is believed that horses that eat oats are more likely to mate. Old sayings like “feeling one’s oats” or “sowing wild oats,” refer to the belief in oats act as an aphrodisiac. Recent studies show that its consumption does indeed raise testosterone levels.
Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper calls it “Wild or Field Marjoram…Called also origane, origanum, eastward marjoram…and grove marjoram.” Maud Grieve notes: “In the older herbals oregano is referred to as Wild Marjoram, which can be confused with the herb known today as wild marjoram, Thymus mastichina, which is a wild-growing species of thyme.”
DESCRIPTION: Height and spread of 18 inches (46 cm), with clusters of tiny mauve flowers and hairy aromatic leaves.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “It strengthens the stomach and head much, there being scarce a better remedy growing for such as are troubled with a sour humour in the stomach; it restores the appetite being lost; helps the cough, and consumption of the lungs; it cleanses the body of choler, expels poison, and remedies the infirmities of the spleen; helps the bitings of venomous beasts, and helps such as have poisoned themselves by eating Hemlock, Henbane, or Opium. It provokes urine and the terms in women, helps the dropsy, and the scurvy, scabs, itch, and yellow jaundice. The juice being dropped into the ears, helps deafness, pain and noise in the ears. And thus much for this herb, between which and adders, there is a deadly antipathy.” It has also been used to relieve fevers, diarrhea, vomiting and jaundice. Oregano tea is still used for indigestion, bloating, flatulence, sore throats, coughs, urinary problems, bronchial problems, headaches, swollen glands, and to promote menstruation. Unsweetened tea is also used as a gargle or mouthwash. Its rosmarinic acid and thymol content have strong antioxidant and antibacterial properties, and oregano is thought to be effective against Heliobacter pylori, the stomach bacteria that cause ulcers. For tired joints and muscles, or rheumatic conditions, put a handful of leaves in a cheesecloth bag in a hot bath. An attractive spreading border plant, it attracts butterflies.
HISTORY: In myth Venus was the first to grow the herb in her garden. The Greeks used it extensively, both internally and externally, as a remedy for narcotic poisons, convulsions and dropsy. The Greeks believed it was a cure-all, and Aristotle said it was an antidote to poison, after seeing a tortoise eat a snake and then some oregano.
Oregano is sometimes known as the “pizza herb,” being widely used in Italian cuisine. The cultivated species, Origanum onites (pot marjoram), Oreganum majorana (sweet or knotted marjoram), and Oreganum heracleoticum (winter marjoram) are those varieties which are generally used in cookery as a seasoning. Culpeper’s wild marjoram, Oreganum vulgare was more used for medicinal purposes.
Family Oleaceae, Olive
OTHER NAMES: Olivier, cultivated olive, European olive.
DESCRIPTION: Evergreen, this long-lived, gnarled and twisted tree grows up to 30 feet (9 m) tall, with silvery green leaves, creamy fragrant small flowers, and green fruits which ripen to black. There are records of 1500-year-old trees still producing olives. All fresh olives are bitter and tough, whether green and unripe or black and ripe. When harvested, they must be processed to be edible, with a ton needed to make 50 gallons (227 liters) of olive oil. Olives are only properly edible after being soaked in brine, salt or oil, so they cannot be eaten straight off the trees. Olives have to be rinsed in fresh water once a day for ten days before being placed in salt water for eight or nine weeks after which they are edible. There are around 800 million olive trees growing around the world, with Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey being the main olive producers.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “This is a tree of the Sun. The fruit of this tree has a bitter, austere, disagreeable taste; but when pickled, as they come from abroad, they are less ungrateful, and promote appetite and digestion; it also cuts and attenuates tough phlegm in the stomach and first passages. The Lucca Olives are smaller than the others, and have the weakest taste; and the Spanish, or larger, the strongest; those brought from Provence, which are of a middling size, are most esteemed. But the principal consumption of this fruit is in making the common salad-oil, which is obtained by grinding and pressing them when ripe; the finer, and most pure oil, issues first on their being gently pressed, and the inferior sorts on heating the mass, and pressing it more strongly. This oil, in its virtues, does not differ materially from the other tasteless expressed oils, but it is preferred to all of them for esculent purposes; and is chiefly used in the preparation of plasters, ointments, &c. Oil is moderately healing and mollifying, rendering the body lax and soluble; it is good for disorders of the breast and lungs, tempering the sharp choleric humours in the bowels. What is drawn from the unripe Olives is called omphacinum, and is accounted drying and restringent, and fitter for some external remedies; what is pressed out of the ripe fruit is called Oil of Olives, being what is generally eaten, and made use of in medicines: the different fineness being from the different care and management in the making it; the sweetest, and what we esteem most, comes from Florence.” The oil is a safe laxative, good for circulation and improves digestion. The leaves have been traditionally used to disinfect wounds. The monounsaturated oil is used widely in cooking and as skin care oil. Olive leaf teas have been used in traditional herbal medicine to lower fevers, and olive leaf poultices are among the oldest therapies for infections of the skin, cuts and bruises. Olives contain antibacterial and antifungal properties. The main compound of olive oil, oleocanthal, has the same properties as painkillers used to treat heart conditions. The healthy, life-prolonging “Mediterranean Diet” relies upon olive oil.
HISTORY: Olives have been cultivated since prehistoric times in Asia Minor. Moses exempted from military service men who would work at their cultivation, and in almost all early writings olive oil is a symbol of goodness and purity, with the tree representing peace and happiness. In the Old Testament, the dove returned to the Ark with a sprig of olive, showing that the flood waters had abated. The oil, in addition to its wide use in diet, was burned in the sacred lamps of temples, and winners of events in the Olympic Games were crowned with olive leaves. Homer called olive oil “liquid gold.” In Greece, the dead were anointed with the oil the mask the smell, and the Romans used it to prevent stretch marks on the bodies of pregnant women.
The Gift of an Olive Tree
The first king of Attica (the region of Greece around Athens) was said to have been Cecrops I. There was a competition between Athena, the goddess of wisdom, war, the arts, industry, justice and skill, and Poseidon, the god of the sea to become patron of his new city. They agreed that each would give his people one gift, and Cecrops would choose whichever gift was better. Poseidon struck the rock of the Acropolis with his trident and a spring sprang from it. The water was salty and was not thought very useful, but Athena struck the rock with her lance and an olive tree sprung up. Cecrops judged the olive tree as the superior gift, for the olive tree brought wood, oil and food, and thus accepted Athena as the patron of the new city, which was then called Athens in her honor. Poseidon decided to grant his gift anyway. The Athenians had misunderstood that he was offering them sea power, not fresh water, and the power of the Athenian navy ensured domination over the rest of Greece.
ONION and LEEK
ALLIUM CEPA and ALLIUM AMPELOPRASUM VAR. PORRUM
Family Alliaceae, Onion
OTHER NAMES: Onion—garden onion, bulb onion. Leek—tree onion, Egyptian onion, lazy man’s onion.
DESCRIPTION: The bulbous onion only shows one shoot above the ground. The leek grows to 3 feet (90 cm), producing a long cylinder of bundled leaf sheaths.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper tells us: “Mars owns them, and they have gotten this quality, to draw any corruption to them, for if you peel one, and lay it upon a dunghill, you shall find it rotten in half a day, by drawing putrefaction to it; then, being bruised and applied to a plague sore, it is very probable it will do the like. Onions are flatulent, or windy; yet they do somewhat provoke appetite, increase thirst, ease the belly and bowels, provoke women’s courses, help the biting of a mad dog, and of other venomous creatures, to be used with honey and rue, increase sperm, especially the seed of them. They also kill worms in children if they drink the water fasting wherein they have been steeped all night. Being roasted under the embers, and eaten with honey or sugar and oil, they much conduce to help an inveterate cough, and expectorate the tough phlegm. The juice being snuffed up into the nostrils, purges the head, and helps the lethargy, (yet the often eating them is said to procure pains in the head). It hath been held by divers country people a great preservative against infection to eat Onions fasting with bread and salt. As also to make a great Onion hollow, filling the place with good treacle, and after to roast it well under the embers, which, after taking away the outermost skin thereof, being beaten together, is a sovereign salve for either plague or sore, or any other putrefied ulcer. The juice of Onions is good for either scalding or burning by fire, water, or gunpowder, and used with vinegar, takes away all blemishes, spots and marks in the skin: and dropped in the ears, eases the pains and noise of them. Applied also with figs beaten together, helps to ripen and break imposthumes [abscesses], and other sores. Leeks are as like them in quality, as the pomme-water [apple juice] is like an apple. They are a remedy against a surfeit of mushrooms, being baked under the embers and taken, and being boiled and applied very warm, help the piles. In other things they have the same property as the Onions, although not so effectual.”
Earache could be relieved by holding a roasted onion to the ear, and a mixture of honey, salt and bruised onion rubbed into a bald patch would encourage hair growth. As a cosmetic aid a mixture of onion juice and vinegar was applied to freckles and spots in the Middle Ages. European herbalists recommended onion and onion juice for healing burns, sores and ulcers, treating the symptoms of various epidemics experienced in medieval times, curing chilblains and removing warts. The juice was also used to ease swellings, to treat not only children’s coughs and colds but also patients with diphtheria, and it was believed to be a helpful remedy for insect bites too. When cutting an onion, a chemical is released that irritates the eyes and nose, causing us to shed tears. Onion skins yield a yellow dye, and onion juice was used by children to make a “secret ink,” which would reappear when the paper was warmed. Both onions and leeks are invaluable in cooking, and amongst the healthiest of vegetables to consume.
HISTORY: Onions were cultivated in Egypt from at least 3200 BCE. It is claimed that along with garlic (Allium sativum) or leeks (Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum), or garden parsley (Petroselinum crispum), the onion formed part of laborers’ wages when the pyramids were built by Cheops, c.2600 BCE. Alexander the Great (356–23 BCE) is traditionally said to have introduced the onion to Greece, and provisioned his armies with it for its war-like properties. Onions were popular in England in the early 13th century when Abbot Neckham of Cirencester (1157–1217) listed the onion as a vegetable that could be cultivated successfully for the tables of the wealthy. An old country adage is: “Onion skin very thin, / Mild winter coming in, / Onion skin thick and tough, / Coming winter cold and rough.” King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd in Wales fought the Saxons in a leek field in the seventh century, and he ordered his soldiers to wear leeks so that they could recognize each other during the fighting. The leek became, along with the daffodil, the national symbol of Wales. Raw onion seems to be helpful in reducing swelling from bee stings, and in Malta a popular remedy for painful sea urchin wounds is to tie half a baked onion to the afflicted area overnight.
Inulin is a soluble fiber found in some fruit and vegetables, and is a food source for “good” probiotic bacteria in the gut, i.e. it acts as a “probiotic.” It also helps bodies absorb calcium, so is good for women as a defense against osteoporosis. Just one 100g leek provides 10g inulin, more than the amount from 14 medium-sized bananas of 100g each.
THE ORIGIN OF PARADISE AND THE BEGINNING OF HERB GARDENS
The Greeks wrote of fine pleasure parks all over the lands of the Medes and Persians, of such size and beauty that there was a saying that they had been founded by the legendary Assyrian Queen Semiramis. The soldier and historian Xenophon (c.430–354 BCE) wrote that Socrates told his pupils: “Everywhere the Persian king is zealously cared for, so that he may find gardens wherever he goes; their name is Paradise, and they are full of all things fair and good that the earth can bring forth. It is here that he spends the greatest part of his time, except when the season forbids.” This is the first recorded mention of “paradise” in any Greek narrative. The Persian Prince Cyrus the Younger (c.424-401 BCE) showed the Greek Lysander the paradise of his palace at Sardis. Lysander marveled at the beautiful “shade trees” and fruit trees, the prettiness of the rows of flowers and the many sweet fragrances around the pathways. Cyrus, the son of Emperor Darius, then told Lysander that he himself had designed the paradise, and had even planted some of the trees himself. As part of their education, young Persian princes and nobles were taught the art of gardening and horticulture.
From accounts and monumental inscription we find that these Persian paradises were originally hunting-parks, with fruit-trees grown for food, just as in their Babylonian-Assyrian predecessors. They were in fact “garden palaces,” with vast colonnades open to walled green spaces surrounding them, and “throne rooms” overlooking reflecting pools and groves of trees. They were thus fertile, cultivated, enclosed areas in a wilderness. Indeed, in Old Persian pairi-daeza means “a walled space.” The Greeks adapted the word as paradeisos to describe the gardens of the Persian empire, and Greek translations of the Bible used this same word as the term for both the Garden of Eden and Heaven. For the course of much of human history, the entire natural world has been charged with meaning, with gods being identified everywhere: in the water, flowers, trees, sky etc. Human existence had come to depend upon agriculture, so particularly powerful gods and goddesses resided in water, the sun, trees and plants. The Mesopotamian idea of an everlasting, ever-fruitful paradise was already old by the times of the Achaemenid kings of Persia (559–329 BCE). Fragments of the earliest known writing, from Sumer in Mesopotamian around 2800 BCE, include a poem describing the creation of such a paradise, ordered by the god of water and provided by the sun god. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (c.2150 BCE) describes an “immortal” garden centered on a sacred tree standing by a holy fountain. King Sennacherib (c.705–681 BCE) built a garden with canals, ponds, vines, fruits and spices at Assyria’s capital of Nineveh. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon (also in modern Iraq) were sometimes called the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis, and were probably built by Nebuchadnezzar II around 600 BCE. He may have built this tiered paradise for his homesick wife, Amytis of Media, who was missing the fragrant flowers and plants of Persia. The gardens were destroyed by several earthquakes after the second century BCE, but in 50 BCE Diodorus Siculus recorded this Wonder of the Ancient World, “built up in tiers, so it resembled a theatre.”
Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt found more “paradises,” with Egyptian gardeners being honored individuals. From this time on, both public and private garden and park design became important in Greece, and later in Rome and across Europe. A quarter of the city of Alexandria in Egypt was given over to gardens, and Pliny recorded Italian gardens “set out with beds of flowers and sweet-smelling herbs.” Charlemagne in 802 issued a list of the herbs to be grown in his royal estates in a famous Capitulary. He owned a number of villas which were planned on the Roman model. Since he spent most of his life pursuing military campaigns, his possessions were transported in wagons and arranged in whichever villa he chose to stay in. Charlemagne specified in each villa garden: Flowers: lily, rose, flag iris. Physical Herbs: fenugreek, costmary, sage, rue, southernwood, gourd, cumin, rosemary, caraway, squills, dragons, anise, colocynth, ammi, black cumin, burdock, lovage, savin, dill, fennel, centaury, poppy, asarabacca, marshmallow, coriander, caper spurge, clary, houseleek. Salads: cucumber, melon, lettuce, rocket, cress, alexanders, parsley, celery, dittander, mustard, chives, radish, chervil. Pulses: kidney bean, chickpea, broad bean, pea. Potherbs: chicory, pennyroyal, endive, savory, horse mint, mint, wild mint, tansy, catmint, beet, mallow, orach, blite, kohl-rabi, colewort. Roots: skirret, carrot, parsnip, onion, leek, shallot, garlic. Industrial plants: madder, teasel. Fruit trees: apple, pear, plum, service, medlar, peach, quince, mulberry, fig, cherry. Nut trees: chestnut, hazel, almond, pine, walnut.
The first monastery garden we know dates from around 825 and was established at St. Gall Benedictine monastery in France. It contained the following plants: Vegetable garden: onions, shallots, garlic, leek, celery, parsley, coriander, chervil, dill, lettuce, poppy, savory, radishes, parsnip, carrots, colewort (cabbage), beet, black cumin. Orchard: apple, pear, mulberry, peach, plum, service tree, medlar, laurel, chestnut, fig, quince, hazelnut, almond, walnut. Physic garden: kidney bean, savory, rose, horsemint, cumin, lovage, fennel, tansy, lily, sage rue, flag iris, pennyroyal, fenugreek, mint, rosemary.