Family Polygonaceae, Knotweed
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper also names it Great Monk’s Rhubarb, Great Garden Patience and English Rhubarb. Garden rhubarb.
DESCRIPTION: Grown in the vegetable plot, it is prized as a fruit, growing around 2 feet (60 cm) high with edible red stalks and large dark green leaves. Rhubarb is usually considered to be a vegetable, but a New York court adjudicated in 1947 that as it was used as a fruit, it was to be counted as a fruit for the purpose of regulations and duties.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper writes profusely on the plant: “…It purges the body of choler and phlegm, being either taken of itself, made into powder, and drank in a draught of white wine, or steeped therein all night, and taken fasting, or put among other purges, as shall be thought convenient, cleansing the stomach, liver and blood, opening obstructions, and helping those griefs that come thereof, as the jaundice, dropsy, swelling of the spleen, tertian and daily agues, and pricking pains of the sides; and also stays spitting of blood. The powder taken with cassia dissolved, and washed Venice turpentine, cleanses the reins and strengthens them afterwards, and is very effectual to stay the gonorrhea. It is also given for the pains and swellings in the head, for those that are troubled with melancholy, and helps the sciatica, gout, and the cramp. The powder of the Rhubarb taken with a little mummia and madder roots in some red wine, dissolves clotted blood in the body, happening by any fall or bruise, and helps burstings and broken parts, as well inward as outward. The oil likewise wherein it hath been boiled, works the like effects being anointed. It is used to heal those ulcers that happen in the eyes or eyelids, being steeped and strained; as also to assuage the swellings and inflammations; and applied with honey, boiled in wine, it takes away all blue spots or marks that happen therein.” Rhubarb is grown primarily for its fleshy petioles, commonly known as rhubarb sticks or stalks.
HISTORY: Not until the 17th century, when sugar from the Caribbean plantations became affordable, was rhubarb used widely as food. In the 19th century it was realized that oxalic acid is found in both docks and rhubarb, with rhubarb also containing large quantities of nitric and malic acid. The combination gives an agreeable taste when cooked but can cause digestive problems for sufferers of gout and other ailments.
Family Brassicaceae, Brassica
OTHER NAMES: Rucola. Culpeper says that salad rocket, or garden rocket (Eruca vesicaria subsp. sativa) is only used for salads, so does not include it. Salad rocket is also known as rocket or arugula.
DESCRIPTION: Height 12 inches (30 cm) and spread 6 inches (15 cm), with yellow, four-petalled flowers and green, deeply divided aromatic leaves.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “The wild Rocket is more strong and effectual to increase sperm and venerous qualities, whereunto all the seed is more effectual than the garden kind. It serves also to help digestion, and provokes urine exceedingly. The seed is used to cure the biting of serpents, the scorpion, and the shrew mouse, and other poisons, and expels worms, and other noisome creatures that breed in the belly. The herb boiled or stewed, and some sugar put thereto, helps the cough in children, being taken often. The seed also taken in drink, takes away the ill scent of the arm-pits, increases milk in nurses, and wastes the spleen. The seed mixed with honey, and used on the face, cleanses the skin from morphew [scurfy eruptions], and used with vinegar, takes away freckles and redness in the face, or other parts; and with the gall of an ox, it mends foul scars, black and blue spots, and the marks of the smallpox.” It can be used in salads, with a more peppery flavor than salad rocket. Wild rocket is a digestive stimulant, and its high sulfur content benefits hair, nails and skin.
HISTORY: Pliny the Elder writing of its strong aphrodisiac qualities: “Three leaves of wild rocket plucked with the left hand, beaten up in hydromel, and then taken in drink, are productive of a similar effect.”
From Love’s Martyr, 1601
O School-boys I will teach you such a shift,
As will be worth a Kingdom when you know it,
An herb that hath a secret hidden drift,
To none but Truants do I mean to show it,
And all deep read Physicians will allow it:
O how you play the wags, and fain would hear
Some secret matter to allay your fear.
There’s garden Rocket, take me but the seed,
When in your Master’s brow your faults remain,
And when to save your selves there is great need,
Being whipped or beaten you shall feel no pain…
ROSA CENTIFOLIA, R. DAMASCENA, R. GALLICA, R.
EGLANTERIA, R. CANINA
Family Rosaceae, Rose
OTHER NAMES: Rosa gallica officinalis was called The Apothecary’s Rose in the British Pharmacopoeia, an annual publication listing quality standards for medicines.
DESCRIPTION: Rosa gallica was hybridized so much that any scented roses of a deep red or deep pink color came to be used in medicine, as long as they yielded a strongly colored and fragrant infusion in hot water. The Provence rose (Rosa gallica), damask rose (Rosa damascena), and eglantine (Rosa eglanteria) are the three oldest roses in cultivation, and all are strongly scented. The cabbage rose (Rosa centifolia), is also known as the hundred-petalled Rose, and along with the tea rose (Rosa indica), is commonly grown for scent and beauty. The dog rose (Rosa canina) is commonly seen growing in country hedges.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper: “It is under the dominion of Venus. Botanists describe a vast number of roses, but this (Damask), and the common red rose, and the dog rose, or hip, are the only kinds regarded in medicine… [the oil] is used to cool hot inflammation or swellings and to bind and stay fluxes of the humours, to sores and is also put into ointments and plasters that are cooling and binding.” John Gerard writes: “The conserve of roses taken in the morning fasting, and last at night, strengthens the heart, and takes away the shaking and trembling thereof, strengthens the liver, kidneys, and other weak entrails, comforts a weak stomach that is moist and raw.” The oil is used on the skin because of its antiseptic, cooling, moisturizing and nourishing properties. The “hips” or rosehips of the dog rose are valued because they contain high levels of vitamin C and also flavonoids, tannins and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and K. In the Middle Ages, the dog rose was recommended as a marvelous cure for chest complaints. The apothecary rose is used today more for its aromatherapy and cosmetic properties than its medicinal properties, but it is known to have sedative and antidepressant properties, and is an astringent and useful for lowering cholesterol. The petals and hips are often found in pot-pourris and dried dog rose hips are particularly useful because of their ability to hold scent, making them ideal for using as a fixative. The petals are also sold as biodegradable wedding confetti.
In Renaissance art, the apothecary rose was the most painted of all roses. Its deep pink color was said to represent the blood of the Christian martyrs. Its petals were dried and rolled into beads, then strung into beaded chains for religious use. These beads later became known as the “rosary.”
Otto of Roses
Maud Grieve informs us: “It was between 1582 and 1612 that the oil or OTTO OF ROSES was discovered, as recorded in two separate histories of the Grand Moguls. At the wedding feast of the princess Nour-Djihan with the Emperor Djihanguyr, son of Akbar, a canal circling the whole gardens was dug and filled with rose-water. The heat of the sun separating the water from the essential oil of the Rose, was observed by the bridal pair when rowing on the fragrant water. It was skimmed off and found to be an exquisite perfume. The discovery was immediately turned to account and the manufacture of Otto of Roses was commenced in Persia about 1612 and long before the end of the seventeenth century the distilleries of Shiraz were working on a large scale.”
HISTORY: The cultivation of roses originated in Persia, where an extensive rose-water trade began in the eighth century. Sappho, the Greek poetess, writing c. 600 Bce, crowned the rose Queen of Flowers. Roses were held to be sacred to the goddess of love, Venus to the Romans and Aphrodite to the Greeks, and were symbolic of protection and rebirth. During funeral ceremonies, the Romans scattered rose petals to symbolize resurrection. The Romans placed a rose over the door of a public or private banquet hall, and each citizen who passed under it bound himself not to disclose anything said or done in the meeting. It then became the custom across Europe to suspend a rose over the dinner table as a sign that all confidences were to be held secret (hence the phrase sub rosa, under the rose), and the plaster ornament in the center of a ceiling is still known as the ceiling rose. Nostradamus prescribed “rose petal pills” to guard against the plague. Roses were grown in monastery gardens in the Middle Ages in Europe and used by the monks for medicinal purposes. In 1798, Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine, created one of greatest rose gardens outside Paris at her Château de Malmaison, with every known variety cultivated there. Today roses are used primarily in the perfume industry. The oil from the Bulgarian Kazanlik rose (Rosa damascena forma trigintipetala) is considered to be the best in the world and is used by Chanel and Christian Dior in their perfumes. It takes 4 tons of roses (or approximately two million flowers) to make 21b (900 g) of rose attar (another Persian word for oil, like otto and ottar), which explains why pure rose oil is so expensive.
Family Lamiaceae/Labiatae, Mint
OTHER NAMES: Compass weed, compass plant, dew of the sea, sea dew, elf leaf, guardrobe, incensier, polar plant, rose of Mary. There are many varieties of rosemary.
DESCRIPTION: A hardy evergreen perennial with a height and spread of 36 inches (90 cm), short, needle-shaped and aromatic leaves and pretty pale blue flowers.
PROPERTIES AND USES: “The Sun claims dominion over it. It helps a weak memory, and quickens the senses. The leaves are used much in bathing and made into ointments or oil are good to help cold benumbed joints, sinews, or members…a remedy for the windiness in the stomach, bowels, and spleen and expels it powerfully.”—Culpeper. Rosemary is one of the most useful herbs, not only being a wonderfully attractive plant in the garden but also with many culinary, medicinal and aromatherapy uses. The leaf is said to alleviate hangovers, indigestion and stress, cure plague and stop bad dreams. Rosemary stimulates the central nervous system and circulation, making it beneficial for low blood pressure and sluggishness. The essential oil is distilled from the fresh flowering tops and the upper part of the herb, and can be diluted for topical use to alleviate the pain of sprains, arthritis, sciatica and neuralgia. Burning a sprig of rosemary will freshen the room and also freshen the mind, being said to increase circulation to the brain. Its principal commercial use was as Spiritus Rosmarini, an ingredient in hair lotions, for its odor and effect in preventing premature baldness. A cold infusion of the antiseptic plant is one of the best hair rinses, helping to prevent scurf and dandruff.
HISTORY: The Virgin Mary, in her flight to Egypt, is reputed to have thrown her blue cloak over a white rosemary bush, which turned its flowers blue forever, hence the name rose of Mary. Legend compares the growth of a rosemary plant with the life of Jesus, and declares that after 33 years it increases in breadth, but never in height. Hippocrates, Galen and Dioscorides all prescribed rosemary for liver problems. The plant was said to bring eternal youth, and rosemary oil was rubbed on the temples to ease headaches. It is traditionally associated with helping to cure poor memory, and is being researched for senility treatment. In Ancient Greece, students wore garlands of rosemary braided into their hair or around their necks in order to improve their memory when taking exams. A British study has found that inhaling rosemary oil boosted memory compared to a control group of people not exposed to the oil. Rosemary was an essential plant for every apothecary during the Renaissance, with the French regarding it as a cure-all. Rosemary was regarded as a preventive to plague. In 1665–6, the Great Plague killed 100,000 people in London alone, a fifth of the population, and the price of rosemary rose from 12 pence for an armful to 72 pence for a handful. Rosemary was burned in sick chambers, and in French hospitals was burned with juniper berries to purify the air and prevent infection. With rue, it was placed in the dock of courts of justice, the prevent the spread of contagious jail-fever. A sprig of rosemary was carried in the hand at funerals, being distributed to the mourners before they left the house, to be cast on to the coffin when it had been lowered into the grave. Sir Thomas More wrote: “As for rosemary I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language.” Sprigs of rosemary are worn on Anzac Day (April 25) in remembrance of the Australian and New Zealand servicemen who died at Gallipoli during the First World War. Australian soldiers spoke of rosemary growing wild on the battlefield of Gallipoli, and how the perfume of its crushed leaves evoked memories of their lost friends.
From Love’s Martyr, 1601
There’s Rosemary, the Arabians justify,
(Physicians of exceeding perfect skill,)
It comforteth the brain and Memory,
And to the inward sense gives strength at will,
The head with noble knowledge it doth fill.
Conserves thereof restores the speech being lost,
And makes a perfect Tongue with little cost.
Affecting the Heart
In Maud Grieve’s Herbal, we read the following extract: Miss Anne Pratt (Flowers and their Associations) says: “But it was not among the herbalists and apothecaries merely that Rosemary had its reputation for peculiar virtues. The celebrated Doctor of Divinity, Roger Hacket, did not disdain to expatiate on its excellencies in the pulpit. In a sermon which he entitles ‘A Marriage Present,’ which was published in 1607, he says: ‘Speaking of the powers of rosemary, it overtoppeth all the flowers in the garden, boasting man’s rule. It helpeth the brain, strengtheneth the memory, and is very medicinable for the head. Another property of the rosemary is, it affects the heart. Let this rosmarinus, this flower of men, insignia of your wisdom, love and loyalty, be carried not only in your hands, but in your hearts and heads.’”
Family Rutaceae, Rue/Citrus
OTHER NAMES: Herb of grace, herb of repentance, garden rue, mother of the herbs, herbygrass.
DESCRIPTION: Hardy evergreen with a height and spread of 24 inches (60 cm). It bears small yellow flowers, and lobed, musk-scented, blue-green leaves. The symbol in playing cards for the suit of clubs is said to be modeled on a leaf of rue.
PROPERTIES AND USES: “It is an herb of the Sun, and under Leo. It provokes urine and women’s courses, being taken either in meat or drink. The seed thereof taken in wine, is an antidote against all dangerous medicines or deadly poisons. The leaves taken either by themselves, or with figs and walnuts, is called Mithridate’s counter-poison against the plague, and causes all venomous things to become harmless”—Nicholas Culpeper. Used in small amounts rue can ease headaches, and the leaves can be applied externally in a poultice to relieve sciatica. Rue makes a lovely low hedge in a knot garden, but has declined in popular use as it is poisonous in large amounts and can cause violent stomach upset, skin irritation and photosensitivity.
HISTORY: One of the oldest garden plants cultivated for medicinal use was introduced into England by the Romans. Since earliest times rue was used to ward off contagion (often combined with rosemary) and the attacks of fleas and other insects. Herb of grace reflects the time when a twig of rue was used to sprinkle the holy water in the ceremony on the Sunday before High Mass. Brides carried a sprig in their wedding bouquet. It was thought to be an antidote to snakebites and poisonous fungi. Gerard wrote: “If a man be anointed with the juice of rue, the poison of wolf’s bane, mushrooms, or todestooles, the biting of serpents, stinging of scorpions, spiders, bees, hornets and wasps will not hurt him.” Rue is one of the ingredients in the “Vinegar of the Four Thieves,” a mixture of vinegar and herbs that was popular during the plague years in Europe as it was thought to protect against the pestilence. In the Middle Ages and later, rue was considered a powerful defense against witches, and was also thought to bestow second sight. Rue was once believed to improve the eyesight and creativity, and Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were said to regularly use it for these benefits.
It is a fly and ant repellent, and can be tied to a horse’s mane to keep the flies away. Most cats dislike the smell of it and therefore it can be used as a cat deterrent in one’s garden.
Family Caryophyllaceae, Pink/Carnation
OTHER NAMES: Glabrous, smooth rupturewort, rupturewort, green carpet.
DESCRIPTION: The garden nursery industry is now marketing the plant as green carpet. The bright green creeper spreads effortlessly in all directions occupying up to 2 feet (60 cm) per plant, and growing only about 2 inches (5 cm) high, so it is excellent for rockeries.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper says this about it: “…Rupturewort…is found by experience to cure the rupture, not only in children but also in elder persons, if the disease be not too inveterate, by taking a dram of the powder of the dried herb every day in wine, or a decoction made and drank for certain days together. The juice or distilled water of the green herb, taken in the same manner, helps all other fluxes either of man or woman; vomiting also, and the gonorrhoea, being taken any of the ways aforesaid. It doth also most assuredly help those that have the stranguary, or are troubled with the stone or gravel in the reins or bladder. The same also helps stitches in the sides, griping pains of the stomach or belly, the obstructions of the liver, and cures the yellow jaundice; likewise it kills also the worms in children. Being outwardly applied, it conglutinates wounds notably, and helps much to stay defluxions of rheum from the head to the eyes, nose, and teeth, being bruised green and bound thereto; or the forehead, temples, or the nape of the neck behind, bathed with the decoction of the dried herb. It also dries up the moisture of fistulous ulcers, or any other that are foul and spreading. The whole plant has a salty taste, and is somewhat astringent, but it increases the urinary discharge; and the juice dropped into the eyes, takes away specks and films from them.” The whole plant together with its long root, gathered when it is in flower, is astringent, diuretic and expectorant.
HISTORY: Maud Grieve stated that rupturewort was “successful in the treatment of dropsy, whether of cardiac or nephritic origin…It is recommended for catarrh of the bladder.” Its active constituent herniarin is believed to have diuretic properties, and the leaves have been emulsified for use in hand cleansers. It has been used for treating bladder problems, dropsy, cystitis and kidney stones. It has also gained a reputation for treating hernias. Rupturewort also has been used as a poultice to speed the healing of ulcers.
Sheep seem to relish the plant; cattle and horses eat it, while pigs and goats reject it, according to tradition.