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Ancient MagicCreated by Verity in Being You, Home and Garden
Weeding in an out of the way part of the garden the other day, ed I stepped back and trod on a clump of Lemon Balm. Immediately the air was filled with its deliciously fresh scent. Never mind your supposedly lemon-scented washing up liquid, cough this was a thousand times better, and I thought what an impression that aroma must have made on the people centuries ago who first encountered this plant growing wild in the mountains of southern Europe.
Melissa officinalis, Lemon Balm’s Latin name, is one of our oldest garden herbs. I never planted this tough customer, it must be a throwback to a previous owner at least fifty years ago, and with its crinkly, faintly nettle-like leaves, and flowers so nondescript you hardly notice them, it’s anything but showy. To be honest it had been forgotten about, but now I went to the bookshelf and looked it up. “Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory” according to the seventeenth century herbalist John Evelyn. Oh yes, I could certainly do with that. John Gerard’s 1579 Herball reported, “Balm being applied doth close up wounds without any peril of inflammation.” In an age before antibiotics that would have seemed like magic. And Mrs Grieve’s Modern Herbal published in 1931, that wonderful bible for all things herbal, declared “It is now recognised as scientific fact that the balsamic oils of aromatic plants make excellent surgical dressings.”
It’s not surprising that many of our traditional garden herbs come from the Mediterranean. The Romans introduced a good number, and anything medicinally important would have had a value, and hence been a tradable commodity. In fact a plant with the word ‘officinalis’ in its Latin name indicates that it would have been bought and sold in the equivalent of ancient pharmacies.
Another herb that was used for placing on cuts or fresh wounds was Hyssopus officinalis. Also a native of southern Europe, it’s one of my favourite plants because it flowers from July onwards and cares not one whit if we suffer drought. It is perennial, but after a few years can get rather woody. No matter, it will have seeded itself, and although the commonest colour is blue, most of my seedlings seem to have pink flowers. There is also a white form, although not quite as robust.
This mild winter and spring has been wonderful for Rosmarinus officinalis, which has been flowering its socks off in the warm sunshine. Any distressed-looking bumblebee is scooped up and gently placed on its nectar-rich blue flowers to recover. In 1607 it was said of rosemary that “it overtopeth all the flowers in the garden. It helpeth the brain, strengtheneth the memorie, and is very medicinable for the head.”
Now that does sound useful. Can’t say I’m a keen herbalist though, preferring to grow such stalwarts for their flowers rather than medicinal properties. But perhaps drug companies are missing a trick by not researching these natural substances. The problem is of course that they can’t be patented.
A recent book advises what to do should pestilence wipe out most of mankind, and thus civilisation. Without effective government, towns, hospitals, power, machines or transport, the few left would have to go back to the way we lived thousands of years ago. An alarming thought. But those survivors with horticultural skills would be much needed, not to grow frivolous things like flowers obviously, but for food. And medicine. Surreptitiously consulting our Mrs Grieve’s Herbal, we could enjoy our reputations as Wise Women. And appreciate the flowers of herbs on the quiet.
© Alex Pankhurst