A spoonful of herbs

From Mesopotamia

One of the earliest known herbs gardens was made in Babylon, the chief city of Mesopotamia (part of modern day Iraq).  King Mardukapal (Ma-duck-a-pal)-Iddina 11, made it nearly 3000 years ago.  He grew 64 kinds (species) of plants to make medicines. Some of them we grow in our gardens today – apple, coriander, dill, fennel, garlic, onion and roses.  He also grew more powerful plants such as hellebore and opium poppy.

Doctors in Mesopotamia believed the best times to give their patients medicines was either at night or in the early morning.  Doctors today often tell us to take our medicines at those times too!

Mesopotamian doctors also told their patients to drink herbal teas.

From Ancient India

The Ancient Hindus used herbs in medicines. They made strict rules about where herbs should grow and they didn’t allow just anyone to pick them either!

The picker could only pick fresh herbs that grew in places that were difficult reach, usually where the soil was rich and well drained.  The herbs had to have a good root.  They had to grow in a place where there was a good mix of sun and shade.  Herbs that grew near Temples, shrines or burial places could not be picked.

Indian doctors gave their patients herbal pills taken with honey, butter or oil to take away the bitter taste, or they might give powders mixed with sugar to sweeten them.  Today we do the same.  Our medicines are often mixed or coated with something to make them nicer to swallow!

From Ancient Greece

Many plants have stories from Ancient Greece associated with them.  The herb elecampane is said to have got its name from Helen of Troy.  She was thought to be in a garden when she was abducted by Paris, and the plant grew where her tears fell.

The goddess Leto was stung by a bee and was so annoyed that she sent a swarm of small purple bee-eating birds to kill the bees.  The people guarding the hives were so angry that they killed all the birds with stones from their slings.  Zeus, the father of the gods, was so grateful that he rewarded the beekeepers by changing the dead birds into lavender plants.

The Ancient Greeks believed that parsley grew from the blood of Archemorus, who was supposed to appear before someone died.  So they would not eat it.  They used it to make wreaths for the dead and for their tombs.

From Roman Italy

Romans used garlands of parsley at feasts because they believed it stopped them from getting drunk!

The Romans used insect repelling and sweet-smelling herbs on their floors.  The under-floor heating made them smell even better.  The floors were swept every day and fresh herbs were put down (known as strewing herbs).  The old herbs were used to start the fire the next day.

Roman soldiers were said to put a leaf of plantain in their footwear before a long march to prevent blisters.

Roman soldiers were also given a daily dose of garlic as a tonic.

From Central Asia

Avicenna, the famous Arabic doctor who lived in from 980-1037, was a very clever man.  He studied many subjects including medicine and astronomy.  He was only seventeen when he became an important doctor in Bhukara, in Central Asia.  His fame spread as far as Baghdad, now capital of Iraq. He was the Caliph’s doctor for seven years.  He wrote two volumes of books about medicine.  Before he died, he gave away all his riches and freed his slaves.

From Britain

The Druids were an ancient order of Celtic priests who lived in pre-Christian Britain.  They used Vervain to treat bladder infections.  In the Middle Ages, it was used for casting spells or adding to love potions.  It was often worn around the neck as a good-luck charm.

Herbs were used a lot in Tudor times, especially at weddings.  They were used in the bride’s headdress and to decorate the tables, as well as strewn on the floor.  Anne of Cleves wore a pearl coronet with rosemary when she married Henry VIII.  Even poor brides could walk to church over a path strewn with rose petals and dried herbs.  At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom would sit under a ‘kissing knot’.  This was made from ribbons with sprigs of herbs tucked into them.  Each herb that was used would have a special meaning for the couple.

Shakespeare’s character Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’ spoke about the meaning of herbs: “There’s rosemary for remembrance… There’s pansies that’s for thoughts…”

When the Pilgrim Fathers sailed on the Mayflower to America in 1620, they took with them many of the herbs they used in England. Later, many herbs that grew wild and were used by the Indians in America were brought to Europe.

In 1652, an Englishman called Nicholas Culpeper published a complete herbal, The English Physitian.  In this book, he listed all the known herbal remedies in England at that time. He wanted to write a book that would help ordinary people make their own herbal remedies instead of having to buy expensive ones from doctors.  Naturally, he was not popular with the doctors of the day!

Also at this time, the Society of Apothecaries of London created a famous herb garden –The Chelsea Physic Garden.

Herbs were used during both WW1 and WW2 to treat soldiers wounded on the battlefield.  One important treatment was the use of sphagnum moss and garlic, both of which are antiseptics.  Huge quantities of herbs were needed to treat the war wounded.  People of Britain were encouraged to gather and dry enough herbs.  Cigarette cards, which used to come free inside a packet of cigarettes, were used to help people identify herbs.

All kinds of groups of people were involved including the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. The collected herbs were sent to drug companies, which made them into botanic drugs.  People were also encouraged to grow herbs in their gardens or in window boxes, and farmers grew fields of them.