Herbs and the Medieval Gardener
Clary Sage, Tansy and Salad Burnet are beautiful herbs with a range of culinary and medicinal virtues- they deserve to be as treasured by the modern gardener as they were by their medieval counterparts.
The medieval garden was an essential source of food and medicine with little space to grow purely ornamental plants. Plants with many uses were prioritised, and the medieval householder had a vast wealth of knowledge about the many uses of each garden plant.
Clary Sage is a tall graceful cottage garden plant with feathery pale flowers. The herb is thought to relieve eye problems, digestive troubles, insomnia, depression and dandruff, and was a popular brew before black tea arrived from China. Clary wines were popular and clary could be substituted for hops in the beer brewing process to produce wines with a reputation for being powerfully intoxicating. Salads, omelettes, fritters and jelly of clary sage were once popular and usable recipes can be found today. To prepare for cooking, pick the flowers and remove all greenery and stems.
Tansy’s button-like flowers grow in golden clusters amid fern-like foliage. Tansy custards and puddings were once common but the rather bitter taste meant that uses were mostly medicinal; being administered to relieve fever, coughs and headaches or applied to ease bruises or swelling. Planted around the house it was thought to ward away evil and protect against lightening, and its insect deterring properties made it a popular strewing herb. The herb is now known to be toxic in large doses and is therefore rarely used in the kitchen but can be hung in bunches at windows to repel bothersome bugs.
Salad Burnet has delicately toothed leaves which grow in a rosette shape and bear pretty pink flowers. As a medicinal herb it was supposed to help in the treatment of wounds and digestive disorders, it was thought to be curative enough to be an ingredient in an anti-plague tonic. The young tender leaves have a cucumber-like flavour and are excellent in salads and sandwiches. The leaves, lightly crushed, impart their fresh flavour to cocktails and cooling summer drinks.