Marin Master Gardeners
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Marin Master Gardeners

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Herbs in the Garden: Ancient History and Modern Use

January 15, 2007
D.F. Braun
by D.F. Braun
There was a time when Herbalists were considered to be rather dotty! Picture a country gentleman in baggy tweeds advocating the use of a particular herb as a cure for everything from hangnails to flatulence.
Obviously, that is no longer true, as herbal teas are widely used as palliatives and comforts, not to mention the use of garden herbs for the enhancement of many recipes.
As popular as most herbs have become, most gardeners don’t have the desire or room for an old-fashioned herbal or Knot Garden. (Knot gardens with their formal design surrounded by low box hedges were popular at the time of Queen Elizabeth I.) And since many herbs lack the appeal of colorful annuals they can be shunted to obscure areas. But they can make a valuable contribution to a landscape: A low hedge of Lavender or Rosemary lining a path, perfuming the air when anyone walks through or Thyme spread to form a colorful ground cover. And while Mint can be invasive its heady fragrance on a warm day lifts the spirits.
Herbs can be worked into a flower border or vegetable garden “a la potager.” A potager is a French style garden that combines fruits, veggies, flower, and herbs in an enclosed space. The gardener benefits from the abundance of edibles, and the diversity gives possible protection from insects.
Consider the following interesting and attractive plants:
Bergamot may be familiar to you as an herb used in teas and sold as a flower in seed packets. Bergamot (Monarda didyma) is a member of the mint family. Its colorful flowers will add beauty to your garden. A native plant of North America, it was brewed by Indians to drink for pleasure as well as for medicinal purposes. At the time of the Boston Tea Party it was drunk in place of black tea. Herbalists recommend an infusion of Bergamot for many minor discomforts although there are no scientific studies confirming the health advantages. At the very least you will have a pleasant tea to sip.
Fennel’s filigreed leaves and stunning umbel-shape flower clusters stand tall to make a good border. Of the two types of fennel, sweet Florence, also called Finocchio, is preferred for culinary purposes. The taste is close to anise or licorice. An early Greek name was Marathion, which means “to grow thin.” Broths and teas were used in 17th century England to “make people lean that are too fat.” In medieval times, people kept a stash of fennel seeds handy to nibble on through long church services or fast days; the seeds were considered to be an appetite suppressant.
Echinacea’s delicate pastel petals with pretty, little daisy-like flowers was once this country’s most popular “plant drug.” Indians of the plains states used the roots of the plant to treat snake and insect bites. Many modern Herbalists still regard it as one of the best blood purifiers as well as an effective antibiotic. Of slight fragrance it can propagate into meadow-like beds, easy to care for and quite tolerant of our areas of hot, summer weather.
Borage has lovely, blue, star shaped blossoms. According to old wives tales, Borage was sometimes smuggled into the drinks of prospective husbands to give them the courage to propose. Ancient Celtic warriors prepared for battle with wine flavored with Borage. Their fears would vanish and they would feel elated. (It was probably the wine!) It has a crisp, cucumber flavor and its leaves are used raw, steamed or sautéed like spinach. It does have a rough, somewhat sprawling habit, so it will not do well in a formal setting. However, it blends nicely in a vegetable patch or wildflower garden.
Sweet Marjoram is a tender perennial usually grown as an annual as it has a dense shallow root system. Because of showy, deep purple flowers it was a popular choice for the Knot Garden. The flavor is something like a mild Oregano. Leaves and flowers are used fresh or dried in recipes and fresh sprigs can be added to salads.

 

Herbs don’t have quite the significance for us moderns that they did for the ancients. The Greeks thought Marjoram was precious to Aphrodite, goddess of love, and they crowned young couples with it on their wedding day. Obviously, it was the plant that sanctified marital bliss. Now it’s usually associated with turkey stuffing!

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