Plants in the Medieval Garden
THL Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina

Gardens were highly important in Medieval society = supermarket, pharmacy, bath & body shop, liquor store, etc. (Serfs tended to forage for potherbs.)

There was no distinction between flowers, vegetables, or plants! (See Gerard)

For example, “vegetables” (i.e., food ingredients) included roses, garlic, marshmallow root, violets, hyssop, nettles, etc.

There was much more of a distinction made between the potential use of the plants, and this often determined where they were planted. These uses included kitchen and seasoning, vegetables and salads, food dyes, aromatic, decorative, dyes, strewing, brewing, medicinal, and magical/religious.

Different parts of the plant (roots, petals, bark, seeds, juice, or leaves) were used for different medicinal problems. (Depending upon the ailment, the plants were used for tisanes (teas), syrups, poultices, ointments, distilled waters, pills, or conserves.) [See Katja's paper for more on this.]

There were five basic kinds of Medieval gardens: kitchen (foodstuffs), medicinal, patrician (upper-class mixed use), cloister (meditation and mixed use), pleasure (flowering and ornamental plants, fruit trees, benches, fountain). [See Michaele’s paper for more on this.]

What is an herb? “The friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.” - Charlemagne

In the 9th Century, the emperor sent a list to the royal stewards instructing them to plant over 74 specific plants in his imperial gardens. These plants included flowers, herbs (medicinal, salad, potherbs, and dye herbs), pulse (beans), roots, fruit trees, and nut trees. Some of these are listed below:

Carrot: tended to be small, white, and not very long
Cress: common salad ingredient
Dandelion: salads, beverages
Elecampane: roots used for a sweetmeat; also for bronchitis
Fennel: bladder stones, fever, snake bites
Marshmallow root: cooked like a vegetable
Onion: tons of recipes, medicinally for sexual prowess, sharpen vision
Parsnip: commonly called "skirrets," often used with/for carrots
Sorrel: also common in salads

Agrimony: “It hath power to heal cuts.”
Basil: Used in potages, but thought to “dull the eyesight”
Betony: “It shields him against monstrous nocturnal visitors.”
Borage: Used in salads, porreys, soups; “destroys abscesses”
Costmary: A sweet herb used for strewing, but bitter tasting in beer!
Cuckoo-pint: “If a man have any swelling, take this herb and seethe it.”
Dittany of Crete: A bitter herb used to flavor egg dishes
Feverfew: “It is a virtue to comfort a man’s stomach.”
Foxglove: As today, used to help heart ailments
Mandrake: “A maker of love medicines.”
Mint: Treated dog bites & hiccups, removed scars if mixed with rose oil
Monkshood: Rat poisoning
Parsley: Used to treat weak stomachs
Purslane: Another salad herb
Rosemary: Asthma, “evil swellings,” cough, and “worms in the teeth”
Rue: Commonly used as a pesticide in gardens
Sage: A food ingredient and a food dye, but "makes the hair fall out."
Saunders: Commonly used to dye food red.
Soapwort: Contains saponins and thus used to wash clothing!
Tansy: A facial wash for ladies with poor skin
Vervain: “Good for them that have the stone.”

Columbine: Destroys pestilence and stops dogs from barking at bearer
Iris: Paint pigment, tooth powder, and treatment for convulsions
Lavender: Food ingredient, popular strewing herb; "preserves chastity"
Marigold: Food and clothing dye
Primrose: A favorite for salads and for treating gout
Rose: Medicinally for headaches; widely used to season food
Violets: Often candied or used to flavor food; also aromatic

Apple: Many recipes, overheated livers
Grape: Decaying gums and loose teeth
Oranges: MUCH sourer than modern ones, lots of recipes
Pear: Used in perry, good for weak stomachs
Pomegranate: Seeds and juice used in both food and dyes
Quince: Sweet desserts and preserves, treatment for diarrhea
Strawberry: Dessert and a treatment for throat ulcers

Tania Bayard,
Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of the Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997.
Margaret B. Freeman,
Herbs for the Mediaeval Household for Cooking, Healing, and Divers Uses, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1943.
John Gerard,
The Herball, or General Historie of Plants, London, 1633.

©1999 Chris Adler