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Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


Half a Hundred Herbs


  • The Gallus Herbs

    witch hazel against a brick wall. A slanting line of sunlight. rather weedy foreground.

    I have been out weeding this patch of the front garden before the rain gets here this afternoon. Although it looks better, I couldn’t say I’d made a meticulous job of it, but then my allegiance is divided. Because it is the front garden, overlooked from the sitting room, and faces directly onto the street, I really wanted it to look cared for and intentional, with scent and colour all the year round. But on the other hand, I can’t help wondering if a lot of what I’m taking out isn’t at least as interesting as what I’m leaving.

    a clump of snowdrops

    I will admit I can’t get too enthusiastic about hairy bittercress, which gets everywhere there’s an inch of bare soil, but some people eat it as a salad or a spring tonic. I could probably do without willowherb too, but buttercups? I do like them, in their proper place. And dandelions? They are very useful, for salads and to make into a salve for aching muscles, a dye herb, a coffee substitute, and pollinators love them. I like their brassy cheerfulness, their delicate seedheads and their folklore, but I have to admit there’s nothing makes a garden look neglected more quickly than a bunch of seeding dandelions. I’ll have to move them behind the shed or up against the back fence, or behind the greenhouse.

    The plants I’ve left aren’t much of a guide – the meadowsweet and ragged robin, the wood violet, foxgloves that hitch-hiked on the pot plants from my previous garden, the betony and woundwort, the field poppy that has seeded itself even in the gravel of the parking spaces, the dog rose I found behind the buddleia. If I keep them, shouldn’t I keep the stitchwort, the eyebright, the red clover? And as for the chickweed, if I pull it out I’ll need to forage for some to make soothing cream for my skin, but I really don’t think I can let it smother my pansies.

    The problem with the gallus herbs is that they are relentless and stubborn. They give no quarter to their neighbours, and they won’t stay where they are put. Invincible champions, in fact:

    Praise-Poem for Weeds
    I call on the gallus herbs,
    the wild herbs of verge and scrub,
    the loud and flashy herbs,
    the herbs with the souls of weeds,
    the unrelenting invaders who blow
    their seeds over the hills,
    send their roots rampaging
    through the ditches, between
    my lettuce and cabbage and kale.
    I’ll butter their feral paws,
    tame them in my pestle, they’ll guard me
    from elf-shot, the stitch, the sudden
    pain that sneaks between the light
    woven shield of my ribs.
    Feverfew, plantain, red dead nettle!
    Come, smother it all, you little witches,
    you ghosts of old gardeners,
    you tough, bristly, bitter
    invincible champions.

    (from The Well of the Moon)

    They can stay. Probably not in the front garden, but wherever I am, I am sure the gallus herbs will follow in my footprints.

    a pot of helleborus niger. Two terracotta pigeons stand in front of it

  • 50 Years Ago

    Robert MacFarlane was talking on Twitter this week about herbals, and asked if anyone had one or used one, so I said I had made one and then I thought it might be interesting to show you mine.

    three pages of a herbal
    my herbal

    I suppose it is fifty years ago, give or take, since I created my first herbal. You can see that There have been a few changes over that period – the smaller, faded and discoloured pages are the first ones – we didn’t have A5 paper in those days, and my handwriting has developed some since then. It isn’t in the original binder, either – that succumbed to hard wear several years ago, and I now have a very robust one from Staples.

    My drawing skills haven’t though! That little yellow picture of peppermint was cut from an original paper bag of Ricola cough candy – which I still buy – and the little picture of salad burnet on the bottom page was laboriously traced and coloured, but bears very little resemblace to the real thing. These days I rely on photos, which are quicker and give me much better results.

     herb bed with pinks, lavender violets roses and southernwood

    I’m still adding to it, as I learn more about the place plants have in our lives. I have used it to cook from, make medicinal teas, skin balms, pot pourris and more recently, to dye from.

    bottles of tarragon and chive flower vinegar, jar of mint sauce

    I used it for the Half a Hundred Herbs posts, the Haggards poems, and for the background for my translation of the Charm of Nine Herbs, and I’m using it now as material for the ‘inspired by herbs’ newsletters. That’s not bad, for fifty years!


  • A Welsh Herb Garden

    rosa gallica against a wall, overlooking a valley
    R Gallica

    At Ty Mawr, there is a herb garden, filled with herbs that would have been in common use in the local area in the sixteenth century. It was designed with the same loving care as the one at Kilmartin, which I visited and wrote about last year, but the dry weather left it looking a liitle more exposed.

    herb bed with low fence of hazel wattle
    raised bed

    This is not the pristine romantic herb garden of the coffee table books. Many of the plants are the kind that we pull out as weeds

    bed with plantain and yarrow
    medicinal herbs

    This bed contains medicinal herbs – plantain and yarrow, pulmonaria (lungwort) and chamomile, and this is tansy

    bed of tansy plants under an apple tree
    tansy

    which may have been used once as a spring green herb (this is NOT recommended) but is still used as a dyeplant, producing a range of clear yellows and dark sludgy greens.

    There were fruit trees and some currant bushes, and at one time there had been vegetables, but there isn’t the volunatry labour here to maintain those beds, so only the herbs, which take much less management, survive. Bt this garden was, I think, the high point of the holiday. I am delighted to see the care that is being taken to reclaim and preserve local herbal traditions.


  • July in the Territory of Rain

    The stock bed in my garden has hit its stride, and is full of colour and joy. I’ll be harvesting marigold flowers, poppy seeds, lemon verbena, mint and yarrow, and taking cuttings of anything I can manage over the next week.

    And in the woodland bit, which is usually quiet at this time of year, I found this – it’s a broad-leaved helleborine, supposed to be rare this far north, but surprisingly common on roadsides in the Central belt. I found it n the car park of our local retail estate three years ago. It seems quite a privilege to have it actually in our garden!

    There’s also this little patch of artistic calendula, from a packet of Sarah Raven seeds. It makes a good picture, and I think it will be just as effective as the old-fashioned kind, but I haven’t really warmed to them. From now on, I’m sticking to the traditional pot marigold, blazing like August on cloudy days.

    The garden is full of bees, and for the first time in three years, I’ve seen honey bees. All the birds in the garden have finally fledged, though I am paying the penalty, as I’ve lost all the redcurrants and strawberries. Across the river, I saw a brood of housemartins safely fledged but still lining up along a roof to be fed, without the usual harassment from the gulls.

    I have disappeared into an editing black hole, with one pamphlet done and an anthology and a full collection to go, but the manuscript of Haggards is finished, and I hope to be sending it away next week. And we are in the middle of work being done on the house, so nothing is in the right place, and I am looking at all the stuff and wondering how I managed to acquire it all and what I ever thought I would use it for. There’s going to be a cull of baking tins and kitchen gadgets at the very least!

     


  • Expressing the Earth – the Herbs

    When we visited the Kilmartin Museum, my first port of call was the lovely herb garden planted alongside the path. I had been struck by this last time I was there, because it seemed very different to a lot of recent constructions, which often come straight out of a picture book, without regard to climate or local tradition. This garden had a lot of local plants, mostly native, but not all – Highland herbalists were in touch with healing traditions all over the world, and were willing to import or try out new ideas. They were all well-grown and in good condition, and divided into beds according to their uses for healing, dyeing, cooking and fibre – including flax and nettle – and beautifully labelled and displayed.

    I had planned to talk about the herb garden in my presentation, and emailed the Museum so I could credit the designer, and it was with great trepidation that I discovered it had been designed by Patsy Dyer, who was coming to the conference in her other guise as storyteller!  Unfortunately we were scheduled against each other, so she couldn’t come to my presentation and I couldn’t go to hers, but it was lovely to meet her.

    I distributed copies of The Charm of Nine Herbs to everyone who came, and I was delighted to find how much interest there was in my subject. The gist of my talk was that pre-scientific herbalists didn’t necessarily operate by magic and guesswork, but by observation and experiment, adapting their practice to the locality and the climate, as well as the patient, but presenting their knowledge in a way that suited a culture without books. Dependence on a uniform set text radically changed not only herbal practice, but the way we thought about knowledge, and I added that having access to the internet, with a whole mass of data, observation and opinions, was teaching us to relearn  the one-time skills of verification and adaptation of information to our own particular needs.

    This went down a lot better than I thought it might! I had a lot of fascinating conversations about such things as the placebo effect, the herbal practice of a holistic approach to illness, the doctrine of signatures and the revival of old physic gardens. I’m going to try and put all  the things I said into some coherent form, and may add it to the Half a Hundred Herbs page.


  • The Charm of Nine Herbs – The Methods

    Mugwort, plantain which lives facing the sun, lambscress, burdock,chamomile, nettle, crab apple thyme and fennel

    • a salve for keeping thus: chop the leaves finely and mix with the apple pulp and a salve base.
    • a plaster or fomentation – make a paste of water and ash, and mix the fennel with oil and beaten egg. You can use a salve before and after.
    • Sing this charm three times over the herbs before you work them, and also over the apple. Sing it over the patient, (both mouth and ears) and over the wound each time you apply the salve.

    This part involves more than average guesswork, as the text seems more than a little garbled. You will note that it is prose and not poetry for what it’s worth, and also that this bit substitutes lambscress for houseleek. Perhaps this is a substitution the scribe made because houseleek was less available locally, but the word is ‘lombescyrse’, so this is not just a best guess. The word for crabapple is different too, ‘wudusuræppel’ rather than ‘wergulu’, so the prose addition may have been made in a different part of the country from the poetry. This may explain the Odin and Christian references too – we are looking at an amalgamated text.

    I am interested in the singing. In later monastic practice, time was measured in the length of time it takes to say prayers, and it may be that singing the charm was the same sort of thing. But in the light of the religious references, perhaps we can guess that to the Saxons, just as physical healing was also a redemptive act, and not just a metaphor for salvation, spiritual healing brought genuine comfort and strength, and was not just a placebo.


  • The Charm of Nine Herbs – the Indications

    Now these nine herbs * prevail against nine demons,

    against nine poisons * and nine epidemics,

    against the red plague * against the foul plague,

    against the white plague * against the blue plague,

    against the yellow plague * against the green plague,

    against the brown plague * against the lingering plague,

    against the harm of serpents * against the harm of water,

    against the harm of piercing * against the harm of scratching,

    against the harm of of cold * against the harm of of infection.

    Whether any ill comes * airborne from the east

    or anything comes * from the north

    or anything from the west * against the people,

    Christ is the remedy * like no other.

    I know a unique * flowing river

    and the nine serpents * may not come near it.

    All its plants * are medicinal,

    the waters are calm * both salt and fresh,

    and with them * I heal you from evil.

    I tried to identify the nine plagues by analogy and even looked up the four humours to see if there was any relevance, but without much success. It is hard to second-guess the short-hand other cultures may be using as a mnemonic. Alice Oswald had some interesting things to say about the use of colour in ancient texts – it was as much about emotional resonances and visual effects as about pigments, so that the Greek ‘wine-dark sea’ isn’t purple as much as swelling, and ‘grey’ isn’t that mix of black and white we know, but something reflective and shimmering ( I couldn’t help thinking of Tolkien’s elf-cloaks). So perhaps red isn’t simply like the rash of scarlet fever, but inflammation, and yellow isn’t simply jaundice – and so on.

    I’ve noticed the Odin references in other places, but this passage, just to even things out, contains a reference to the book of Ezechiel 47:12, which deals with the river flowing from a renewed Jerusalem. In Christian times, this was taken as a metaphor for baptism, but I don’t think our scribe was thinking of merely spiritual healing here. This is a medical text, as we’ll see next time when we reach the methods of using the herbs. We are looking at a world-view where religion is a practical, embodied science. I can’t imagine what Anglo-Saxons would think of ours!

     


  • The Charm of Nine Herbs 8 and 9 Thyme and Fennel

    Two for the price of one this time.

     

     

    Thyme and fennel, * all-powerful both
    The Lord wisely * shaped these herbs
    Holy in heaven * where he hung
    Established and sent them * into the seven kingdoms
    To heal the rich * and the poor alike
    They will stand against pain, * they will combat the plague
    Fight against three * and against thirty
    Against the devil * and the terror
    against the wiles * of evil creatures.

    There is some argument that the eighth herb should be chervil rather than thyme, but I am not convinced. Chervil is negligible medicinally, whereas thyme is seen as very powerful to this day. Fennel is used as a digestive herb, soothing cramps, and easing the liver. Historically it has always been associated especially with fish, counteracting the oiliness of salmon, and perhaps mellowing the tang of salted cod or herring. It was used against witchcraft, and said to improve eyesight.

    Thyme is still used as a decongestant – thymol is an ingredient of all those chest rubs for coughs and colds – and a disinfectant. Recent research suggested that it is even effective against MRSA and clostridium difficile, but I have not heard the outcome. Interestingly, however, I discovered that at one time it was used for stress, for nightmares, and against ‘phrensie and lethargy’ – an Elizabethan phrase, I imagine, for bipolar disorder.

    The rest of the charm consists of instructions for the administration of the herbs. These are pretty difficult, some of them magical incantations and/or Christian prayers, some of them practical. I will be posting them next week.

     

     

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  • The Charm of Nine Herbs 7 Crab apple

    I live in a village which keeps the last remnants of ancient monastic orchards, and we still have a lot of fruit trees. When I first came here, ‘plundering’  was a regular amusement for boys from across the river, and you would find dropped apples on the bridge wherever some irate gardener had chased them. In the last year or two, a local group has planted a community orchard, and it is nice to think we are continuing an old tradition.

    This is the plant * called crab apple

    A seal sent this * over the sea-waves

    for the healing * of alien infections.

    These nine prevail * against the nine plagues.

    A worm came creeping * a man slaughtered it.

    Then Woden took * nine herbs of wonder.

    He cut the adder * into nine pieces

    apple and illness * fought it out

    so that illness would never * abide in his house.

    Nine herbs for the nine plagues, and at last a bit of genuine magic and paganism. Two lines later, however, we are back into the Christian references. It all reminds me of the man in the saga who was a Christian but invoked Thor during thunderstorms and in times of stress.

    Too sour for munching from the tree, crab-apples have been used for cider and vinegar, and in jelly. The vinegar is often used as an anti-inflammatory, for the treatment of arthritis and gout, and a gargle with cider vinegar will often help a sore throat. Apples are also comforting to upset stomachs, strengthening the liver and digestion. They were often mixed with spices to add to the effect, and for a while their scent was believed to dispel infections.

     


  • The Charm of Nine Herbs – 6 Chamomile

    Remember now chamomile * what you made known

    what you ordained * at Alford

    That no-one should ever * lose his life because of infection

    if he had chamomile * with his food.

     

    I’ve struggled a bit with this one, as I can’t imagine cooking with chamomile, but chamomile tea is a great digestive herb, served afterwards as a tea, and has both anti-inflammatory and anti bacterial properties. I knew someone who said she cured an ulcer by drinking chamomile tea, too, so I can imagine it must have saved a few lives in those days.

    The official translation of the herb mægðe is mayweed, a common wild plant, but checking with the herbal dictionaries on line, I discovered that, although it is similar to the true chamomile, its chemical components are so much harsher that it has been designated as a poison.I am going with the Roman (true) chamomile, anthemis nobilis, which Grieve identifies as the Saxon ‘maythen’.

    The place name Alford is a bit of a puzzle too, though there is an apochryphal reference to the Decrees at Alford, alleged to be when Christ left his apostles significant teachings – including this. Pagans also claim that this is the lore of Woden; I am not sure that contemporary herbalists made much distinction between their sacred sources!

     



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