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Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


Half a Hundred Herbs


  • How Green is My Hilltop

    a clear plastic dehydrator tray with fresh alchemilla leaves ready for drying

    Everything greened up overnight. The alchemilla went from a tight nub of unfolding leaves to a whole clump of spreading leaf-fans and a fountain of emerging acid-yellow flowers. The thyme stretched five centimetres and put out purple buds. The broom bushes are fountains of gold and the hawthorns look like the last scene of Ghost Busters, with foamy cream coloured blossom sprayed everywhere.

    Last year the weather was so cold and damp for so long I bought a dehydrator, but even so, drying herbs for the winter was long and tedious, and I had to have three or even four sessions for some things. This year was a very different story. I harvested thyme, alchemilla and purple sage in great quantities, and stuck everything in at once. And ten hours later, I had a lot of good quality herbs, with no wastage. I am very impressed.

    The last few days of hot and sunny weather have done wonders for the seedlings. The tomatoes are in their final pots already, and and growing visibly. I’ve planted up some pots for the summer, with santolina and purple sage and lavender and bergamot, and I’ve planted out southernwood and mugwort into the garden. I had to clear a space for the mugwort in the magical border, which you might think has enough gallus herbs already, but I think it will cope. I am intrigued by this herb, as a great many people have been before me:

    First, you are called, oldest of herbs.
    You have the power · over three, over thirty.
    You have power over venom, · over airborne infection.
    You have power over the evil one · who wanders the world.

    Lacnunga

    Many people use it for magical purposes, to protect against evil, or to develop their feminine side, their sensitivity, or prophetic abilities. It is one of the large group of moon herbs, perhaps because of the silvery felted underside of its leaves, and Lucy Jones, the herbalist, says ‘If you find yourself travelling along (country) lanes by the light of the moon, you will notice that the silvery leaves of the Mugwort shine prominently…. if you have never noticed the appearance of Mugwort on a moonlit night, you have missed something special.’ In my garden it is just to the left of marshmallow, and in front of elecampane (also known as elf-wort), behind the ‘little wizard’ alchemilla, and not far from vervain and yarrow, so this is one powerful magical cocktail, if that’s your thing. I’m not sure if it’s mine, but I like the idea of the mugwort leaves at night, like Coleridge’s icicles, quietly shining to the quiet moon.

    As well as herbs, I’m growing flowers for drying, statice, safflower, teasel and for seed heads, quaking grass, poppies and nicandra, which has papery twisted seed cases of a dramatic inky blue. Most of them are in the front garden, in the pollinator patch, but poppy and teasel rogue seedlings turn up everywhere, along with the delightful surprise of heartsease, which hitched a ride in the flower pots I brought with me. There isn’t much colour in my garden yet, but it’s lush with green. I can’t get enough of it.

    a green border, with (left to right) fern, willow periwinkle lily of the valley, witch hazel shasta daisy,at the back, yellow flag iris meadowsweet, primroses, orpine, hyssop, dyer's greenweed and  roseroot in front


  • The Dominion of Mercury

    trees and shrubs, with a lower growing very leafy plant in the foreground. In the middle ground a tall plant with yellow shaggy daisy-like flowers

    This tall plant, towering over everything else, is elecampane growing in a herb garden somewhere along the Clyde. I do have some in my garden and it is indeed as wild and rampageous as this, at least two metres tall, and flowering madly through the late summer. When I first got to know this garden I was convinced it wanted me to plant elecampane, and because I thought I had enough space for it, I was glad to do it. It’s bright and cheerful, it has an ancient traditional place in herbal medicine, and it grows wild around here, in neglected spaces. It thrives here, to the point where I’ve had to thin it out already.

    Culpeper claims that this plant is under the dominion of Mercury, which is reponsible for herbs governing the mind, nerves, respiration and communication. This has been a promising wormhole to explore. I had thought that the astrology of herbs was a useful classification system before Linnaeus, and to some extent this is the case – complaints and areas of the body are atrributed to the various planets, and relevant herbs are assigned to them. There are common characteristics, too – moon herbs are often sappy, gentle and water-loving, whereas sun herbs are upright, warming and mostly have golden flowers. Saturn owns a lot of cold soporific and poisonous herbs, and Mars has stimulating ones with harsh tastes, and prickles and thorns. Mars has a lot of wound herbs and Venus helps with gynaecological issues. I know herbalists who can assign a herb to its planet and function by the taste or look of it and some categorisation must have helped.

    The interesting thing I found when I compiled my list, was how many of the plants which do unexpectedly well in this garden are under Mercury – lavender, santolina, southernwood, lily of the valley. The soil here is less acid than in my previous garden, and the climate is gentler, so I expected some difference, but I never looked at planets. Moon herbs and the herbs of Venus are doing well, and the sun herbs are not too bad, but herbs belonging to Saturn and Jupiter are struggling. I am not convinced that actual planetary influences are at work here, but when our ancestors drew up these categories, they weren’t working simply with superstition and magic. There are characteristics in common that I just don’t know enough to spot. I am looking forward to finding out more about soil, aspect, drainage and plant associations as the growing season goes on, and particularly what it was about the garden that convinced me elecampane was the right plant.

    a clump of miniature daffodils

    We have just reached this point in the garden, where the daffodils are out, the tulips are thinking about it, and the primroses and violets are blooming and colonising new space. The first trees are at bud burst and there’s an exciting green haze on the hedges. Most of the perennials are now showing new growth, and the greenhouse is full of hopeful seed trays. I’ve heard the first bees on sunny afternoons. There is an enormous magpie’s nest in one of the trees behind the house, and whole squadrons of them terrorise the other birds, lining up like storm troopers in an ambush on the roof-tops and shouting at everything that comes too close. There is a robin’s nest in the hawthorns growing over the burn, and the trees lining the footpath are full of sparrows and bluetits, blackbirds, wren and chaffinches. The ground is very wet and all the burns are running high, but the soil is not so saturated that anything has come to harm.

    I have made a new propagation area beside the greenhouse where the noonday sun will hit it, and I reckon I will have a lot of plants to share. (If you’re in Glasgow and would like some, please ask!) I took cuttings and saved seedlings as insurance against the cold and damp of winter, but I lost very few plants apart from purple sage, and when this year’s seeds come through I won’t know where to put everything. I’m going to have a nine herbs bed beside the apple tree (the nettle is going to be hidden behind the shed) and a scented garden below the damson. Culinary herbs will be closer to the house, and flowers for cutting and drying and pollinators will be in the front, where they will make a change from the conventional grass and bedding. Someone asked me if my garden was full of weeds, and frankly, yes it is – but also bees and butterflies. Mercury is a very unconventional planet – I’m not surprised this garden is too.

    a herb plot with fennel in full flower centre, southernwood to the left, a rose bush to the right


  • 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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