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Herb Gardens and Borders
Speak not—whisper not:
Here bloweth thyme and bergamot; ...
Dark-spiked rosemary and myrrh,
Lean-stalked, purple lavender....
WALTER DE LA MARE, The Sunken Garden
THE EARLY HOUSEWIVES of America, like their counterparts abroad, all lived in close affiliation with Nature, for tending their herb gardens must have promoted just such a relationship. As will be evident in the variety of recipes which follow, our grandmothers—and theirs—found countless ways in which to utilize herbs. The herb garden was an essential adjunct to the farmstead. One can imagine the delight with which these early homemakers set out their herb gardens, for they knew well three important uses to which these plants could be put—medicinal, culinary, and for their aromatic fragrance.
Those gardens which were carefully planned were most attractive. With relatively little effort an herb garden could be planted that would vie with any flower garden.
A number of writers on gardens and gardening had helpful suggestions as to planning. Hyll in 1577, Surflet in 1616, Lawson the following year, Blake in 1664, and Langley in 1728 all provided such information. Thomas Hyll in The Gardeners Labyrinth (1577) lists a great many herbs which should be grown, and says, "What rarer object can there be on earth, (the motions of the Celestial bodies except) than a beautiful and Odoriferous Garden plot Artificially composed.... But now to my Garden of Flowers and Sweet Hearbs and first the Rose.... Of all the flowers in the Garden, this is the chief for beauty and sweetness." Richard Surflet in his Maison Rustique (1600) suggests that "The Garden shall be divided into two equall parts. The one shall containe the hearbes and flowers used to make nosegaies and garlands..... .
The other part shall have all the sweet-smelling hearbes, whether they be such as beare no flowers, or if they beare any, yet they are not put in Nosegaies alone, but the whole hearbe with them.... and this may be called the Garden for hearbes of a good smell."
Lawson in his Country House-wifes Garden (1617) points out that "the number of formes, mazes and knots is so great and men are so diversely delighted, that I leave every House-wife to herselfe, especially seeing to set down many, had been but to fill much paper; yet lest I deprive her of all delight and direction, let her view these few choyse, new formes and note this generall, that all plots are square, and all are bordered about with Privet, Raisins, Feaberries, Roses, Thorns, Rosemary, Bee-flowers, Isop, Sage or suchlike."
Lawson explains why it is necessary to have two sorts of gardens. "Herbs are of two sorts, and therefore it is meet (they requiring divers manners of Husbandry) that we have two Gardens; a Garden for flowers, and a Kitchin garden; or a Summer garden: not that we mean so perfect a distinction, that we mean the Garden for flowers should or can be without herbs good for the Kitchin, or the Kitchin garden should want flowers, nor on the contrary; but for the most part they would be severed: first, because your Garden-flowers shall suffer some disgrace, if among them you intermingle Onions, Parsnips, etc." William Lawson adds, "Though your Garden for flowers doth in a sort peculiarly challenge to itself a perfect, and exquisite form to the eyes, yet you may not altogether neglect this, where your herbs for the pot do grow: And therefore some here make comely borders with the herbs aforesaid; the rather, because abundance of Roses and Lavender, yield much profit and comfort to the senses: Rosewater, Lavender, the one cordial (as also the Violets; burrage (borage) and Bugloss) the other reviving the spirits by the sense of smelling, both most durable for smell, both in flowers and water.
Stephen Blake in The Compleat Gardener's Practise, (1664), mentions a few patterns or designs for gardens but urges the gardener to create his own, "which probably may please your fancy better than mine." One of the designs which appeared in Blake's book was a favorite called "the Lover's Knot." Underneath it, he wrote:
Here I have made the true Lovers Knott
To try it in Mariage was never my Lott.
It is obvious from the writings of Batty Langley in his New Principles of Gardening, (1728), that he did not find attractive the formal designs of parterres and knots. "Since the pleasure of a Garden depends on the variety of its parts, 'tis therefore that we should well consider of their disposition to present new and delightful scenes at every step which regular Gardeners are incapable of doing. Nor is there anything more shocking than a stiff regular Garden; where, after we have seen one quarter thereof the same is repeated."
There are interesting listings of available and desirable herbs in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In 1577, Hyll lists angelica, anise, chamomile, clary, costmary, Dutchbox, elecampane, fennel, feverfew, hyssop, lovage, marjoram, mints, rosemary, rue, sage, savory, tansy, and thyme.
Richard Surflet in his Maison Rustique, (1600), includes among his herb listing: anise, balm, basil, chamomile, costmary, Good King Henry, horehound, hyssop, jasmin, lavender, marjoram, mints, mugwort, nepeta, pellitory, pennyroyal, rosemary, rue, sage, savory, southernwood, sweet balm, tansy, thyme, wild marjoram, and worm-wood.
William Lawson in The Country House-wife's Garden, (1617), notes bee-flowers (borage), clove-gilliflowers, cowslips, daisies, hyssop, lavender, lilies, pinks, rosemary, roses, sage, southernwood, and thyme, thus including also a number of herbs as well as " roses".
Four years prior to Lawson's publication, Markham in his English Husbandman suggests, "Germander, Issope, Pinke-gilly flowers, Time, but of all hearbes Germander is the most principallest best for this purpose."
Dr. Catherine Fennelly, editor of the Old Sturbridge Village Booklet Series, and Rudy Favretti in one of these booklets entitled, Early New England Gardens concur as to those herbs known to have been available in New England prior to 1800. Included in their listing are the following: anise, angelica, balm, sweet basil, borage, catmint, camomile, chervil, chicory, chives, clary (Salvia sclarea), coriander, costmary, dill, fennel, horehound, hyssop, marjoram, mustard, parsley, pennyroyal, pepper-grass, purslane, rosemary, rue, sage, winter savory, sorrel, tansy, thyme, teasel, watercress, woad, wormwood.
One would do well today to duplicate such an early New England garden or at least have an herb border or a delightfully scented "Lavender Walk." Guests will never cease to be charmed by the beauty of the soft mauve blossoms backed by the silver leaves and their beautiful spikes, as they exude their exquisite scent in an early fall evening—re—calling other evenings long ago!
John Winthrop did just that, when he recalled memories of old England as he remarked in his Journal, "And there came a smell off the Shore like the Smell of a Garden."
If one examines the early Plymouth records, assignment of mesesteadsand garden plots will be noted. Surflet refers to just such a delight, when he writes of the "Garden for hearbes of a good smell," in his MaisonRustique, (1600).
No one housewife was likely to grow all herbs known to exist in the early days. Her basic ones were probably mint, sage, parsley, thyme, and marjoram, for they were easy to grow and had so many culinary uses.
Curious folklore has come down through the ages regarding some herbs. For example, sage is supposed to grow well only where "the woman rules"—perhaps the supposed hen-pecked husband was consoled when he detected its flavour in the turkey stuffing. To transplant parsley meant bad luck, so this had to be grown from seed, planted very deep, "for it must visit the 'nether' regions three times to obtain permission to grow in the earth." Hyssop, said to "avert the Evil Eye," was also an attractive and aromatic herb to be included in the garden.
The mandrake, or May apple, was supposed to bring good fortune, if it were left untouched for three days, then soaked in warm water which was later sprinkled over the household and farm belongings. This practice was performed four times a year. In between dunking ceremonies, the dry herb was kept wrapped in a silk cloth among one's best possessions. The demand for mandrake became so great, that the basic herb began to be transformed commercially into various forms and figures. Someone thought of planting grass seed in the root's top to make hair for a mandrake's head. Despite the fake, man-made, mandrake figures, people continued to consider them good luck and went on purchasing them. Herbalists like William Turner were disgusted. In 1568, he wrote, "The rootes which are conterfited and made like little puppettes and mammettes, which come to be sold in England in boxes with heir, and such forme as a man hath, are nothying elles but folishe feined trifles, and not naturall. For they are so trymmed of crafty theves to mocke the poor people with all, and to rob them both of theyr wit and theyr money."
Gerard in 1597 shows his disgust, also, when he criticizes those "idle drones that have little or nothing to do but eate and drinke" and have dedicated "some of their time in carving the roots of Brionie forming them to the shape of men and women."
In 1710, Dr. Salmon adds, "Sometimes (tho not often) three of those Roots have been observed, which some by Transplanting have Occasionally cut off for humor or admiration sake, and to amuse Fools ..."
Gerarde wrote in his herbal (1597), "But this is to be reckoned among the old wives fables ... touching the gathering of Spleene-woort in the night, and other most vaine things, which are founde heere and there scattered in the old writers books from which most of the later writers do not abstaine, who many times fill up their pages with lies and frivolous toies, and by so doing do not a little deceive yoong students."
Despite all the folk lore and unavailability of all the herbs she may have wanted, nevertheless in those days when womenfolk lived very busy but often lonely lives, their herb gardens were a source of pleasant recreation as well as a supply of vital medicinal and culinary ingredients.
PICKING AND PRESERVING HERBS
The work done by the Shakers when they turned to the commercial production of herbs is similar to the labor of the housewife as she prepared herbs from her own garden. Dr. Edward D. Andrews in The Community Industries of the Shakers (1933) describes the processes performed by the Shaker sisters as, "cleaning roots, picking and 'picking over' flowers and plants, cutting sage, cleaning bottles, cutting and printing labels, papering powders and herbs, and 'dressing' or putting up extracts and ointments."
Sister Marcia Bullard, a Shaker, offers interesting insights concerning herbs as they were tended in the Civil War era.
We always had extensive poppy beds and early in the morning, before the sun had risen, the white-capped sisters could be seen stooping among the scarlet blossoms to slit those pods from which the petals had just fallen. Again after sundown they came out with little knives to scrape off the dried juice....
There were the herbs of many kinds. Lobelia, pennyroyal, spearmint, peppermint, catnip, wintergreen, thoroughwort, sarsaparilla and dandelion grew wild in the surrounding fields. When it was time to gather them an elderly brother would take a great wagonload of children, armed with tow sheets, to the pastures. Here they would pick the appointed herb—each one had its own day, that there might be no danger of mixing—and, when their sheets were full, drive solemnly home again.... We had big beds of sage, thorn apple, belladonna, marigolds and camomile, as well as of yellow dock, of which we raised great quantities to sell to the manufacturers of a well-known 'sarsaparilla.' ... In the herb shop the herbs were dried and then pressed into packages by machinery, labeled and sold outside. Lovage root we exported both plain and sugared and the wild flagroot we gathered and sugared too. On the whole there was no pleasanter work than that in the 'medical garden' and 'herb shop.'
Today, one can gain much helpful information relative to the growing of herbs from The Herb Society of America. One of their excellent publications is entitled, A Primer for Herb Growing. Herein, it is pointed out that most herbs used today originated from the shores of the Mediterranean "and eastward to India. In these lands it is hot and sunny. Therefore in order to be given a situation similar to their native habitat, herbs, with the exception of a few species, should be planted in a well drained, sunny place, where the soil is friable, and alkaline, in colloquial language, 'sweet.' "
In this same publication the Herb Society offers its suggestions as to "Harvesting and Drying." These will be cited so that one can compare modern instructions with those of the Shakers as described for the Civil War era, and those which follow gleaned from early times.
Where the leaves of the herb are the part to be used, they have the best flavor when harvested just before the flowers open. Most herbs should be harvested on a clear morning, when the leaves are no longer wet with dew. The flowers or leaves should be cut with sharp knife or scissors, leaving enough foliage for new growth. The leaves should be carefully washed and the excess water shaken off. They can be dried on wire or cheese cloth frames, or tied in bunches and hung up from a clothes line in an airy dark place like an attic. If too much sun comes into the room or attic, the bunches can be covered over with paper bags cut open at the bottom for sun fades the green of the leaves. The herbs on the screens should be dry within the week, the bunched herbs take longer. They should be labelled before drying. When thoroughly dry, the leaves should be stripped from the stems and placed in air tight containers and kept away from strong light.
One finds general agreement among the various instructions, except the early house-wife did not have available some of the more modern equipment. Whereas drying them "hung from a clothes line in an airy dark place like an attic" is suggested above, herbs were often suspended from the barn rafters, blossom end down, in the early days.
If one examines one of Miss Leslie's recipes which follows, it will be noted that she attempts to speed up the drying process by placing them in an oven, not so hot that they will scorch or burn.
Let us see what other directions were offered in the early "receipt books" and "directories" as to the picking and preserving of herbs.
DIRECTIONS ON HERBS: All herbs should be carefully kept from the air. Herb tea, to do any good, should be made very strong.
Herbs should be gathered while in blossom. If left till they have gone to seed, the strength goes into the seed. Those who have a little patch of ground, will do well to raise the most important herbs; and those who have not, will do well to get them in quantities from some friend in the country; for apothecaries make very great profit upon them....
Few people know how to keep the flavor of sweet-marjoram; ... It should be gathered in bud or blossom, and dried in a tin-kitchen at a moderate distance from the fire; when dry, it should be immediately rubbed, sifted, and corked up in a bottle carefully.
American Frugal Housewife, 1833
TO DRY HERBS: By drying herbs with artificial heat as quickly as possible, you preserve their scent and flavour much better than when they are dried slowly by exposing them to the sun and air; a process by which a large portion of their strength evaporates. All sorts of herbs are in the greatest perfection just before they begin to flower. Gather them on a dry day, and place them in an oven, which must not be hot enough to discolour, scorch, or burn them. When they are quite dry, take them out, and replace them with others. Pick the leaves from the stems, (which may be thrown away,) and put them into bottles or jars; cork them tightly, and keep them in a dry place. Those that are used in cookery should be kept in a kitchen closet.
MissLeslie's Complete Cookery, 1839
TO EXTRACT THE ESSENTIAL OIL OF FLOWERS: Take a quantity of fresh, fragrant leaves, both the stalk and flower leaves; cord very thin layers of cotton, and dip them in fine Florence oil; put alternate layers of the cotton and leaves in a glass jar, or large tumbler; sprinkle a very little fine salt on each layer of the flowers; cover the jar close, and place it in a window exposed to the sun. In two weeks a fragrant oil may be squeezed out of the cotton. Rose leaves, mignonette, and sweet scented clover, make nice perfumes.
The Improved Housewife or Book of Receipts, 1858
TO EXTRACT ESSENCES FROM FLOWERS: Procure a quantity of the petals of any flowers which have an agreeable fragrance; card thin layers of cotton, which dip into the finest Florence or Lucca oil; sprinkle a small quantity of fine salt on the flowers, and lay them, a layer of cotton, and a layer of flowers, until an earthen vessel or a wide-mouthed glass bottle is full. Tie the top close with a bladder, then lay the vessel in a south aspect to the heat of the sun, and in fifteen days, when uncovered, a fragrant oil may be squeezed away from the whole mass, little inferior (if that flower is made use of) to the dear and highly valued Otto or Odour of roses.
Family Receipt Book, 1819
TO KEEP PARSLEY FOR WINTER USE: Gather large, good sprigs, and if at all dusty, wash them; shake off the water dry as you can, and lay into a jar a handful of parsley and a handful of salt. When to be used, throw them into cold water to freshen and to remove the salt.
Young Housekeeper's Friend, 1846
TO PRESERVE AROMATIC AND OTHER HERBS: The boxes and drawers in which vegetable matters are kept, should not impart to them any smell or taste; and more certainly to avoid this, they should be lined with paper. Such as are volatile, of a delicate texture, or subject to suffer from insects, must be kept in well-covered glasses. Fruits and oily seeds, which are apt to become rancid, must be kept in a cool and dry, but by no means in a warm and mosit place.
Family Receipt Book, 1819
Excerpted from Early American Herb Recipes by Alice Cooke Brown. Copyright © 1994 John Hull Brown. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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