The Classic Herb Garden

The Classic Herb Garden

by Gordon Thorburn


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Herbs have been used since ancient times both to flavor food and as natural medicines. In this easy-access guide, gardener Gordon Thorburn reveals different types of herb garden to suit your needs, from those that don’t need much attention (e.g. mint and rosemary don’t need much watering but basil and the beautiful Vietnamese coriander are very demanding), to classic herb gardens, culinary options and medicinal herb gardens. Whether you suffer from migraines, insomnia, coughs and colds or fatigue, there are herbs which can treat you without side effects. But some herbs can prove fatal and they’re not always sold as such, so discover which herbs are safe to use as herbal teas but not as salad leaves in this must-buy guide to creating the perfect herb garden for your needs. Each herb is listed with growing instructions and its culinary and medicinal uses, plus the color of its flowers and any must-know information from health warnings to nature-friendly herbs which attract butterflies and bees to help pollinate your garden.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781844680740
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Publication date: 06/19/2010
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Gordon Thorburn is the author of almost thirty books, including best-sellers Men and Sheds and Cassius: The True Story of a Courageous Police Dog. This comprehensive new title follows the success of Luck of a Lancaster, published to great acclaim in 2013 by Pen and Sword Aviation.

Read an Excerpt


In the Beginning

We know what the ancient, literate civilisations did with herbs. They very kindly wrote it all down for us. But people had been aware of the properties of certain plants long, long before writing was invented. We can only speculate about the first, specific uses of herbs by the earliest humans, but we can say that herbs, as food, medicine and special helpmeet, were so closely intertwined with human evolution and development that we could never have got where we are without them.

Even the word has progressed in a fairly straight line through all that time, always with a 'b'. The earliest written evidence is from around 1500 BC. In Sanskrit, the parent language of Greek and Latin (and many, many others), the root of our word 'herb' is bhar-, to nourish, which morphed into the Greek phorbê and the old Latin forbear, meaning grass. By the time of classical Latin, the word had become herba, with a broader meaning including green vegetation, springing growth of leaf, green crop, and herb as we think of it now.

After the Latin word came the old French erbe and so into English, still with a more embracing meaning than now. In medieval times, an ordinary garden might have fifty different plants cultivated in it called herbs, pronounced 'erbs' until the nineteenth century, which explains why the Americans say it that way. All of the fifty, or more, were considered either essential or very important to nourishment and wellbeing, rather than merely decorative or flavoursome.

Today we tend to define 'herb' more narrowly, as a plant that has a use but is not one of our main food plants. We would say marjoram and St John's wort were herbs, but not cabbage. Would we call ground elder, nettle and chickweed herbs? We should, and later in the book we shall, but in our modern era we don't actually need to grow, for ourselves, any of these useful-but-not-mainstream plants. Why is that? What has happened to our relationship with something so intertwined with our own process of civilisation and so vital to it?

Now we are used to doctors who have medicines that work. If we feel unwell, we go to our general practitioner in expectation of the correct, functional, safe and preferably instant remedy. If we cut a finger we go to the cupboard for the Dettol and the Elastoplast. If we have backache from hard work, we get our beloved to rub on some Ibuleve. If we have toothache we call the dentist, make an appointment and meanwhile take a painkiller, such as paracetamol or Teacher's Highland Cream. If we pick up athlete's foot from the squash club showers, we go to the chemist's and buy the latest super-powerful fungicidal powder.

Assuming we are in reasonably good shape, we might decide to cook something for supper. In the kitchen, if we then find something smells a bit off, we'll throw it away. Some of us throw perfectly good food away on the day it passes its best before date. We might even throw away a little jar of dried marjoram, and go and buy another. If there's a fly buzzing about, or a stale smell in the dining room, we get out the spray can.

None of these are matters of life and death. These, and a hundred other minor inconveniences, occur to everyone all the time and are put right by easily available, inexpensive means. Now, imagine a world where you had no recourse to any means, inexpensive or otherwise, beyond what you and your family could provide for yourselves.

Prodigality in the food department would never be tolerated, or even considered, in ordinary homes. If the meat was of doubtful freshness, a handful or two of the correct herbs in the pot would resolve the matter satisfactorily. Insects and smells were repelled and disguised by strewing fragrant plants about the place. You would have to make your own Ibuleve out of herbs and, probably, pig lard, and your own Elastoplast and your own Dettol. You would have to make your own diagnosis of your illness and treat it accordingly. Would you know how?

Well, if you lived in such a world and you didn't know how, you probably wouldn't last long, and such worlds are not far away historically. This writer was born in 1946, at the beginning of the age of antibiotics. Father had been brought up to believe in the powers of patent medicines: Carter's Little Liver Pills, Beecham's Powders, Beecham's Pills, Doctor J Collis Browne's Chlorodyne, Scott's Emulsion, Andrews Liver Salts, Fynnon Salt — remember Wilfred Pickles on the television, selling Fynnon Salt in that lugubrious, rumbling West Riding voice? 'Do you suffer from rheumatism, fibrositis or lumbago? Not much fun, is it.' The writer's maternal grandmother was born in 1888, a time when Jesse Boot, son of a poor Nottinghamshire farmworker who was also the village herbalist, was making his Lobelia Pills and starting on the road to a thousand branches of Boots the Chemist, which, almost a century and a half later, are once more selling herbal remedies.

Before Jesse Boot and his pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap approach to medicines, doctors and pharmacists served only the wealthy, not that doctors knew very much anyway, and the pharmacists' remedies were mostly based in the old herbal practices and/or quackery con tricks. So, although the poor had to shift for themselves with herbs and folklore, the rich were basically getting the same thing but paying lots of dosh for it.

Going back to medieval times, if a poor person could not help herself, she went to the hospital that was run by monks or nuns who were more knowledgeable than the surrounding peasants but still had nothing beyond their herb gardens for their drug supplies.

So, what did they grow, those herb gardeners of yore, and why? Those monks and nuns mostly relied on whoever had studied and practised before and had written the knowledge down. Books were very rare, all hand-written of course, and so whatever was in them tended to be granted respect. The accepted instructive authorities were the ancient Greeks and Romans, plus a very few, slightly more recent experts such as Charlemagne, AD 747 — 814, King of the Franks and creator of a vast Christian empire in Western Europe.

Charlemagne spent a lot of time travelling from stronghold to stronghold, securing his military might but also encouraging the arts and sciences. Maybe he was displeased with the standard of medical care he found in the various places, or perhaps he wanted to introduce his own healthy eating programme for the citizens, but somehow he found time to make a list of the plants that should be in every garden. 'Volumus quod in horto omnes herbas habeant, id est,' as he put it. 'We desire that, in a garden, they should have all these plants, thus.' In his own royal gardens it wasn't a question of 'should', and when it came to healthy eating, Charlemagne was a bit of a slacker. His favourite and regular dinner was a roast haunch of venison, served to him by the huntsmen who had caught the beast and not including, as far as we can tell, too many dishes of omnes herbas.

It's quite a list, usually counted as being of 90 herbs, food plants and fruit trees, but remember it was compiled by the emperor, a man who once had 4,500 Saxon captives put to the sword in one day at the massacre of Verden, to avenge a minor defeat at the battle of SÃ1/4ntelberg. Had it been a list made by the gardener, the man who had to do all the work, it might have been a great deal shorter.

The emperor's list is here given with a few notes on the more obscure (to us) of the recommended types. Because of uncertainties in translation of Charlemagne's medieval Latin, where his words have more than one possibility, both are given. Many of the same plants that we cultivate now would have been less developed in the ninth century but still recognisable to us. Celery, for instance, has the same Latin name for wild and cultivated strains, but you would find the wild so strongly flavoured as to be almost inedible, while the modern American green varieties taste almost of nothing. Charlemagne's would have been somewhere in between.

Imperial Frankish Seed and Plant Catalogue, circa AD 800, Carolus Maximus fecit

Alexanders, food plant, now only seen in the wild. Almond. Amaranth, medicinal herb highly regarded by the Greeks; we grow it for decoration as love-lies-bleeding. Angelica, medicinal as well as edible. Anise, seeds used as spice and medicine, normally needs a warmer climate than ours. Apple. Artemisia, that we call southernwood, used as a sleeping draught.

Baldmoney, also called autumn gentian and bear's wort; the roots made powerful and versatile medicine. Bay. Beans, the fava/broad type and the haricot. Beet, probably a leafy type similar to our chards. Burdock, food and medicine.

Cabbages, probably several sorts, more like kale or spring greens than our delicate varieties. Another listing in the tribe we now call brassicas, Ravacaulos is usually given as kohl rabi but this is surely most unlikely, as this is a vegetable commonly acknowledged as developed in Germany in the 1500s. Ravacaulos translates roughly as 'root cabbage' or 'root (cabbage) stalk'; in French, the words are turned as chou-rave, 'turnip cabbage'. While it might have been an early form of kohl rabi that then disappeared, more likely it is the much older vegetable, turnip-rooted chervil. Caper spurge, poisonous like all the spurges, seeds used as laxative. Caraway. Carrot, or more likely skirret. See pastinaca below. Catmint, medicinal. Celery. Centaury, probably the wild plant Centaurium minus, the common centaury; medicinal (and magical). Centaury was believed to put eager folk into the right mood for witchcraft when mixed with other readily available ingredients, such as the blood of a female lapwing. Charlemagne obviously thought highly of it too.

'A dram of the [dried centaury] powder taken in wine, is a wonderful good help against the biting and poison of an adder. The juice of the herb with a little honey put to it, is good to clear the eyes from dimness, mists and clouds that offend or hinder sight. It is singularly good both for green and fresh wounds, as also for old ulcers and sores, to close up the one and cleanse the other, and perfectly to cure them both, although they be hollow or fistulous; the green herb, especially, being bruised and laid thereto. The decoction thereof dropped into the ears, cleanses them from worms ... and takes away all freckles, spots, and marks in the skin, being washed with it.'

This is old Nick Culpeper; he also recommends it for period pains and dropsy.

Cherry, the sour and the sweet. Chervil. Chestnut. Chickpea. Chicory. Chives, probably a bulkier version than ours, more like a Welsh onion. Clary sage. Colocynth, also called bitter apple and bitter cucumber, a small, yellow, Turkish version of watermelon. The seeds are edible but the fruit is a violent purgative and pregnancy terminator, and it doesn't take much to overdose into fatally poisonous. Coriander. Costmary, like a mint-flavoured tansy, to which it is closely related; little grown these days although the flowers were used with lavender to perfume linen and in pot-pourri. Cucumber. Cumin. Dictamnus, a species of dittany native to Crete much revered medicinally. Dill. Dragantea, the dragon arum, a plant similar to our cuckoo pint, poisonous and therefore highly regarded as a purgative.

Culpeper: 'The common use [of hazelwort] is to take the juice of five or seven leaves in a little drink to cause vomiting; the roots have also the same virtue, though they do not operate forcibly. They are very effectual against the biting of serpents, and therefore are put into Mithridate and Venice treacle.'

The treacle in question was a honey- or molasses-based antidote to venomous bites compiled by apothecaries from scores of herbal extracts. Mithridate was an earlier version said to have been invented by King Mithridates of Pontus (part of modern Turkey on the Black Sea coast), which he used to take regularly as a defence against poisoners. After many years of his own medicine, Mithridates decided to kill himself. The problem was that he had become immune, and he couldn't find a poison that did the job.

Endive. Fennel. Fenugreek. Fig. Garlic. Gourd. Goutweed, also known as bishop's weed, herb Gerard, pigweed, medicinal against gout and sciatica, was also a food plant. Modern gardeners will be shocked that Charlemagne commended this plant to be grown on purpose. We know it most familiarly as ground elder. Hazel. Hazelwort, properly asarabacca, medicinal, found wild in northern uplands.

Heliotrope, slightly poisonous, no medicinal value so presumably grown for its fragrance. Houseleek, Sempervivum tectorum, in Latin the plant that lives for ever on roofs, had many medicinal uses but Charlemagne reputedly had its protective reputation in mind. Houses on which it grew were said to be proof against fire, thunderstorms and witchcraft. Juniper. Leek. Lettuces, several sorts. Charlemagne would have known the cos type and the curly, pick-as-you-go ones, plus the ancestor wild lettuce that produced a mild narcotic and sedative in its plentiful juice. Lilies, called by Charlemagne lilium and gladiolum. The latter in Latin is 'sword lily', probably meaning flag iris here. The lilies could have been both the white madonna and the red martagon types, with many medicinal uses, and the bulbs were cooked to make a sweet, soothing dish. Lovage.

Madder, plants for making dyes. Marsh mallow, the young leaves of which made a fine salad and the roots thereof a delicate dish fried in butter, and Tree mallow. Mallows had a reputation as health givers, curers of all ills, possibly because of their purgative effect. Medlar. Melon; Charlemagne's word pepones can also mean pumpkins, but as we already have gourds, it probably is melons.

Mints, mentastrum (wild mint) and menta (garden mint). Mulberry. Mustard, probably the one we call white mustard, which we sow traditionally with cress for a quick salad and which gives a milder condiment from its seeds.

Onion. Orach, or arrach, or mountain spinach, related to fat hen and good king Henry. Parsley. Pastinaca, usually translated as parsnip although in Latin it also meant carrot, the Romans having a root vegetable somewhere between the two. Pea, but not the garden pea we grow, which was developed in Renaissance Italy. This was the field pea, something like the one we call carlin, to be dried and long cooked, regarded as peasant or animal food. Peach. Pear.

Pennyroyal, the smallest and most aromatic of the mints, Mentha pulegium, was one of the most revered herbs in ancient times. Its virtues were such that warm ashes of the burnt plant could revive flies and bees that had previously been put to drown, which demonstration would have been enough to convince anyone of the integrity of the demonstrator. Quite how that works with the plant's fame as an insect repellent – the Romans called it puleium, fleabane – is not clear. Pine, the stone pine, is the one that gives us pine nuts. Plum. Poppy, surely not the red one with such limited use confined to its seeds in bread baking and oil making. Much more likely it was the white one, the opium poppy, source of the best natural sedative and painkiller known in ancient times – and modern times, come to that.

Quince. Radish. Rocket. Roman coriander, Nigella sativa, also called flower fennel, is neither coriander nor fennel but a buttercup. The seeds, now called black cumin and quatre épices, were the useful part, in the kitchen, called in Latin, would you believe, git.Roses. Rosemary. Rue.

Sage. Savory, not clear if winter or summer, or both. Service tree. Seseli, similar to cow parsley, also called moon carrot and stone parsley, from which we have the name sweet cicely. Shallot. Squill, the bulbs of which are dried and powdered and used for many medicinal purposes. Readers of a certain age may have taken it in the original formulation of Gee's Linctus. Like so many of these natural remedies, too much is poisonous.

Tansy. Teasel, used in cloth making. Thyme, in Charlemagne's list sisymbrium, sometimes given as water mint but much more likely to be thyme, which is not mentioned otherwise and was a plant sacred to Venus, as was that called sisymbrium by the Romans. Walnut. Watercress.


Excerpted from "The Classic Herb Garden"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Gordon Thorburn.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Further Reading,
Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Chapter One - In the Beginning,
Chapter Two - Perennial Herbs,
Chapter Three - Herbs from Seeds,
Chapter Four - Your Herb Garden,
Chapter Five - Can You Eat It?,
Chapter Six - Herbs for Health,
Chapter Seven - Food for Bees and People,

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The Classic Herb Garden 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 10 months ago
Entertaining and informative. A keeper to be referred to again and again.