Herbs so well-healed

IAN COLLINS Planning a tiny new garden, along tasty and medicinal lines, Ian Collins has been touring herbal plots in the capital for some historic inspiration.

IAN COLLINS

At the minute I have a city balcony filled with bulbs and cuttings, a cottage garden planted with scaffolding and an allotment covered with weeds.

So in this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and rather too many pressing projects, I've been building up green plans for a brighter and better-constructed future. The plot, for the moment, is mostly imaginary.

I want to make a herb garden, probably in three small sites so that, this time next year, I will have far more than a few clumps of feverfew to ward off migraine, salad chives and handfuls of fresh mint to make the perfect tea.


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Given galloping climate change, hardy, drought-tolerant medicinal herbs first exploited around 2000BC in Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, India and China have a growing appeal. Plus, they give you a great deal from a small space.

Still, expanding grandly in my mind's eye, my tasteful, useful, healthy domain(s) will return me to the age of the first Elizabeth. I've been visiting and revisiting four sites in London for historic herbal inspiration.

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The Chelsea Physic Garden on Chelsea Embankment, and the Museum of Garden History at the gate of Lambeth Palace are evergreen attractions showcasing the green wisdom and folklore of centuries.

But lately I've made a great discovery beside the Museum of London, in the ruins of bastion number 13 from the Roman city wall of AD 300 and a bomb site from the Blitz.

The City of London has more than 200 areas of open space within its square mile, and one of the best (and smallest) is here beside the livery hall of the rather creepily-named Barber-Surgeons' Company… a Tudor amalgam suggesting an ancestor of Sweeney Todd.

Two dozen livery companies had city gardens at the end of Elizabeth I's reign, and this re-created herb garden provides a tiny but powerful echo - including 45 plants listed in the Herbal of the Barber-Surgeons' former master, John Gerard, in 1597.

Specimens to be found here fall into four main groups.

First are the plants related by Gerard to surgery, dentistry, wounds and burns - parsley, daisy, lady's mantle, self heal, spurge, St John's wort and comfrey.

Second are those used traditionally for pleasant smells, for strewing on domestic floors, for nosegays, against insects and for dyeing - box, camomile, apothecary's rose, sweet woodruff, cotton lavender, dyer's woodruff, meadowsweet (of which more anon), marjoram, lavender, hyssop and tansy.

Third are medicinal plants formerly in the official pharmacopoeia and now discarded - lily-of-the-valley, aconite, pulmonaria, rhubarb, veratrum and valerian.

And fourth are plants which are used directly in modern medicines or provided the origins for them - camellia, meadowsweet, mandrake, foxglove, liquorice, Madagascar periwinkle, feverfew, willow, meadow saffron, May apple, yew, henbane and opium poppy.

As we wander freely through this magical plot - consulting a free guide available alongside - it's thrilling to note that Madrake root used at the time of Christ to ease the agony of cautery, amputation and crucifixion contains the alkaloid hyoscine which, in its pure form, is still injected before anaesthesia and surgery.

While the Madagascar periwinkle won attention as a West Indian folk remedy for diabetes, the laboratory studies which disproved that theory also found that the plant contained vinca alkaloids which remain very important in chemotherapy for several types of cancer.

May apple, used by Maine's Penobscot tribe on skin growths, and latterly by western doctors to treat genital warts, has now prompted the semi-synthetic derivative etoposide - a first-class anti-cancer drug.

Even in herbal medicine, however, the cure can be more dangerous than the disease. Toxic monkshood is now applied only externally and by professionals, while aconite is avoided altogether.

But even if the dew that collected in the leaves of lady's mantle (alchemilla mollis) is no longer believed to have magical properties, the sight of it spilling over my garden path or balcony pots always cheers me up a treat.

Cycling to the Geffrye Museum - a 10-minute walk from Liverpool Street station in Kingsland Road - I found the glorious galleries showcasing domestic life in England between the reigns of Elizabeth I and Victoria closed for refurbishment until November 14.

But I enjoyed the 20th century galleries, and lunch in a superb café, before wandering in the herb garden which closes for the season at the end of October. In fact, I needed a second visit.

The Geffrye Museum garden is a mine of information - telling us that the word drug comes from the Anglo-Saxon driggen - meaning to dry, the simple process by which many herbs were turned into medicines.

I discover that dried angelica seeds used to be burned in sickrooms as disinfectant, and that rosemary had the same beneficial effect when simmered in water.

I find that soapwort has long been used for delicate, precious fabrics - being perfect for the silks formerly spun and embroidered in nearby Spitalfields.

While sweet cicely is no longer crushed into oak floors to give rooms the scent of myrrh (though I might yet revive that olde habit), the migraine-reducing value of feverfew is currently the subject of intensive medical research.

And let us here lie down, if not on the camomile lawn, to worship the great god of nature which gave a plant as miraculous as meadowsweet.

This popular strewing herb from Tudor times, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, was formerly known as spiraea. It's the plant from which salicylic acid was first made in 1835, leading to the introduction of the drug acetyl-salicylic acid in 1899.

Some of us reckon that the evolution of what became a universal little pill is up there in the pantheon of great inventions and discoveries, somewhere between the wheel and saki.

To give it its household name they took the “a” from acetyl and the “spir” from spiraea, then added the “in” as a common drug termination. All praise to aspirin.

Gerard said that meadowsweet was the best strewing herb “for the smell thereof makes the heart merrie”. And how true. For it led directly to a tiny tablet which can thin the blood, clear the head and stop a heart attack in its tracks.

Although my kitchen wouldn't be complete without a pot of basil, to add to any tomato dish and most salads, I find myself resolving to plant a lot more thyme in my herb garden of next spring.

As well as being aromatic and tasty, it is also an antiseptic. High thyme we paid more heed to old wives' tales.

t Chelsea Physic Garden is open Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, and the Museum of Garden History is open daily Sunday to Friday.

t The Geffrye Museum garden is open Tuesday to Sunday until October 31, and the herb garden at Barber-Surgeons' Hall never closes - access from London Wall beside the Museum of London.

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