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Herbs, history and myths

Certain herbs and other plants have been known to have useful properties - as seasonings or preservatives for food, medicines or simply a pleasurable odor - for thousands of years. Along with that ancient knowledge sometimes comes ancient myths.

Tombs uncovered in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) as old as 60,000 years held remains of medicinal herbs preserved with the humans buried there. Over 5,000 years ago, Ancient Egyptians had acquired an extensive catalog of plants (many of them herbs) that could be used as laxatives, relief for headaches and other ailments. Thyme was used as far back as 3,000 BC in Sumaria as an antiseptic.

Coriander - the leaves of which are used to produce cilantro- has been used for 3,000 years or more. Hebrews used it to flavor meals. Roman soldiers brought it on campaigns to the region to use as a meat preservative.

The Greek physician Hippocrates (460 BC – 377 BC) systematized much of what was known in his era and extended that knowledge. He used many herbs in his treatment of illness, believing that disease had natural causes contrary to many contemporaries who held that it was inflicted by gods. He used parsley to treat rheumatism and relieve kidney pain. Tarragon was used to treat toothaches.

Basil was a commonly used herb both in Greek and Roman culture. Chives were used by ancient Romans to relieve sore throats. But, oregano was said to be a favorite of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Myth lay alongside science.

During the Middle Ages, after a nearly thousand year lull, botanical knowledge again began to accumulate and expand. Much of the base of the medievals valid knowledge had been preserved and was now imported from Arabic cultures. Myths persisted, however. Dill was believed to have magical powers. Rosemary was thought to be able to ward off plague. Sage was used in an attempt to treat epilepsy.

Chinese and Indian herbalists in the east were busy all the while, accumulating their own storehouse of information about the helpful qualities of certain herbs. Ginseng is only one of the better known examples.

The Renaissance was, in essence, the rebirth of Greek-style science - observation and validation by experimentation. Though, the Greeks weren't entirely consistent in that approach. During the 16th and 17th centuries, knowledge of the beneficial effects of certain herbs grew by leaps and bounds. Nicholas Culpeper published an herbal compendium in 1652 that listed an extensive array of herbal remedies known in Great Britain.

Though science turned increasingly to artificial chemistry beginning in the 19th century, there is still today a thriving practice of attempting to analyze what is helpful in herbs. These compounds, found in their natural setting, often carry additional substances that are missing in purely synthesized products.

The modern and medieval ways with herbs

Growing and harvesting herbs has been carried out for thousands of years in all cultures around the world. But in medieval Europe it was raised to a high art. Devoid of medical knowledge and technology that was known even to the Greeks, the Middle Ages depended heavily on herbs for medicines. Their practice was a mixture of experience and nonsense, but they also knew much that was valid.

Whether used for medicine, seasoning or just quiet contemplation, the Medieval herb garden was a useful and lovely place. A modern sample of what it would have been like can readily be found in New York's Cloisters. Though constructed in the 1930s, it was designed and built to resemble its historical counterpart as closely as possible. The designers achieved their goal superlatively.

The Cloisters has several sections, with the herb garden prominently a part of the Bonnefont cloister. Over 250 species are grown there, and they thrive well even through New York's cold winters, hot and muggy summers, and the spotty rainy seasons of Fall and Spring.

It was based on many different sources and duplicates none exactly. The result is raised beds, wattle fences and a central well head that are common features of any historical herb garden archetype. Surrounded by orchards and many other plants, the herbs form the center piece of a garden any home practitioner must envy.

Many are contained in appropriate pots resembling those one might have found in the period. They allow the herbalists to bring the more fragile ones in for the winter, when New York temperatures can dip below zero Fahrenheit and snow is not uncommon.

The herbs grown during the Middle Ages would sometimes have been used for such useless purposes as attempting to ward off evil spirits. But, their descendants provide a much more practical purpose. Even when not used in cooking and curing, these fragrant plants with lovely flowers provide an oasis of peace in a sometimes frenetic city.

At the Cloisters they are arranged in nine sections, corresponding to groupings that were common in the period. The first contains Absinthe and Thistles, the second those used for medicinal purposes, such as St. John's Wort and Liquorice. The third houses aromatics like Lavender and Lemon Balm.

That mixture of valid knowledge and superstition remains with us to some degree today. The belief that herbal medicines can cure disease is a combination of verified observations and medieval hokum. The observations show that some herbs do work on some conditions, while the causes are largely invented myths and arbitrary speculation.