A monastery’s infirmary herb garden grew specialist plants that were used in medieval medicine to help the body heal itself. Here are nine plants that you’d find there which you can still grow in your own herb garden today.
Gardens dedicated to medicinal herbs alone were quite rare in medieval times, except in large institutions like monasteries, for example Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire (pictured), where there were lots of people to care for.
Medieval medicine was based on the notion of the body having four ‘humours’ related to the four elements:
- blood (air) was hot and moist
- phlegm (water) was cold and moist
- yellow bile (fire) was hot and dry
- black bile (earth) was cold and dry.
It was the physician’s job to work out how to restore the balance of a person’s humours if they became ill, and so plants and herbs were ascribed properties to redress the balance. A cooling herb would be used if you were considered to have too much blood or yellow bile, for example.
Here are nine plants to sow for a herb garden inspired by monastic infirmary gardens in the Middle Ages:
(We wouldn’t recommend brewing your own herbal remedies without plenty of research.)
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Sage (Salvia officinalis) – by Isaac Wedin via Flickr/Creative Commons
Sage, whose first botanical name comes from the Latin salveo, meaning “I am well” , was used by the Romans in medicine and cooking. As with some other herbs mentioned below, ‘officinalis’ is a reminder of its monastic medicinal use — the officina being the monastic storeroom where herbs and medicines were stored.
In the medieval period sage was described as being ‘fresh and green to cleanse the body of venom and pestilence’. It was also chewed to whiten teeth and used very frequently in cooking along with lots of onions and garlic. This means that sage and onion stuffing has a medieval pedigree!
Sage is best grown in well drained soil with full sun and can be grown either from seed, from cuttings or from plug plants.
Betony (Stachys officinalis)
Betony (Stachys officinalis) by Pryma – CC BY-SA 3.0
This was once an incredibly popular herb, and used for curing anything and everything you can think of – including a few extras like fear, ‘violent blood’, and ‘chilly need’.
Depending on the variety, betony grows between 25cm and 90cm tall.
Its flowers, generally purplish but sometimes white, appear between June and October. It’s long-lived and slow-growing and prefers dampish but not waterlogged areas.
Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea or wild clary is Salvia verbenaca)
Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) by H. Zell (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0
Another member of the salvia family, Clary Sage was also known as ‘clear eye’ and ‘Oculus Christi’ (Eye of Christ) as its main use was as an eyewash, made by infusing sweet scented leaves in water.
It’s a biennial with purple-blue flower spikes from late spring to mid-summer and attracts honey-bees and other pollinators.
Hyssop (Hysoppus officinalis)
Hyssop (Hysoppus officinalis) by Holger Casselmann (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0
In medieval herb gardens, hyssop was considered a hot purgative. Drunk in oil, wine or syrup, it was meant to warm away cold catarrhs and chest phlegm. It was also rubbed on bruises to soothe them and had purifying, astringent and stimulant uses.
It has spikes of blue, pink, or red flowers and prefers well drained soil.
Rue (Ruta graveolens)
Rue (Ruta graveolens) David Midgley via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
This was used as a strong purgative for plague and poison, and as a holy water sprinkler in exorcisms. Its medicinal properties have now largely been disproved, and its use in cures may be dangerous. Its smell is a repellent to Japanese beetles, dogs and cats and it attracts some species of butterfly.
You can recognise rue plants by their bushy, bluish-green, fernlike leaves ,and yellow flowers with wavy edges and green hearts. Rue can grow up to 90cm tall.
Best grown in well drained soil with full sun – rarely needs watering. Take care when handling the plant – its sap can be a strong irritant.
Chamomile or Camomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Chamomile by Karelj – own work / public domain
Chamomile is said to revive the sickly and drooping plants growing near it. It’s a very tough plant, sometimes grown in ‘chamomile lawns’ — which take a lot of work to establish. Since the daisy-like flowers are very small, lots of them are needed to be of use.
Once you have enough of them, chamomile flowers are good for making sedative and digestive infusions that also combat flatulence. Chamomile tea with dittany, scabious and pennyroyal was a preferred medieval remedy against poison.
This perennial herb grows best in cool conditions and prefers part-shade and dry soil.
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Dill (Anethum graveolens) by Carl Lewis via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
The word dill derives from the Anglo-Saxon dilla which means ‘to lull’. It was used as a kitchen herb for flavouring fish, pickles and pottages, as well as in the infirmary for cordials. Along with cumin and anise, its seeds were made into spice cakes to eat after rich meals or illness to help with digestion.
Its delicate fronds can reach 60-90cm in height.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) by Allium Herbal via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Infirmarers grew cumin to use its seeds in soothing ointments for the complexion and eyes, as well as for its culinary uses. Cumin was grown more widely than dill outside monastic gardens.
Peasant rents were sometimes paid in cumin, along with hens and eggs.
It’s native to the Mediterranean and requires a long hot summer, so isn’t the easiest plant to grow in the UK.
Comfrey – also known as Boneset (Symphytum officinale)
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) by Matt Lavin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Comfrey has a long history of use in medicine, and was grown in infirmary gardens for its power to heal wounds and inflammations and (as its nickname suggests) help to set broken bones.
Comfrey needs rich, moist, alkaline soil and generally prefers shady areas. It can grow up to 120cm tall and has long, hairy, deep-green leaves. Take care when handling the plant, which can irritate sensitive skins.