“The striped grass is still growing in one corner of my garden–the very same roots that were there in my childhood, and up to a year ago, the old lilac bush that Uncle Ed Larcom picked blossoms from when he was a small boy, was there too. Aunt Betsey’s garden was a beautiful combination of use and loveliness. All along the stone wall grew red-blossomed barm and in the long beds were hyssop (she called it isop) and rue and marigolds and catnip and chamomile and sage and sweet marjoram and martinoes. Martinoes were funny things with a beautiful ill-smelling bloom which looked like an orchid, and when the blossoms dropped there succeeded an odd shaped fruit, with spines and a long tail, which was used for pickles. Then there were king cups, a glorified buttercup, and a lovely little blue flower called “Star of Bethlehem” and four o’clocks.
All the different herbs were carefully gathered by Aunt Betsey, and tied in bundles and hung to the rafters of the old attic. Sometimes I fancy that I can smell them now on a damp day, and I like to recall the dear old lady in her tyer and cap, busy with her simples. I like to think of her as my tutelar divinity for I came to love her dearly, though I am sure that when I was first landed in her house, I was a big trial.”
This excerpt from, Old Days at Beverly Farms by Mary Larcom Dow, is about my 4th great-grandmother, Elisabeth “Betsey” Haskell Larcom (1788-1864), wife of David Larcom (1774-1840). This bit of insight into her life speaks to my heart. I like to think that her herbal wisdom has passed down to me through the generations, for I also use my own “simples” made from herbs. I also grow my own herbs in my garden such as sage, rosemary, basil, oregano, mint, dill, horsemint, and chives; however, the climate is much different here in Florida compared to Beverly, Massachusetts.
I wonder what kind of simples she made from the herbs she grew? Let’s examine some of the examples from the passage above.
Hyssop tea is an old-fashioned remedy for rheumatism, but has also been known to help with respiratory conditions such as influenza, sinus infections, colds and bronchitis. It is also a nervine, and can be used to calm anxiety. The herbs bitter principle, marrubin, also contributes to its use as a digestive stimulant. The plant is mentioned many times in the Bible, and is one of the bitter herbs to be taken over passover.
Rue – Ruta Graveolens
Rue, Herb of Grace, is an herb that was used for earaches, topically for joint pain or sciatica, and was also a helpful medicine for croupy coughs and colic. It has a tradition for improving eyesight. Leaves can be chewed in small amounts on rare occasions to ease headaches. This herb isn’t often used in modern times due to it’s toxicity and bitterness in taste. One of the oldest garden plants cultivated for medicinal use introduced in England by the Romans, much used by the Ancients – regarded from the earliest times as successful in warding off contagion and the attacks of fleas and other noxious insects – one of the ingredients of the famous ‘Vinegar of the Four Thieves’.
Marigold which are dried for broth, is said to comfort the heart and spirits. It is mentioned in Maison Rustique, or the Countrie Farme (1699) that Marigold is a specific remedy for headache, jaundice, red eyes, toothache and ague. Helpful with children’s ailments such as to help reduce a fever or help with sinus drainage, but also excellent topical aid for healing any cuts, scrapes or burns of the skin.
Catnip – Nepeta Cataria
Catnip is a well known nervine which aids sleep, but is also another good herb to use with children. It is helpful to bring down high fevers, settle stomach and soothe children when they are upset such as with colic. Helps with achey muscles and is added to soups and stews to aid digestion.
Chamomile – Matricaria Chamomilla
Chamomile tea is a mild sedative which improves sleep quality and relaxation. Excellent for easing pain, headache relief and calms hyper children. Also excellent for giving to colicky babies, or for helping with teething pain.
Sage infusion used as a gargle is supposed to help remedy a sore throat or affections of the mouth. Sage tea is considered a useful medicine for typhoid fever and beneficial in liver complaints, kidney troubles, for colds in the head as well as sore throat and quinsy and measles, for pains in the joints, lethargy and palsy. Also found to be good to relieve a nervous headache.
Sweet Marjoram – Origanum Marjorana
Historically, this herb was used to treat anxiety and insomnia. However, today it is mainly used medicinally by extracting the essential oils from the plant. The medicinal qualities of the oil extracted from Sweet Marjoram – Oleum majoranae – are similar to that of the Wild Marjoram. Fifteen ounces of the oil are yielded by 150 lb. of the fresh herb. On being kept, it assumes a solid form. It is used as an external application for sprains, bruises, etc., and also as an emmenagogue.
In all a wonderful selection of herbs! I can see that some of these herbs would be useful for bringing up children, especially catnip and chamomile for colic or teething or calming hyper activity. I can also see some useful remedies for all types of adult conditions as well: rheumatism and joint pain, headaches, anxiety, sleep aids, coughs and colds. Invaluable medicine during this era!