Herbal Myths and Lore

As I prepare to bring my herbs onto the sun porch for their winter rest, I started thinking about herbal myths and lore.

Rosemary is one of the herbs that I am able to over-winter successfully.  There is a saying that where rosemary flourishes, the woman is the true head of the household.  Don’t let the Spoiler know about this–I use the rosemary for cooking and it does thrive in the cooler temperatures of the sun porch.

In the Middle Ages, people thought that rosemary offered protection against evil spirits so people would sleep with sprigs of it under their pillows.

And Shakespeare immortalized it in Hamlet as the “herb of remembrance,” by having mad Ophelia strew it around.

Perhaps the effect of the rosemary is offset by the fact that I keep myrtle (myrtis communis) around as well–but in the house as it is truly tender.  I’m not really sure what it is useful for as an herb, but it smells nice, looks pretty and is supposed to ensure marital harmony.

There is a long history around parsley, another herb that comes into the sun porch and goes into my soups and stews and other winter cooking.  The Greeks and Romans revered it and made laurels and garlands of it.  But in the British Isles it has a much less august history–it is thought to be related to witchcraft.  In our modern era, it is reputed to be a breath freshener, and it contains Vitamin A, more vitamin C per volume than an orange,  several B vitamins, calcium and iron.  That’s a lot of punch from a little herb!

Thyme is another herb that comes in as well, as does sage.  It’s almost as if I’m trying to recreate the old Simon and Garfinkel song.  But I’m really just bringing in things I find useful for my cooking, especially winter cooking.

Thyme has a confused origin, owing to the fact that there are several varieties.  What is clear is that the herb has been in use since the ancient Greeks, who used it to fumigate their homes of stinging insects.  In the Middle Ages, little pillows were made to chase away everything from epilepsy to melancholy.  It was also used to flavor liquor and cheese.  Today, I use it mostly for stews and slow cooker recipes.  You may detect its subtle flavor in cough syrups, which shows how versatile an herb it really is.

Sage most often finds its way into my stuffing, but occasionally I will make a sauce for pasta with it a well.  It is a humble end for a herb that the ancients credited with immortality.  Its name, salvia, is latin for salvation.  Even our Native Americans used it as part of a mix of herbs for purification. Sage has been used in perfumes, soaps, cosmetics, insect repellents, as a brightener for silver hair,  in skin and bath lotions and aftershaves.  It dries beautifully and its flowers attract bees–another reason to have it in the garden.  It has even been smoked as a tobacco, again by our Native American friends.  This is an amazingly versatile herb, owing in part to the variety of forms in which it is found.

I have 3 varieties that come in–purpurrea, tricolor and ‘La Creama’, a variety of ‘Bergarrten.’

But that’s enough for today.  We’ll continue this on tomorrow.

My information for this post came from  Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, Rodale Press, 1987.

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