Thursday, July 09, 2015

"In an English Country Garden..."


It is usual when talking of Regency gardens to look at the gardens of the rich and powerful; the acres landscaped by Capability Brown, or the huge, formal parterres of the big houses. But most people did not live in big houses with extensive gardens. Many lived in near-poverty, and if they had any land at all they might use it to keep a pig, or grow vegetables – something useful. 

I was thinking of this while I was weeding my garden last weekend (NOT my favourite pastime) and I thought that if I lived in a cottage in the Regency with little money to spare but a few yards of earth front or back that I could cultivate, I might well grow herbs – they are so useful in cooking around the house and for medicinal purposes, too. (Just a word of warning, please do not to try using any of these herbs for medicinal purposes without doing your own research first and taking expert advice!)
I am not really a gardener, my efforts with seedlings are rarely successful, and my borders could never be said to provide a riot of colour – a minor disturbance, perhaps, and certainly not weed-free – but I do grow herbs in my garden.  We are fortunate enough to have areas that need very little attention, and in one of these, beside a stream, I have comfrey, or knit bone as it used to be called. I have never tried it, but apparently it can be made into a poultice and placed on sprains and fractures.  I have mentioned it in a couple of my books; in The Dangerous Lord Darrington, Beth says she has to gather comfrey leaves when she needs an excuse to get out of the house, and in Wicked Captain Wayward Wife, Eve uses an ointment she has made from comfrey to treat Nick's wound.

lady's mantle
Comfrey grows wild, so it causes me no problems when it comes to gardening. Another herb that is very easy to grow – and can be a nuisance as it is so rampant – is Lady's Mantle. It's Latin name of Alchemilla means "the magic herb". Originally it was used as a wound herb, but it is most generally connected with female ailments.  I have made tea from the leaves (and drunk it), but I wouldn't like to say whether it was beneficial – if I am honest, I prefer a nice cup of Earl Grey.

 Then of course there are the familiar herbs like sage, rosemary and thyme - and if I had any parsley then I would be quoting here from the folk song Scarborough Fair, but I planted the parsley in the garden last year and lost it in the winter. 
sage, with a sprig of rosemary peeping up behind!
The other three are planted in tubs, so if the weather is particularly bad I can carry the pots indoors to protect them from the artic weather. Folklore says these herbs can be used for medicinal purposes, too. Thyme makes a aromatic bath or a tea to help one sleep. Thyme is also used as a disinfectant, or for gargling. 

Sage, too, can be used as a gargle for sore throats (my daughter's singing teacher recommended it, but only to be used occasionally). Rosemary was used for washing the skin an infusion is meant to be a good as a rinse for dark hair. The oil is good for bruises and gout.

Another useful herb is bay. Originally from the Mediterranean,  our ancestors in the south of England might well have managed to grow it (I have a writer friend in London who has a flourishing bay tree in her garden)  but they do not like really cold winters so I also grow it in a pot – not shaped and elegant, as you can see, but it looks healthy.  This way I don't need to dry the leaves, but just pick one when I need it.


Another herb that I use in cooking but it not very well known is lovage. Originally it came to England with the Benedictine monks and does not grow wild here, but it seems to like my garden and perhaps that is because we have a lot of rain here. It has big, aromatic leaves and a lovely strong smell and flavour that reminds me of yeast extract. It dries well and can be used in soups, stews and casseroles and also fresh in salads and marinade.

There are so many other plants that could be included – marigolds, (not only do the petals look pretty in salads but an infusion is said to be good for soaking tired feet),  Elderflowers ( an excellent drink and also makes a good skin lotion), marjoram (in cooking and can be used as snuff).

The list goes on – the study of herbs and plants is fascinating, but some of these plants can be dangerous, so please,  just a reminder that if you want to use any of the plants I mention, do make sure that it is safe to do so. Our ancestors might have had to rely on herbal remedies, but sometimes they got it wrong!  I am very happy to read about useful plants and to put them in my book, I even use many of the herbs in my cooking, but if I have an ailment, I am much more likely to go to the chemist or the doctor than the garden.

foxglove - digitalis

And finally, one beautiful plant that has made an appearance in my garden this summer and I couldn't resist adding a picture. But this one is definitely to be approached with care and NOT used in food. It is the foxglove.  These elegant plants are growing in abundance on the banks and roadsides this year, and I am very happy to give them houseroom, but I will only be looking at them!

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What a beautifully fragrant post, Melinda/Sarah! I could almost smell the herbs. I had a much-loved aunt who had a delicious recipe for elderflower fritters. You dip fresh elderflowers in batter and them fry them for a few seconds in boiling oil. They smell - and taste - wonderful.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

I have that recipe too! I have never tried it, although we do have elderflowers growing wild around here. Maybe this year.....

Thanks for commenting, Elizabeth.