The virtues of flowers

Many years ago, in a used bookstore in Philadelphia, I bought a volume with the impressive title “The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes Gathered by John Gerarde of London Master in Chirurgerie,” that last word being an old-fashioned way of spelling “surgery.” It was a reprint from the 1960s of a book that John Gerard (last name misspelled on the cover of his own book; how annoying!) published in  1597. Written in quaint Elizabethan prose, it’s an absolute delight, full of plant lore and sketches and wonderful olden-days names for plants: “Go-to-Bed-at-Noon,” “Herb Impious,” “Ginny-Hen Flower,” “The Marvell of the World.” It’s sometimes hard to figure out what plant a particular section is devoted to, but you can, if you stick with it. “Marvell of the World,” for instance, is what we call Four O’Clocks, which display so much variation in color on flowers from the same plant: “For if the floures be gathered and reserved in severall papers, and compared with those floures that will spring and flourish the next day, you shall easily perceive that one is not like another in colour, though you shall compare one hundred which floure one day, and another hundred which you gather the next day. … ” Gerard’s descriptions are full of wonder at the plants then pouring into England from the New World, of which Four O’Clocks were one. There are descriptions of vegetables, too, including “Apples of Love,” which we know as tomatoes. Of these, Gerard has to say: “In Spaine and those hot Regions they use to eate the Apples prepared and boiled with pepper, salt, and oyle: but they yeeld very little nourishment to the body, and the same naught and corrupt.”

What’s most interesting about the book to me is the power Gerard assigns to plants. Nowadays, we occasionally remember that poppies yield opium, or that aspirin first came from will0w-bark. But in the pre-CVS-on-every-corner days, people made their medicines from what they had around them, and they took the power of plants very seriously. There are plants that Gerard cautions women from even stepping over or near in the garden, since, he says, they can induce miscarriage. Other plants have the power to make you well, or make you mad. Gerard gives many recipes for making “physicks” from plants; St. James his Wort, a.k.a. ragweed, is, he writes, “commended, and not without cause, to help old aches and paines in the armes, hips and legs, boiled in hogs grease to the forme of an ointment”; the juice of bittersweet is “good for those that have fallen from high places, and have been thereby bruised, or dry-beaten.” This advice is a reminder both of how willing our forebears were to try just about anything to alleviate their physical miseries, and of how much knowledge we willfully cast off when modern medicine triumphed over folk healing. I would very much like someday to try Gerard’s recipe for “conserve made of the floures of the Clove Gillofloure and sugar,” which, he says, “is exceedingly cordiall, and wonderfully above measure doth comfort the heart, being eaten now and then.”

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1 Comment

  1. November 30, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    […] it was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to treat menstrual woes. This is the plant that John Gerard cautioned pregnant women in his Herbal not to walk across in the garden, because it induces miscarriages. (He considerately went to the […]


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