Herb gardens are familiar to many herbalists. However, herb gardens should also be understood by aromatherapists as many essential oils are derived from herbs. Herb gardens have been traditional for centuries and are enjoying a revival, of sorts, among homesteaders, and modern day plant folk. Here’s a quick look at aromatic and medicinal herb gardens for the aromatherapist.
Historic Use of the Word Herb
Although herbs have been used for many centuries, a plant which was commonly classed as an herb in the past may not be known as an herb today; suprisingly, flowers such as roses, irises, and peonies were previously known as herbs. In addition, carrots and onions were known as pot herbs in sixteenth century England and many aromatic plants were grown for household use.
Today, the term herb is more commonly used to describe plants such as dill, parsley, and coriander. The botanic description for herb, as defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary 10th Edition (1999: Oxford University Press, UK) is:
“any seed-bearing plant which does not have a woody stem and dies down to the ground after flowering”
or “any plant with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine or perfume.”
The Medicinal Herb Garden
The modern history of scented gardens shows that it was medieval cloister gardens of the monasteries which began a practice of growing herbs for medicinal, culinary, and aromatic purposes. Gardens were split into the physic (or medicinal herb) garden, and the kitchen herb garden. Well known English physic gardens today, which were amongst the first physic gardens to be established, are the Oxford Physic Garden (1621) and Chelsea Physic Garden (1673).
Physic gardens were designed with a number of raised garden beds, with cross-sections of paths; medicinal herbs included lavender, rosemary, sage, rue and mint. Many physic gardens of the Middle Ages were influenced by astrology until the theory of science became popular in the eighteenth century. Today, medicinal herb garden plants include chamomile, sage, fennel, mint, lemon balm, verbena and lime flowers; physic garden plants are often used to make herbal teas or digestive tisanes, a popular tool for herbalists.
The Aromatic Herb Garden
In the Middle Ages, herbs often had the dual purpose of being used for medicinal purposes and for fragrant aromas, used to disguise the many unpleasant smells of poor sanitization and personal hygiene. Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533 – 1603) used the herb meadowsweet on the palace floors; in the churches and houses of the wealthy, herbs of lavender, hyssop, chamomile, and sage were strewn on floors, releasing a fragrant aroma when walked upon.
Small posies of tussie-mussies were made from aromatic flowers and herbs, initially to combat against disease, but were later given as tokens of love by sweethearts. Aromatic flowers and herbs were often grown specifically for use in the still room, where perfumes, soaps, remedies, flower waters and cosmetics were made from the home-grown plants.
Today, an aromatic herb garden is combined with the medicinal herb garden of the past because many herbs are grown for their aroma and medicinal value (whether that be as an essential oil, hydrosol, tea, or infused oil).
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Lawless, Julia 2001 The Aromatherapy Garden London, UK: Kyle Cathie Ltd
Author is a 20 year veteran in the health care and aromatherapy industry, a UK-certified aromatherapist, published author in aromatherapy, an approved education provider for the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), an aromatherapy business owner, a consultant, and Chief Editor for the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal.