Explore By Plant
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- Bear's breeches - Acanthus sp.
- (Acanthaceae) This famous plant's foliage was used by the ancients as a motif for the Corinthian capitals. Native to the Mediterranean and Africa it is now found throughout the world, often growing as a 'weed.' Its fruit explodes scattering the seeds, while the anthers in its flower form a box where visiting pollinators are showered by pollen.
- Asparagus - Asparagus officinalis
- (Liliaceae) Asparagus is found growing wild as well as cultivated in many areas of the world. It has been used as a choice vegetable since Greek and Roman times. It has been in cultivation for eons for its young shoots which arise from rhizomes. As the shoots age they become feathery green stems with small whitish flowers. Red berries follow.
- As its specific name officinalis (or 'sold in shops; used in medicine') implies, it has long been grown for its therapeutic uses as well. Leonhart Fuchs, physician and a founding father of botany, quotes ancient authors such as Dioscorides, Galen, and Pliny as to its uses.(1) Ortus Sanitatis (1491) lists it as a curative for toothache and upset stomach.(2) Gerard states, 'The bare naked tender shoots of Sperage spring up in Aprill, at what time they are eaten in salads; they floure in June and July; the fruit is ripe in September. The first sprouts or naked tender shoots hereof be oftentimes sodden in flesh broth and eaten, or boyled in faire water, and seasoned with oyle, vinegar, salt, and pepper, they are served at mens tables for a salad; they are pleasant to the taste, easily concocted, and gently loose the belly.'
(1) Fuchs – De Historia Stirpium
(2) Ortus Sanitatus
(3) Gerard, John. The Herball. Enlarged and revised by T. Johnson. London: A. Islip, J. Norton and R. Whitakers. 1633. Andersen Horticultural Library. p 1112.
- Banana - Musa sp.
- (Musaceae) One might question whether early illustrations of banana are correct. Many picture Adam and Eve standing next to the fruited tree. Most authorities do believe these were bananas, whether botanically correct or not. In earlier times bananas and sometimes figs were believed to have been the temptation fruit in Eden, not apples.
- Bananas are one of the most important food plants of the world. A good source of carbohydrates and potassium, they are included in herbals because they were believed to be somewhat laxative and have antibiotic properties. The many illustrations of bananas by Ehret in the 1700's testify to the excitement of Europeans on viewing these exotic plants.
Modern-day bananas are found in fruiting bunches weighing as much as 150 pounds. They are shipped green and carefully ripened after reaching their destinations.
- Borage - Borago officinalis
- (Boraginaceae) The hairy leaves of this commonly grown herb are often cut finely and served in salads. The herbalists believed it elevated mood, as Gerard states, 'The leaves and floures of Borrage put into wine make men and women glad and merry, driving away all sadness, dulnesse, and melancholy.' (1) The purple flowers are very ornamental.
(1) Gerard, John. The Herball. Enlarged and revised by T. Johnson. London: A. Islip, J. Norton and R. Whitakers. 1633. Andersen Horticultural Library.
- Chestnut - Castanea sativa
- (Fagaceae) The chestnut tree, occurring naturally from southern Europe to the Caucusus, reaches a majestic size when mature. Mrs. Grieve in her A Modern Herbal terms it 'the most magnificent tree which reaches perfection in Europe.' (1)
- The leaves are glossy green, toothed and usually turn a golden yellow in the fall. The flowers are catkins, followed by nuts which hang in clusters, each nut surrounded by a bur-like covering.
In 16th century Europe Fuchs described the chestnut's varied properties: 'Chestnuts cause headache, produce flatulence and are difficult to digest. However, roasted, they are less harmful than raw. Dried, they lose much of their harmfulness. Crushed with honey and salt, they are applied to mad dog bites…' (2) Today we enjoy them roasted during fall and winter holiday times, or on the streets of New York City and Europe.
(1) Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees, with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. London: Jonathan Cape, originally published 1931. 1974. p 193.
(2) Meyer, Frederick G., Emily Emmart Trueblood and John L. Heller. The Great Herbal of Leonhart Fuchs: De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, 1542 (Notable commentaries on the history of plants). 2 vols. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 1999. vol 1. p 414.
- Colt's-foot - Tussilago farfara
- (Asteraceae) The genus name Tussilago derives from the Latin word for cough, tussis. It has been used for hundreds of years as a cough remedy and includes 'coughwort' among its many common names. Coltsfoot in Grieve's Herball (1) is mainly used as a cough remedy, but is also used to relieve asthma, colds and bronchitis.
- 'Tusilago or Fole-foot hath many white and long creeping roots, somewhat fat; from which rise up naked stalkes (in the beginning of March and Aprill) about a spanne long, bearing at the top yellow floures, which change into down, and are caried away with the winde: when the stalke and seed is perished, there appeare springing out of the earth many broad leaves, green above, and next the ground of a white hoarie or grayish colour, fashioned like an horse foot; for which cause it was called Fole-foot, and Horse-hoofe: seldome or never shall you find leaves and floures at once…' (2) So Gerard describes the wild plant now found over much of the globe. The brilliant yellow flowers are a welcome sight, blooming along roadsides and in waste places very early in the spring.
(1) Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees, with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. London: Jonathan Cape, originally published 1931. 1974.
(2) Gerard, John. The Herball. Enlarged and revised by T. Johnson. London: A. Islip, J. Norton and R. Whitakers. 1633. Andersen Horticultural Library. pp. 811-12.
- Corn - Zea mays
- (Poaceae) Corn, also known as maize, originated in Central and South America. For thousands of years it was revered by indigenous populations, including the Incas who brewed a potent maize beer. It was an important food and medicinal source, and central to the culture and religion of several ancient peoples. Corn was first brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus in the late fifteenth century. From there it spread to Africa and Asia via Portuguese traders. It was quickly adopted as a feed crop for livestock, but had mixed reception throughout Europe as a food for human consumption.
- Cotton - Gossypium sp.
- (Malvaceae) The seeds of this plant are covered with longish hairs which is what we refer to as cotton. The seeds contain an oil (cottonseed oil), while the crushed seeds are made into livestock feed. Many different species and varieties are cultivated. It is noted that one acre of this important economic plant can provide 300 pounds of cotton.
- Date Palm - Phoenix dactylifera
- (Arecaceae) Dates are an important food plant in North Africa, the Middle East and Western Asia and have been cultivated there since at least 4,000 BC and possibly in western India as long as 8,000 years ago.
- Because of their low moisture and high sugar content they keep well for long periods. They are very nutritious and can be used in a variety of ways, including in soups, sauces, jams, curries and desserts. (1) Arabs say there are as many uses for dates as there are days in a year.
The date palm grows more than 75 feet tall and is topped with a crown of many very long (up to 20-plus feet) feather-shaped leaves. The date fruits hand in clusters of reddish-brown finger-like (hence the Latin 'dactylifera') fruit. "Phoenix" has a complicated etymology, and is Greek for the date palm, for the color red-purple (the color of the fruit), as well as for Phoenicians, the fire-bird, and others. Some say the Phoenix palm is named after the phoenix, or fire-bird, because it is often the only thing growing in the hot desert.
Ancients in the Middle East used dates for everything from an aphrodisiac to a contraceptive and to cure a wide range of diseases including cancer, malaria and toothache. In medieval days, the date palm was thought to cure fevers and to repel mice and fleas. Renowned ethnobotanist, Dr. James Duke, notes dozens of uses for the plant, both medicinal and other. (2)
(1) Van Wyk, Ben-Erik. Food plants of the world: An illustrated guide. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press. p 291. 2005.
(2) Purdue web site: Phoenix dactylifera L. Source: James A. Duke. Handbook of energy crops. unpublished. 1983.http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Phoenix_dactylifera.html
- Dill - Anethum graveolens
- (Apiaceae) A hardy annual whose seed and foliage are used as a culinary herb. Growing usually 2 ½ feet tall, it is a common feature in many vegetable gardens. Herbalists listed many medicinal uses for this ancient plant.
- Garlic - Allium sativum
- (Liliaceae) Garlic is unknown in the wild, but is widely cultivated in southern Europe and elsewhere and probably derived from wild progenitors in central Asia. Although in our day its best-known use is for cooking, the early Romans and Greeks also used it as a treatment for worms or as a diuretic. In the Middle Ages it was used to treat deafness and leprosy. In the 19th century Louis Pasteur emphasized its antibacterial properties. While folklore holds that garlic is a vampire repellent, organic gardeners today use it to repel insects and other pests. It remains a popular herbal remedy for a large number of conditions.
- The bulb (the only part ingested) consists of numerous bulblets, known commonly as ‘cloves.' The flowers are found at the end of a stalk rising directly from the bulb and form a whitish umbel.
Gerard in his Herball states, '[Garlic] is an enemie to all cold pysons, and to the bitings of venomous beasts…It yeeldeth to the body no nourishment at all, it ingendreth naughty and sharpe bloud…It taketh away the rughnesse of the throat, it helpeth an old cough…It killeth wormes in the belly…'(1)
In The Great Herbal of Leonhart Fuchs, the authors note several 16th century common names, including gardin garleke, garlick, garten or heymisch knoblouch, tam loock, ail de iardin, aglio de gli horti, and ajo. (2)
(1) Gerard, John. The Herball. Enlarged and revised by T. Johnson. London: A. Islip, J. Norton and R. Whitakers. 1633. Andersen Horticultural Library. pp 177-78.
(2) Meyer, Frederick G., Emily Emmart Trueblood and John L. Heller. The Great Herbal of Leonhart Fuchs: De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, 1542 (Notable commentaries on the history of plants). 2 vols. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 1999. vol 1. p 534.
- Grape - Vitis vinifera
- (Vitaceae) Commonly grown fruiting vines cultivated since antiquity. Forms of Vitis vinifera are most usually grown for wine production. North American Vitis species saved European wine production, as they are resistant to the insect, Phylloxera. Long-lived, some vines in Burgundy are reported to be over 400 years old.
- Hops - Humulus lupulus
- (Cannabaceae) Wild hops were used in brewing at least 3,000 years ago, but they were first cultivated in the 8th century in central Europe. (1) Their cultivation spread from there to the rest of the world. In England, hops were considered dangerous plants and banned until about 1600. They are in the same plant family, Cannabaceae, as marijuana.
- A perennial vine, its stems grow to great lengths (up to 30 feet) and are tough and often prickly. The leaves are deeply lobed and toothed. Male and female flowers grow on separate plants, but in order to prevent pollination only female plants are grown, propagated by cuttings. Hop fruits are actually the dried female flower clusters, known botanically as strobiles and resembling cones.
The aroma and bitterness of hops contribute to the brewing of beer. It was used as a diuretic or sedative by the early herbalists and is said to improve digestion. Fuchs states, 'It draws out both forms of bile; it checks abscesses; it draws out phlegm…' (2)
(1) Van Wyk, Ben-Erik. Food plants of the world: An illustrated guide. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press. 2005. p. 211.
(2) Meyer, Frederick G., Emily Emmart Trueblood and John L. Heller. The Great Herbal of Leonhart Fuchs: De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, 1542 (Notable commentaries on the history of plants). 2 vols. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 1999. vol 1. p 348.
- Iris - Iris sp.
- (Iridaceae) There are over 300 species of iris found native all over the world, many of which have been inspirations to botanical artists. They grow from bulbous or rhizomatous roots, with sword-like leaves of various widths. Flowers are very showy and the plants hybridize easily, making for the enormous popularity of the iris.
- Named by ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus for the goddess of the rainbow (because of its wide range of flower color), the iris has long been reputed to contain many medicinal properties: diuretic; opening of stoppages of the spleen, liver kidneys and bladder; for dropsy, ulcers, spots on the skin, palsy and gonorrhea. In iconographic paintings it refers to the piercing sorrows of the Virgin Mary during Jesus' ordeal, and also as a symbol of the Immaculate Conception.
The iris was known to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians and held onto its popularity after the fall of these civilizations, being widely cultivated in monastery gardens and used by Arabian physicians. (1) To give an indication of this plant's popularity, 16th century common names for Iris germanica abounded, not only in English (flour de Lyce, flour de Luce, flower de-luce), but in French (iris flambe, glaieul, iride d'allemagna), German (blaw gilgen, blaw Schwertel, Veielwurtz, gemein blaw Gilgen), Dutch (lis over zee), and Spanish (lirio cardeno). (2)
(1) Knapp, Sandra. Plant discoveries: A Botanist's voyage through plant exploration. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books. 2003. p 266.
(2) Meyer, Frederick G., Emily Emmart Trueblood and John L. Heller. The Great Herbal of Leonhart Fuchs: De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, 1542 (Notable commentaries on the history of plants). 2 vols. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 1999. vol 1. p 395.
- Lady's mantle - Alchemilla sp.
- (Rosaceae) Members of the rose family, the species of this plant are often confused, botanically. The flower has a basal style ovary with no petals. Often, the flowers, stem and foliage are green throughout. The leaves collect dew giving the plant a shimmering aspect in the garden. Its common name was accepted by Linnaeus and refers to the Virgin Mary, hence it is lady's mantle not ladies' mantle.
- Lily - Lilium sp.
- (Liliaceae) The genus Lilium includes a large number of herbaceous plants with scaly bulbs, leafy stems, and showy flowers. Medicinally, herbalists believed lilies were remedies for burns, swellings, and cuts, effective as diuretics, and much more. Plant Information Online, a University of Minnesota Library System resource, lists over 850 varieties grown in North America.
- Lily of the valley - Convallaria majalis
- (Liliaceae) Lily-of-the-valley has been used medicinally since antiquity. Water distilled from the flowers was known as aqua aurea, or Golden Water, and was believed to cure a number of ills, from failing memory to gout. Distilling the flowers in wine was believed to yield a remedy for lost speech, a relief of palsy and comfort for the heart. Even today lily-of-the-valley is used as an herbal remedy for cardiac problems; its therapeutic effects are similar to those of digitalis.
Convallaria majalis has a number of other common names, including May Lily, Ladder-to-Heaven, and Our Lady's Tears, a reference to Christian lore depicting tears of the Virgin Mary turning into these fragrant plants at the foot of the cross.
- Mandrake - Mandragora officinarum
- (Solanaceae) No other plant has been the cause of greater modern amusement than that of the early herbalists' belief in the remarkable attributes of mandrake. It was considered both powerful and dangerous. It was thought to heal wounds, ease pain, induce sleep, and even lead one to love. It was the precursor to ether in its use as an anesthetic.
- The extreme danger of the plant was described by the ancient author, Apuleius Platonicus, in discussing how best to harvest it. Because the shrieks of the plant were believed to kill the harvester, the plant was tied by a cord to a dog's neck, who was then tempted with meat until the mandrake root was loosened from the ground. The dog would probably die, but the human would be spared. The root was formed into human aspect, with well-defined feet, hands and body – in both male and female forms ('womandrake' perhaps?).
Fuchs (1542) provides lengthy lists of uses as given by Dioscorides, Galen and Pliny. 'The mandrake affords us with a good example of the diversity that existed among the ancient writers in recommending plants as medicaments. Dioscorides, for example, would use it for insomnia, pain, melancholia (black bile), phlegm, eye medication, softening pessaries, menses, childbirth, rectal suppositories, softening ivory, eye inflammation, abscesses, goiter, tubercles, birthmark removal, erysipelas, snakebite, making wine, and purging the uterus. Galen recommends it only for sleep. Pliny recommends it for sleep, snakebite, pain, goiter, abscesses, ulcers, and healing wounds.'
(1) Meyer, Frederick G., Emily Emmart Trueblood and John L. Heller. The Great Herbal of Leonhart Fuchs: De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, 1542 (Notable commentaries on the history of plants). 2 vols. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 1999. vol 1. p 611.
- Mint - Mentha sp.
- (Lamiaceae) Mint species have long been used to flavor medicines, especially cough syrups, as well as toothpaste, candy and sauces. Peppermint tea is often used to ease digestive ailments. The menthol derived from some mint species (although not spearmint) produces a cooling sensation in the mouth. According to the English herbalist John Gerard, Pliny noted that 'the smell of Mint doth stir up the minde and the taste to a greedy desire of meate.'
- Oak - Quercus sp.
- (Fagaceae)For millennia oaks have been used for shade and for the strength and beauty of their wood. Many parts of the oak, from bark powder to acorns, have traditionally been used for medicinal purposes and as food for man and animals.
Oaks have a long association with power and royalty. Royal Oak Day is still celebrated in England on May 29, commemorating a particular oak tree in Shropshire famous for providing a narrow escape for young King Charles II in 1651.
- Pasqueflower - Pulsatilla sp.
- (Ranunculaceae) Sometimes referred to as Anemone pulsatilla, the common name of this plant – pasqueflower – reflects that it blooms around Easter-time (Passover). The whole plant is insulated with fine silky hairs. The showy flowers, finely-cut leaves, and feathery seed heads make it easily recognizable and a popular garden plant. Known to Chinese physicians for millennia and noted in many herbals as a treatment for various ailments, it is no longer considered safe.
- Peony - Paeonia sp.
- (Paeoniaceae) Supposedly named after Paeos, a physician who used this plant to cure Pluto and other gods of wounds suffered during the Trojan War. Native through Eurasia and northwestern North America. Gerard states 'The black graines [seeds] to the number of fifteene taken in wine or mead is a special remedie for those that are troubled in the night with the disease called the Nightmare…' Many are fragrant and are mainstays of ornamental gardens.
- Pepper - Capsicum sp.
- (Solanaceae) The genus Capsicum is home to sweet, hot, and ornamental peppers. (Black pepper resides in the genus Piper.) Christopher Columbus brought Capsicum fruits from their native tropical America to Europe and called them peppers. Perhaps their fiery bite brought to mind the spiciness of black pepper. Valuable both as a condiment and a medicine, peppers were featured in a number of herbals.
- Plaintain - Plantago sp.
- (Plantaginaceae) Not to be confused with the plantain or cooking banana of the genus Musa, this plantain has been used as an herbal remedy for millennia. The ancient Greek physician and botanist, Dioscorides, describes plantain as drying and binding and useful in treating all manner of suppurating wounds.
- Poppy - Papaver sp.
- (Papaveraceae) Over 100 species are found widely throughout the world. The showy flowers nod in bud; the fruits are capped cylinders with pores under the cap to allow dispersal yet keep the seeds dry. Opium is derived from P. somniferum, but other poppy species are used for culinary, ornamental, and various other purposes.
- Rose - Rosa sp.
- (Rosaceae) The genus Rosa includes over 250 herbaceous shrubs native to northern temperate regions and tropical mountains. Often associated with Persia in antiquity, roses have been cultivated since recorded history, not only for their fragrance and beauty, but for their essential oils distilled from the flower petals and used in perfumes. Certainly the rose is the most popular ornamental plant in many regions of the world.
- Sunflower - Helianthus annuus
Indigenous to the Americas and likely cultivated as a food source nearly 2,000 years ago, these impressively tall, sturdy prairie plants were first brought to Europe in the 16th century. So-called because their large flower heads seem to follow the sun across the sky, sunflowers quickly became an important oil crop. The seeds are exceptionally nutritious, providing protein, vitamin E, and 'good' fats. Seeds and seedcakes are fed to birds and stock animals, respectively.
- Strawberry - Fragaria sp.
- (Rosaceae) The ‘straberie' is described in a Saxon plant listing of 1265. It is found in many species throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The fruit is a fleshy receptacle with a number of achenes (seeds). Strawberries are listed as having many uses through the ages including uses as a laxative and as astringents. Linnaeus is credited as discovering the berries could cure gout.
- Thistle - Cnicus sp.
- (Asteraceae) There are several closely related thistle genera, all in the Aster family. The blessed or Holy thistle (Cnicus benedictus) was cultivated in Europe in the Middle Ages and was used to treat many ailments, including malaria and bubonic plague. It was believed to be a cure-all and have supernatural powers, hence the name.