Apothecary gardens in history
This Article is taken from The Herbalist, newsletter of the
Canadian Society for Herbal Research. COPYRIGHT March 1989.
Membership in the Society is $25.00 Canadian per year. You
receive four copies of the Journal each year and help to promote
herbalism and botanic medicine throughout Canada.
THE SOCIETY HAS NO PAID OFFICIALS and is run entirely by
volunteers from among the membership.
If you would like more info please write:
Botanic Medicine Society.
P.O. Box 82. Stn. A.
Willowdale, Ont. CANADA.
HISTORY OF THE APOTHECARY GARDEN - Tamarra S. James
The idea of separating a garden into one for useful plants and
another for beauty is a fairly recent innovation. Until about
three hundred years ago, all plants were considered to be useful
either as medicine or food, some in a practical way, others in a
purely symbolic application. Even the beauty of the plants
themselves was thought to be medicinal, contributing to the
general health of the individual by strengthening the spirit.
giving comfort to the soul, and lifting depression of the mood.
One must not lose sight of this principle when approaching the
medieval garden, as in a very real sense, all gardens had their
origin in the physic garden.
Aside from the few basic medicinal plants grown by every
housewife for the cure of common minor ills, much like we use the
patented medicines of today, the bulk of the truly curative herbs
were originally cultivated in the monastery gardens.
Healing was, from the earliest recorded times granted the
distinction of being a religious practice. Each culture of the
Pagan period had its healing gods, and in evolution, one of the
greatest miracles attributed to the god of the new religion was
the power to heal.
The monks were, by and large a literate class of people where the
greater population was not, so it is that the majority of the
hard information regarding growth, plant description, and garden
lists has come from them. We can assume that the gardens of the
doctors and apothecaries were similar if on a much smaller scale,
as the monks had greater access to plants imported from other
parts of the world than the common man.
The infirmary garden of a monastery generally consisted of
several raised rectangular beds with walkways between them. Most
of the plants were to be found in the Emperor Charlemagne's list
of medicinal herbs which formed a part of his "Capitulare de
Villis" a document from the ninth century which detailed the
plants he wished his gardeners' to plant on his estates and which
he encouraged all of his subjects to plant for the benefit of the
As society reached out of the Middle Ages into the fifteenth
century, new plants were being brought back from the Americas.
Master Ion Gardener wrote the practical text, "The Feate of
Gardening". This was a set of instructions on cultivation,
grafting, and the culture of herbs. All of the herbs listed in
Master Ion's treatise were old world, and had been commonly grown
all over Europe for hundreds of years. It reached beyond the
folklore of plants and provided a sound scientific base for the
gardener to work from.
In the sixteenth century we find the first wave of dramatic
change in the gardening consciousness of Europe since the
beginning of the Crusades. Prior to this there had been a limited
number of herbs that had grown familiar to the herbalist through
years of cultivation and use. Now we have almost daily expansion
of the herbalists, as navigators and explorers carried back new
seed and rootstock, along with documents containing native
applications of the medicines of their lands. Most significant in
this influx of new botanicals were those from the Americas.
The feeling of the time is best illustrated by a quotation from
Holinshed, a historian of the sixteenth century. "It is a wonder
also to see how many strange herbs, plants, and annual fruits are
daily brought unto us from the Indies, Americas, Taprobane,
Canary Isles and all parts of the world. I have seen in someone's
garden to the number of three or four hundred of them, if not
more, the half of those names within forty years past we had no
manner of knowledge."
The first botanic gardens as places of study were founded in
Padua Italy 1545 and in Oxford England 1621. These schools of
herbalism effectively took medicine out of the hands of the
monastery and placed it under the control of the educating
physicians. Doctors began to lecture on the healing properties of
herbs, and their reliance on leeching, or bleeding, and chemical
alchemy was largely replaced by the study of the new science of
It was in the seventeenth century, following this great influx of
herbs, that the largest number of herbals were published. Many of
them included the New World herbs as a matter of course. Most of
these books were written by doctors of medicine, but they were
now leaning more heavily on the botanical properties and
characteristics of plants than on the previous, almost mystical
systems of humours, planetary influences, and doctrine of
Prior to this time, almost all herbals relied heavily on
Dioscorides volume entitled "De Materia Medica". It required the
discovery of new plants to generate original research and the
development of herbal philosophy. There was still a problem in
that many of these authors were writing about plants they had
never seen or used. There existed popular engraving templates for
the illustration of herbals, usually created by artists rather
than herbalists, and often from description instead of
observation. In some cases, such as John Gerard's "Great Herbal",
or "History of Plants" the wrong illustration was placed in the
text, confusing the reader, and the dilettante herbalist, who
repeated the error in his own book.
In 1577 an herbal of an entirely new type was translated from the
Spanish into English. It was written by Nicholas Monardes, and
was entitled, "Joyfull Newes Out Of The Newe Founde Worlde". This
book catalogued and described medicinal plants from America.
Then, in 1629 and 1640 a pair of books were published that
changed the entire face of herb lore. They are often considered
to be the greatest English books on herbs and plants ever
published. They were written by John Parkinson, and are entitled
respectively, "Paradisi I Sole Paradisus Terrestris" and
"Theatrum Botanicum: The Theatre of Plants". More than 3,000
plants are described in this volume, and unlike their
predecessors,these books combine history, horticulture, botany,
and pharmacy all in one place. Parkinson is also the first herbal
author to seriously attempt botanical classification into tribes
or families of plants, and into classes.
The herbals of Parkinson and Gerard went to the New World along
with the settlers, and a selection of seed and rootstock for
various medicinal herbs accompanied them. The ships returned to
England with native North American plants to be cultivated, and
studied in the European botanical colleges and gardens.
The properties of many of the plants were learned from the Native
Indians, which lead to the publication of John Josselyn's book,
"New England's Rarities Discovered" in 1672. This book included
"The Physical and Chyrurgical Remedies Wherewith The Natives
Constantly Use To Cure Their Distempers, Wounds and Sores".
In 1728, John Bartram founded North America's first botanic
garden near Philadelphia. In 1765, he was commissioned 'Botanizer
Royal For America' and began to travel and collect plants,
accompanied by his son, who was a major botanical artist. It is
through the labours of these two men that many North American
herbs came to the attention of the Swedish Botanist Carl
Linnaeus, and were classified by him.
The study of the herb garden is in itself a study in the
evolution of botanical medicine and its development. In the
garden lists we see not just the herbs that were known to the
early doctor, but more importantly, those which were used by him.
A list of the herbs from John Bartram's garden examined in
relation to the monastery garden of the ninth century gives
indication of a greater range of subtlety in the mixing of
possible ingredients, and a wider set of applications than those
available to the lay brothers in their time. An asterix marks the
New World herbs.
Melissa officinalis, Lemon Balm.
Ocimum basilicum, Sweet Basil
*Mondara didyma, Bee Balm.
*Cimicifuga racemosa, Black Cohosh.
*Eupatorium perfolatum, Boneset.
Borago officinalis, Borage.
Nepeta cataria, Catnip.
Dianthus caryophyllus, Clove Pink.
Vinca major, Periwinkle.
Symphytum officinale, Comfrey.
Digitalis purpurea, Fox Glove.
Cochlearia amoracia, Horseradish.
Pulmonaria officinalis, Lungwort.
*Lobelia siphilitica, Great Lobelia.
Calendula officinalis, Pot Marigold.
Verbascum thapsus, Mullein.
Paeonia officinalis, Peony.
Myrtus communis, Myrtle.
Hypericum perforatum, St. John's Wort.
Teucrium marum, Germander.
Galium odoratum, Sweet Woodruff.
Tanacetum vulgare, Tansy.
Artemisia dracunculus, French Tarragon.
Dipsacus fullonum, Fuller's Teasle.
*Asarum virginicum, Wild Ginger.
*Gaultheria procumbens, Wintergreen.
Acorus calamus, Sweet Flag.
Crocus sativa, Saffron Crocus.
Allium schoenoprasum, Chives.
Lonicora caprifolium, Woodbine Honeysuckle.
Rubus fruticosus, Blackberry.
*Hamamelis virginiana, Witch Hazel.
Lindera benzoin, Spice Bush.
Punica granatum, Pomegranate.
Cassia acutifolia, Alexandrian Senna.
Ilex aquifolium, English holly.
*Populus candicans, Poplar, Balm of Gilead.
*Cornus florida, Dogwood.
*Sassafras albidum, Sassafras.
Laurus nobilis, Bay laurel.
(The following herbs are also to be included in this garden.
Latin names can be found in the previous list:
Chamomile, Lovage, Dill, Fennel,Horehound, Hyssop, French
Lavender, Pennyroyal, Mint, Rosemary, Rue, Agrimony, Sage, Thyme,
Yarrow,Madonna Lily, Apothecary's Rose).
It is likely that this is an optimistic list since weather
conditions in Philadelphia would have made the growth of plants
such as Pomegranate extremely difficult, although most of the
herbs would quite handily grow there. As you can see, the
majority of the herbs from the ninth century list are still
included, with the many additions of the New World herbs.
Today, many of these herbs are still grown for their use as
pharmaceuticals and even as medicine advances into the "Modern
age" it remains rooted with the herbs, in the origins of the
John Gerard. The Herbal Or General History of Plants.
Facsimile Edition Of 1633 Edition. Dover Publications NY 1975.
Gosta Brodin. Agnus Castus A Middle English Herbal.
Reconstructed from various manuscripts. Upsalla 1950.
Andrew Boorde. Fyrst Boke Of The Introduction Of Knowledge.
Repro Of The 1542 Edition. Early English Text Society Reprint
Sarah Garland. The Herb Garden.
Penguin Books NY 1984.
Rosetta E. Clarkson. The Golden Age Of Herbs And Herbalists.
Dover Publications NY 1972.
L. Butler & C. Given-Wilson. Medieval Monasteries Of Great
Britain. Michael Joseph London 1983.
Nicholas Culpepper. Culpepper's Complete Herbal.
W. Foulsham & Co. London.