Tuesday, 22 April 2014

in the Apothecary

Apothecary - a word not used often these days and one that is not easy to say. It refers to a person who makes and sells medicines. In the middle ages Apothecaries also delivered babies and practiced surgery and dentistry. The apothecaries were the forerunners of pharmacists and chemists.

The apothecary table with the tradition small drawers
An apothecary garden was where medicines were grown, in the form of herbs. During the middle ages most large households had a kitchen garden, for vegetables, and an apothecary garden for the herbs that were to be used in medicines and toiletries. The house keepers of the wealthy, and farmers wives, were skilled in making everything from soap to cures for gout and diarrhoea.  

Large apothecary gardens were created in monasteries and tended by the monks who also acted as apothecaries for the local area. Medicines were prepared and stored in a special room - also known as the apothecary.

Medicinal plants were the only medicine, and drinking infusions or potions, rubbing on salve or piling on a poultice was the way to treat most ailments. The cures offered by what we now call conventional medicine, are often chemical imitations of these old remedies.

In an apothecary garden each plant was known and valued for its curative properties.  Plants were collected from other areas and countries to be studied. Raised garden beds were often used and I was excited when my husband agreed made some for me, as well as terracing other areas of our garden.  It's so much easier to care for the plants when you don't have to bend double or crawl around on the ground with them.

Below are some herbs commonly found in apothecary gardens. All these plants are available today and can be found in many gardens where those who understand them make use of their powers.  Of course many of these cures are traditional and have not been proved by science, which didn't stop apothecaries in the middle ages because they had nothing else, but these days health and safety issues mean that warnings should be given.  Information of how to grow and to use herbs is available online.  I don't add links because new information is constantly being up loaded, adding to the choice of many good websites.

These aloes have been very useful this week.

Aloe Vera:  An easy growing succulent, Aloe Vera does well in the ground or in pots. It is antiseptic and can be used for skin irritations; burns, cuts, grazes and other sores.  This week I used several leaves from this plant, scraping out the gel to treat a wound on my arm where I'd had a skin cancer removed. I was amazed at how well it actually worked - swelling and inflammation gone over night, skin healing up.

The soft gel inside the leaf can be eaten or applied straight to a wound. Cut a leaf close to the bottom of the plant, slice off the sharp sides and cut and peel one side back to reveal the gel inside. This can be applied directly from the plant. Aloe Vera is also used for digestive problems - if you are eating it you can use a teaspoon to scrape the gel away from the leaf skin but do not eat the lining of the skin as it tastes horrible.
My potted Bay trees behind comfrey plants

Bay:  Usually grown as a seasoning bay is an attractive ornamental shrub, or if allowed to grow wildly, a huge tree.  It can be use as decorative topiary, pruned into different shapes. The leaves are very fragrant, especially when dried, and can be broken into hot dishes such as soup and stew. It is used with fish and in homemade tomato sauce and is a necessary component of the French bouquet garni.  The leaf itself is bitter and not really edible and as it does not soften in cooking it is removed before eating.
Bay leaves are exceptionally rich in vitamins A, B and C, folic acid and the minerals copper, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, selenium and manganese. They also contain essential phytochemicals and volatile oils. Bay can improve the skin,  remove free radicals and boost the immune system; strengthen eyesight and maintain mucus membranes.  The potassium is important for cell and body fluids, blood pressure and heart rate. 

As a traditional medicinal plant Bay has been used to treat earaches and rheumatism and is used as an insect repellent - though some people find it irritates the skin.  I am very impressed by what I've learned about Bay.

Comfrey:  This is my favourite herb.  Comfrey is a perennial herb that aids healing, though it should not be used on open wounds. It is anti-inflammatory and can be applied to sprains and strains, broken bones and bruises, either by making a quick poultice of crushed leaves and your usual moisturiser or hand cream and applied it straight onto the skin, or by heating chopped leaves in good quality olive oil for half an hour and, when cool, using that for massage. You can also add bees wax to the hot comfrey oil to make a salve.  
Echinacea: This useful and beautiful plant loves the sun and is very forgiving of drought. It comes from North America and was a traditional herbal remedy of the Great Plains Indian tribes.  As an anti-inflammatory it has been used to speed up recovery from the common cold and flu, for urinary tract infections, vaginal yeast infections, herpes, septicaemia, gum disease, tonsillitis, strep infections, typhoid, malaria and diphtheria. It can boost the immune system when taken internally and reduce the effects of upper respiratory infections. Other uses include chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine, acid indigestion, dizziness and, applied to the skin, boils, abscesses, skin wounds, ulcers, burns, eczema, psoriasis, herpes, bee stings and haemorrhoids.  That is a great long list.  Echinacea is available as a dried herb, as a liquid and in capsule form. The fresh leaves, flowers and stems can be made into an infusion (tea) for drinking.
There are warnings for Echinacea - it should not be taken indefinitely, so if you are treating yourself long term it's a good idea to take it for two weeks and then have a week off.  Also some people could be allergic to Echinacea, especially those allergic to ragweed, marigolds, or daisies or if you are on medication for an auto-immune disorder.

New season ginger ready for market
Ginger:  An ancient spice from India, it is used in cooking around the world, often paired with garlic and onion or used in sweet dishes.  Ginger grows underground as a fleshy rhizome.   Planted in spring it grows through the summer and dies back in winter, though the root can be left underground for several months until needed, in a well drained area.  Ginger is found in many apothecary gardens for its antiseptic, analgesic, and antispasmodic properties. It stimulates the heart and settles the stomach. It can be used for colds, flu and muscle spasms, rheumatism, arthritis, migraine, sore throat, cholera, anorexia and to improve circulation and reduce fat deposits and many of these uses are supported by science.
Ginger is also a blood thinner and should be used with care by people on blood thinning medication.

Lemon Balm:  Most of us know this herb as a garnish for drinks and desserts. The fresh leaves can be added to fruit salad, garden salad, fruit punch, sorbet, marinades and sauces for fish and chicken, and combined with butter and pepper to serve with corn and broccoli. Mix it into apple crumble or with honey into a cheesecake.  Lemon Balm is from the mint family, it is antiviral and can be combined with other medicinal herbs. As an infusion it helps to cool the fever from colds or flu, it acts as a relaxant, relieves anxiety, soothes nervous indigestion and headaches. But, a warning here, Lemon Balm stimulates the thyroid so people on thyroid medication should avoid it.

Mint: We all know mint as a flavouring for cold drinks, hot tea and mint sauces as well as sweets and in toothpaste. There is a wide variety of mints and most are also prized for their nutritive and medicinal qualities. Members of the mint family include basil, bee balm, catnip, horehound, horsemint, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, oregano, peppermint rosemary, sage, savoury, spearmint, thyme, and there are  many others.

Traditional mint
While they all have their own medicinal properties most mints share the qualities of being analgesic, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, digestive, repellent and stimulant.  They are usually found in herbal remedies that treat  headache, migraine, fever, sore throat and sinus and chest congestion.

You can add mint to your bath or the rinse water clean shiny hair. Externally mints can repel mosquitoes and ease the heat and itchiness from bites, stings, rashes, hives, eczema, some fungal infections and other minor wounds. 
As an infusion (hot tea) mint can help ease the symptoms of indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, flatulence, cramps, bloating, diarrhoea, and nausea.  If the common mint does not help try using spearmint, lavender or basil instead. The milder spearmint is also more suitable for children.  Peppermint contains a higher percentage of volatile oils and is considered a strong medicinal herb. 

Mint tea is made by steeping 2 - 4 teaspoons of chopped fresh leaves in 1 cup of just-boiled water for ten to fifteen minutes.  A strong decoction is often the best choice for external uses.

Calendula plant in flower - great for skin problems
I have other medicinal herbs in my apothecary garden including Bergamot, Chives, Calendula, Gotu Kola, Herb Robert, Nasturtium, Parsley, Rocket, Rosemary, Stevia and Yukka.  

I plan to add Dandelion and Liquorice eventually.  It's all a work in progress as I learn about each new plant.

I find the act of tending the herbs, gently plucking away damaged leaves, pulling weeds, mulching and watering has a very calming effect and I like to spend at least an hour in the garden most days and consult my herb books regularly to help my understanding.

One of my wonderful raised gardens


  1. Bev Holmes-Brown great article Janine - tried to comment but it wouldn't let me.

  2. Ann Jensen Nah it's still unavailable....but it's a lovely word isn't it...apothecary

    Ann Jensen Oh oh I got in...so glad you wrote that post...I have to link my new blog to it, but how?

  3. This is very interesting, explains a lot. Your posts are always enlightening. An


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