Herbs from home & garden

As part of the Creation Care team I was asked if I would be able to talk to the Monday club on ways to be ‘Greener’ around the home.

I was able to take an extended lunch break from my ‘day job’ just across the road at Anne of Cleves House and Museum, where I am immersed in all things ‘Tudor’. I had recently led some workshops at Lewes Priory Park at the launch of the Priory Trust’s kitchen garden on Medieval Colour and Scent, focussing on dye plants and strewing herbs. This led me to recall the words of Winston Churchill ‘The further back one looks, the further forward one may see’. In other words we can learn from the past. I thought this would be a good opportunity to look at how herbs can be used around the house and garden today as an opportunity to reduce the use of nasty chemicals that go on to pollute the air, waterways and harm the environment.

In days gone by, herbs were central to household economies not just for flavouring and preserving food or for providing medicines but also for jobs around the house and garden. Herbs were incorporated in to roof thatch, they were used to cover floors, to clean, polish and disinfect utensils and to sweeten and purify musty air. It is not just historical interest or nostalgia that makes the idea of using herbs attractive to us today. Herbal dyes are still unsurpassed for subtlety of colour and aromatic herbs contain antiseptic oils useful for cleaning. But beyond this the fresh fragrance of herbs has a way of pushing our thoughts past the strictly utilitarian. To fold sheets scented with lavender water or to polish furniture with sweet marjoram scented wax changes the chore to a pleasure. Perhaps it reminds us of the seasons or gives us a sense of continuity with the past. Whatever the reason herbalists through the ages have told us that fresh sweet scents will lift our spirits and modern research confirms this assertion.

The Psalms tell us that God has given us “herbs for the service of man.” Ps.104:14.

So, what exactly is a herb. Whilst I was studying botany at college we were taught a herb is any seed-bearing plant which does not have a woody stem and dies down to the ground after flowering i.e. herbaceous. For example “the banana plant is the world’s largest herb”. But in general parlance a h

erb is any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavouring, food, medicine, or perfume. Usually we think of a relatively small range of plants that are used for culinary purposes such as Thyme, Coriander, Sage, Parsley, Rosemary, Mint, Basil and Chives. Yet John Parkinson’s ‘Herbal’ ( A herbal was a book describing plants and their uses) of 1640 contains  accounts of 3800 herbs. Written herbals were produced in Britain as early as the 10th Century and initially the Medieval Church encouraged scientific enquiry as a means of glorifying and becoming closer to God (and while this attitude was to change as the centuries progressed it is certainly something I could agree with today.) The monasteries became centres for learning and research, cultivating physic gardens and introducing new plants. If you get a chance it is worth going to look at both the Lewes Priory herb garden and the new Medieval Vegetable Garden.

Today the growing of herbs also brings their benefits to the garden. Herb gardens, not only look colourful and are relatively easy to maintain. Many herbs can be grown as companion plants helping to control pests and diseases. Herbs can easily be grown even if you only have a balcony, patio or window box. Many of them will take to being grown on the window sill .Herbs  can be used in cooking, are fantastic in attracting pollinating insects such as bees and hoverflies, and  provide a great nectar source for butterflies and moths. Interestingly although herbs attract ‘good’ insects they can also be used to prevent ‘bad’ ones causing problems.

One of the most important uses of herbs in Tudor times was for Strewing, where herbs would be thrown (strewn)on to rushes or straw used to cover the floors of houses and halls, in place of carpets. As well as smelling nice many herbs could repel insects and some had disinfectant properties.  Some herbs would help to keep flies, moths, and other insects and even mice away. Of course, Strewing of herbs is not practical today, but bunches of herbs can be hung in the kitchen, in wardrobes or placed in draws to keep insects away and to make everywhere smell pleasant.

There are many books on herbs concentrating on culinary or medicinal herbs but here I’d like to look at other ways that God has provided herbs for the service of man.

Below is a list of herbs some are mentioned in the bible, others have religious stories or legends attached but all of them can be put to use in the home today.

Meadow Sweet has a sweet smell and was Elizabeth I’s favourite strewing herb, flowering tops can be put in to draws to scent linen

Lady’s Bedstraw, Light green sprawling fluffy herb with clusters of airy yellow flowers. as the name suggests was used to stuff pillows and mattresses. It kills fleas and the roots also provide a red dye. Mary is said to have prepared the Christ child’s bed with this herb. Thereafter it was known as Our Lady’s Bedstraw, and the formerly white flower-heads turned to a golden hue. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger. There is quite a lot growing in the South churchyard at Southover .

Bay was used in wealthy households, and was also thought to keep lightening away. Put in flour bin and around dried figs to deter weevils

Tansy, place on shelves or in cupboards to deter  ants, disturb the leaves occasionally to release more scent and produced a good yellow dye. Grown near fruit trees it will deter insects

Mint and Tansy in store cupboards will help to deter mice also repels Mint was well known as being used for flavoring food as it still is today. Some bible experts say mint was among the “bitter herbs” mentioned. Mint was valued for its fresh aroma and sweet taste and often used to flavour meat. Also an important “strewing” herb, mint stems were hung in doorways and thrown on dirt floors to mask the effects of inadequate sanitation. Luke 11:42 “But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” 

Penny Royal, a type of low growing mint, also known as fleabane kills insects especially fleas, deters ants and repels ticks along with chamomile it was planted in turf benches, when sat on released their fragrances. You can see a turf bench at the new Lewes priory trust kitchen garden in Priory Park.

Wormwood, In Jeremiah 23: 15 wicked prophets are threatened with wormwood to eat and poisoned water to drink.

Proverbs 5:4 speaks of a woman who is bitter as wormwood and sharp as a two-edged sword.

Wormwood is a strong insect, and moth repellent also helps to repel mice. On the embers of an open fire the smoke leas and lice. Can be used to make a strong household disinfectant, weaker it can be used for an insecticide on older plants. Grown near brassicas it will help to dispel Cabbage White butterflies

Basil, a well-known culinary herbplant grown on the window sill will keep flies away

Sweet woodruff dried leaves under carpets and with linen to deter insects

Hyssop, is fragrant and is the sacred and cleansing herb of the Bible.

Psalms 51:7 is an example of hyssop as a purifying and cleansing herb: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

When Jesus hung on the cross he said he was thirst and they held a sponge with vinegar on hyssop to his mouth. John 19:29. I like to use hyssop along with sage, thyme, rosemary and lavender in four Thieves vinegar, so called as , according to legend thieves robbing the bodies of plague victims warded off the black death with this. Presumably the herbs used would help prevent the fleas that spread plague. It now can be used as an excellent salad dressing.

Rosemary  often strewn in churches.  Not only does it kill and repel insects, leaves and a stem boiled in water for 10 minutes provides a disinfectant. The less water the stronger the disinfectant. This can be used for cleaning taps and sinks in the bathroom and scenting other parts of the house. Sage, thyme and Lavender can also be used this way.  Branches of fresh Rosemary in a room can cool the air. Stems can be used as barbecue skewers. For centuries people thought that rosemary plants would grow no higher than 6 feet in 33 years so as not to stand taller than Christ. Another Story tells that the flowers were all originally white but changed to blue when the Virgin Mary hung her cloak on a bush while fleeing from Herod’s soldiers with the Christ child. In medieval times it was burned to cleanse the altar. And was added to love sachets or place under the bed and above the door to protect from harm. Besides the historic uses, rosemary is best known for remembrance and friendship.

Sage-  Salvia, comes from Latin meaning to be in good health, it is a very powerful healing plant, put leaves among Linen to discourage insects. Boil in water to disinfect a room. Sage smoke deodorises animal and cooking smells

Thyme- Loved by bees, produces esteemed honey. Can be used to make a strong household disenfectant

Lavender a very popular plant makes a good informal hedge attracts bees and other beneficial insects. Put dried flowers in sachets and bunches to scent draws and protect linens from moths. Rub fresh flowers on skin or pin on clothes to deter flies. The plant is believed to have been taken from the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve. However, the powerful perfume came later. According to legend the clothing of baby Jesus when laid upon a bush to dry by Mother Mary bestowed the scent. This may explain why the plant is also regarded as a holy safeguard against evil. In many Christian houses a cross of lavender was hung over the door for protection

Soapwort-  just cover in soft water (rain) and boil for 30 minutes then use soapy liquid to wash and revive delicate and fabrics.

Horsetail– A very pernicious weed, very difficult to eradicate, this proves that l plants are provided for the service of man, we only need to find that use. Horsetail makes a great pot scourer. Rub a handful of dried stems on the pot and rinse off. Make a metal polish by using fresh horsetail soak for at least 2 hours then boil in the same water for 15 mins. Pour over metal or pewter objects and soak for 5 mins. Remove articles leave to dry and polish with a soft cloth

Sweet Marjoram and Oregano  a good plant for attracting bees and pollinating insects, it also grows in Southover Churchyarduse pulverised leaves or add a strong decoction to furniture polish. Grow to attract bees and butterflies.

Yarrow-  Sweet milfoil, chop a small amount of leaves and put to a barrow load of compost to aid decomposition, helps nearby plants to resist disease and helps to deepen their fragrance Branches deter moths and other insects, lay in drawers and under carpets. Hang in wardrobes and distribute amongst books

Chives- Grow to deter aphids, apple scab and mildew. Infuse leaves as a spray for aphids, apple scab and mildew

Borage-  grown near strawberries they both help each other’s growth, attractive to bees

Lemon Balm – plant around beehives and fruit trees to attract pollinating insects. Juice can be added to furniture polish for a nice scent

Sorrel juice can be used to bleach rust, mould and ink stains from linen, wicker and silver.

This is just a short list of some of the many beneficial herbs that can be used around the house.


Martin Pett, Creation Care Team