In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
August, 2004
Regional Report

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The old medicinal herb tansy (also called golden buttons) is nowadays used as a home and garden insect repellent and dye plant, as well as an ornamental.

Link to the Ancients

We may be more in touch with the Middle Ages and ancient times than we realize. This was brought home to me during a recent visit to the well-tended and sheltered gardens of The Cloisters -- a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan, and possibly better known for its tapestries than for its gardens.

Two of these gardens contain plants cultivated in medieval times. It was shocking to see so many familiar friends, from thyme to rhubarb to tansy. There are also a few less well known, or plants I have only read about, such as mandrake (Atropa mandragora), which had many ancient uses including treating hysteria and expelling demons -- a power also attributed to our familiar evergreen ground cover, periwinkle (Vinca minor).

Plants With Ties to the Past
Modern gardeners will be familiar with many of the old-time plants, such as periwinkle, that continue to be grown for their ornamental value, or for the sake of tradition (as in an herb garden), or for culinary use (think thyme or even rhubarb) rather than specifically for medicinal or household use. Part of the reason for this shift away from growing herbs exclusively for practical use is that many of the old plants are indeed powerful in their chemical make-up and can be toxic!

At the same time, through modern chemical analysis we are learning more about why some of these plants were effective when used in the olden ways. In some cases we are rediscovering and reaffirming their value for pharmacological use. A recent example of this is current advertising reminding us that thymol (from the herb thyme among others) continues to be included as an active ingredient in the formulation of Listerine mouthwash.

It's fitting during these Olympics games to mention that writers as early as Virgil and Pliny recognized the usefulness and value of many herbs. And still today we are discussing the timeless value of herbs and other venerable plants -- in cyberspace.


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