Herbs through history: from the Tudors to today

Central to the kitchen garden at Hampton court is its collection of herbs, and they are looking at their best in the summer. While many of them are familiar, there are also some unusual ones that have had some fascinating uses throughout history.

One of the most eye-catching herbs in the garden right now is the elecampane – an enormous herb, over two metres tall, with bright yellow flowers, that has had a place in medicine and myth for thousands of years. Since the middle ages, the roots have been sweetened and used to treat respiratory complaints.

Elecampane growing in the Kitchen Garden
The Kitchen Garden looking south east

Just as the wonderfully scented lavender around the gardens borders has finished flowering, the hyssop that lines the pathways is producing a display of dark blue flowers that are popular with the bees. Although hyssop can be used in cooking, in Tudor times it would have been used along with other herbs such as tansy, rue and sweet maudlin, to strew across the floors. This would help keep insects away, and mask unpleasant smells.

Hyssop in the Kitchen Garden
Soapwort growing in the Kitchen Garden
A view of the Kitchen Garden

Sage is one of the most familiar herbs in the kitchen garden, with a variety of cultivars edging the vegetable beds. It is a hardy evergreen perennial, with a strong flavour and rich, woody, savoury smell. Like many herbs, it grows best in a well-drained light soil and sunny position, and should be cut back after flowering, and again in the spring. A great reference for historical gardening is John Evelyn’s ‘A discourse of sallets’, written in 1699, which describes sage as “a plant endu’d with so many wonderful properties as that the assiduous use of it is said to render men immortal”, and perhaps more sensibly, to put a small amount of the flowers or young leaves into a cold salad.

These are just a few examples of the interesting stories behind some of the herbs, but walking through the garden right now – with its rows of different coloured basil, tall spires of elecampane and lovage, and drifts of white-flowering soapwort, marshmallow, sculpit and thyme it is clear that as well as being useful, they are also exceptionally beautiful plants.

Hilary Theaker
Kitchen Garden Keeper

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