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Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Virtues and Pleasures of Herbs through History

Physic, Flavor, Fragrance and Dye


We are constantly bombarded by artificial scents and pollutants, so the next time you encounter a fresh herb, take a moment to rub it between your fingers to release the aromatic oils, then inhale and take note of its special scent that may be soothing, bracing or invigorating. With such a simple gesture you can experience one of the greatest pleasures of herbs.

In doing so one can easily understand why ancient civilizations used herbs to scent their baths, perfumes and embalming fluid and burnt herbal offerings in purifying rituals and religious ceremonies. The Medievalists used combinations of fragrant herbs to freshen and protect their households from pests by layering them between linens and strewing them on floors. Considering that bathing was deemed dangerous to one's health, it is no wonder that nosegays (small bouquets of fragrant herbs) were carried to mask unpleasant odors they encountered daily. Herbs were thought to protect from disease and later were found to have antiseptic qualities or be deterrents to insects and vermin carrying disease.

From medieval times through the 18th century, a stillroom was an important part of a household for the distillation of fragrant waters for beauty and cleansing, household products, as well as therapeutic beverages and preparations. Part of a woman's household duty was to be knowledgeable in the use of herbs and to create a variety of products for the family. Information was passed down through generations, and books were published with recipes for all sorts of household needs. Popular in the 16th–18th centuries were books such as Thomas Tusser's Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1557), Gervase Markham's The English Housewife (1615) and Pierre-Joseph Buc'hoz's Toilet of Flora (1779; Fig. 1). The Victorians popularized the creation of special combinations of dried flowers and herbs (potpourris) that were kept in porcelain pomanders to scent each room, and poetry and prose were filled with the symbolic language of flowers.

So remember that it is best to pick an herb in the morning after the dew dries and before the sun is too high—the optimal time for the release of fragrant oils. Try using fresh herbs in bouquets, sweet waters and teas; dry herbs for potpourris and sachets; or essential oils for perfumes, lotions and soaps. Allow these generous herbs to enhance your everyday life.


Lavender (Lavandula Linnaeus) is one of the most beloved herbs, and it has a long association with perfume and fragrance. Derived from the Latin work lavare (to wash), lavender was enjoyed by the Romans to scent the water in their public baths. In addition to this use, Romans also recognized the antiseptic properties of lavender and its effectiveness as an insect deterrent. The antiseptic qualities of this important herb were especially evident during the Great Plague of London in 1665 when it was thought that lavender bunches tied to one's wrists would help to deter infection. However, this was not its only use during times of plague. The terrible and dangerous work of robbing graves during the plague also brought lavender into use for its antiseptic power. While preying on plague victims, grave robbers and thieves made use of a special wash known as "Vinegar of the Four Thieves" of which lavender was a component. According to legend, this aromatic antiseptic brew was effective protection in this unholy work. It was also used as an air freshener for sickrooms, and it most likely was helpful because many of the herbs in this recipe have insect repelling qualities that deterred the fleas carrying the plague.

For the adventurous reader, the following recipe from Buc'hoz's Toilet of Flora (1779) may be of interest:

Vinegar of the Four Thieves

Take of the tops of Sea or Roman wormwood, Rosemary, Sage, Mint and Rue, of each an ounce an a half; Lavender Flowers two ounces, Calamus Aromaticus, Cinnamon, Cloves, Nutmeg and Garlic, of each a quarter of an ounce; Camphire, half an ounce; Red Wine Vinegar, a gallon. Choose all the foregoing ingredients dry, except the Garlic and Camphire; beat them into gross powder, and cut the Garlic into thin slices; put the whole into a matrass [glass bottle]; pour the vinegar on them, and digest the mixture in the sun, or in a gentle sand-heat, for three weeks or a month. Then strain off the vinegar by expression, filter it through paper and add the Camphire dissolved in a little rectified spirit of wine. Keep it for use in a bottle tightly corked.

Pierre-Joseph Buc'hoz (1731–1807) was a native of Metz who was at first a lawyer and later a physician in France. He was also a naturalist who wrote many books, some heavily illustrated, on a wide variety of subjects, including botany, medicine, agriculture and ornithology. His knowledge of many of these subjects was scant, and so his works were often compilations, hastily prepared and sometimes full of errors. He was a compiler and publisher of prodigious output, but his writings are not usually cited by naturalists. The Toilet of Flora was a book of recipes that would likely have been drawn from other contemporary sources (Fig. 2).

According to Flore Médicale, the entire lavender plant, but especially the flowers and leaves, has a strong and fragrant scent, aromatic and warm. As with other aromatic substances, lavender exerts an exciting influence, so that for example it can induce salivation, excite digestive action in the stomach and intestines, and other similar effects depending on its application. It has many other medical uses, including as a treatment for lethargy, trembling, paralysis, spasms, epilepsy, etc. The distilled essence of lavender is widely used for perfumes and toiletries. Just a small amount of essential oil in some water will aromatize nicely. It can be used to repel insects (Fig. 3).

This beautiful and fragrant herb is available in a range of color from pure white to shades of pink, blue, deep lavender and purple. A field of lavender in bloom is both breathtaking in color and intoxicating in scent. Perhaps one of the most remarkable qualities of lavender is the sense of calm and well being imparted by its scent. Lavender continues to be used in perfumes, potpourris and sleep pillow mixtures for its soporific qualities.


Rosemary (Rosmarinus Linnaeus) is a beloved and highly useful herb to grow year round. Ancient Greece and Rome honored rosemary as the herb of memory, and it served as a symbol for both love and death. The range of use for rosemary dating to medieval times is suggested by quotations from Banckes's Herbal (1525), which is understood to be one of the earliest books dedicated to herbs printed in England. Rosemary was hailed for its properties as a balm for skin and pleasant dreams, and as an elixir to preserve youth:

...boil the leaves in white wine and wash thy face therewith...and thou shalt have a fair face. Also, put the leaves under they bed's head and thou shall be delivered of evil dreams...Also, make thee a box of the wood and smell to it and it shall preserve thy youth... And if thou set it in thy garden, keep it honestly for it is much profitable (Larkey and Pyles 1941).

The Grete Herball (1526) was the first illustrated English herbal, but it was primarily an English translation of a French work, Le Grant Herbier, rather than a work on British plants. Its woodcuts were considered to be derived from the images in the earlier Hortus Sanitatis and Gart der Gesundheit. Rosemary's flowers and leaves were used medicinally, and the text of The Grete Herball referred to rosemary as the "dew of the sea" and noted that rosemary had the virtue to comfort by its good odor and to waste and cleanse humors and to put them out by subtle vapor (Fig. 4).

The use of rosemary in beauty preparations has continued for centuries. Indeed, the first-named, alcohol-based perfume, "Hungary water" is believed to have been produced around 1370 and derived its base from this herb, which imparted a rejuvenating fragrance. Hungary water is said to have been inspired by the Queen of Hungary, and legend has it the hermit responsible for this blend assured the Queen that it would preserve her beauty. The commercialization of this perfume was made possible by the invention of the "serpentine cooler" in Italy, around 1320, which made the production of high-proof alcohol possible, lending staying power to the herbal fragrance in perfume. Hungary water continued to be produced in Europe into the 20th century. Rosemary also has been used by cooks and apothecaries for centuries, and the lore and legend that surround this herb clearly mark it as a favorite throughout time.

Jean Henri Jaume Saint-Hilaire (1772–1845) was a French botanist and artist who studied botany and the natural sciences at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, where he also studied floral painting under Gerard van Spaendonck (1746–1822). He produced a number of botanical works, mostly on the French flora, published at his own expense. Plantes de la France was a ten-volume work written for a popular audience, with 1,000 color-printed stipple engravings after drawings by Jaume himself. He noted that rosemary produced an essential oil used in both pharmacy and the making of perfumes and that the leaves had a sharp taste and a strong scent, aromatic and agreeable. He added that the leaves were used to make the distillation known under the name of "Queen of Hungary" (Fig. 5).


The scent of southernwood (Artemisia Linnaeus) derives primarily from Absinthol, an oil in the plant which is common to other wormwoods. As early as the first century, Dioscorides documented this plant's value in fumigation to drive away snakes. This particular use also was recorded in medieval times. Perhaps, of more practical value, moths dislike the scent, and hence the old French name for this herb, "Garde-robe"—for it literally protects clothes. It is little wonder then that southernwood was one of the first plants taken to the New World by colonists. It survived the ocean journey only to succumb to the winters of New England and was recorded as unsuited to the harsh frontier climate.

Among the historic practical uses of herbs, one of the most interesting is their function as a beautiful way to mask the offensive odors of everyday life. In a household this could simply be done by strewing herbs on the floor. However, during the Middle Ages and on into Tudor times, this was sometimes accomplished by gathering together small, tightly packed "posies" of flowers and herbs that could be carried along as a defense against the daily expected olfactory assault from open air markets and street life. Posies that served this purpose were carried close to the nose and became known as "tussie-mussies," a name that has lasted over the ages, even as their need in practicality waned. Indeed, the popularity of tussie-mussies was bolstered by the belief that they were effective protection from serious illness—including the plague. Sometimes known as "nose-gays," tussie-mussies often included southernwood as a reliable and effective component adding to their pleasure in use. The Victorians attached significance to the meanings of the flowers that comprised the fragrant bouquet. Many publications of the time, including Kate Greenaway's Language of Flowers (1884), provided a dictionary of floral meanings to chosen herbs and flowers, and southernwood is identified as meaning "jest or bantering." Southernwood continues to be a favorite herb in potpourri blends and fragrant herbal bouquets—lasting beauty and lasting value to the present day.

John Gerard (1545–1612) was superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and also had a large garden of his own in Holborn and was a member of the Barber-Surgeons' Company. He was contacted by publisher John Norton after Dr. Priest, who was to translate Rembert Dodoens' Pemptades, died before that work could be finished. Gerard accepted the task and then, without permission, reorganized the text according to L'Obel's system instead, apparently intending to pass it off as an original work of his own. This introduced a large number of errors, which Mathias de L'Obel (1538–1616) was engaged to fix, but Gerard became impatient and insisted that the work be published as it was, and so it was published in 1597, errors and all. Most of the woodcuts were re-used from Tabernaemontanus' Eicones (1590). In 1633 a second, revised edition, much corrected and enlarged, was produced by well-known London apothecary and botanist Thomas Johnson (?–1644), with woodcuts (including this one of southernwood, Fig. 6) from the Plantin publishing house, the second edition containing over 1,000 more images than the first. It was commissioned and published by the successors of John Norton's publishing house.

Bee balm

This native fragrant herb in the mint family (Lamiaceae) goes by many common names including bee balm, Oswego tea and bergamot (Monarda Linnaeus). Bumblebees, butterflies and ruby-throated hummingbirds are especially attracted to its beautiful blossom. One of the earliest native wildflowers to be cultivated in colonial gardens, monarda is popular for its beauty and practicality. As a testament to its value in use, in 1744 the Virginia farmer John Bartram collected monarda seeds from the outpost of Oswego, New York, and sent them to the British plantsman Peter Collinson, who soon after cultivated them for English gardens. The settlers of Oswego, New York, near Lake Ontario, learned to use this wild plant as a tea herb from the local Indians. Its popularity as a tea among the colonists increased dramatically as opposition grew to the British taxes on imported China tea, Camellia sinensis (Linnaeus) Kuntze, during the early years of colonization. As taxation became heavier, rebellion followed, culminating in 1773 with the Boston Tea Party, when several hundred chests of China tea were heaved overboard into Boston Harbor. Patriots spurred to find substitutes for China tea, and the search was on for "Liberty Tea," teas that could be grown on home territory and enjoyed without funding the coffers of England. Herbal teas had long been important to colonial kitchens, and during this period of conflict Oswego tea became especially popular as it was considered to be a close substitute in taste for China tea (Fig. 7). The well-known medicinal value of monarda in settling nausea only added to its popularity, a fact attested by its somewhat later commercial exploitation by the Shakers. Many events led to the American Revolution, but the search for self-government was important to this self-sufficient group of individuals who were resourceful with plants and herbs and fought back with fierce patriotism against those an ocean away.

Both the leaves and flowers of monarda are used in brewing tea and provide a colorful mélange of green and pink in the teapot. The brew is highly aromatic, producing a woodsy floral scent. The taste is subtly minty and brings to mind a summer afternoon. It is testimony to the herb garden and its endearing qualities that last throughout the calendar year.

Scented geranium

Commonly known as scented geraniums, these members of genus Pelargonium L'Héritier ex Aiton reveal their most wonderful attribute with their name. The leaves are highly aromatic and are a result of hybridization between species or other hybrids. The range of scent is astounding, and they are often informally called "living potpourri" because rose, citrus, mint, fruit and spice scents are released by brushing the textured and multi-colored leaves. It is easy to see why these plants have a place of honor in the summer fragrance garden and on the windowsill during the winter months.

Mainly natives of southern Africa, pelargoniums were introduced to Europe by the 17th-century sailing ships that traveled in search of the trade routes and riches to be found in the Far East and the Spice Islands. Trading vessels would stop at the southern tip of Africa to take fresh stores of food and water on the arduous journey around the Cape of Good Hope. The return journey would carry precious goods and plant material. This age of expansion and discovery led to further study and collecting of botanicals of all kinds in Europe, and pelargoniums were very central to this trade.

Charles Louis L'Héritier de Brutelle (1746–1800) was a wealthy French nobleman and self-educated botanist of unusual abilities and resources. He studied native French trees and shrubs and also made systematic studies of exotic plants. His Geraniologia contained 44 color plates, 33 of them by master botanical artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840). L'Héritier had discovered and promoted Redouté's career as well as that of James Sowerby (1757–1822), who was part of a gifted family of British botanical and natural science illustrators whose work spanned three generations. Sowerby prepared the first illustration for Geraniologia in 1786–1787 during L'Héritier's stay in England, and his illustration of Pelargonium quercifolium is shown here (Fig. 8). L'Héritier's text for Geraniologia was never published due to the outbreak of the French Revolution. The plates were published on their own in 1792.

Historically scented geraniums have been highly prized and collected, and one can easily imagine the pleasure they would bring inside European conservatories and homes on dark winter days. By the early 19th century conservatories and greenhouses were considered essential to villa and town residences of a "gentleman's home." John Loudon's Green-House Companion (1825) notes that "a green-house, which fifty years ago was a luxury not often to be met with, is now become an appendage to every villa, and to many town residences...[which is] a mark of elegant and refined enjoyment." He goes on to write that "the management of plants in a greenhouse requires a higher degree of knowledge than is called for in the management of an open garden...and the object of the Green-house Companion is to supply what is wanting in this respect, not only to gardeners, but to their employers" (Figs. 9, 10). This publication described over 175 species of pelargonium available in nurseries at the time, many mentioned in Robert Sweet's five-volume Geraniaceae.

Robert Sweet (1783–1835) was a gardener and nurseryman. He began his horticultural career at the age of 16 and worked at Colvill's Nursery in Chelsea from 1819 to 1831. This was one of several English nurseries at the time specializing in South African bulbs, known for hybridization of pelargoniums, gladioli and hippeastrums. Sweet also knew Richard Colt Hoare (1758–1838) through his pelargonium collection at Stourhead, and illustrations of plants from that collection can be found in Sweet's five-volume Geraniaceae.

Sweet's meticulously detailed plant descriptions are brought to life by the artwork of Edwin Dalton Smith (1800–1866). These books provide an important link to understanding the complexities of this hybridized plant family, and they are all the more important because many of the plants depicted in the volumes are now thought to be extinct. His text about Pelargonium crispum reads, in part: "Pelargonium crispum, Curl-leafed Stork's bill is described as an upright shrub with lemon scented leaves, inclining to the scent of balm, with 5 petals, pale violet, the two upper ones marked above the base with 2 or 3 short dark purple lines above which is a small light line." Although it had been introduced from the Cape since 1774, Sweet still considered it well worth cultivating for its fragrant leaves, snug bushy form and lively flowers (Fig. 11).

In 1845 Britain eliminated the glass tax, which resulted in a further boom in conservatory and greenhouse construction. This period also brought with it the construction of many extraordinary glass houses including the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in London (1851). World War I led to a change of gardening practices, and many great gardens and glass houses fell to ruin. After the Great War, the scented geranium lost many of its faithful followers. Today, the potential for renewed interest in these plants is suggested by the International Herb Association's designation of scented geraniums as the "2006 Herb of the Year."

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Common Rosemary [Rosmarinus Linnaeus, Lamiaceae alt. Labiatae], hand-colored engraving by James Basire after an original by Timothy Sheldrake (fl.1734–1759) for his Botanicum Medicinale: An Herbal of Medicinal Plants on the College of Physicians' List ... Most Beautifully Engraved on 120 Large Folio Copper-Plates (London, Printed for J. Millan, [?1759], pl. 88), HI Library call no. DF5 S544B.