What kind of herbs are growing in your garden?
“I looked out of the window at the neglected and overgrown bushes. Lavender, and was that rosemary? And were the others all herbs? I realized that I had landed in the middle of a healing garden.”
— Rhys Bowen, “The Victory Garden,” 2019
After working as a volunteer for the Women’s Land Army in England during the last months of WWI, Rhys Bowen’s protagonist Emily Bryce finds a position as garden caretaker at a nearby estate. Emily goes to live in a small cottage on the estate, where she unearths an old diary that belonged to one of its former residents.
The diary had been written in 1858 by Susan Olgilvy, the village schoolteacher at the time. Much like Emily had found Susan’s diary, the teacher wrote that she had discovered the herb garden after she found an herbal recipe book written by an even earlier occupant of the cottage. Dated 1684, the book was titled “Being the recipes for the creation of tinctures, salves, infusions and all manner of medicinals produced from the garden of the herb wife, Tabitha Ann Wise.”
Emily finds the recipe book, which has an extensive list of healing herbs: hyssop, wormwood, rue, coriander, pasqueflower, rosemary, St. John’s wort, costmary, lady’s mantle, lady’s bedstraw, angelica, heartsease, lily of the valley, marigold, milk thistle, thyme, sweet woodruff, wood betony, comfrey, coltsfoot, cowslip, hawthorn, lavender, lemon balm, meadowsweet, sage, valerian, yarrow and winter savory.
From Susan Olgilvy’s diary, Emily learns that the schoolteacher followed in Tabitha’s footsteps to become the village herb wife, or healer. Strangely, now Emily also feels compelled to restore the abandoned herb garden at the cottage and learn how to make herbal remedies.
But not everything goes as planned. Some of the villagers claim the cottage is cursed because “all the women who lived there came to a bad end.” The rumors seem like nonsense to Emily until she learns that Tabitha Wise was hung as a witch for her work with herbs, and Susan Olgilvy went on trial for murdering a woman with one of her herbal tonics. Emily is shocked when she’s also accused of attempting to murder her employer by using foxglove in an herbal tea.
Rhys Bowen has won several awards for her historical mystery novels, and throughout “The Victory Garden” she weaves in mystery and intrigue that have long accompanied women’s work with herbs.
In fact, “wise women,” or herb wives, were the norm in England up until the early 1600s. That’s when the London Society of Apothecaries was established and “physic” gardens were created at universities so male physicians could gain hands-on experience with medicinal plants. A physician named Gideon Harvey wrote in 1670 that medical students at Oxford should be apprentices in the university’s “physick garden … to prevent being outwitted by the herb-women in the markets.”
According to Andrew Weary in his book “Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680” (2000), a campaign was launched to wrest the occupation of healing from the “silly herb-women” and hand it over to learned men who knew Latin and the true, “secret virtues of plants.”
It was during this same time period that many women were hanged in England under the Witchcraft Act that was established by King Henry VIII in 1542. Hanging convicted witches was eventually abolished under the 1735 Act, but fines and imprisonment for so-called witches remained in effect in Britain until the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.
When the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus gave Latin names to every plant for his classification system published in 1753, one of the effects was to denigrate the use of common plant names by female herbalists. The language of flowers, or floriography, which assigned meanings to plants and became wildly popular during the 1800s, was one way women exerted their knowledge of plants alongside the male-dominated botanical field.
Today, herbs are still important in natural and homeopathic medicines, as well as many pharmaceutical medicines. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, many of the top prescription drugs in the U.S. are based on natural sources, including plants, fungi and bacteria. The CBD reports that plant-derived anti-cancer drugs such as taxol, first isolated from the Pacific yew, help save at least 30,000 lives per year in the U.S.
Other plant sources for drugs include Madagascar’s rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) to treat childhood leukemia, star anise (Illicium verum) to help combat flu and other viral diseases, and European foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) to treat heart failure.
Pharmaceutical drugs are synthetically produced by isolating and then replicating medicinal compounds found in plants and other natural sources. However, the CBD says overharvesting and habitat loss are placing approximately 15,000 species of medicinal plants at risk of extinction. Experts estimate that the Earth is losing at least one potentially major life-saving drug every two years.
While the diversity of medicinal plants in the wild is shrinking, the number of women physicians is growing in the U.S. According to 2019 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, male doctors still outnumbered female doctors, 64% to 36%, but women outnumbered men in medical school by about 1%.
I grow several of the medicinal herbs listed by the herb wife in Rhys Bowen’s novel in the Bard’s Garden at Hanley Farm. It’s not surprising that Shakespeare mentioned a lot of healing herbs in his plays because his son-in-law, John Hall, was a physician, practicing right around the time women were being ousted from their role as herbal healers.
However, the herbs I typically harvest are culinary herbs. Several perennial herbs can be grown outdoors and harvested over the winter in our area. These include rosemary, thyme, chives, oregano, red-veined sorrel, mint and lemon balm. (Mint and lemon balm can be invasive, so grow these in containers.)
Biennial herbs that can be harvested over the winter include parsley and chervil, the latter which has a mild licorice taste.
I use cover cloth to protect herb crops during the coldest days, particularly rosemary, which I’ve found is borderline winter hardy in my garden and will have a lot of die-off without some cover.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.