In the medieval world, just about anything you could forage, or anything you could grow, had a use…or many uses. All kinds of plants, even things we would consider to be weeds, might be used for medicine, cooking, as strewing herbs to combat vermin and bad smells, or they might have sacred or magical uses.
Here are just a few examples of things we consider ordinary that the medieval people grew or gathered for extraordinary uses.
Almond: Aside from the wide variety of culinary uses, the oil from almond seeds was used in mixtures against coughs. Almond was also used as a laxative and was thought to prevent intoxication.
Birch: The tree’s sap, and juice from its leaves, were used as a mouthwash and to dissolve kidney and bladder stones. Tar from its wood was used to make ointments for skin disorders. Birch tea was thought to relieve arthritis and gout.
Its bark was used as paper, and its twigs to make brooms. The Celts revered the Birch as sacred and thought it could drive out evil spirits. Medieval magistrates carried a bundle of birch rods on their way to court as a symbol of their authority.
Chestnut: Used against coughing, fever, and the “spitting of blood.” Its wood was used for interior beams, paneling, and fencing. Nut meal was used to make starch and to whiten linen.
Clover: This common plant had a large variety of uses. Externally it was used for conditions of the skin, to heal wounds, sores, and venomous bites. Made into a poultice, it was said to ease rheumatic pain, inflammations, and even heal cancerous growths. Taken internally, it was used against bronchitis, whooping-cough, and conditions of the liver and gall bladder.
The leaves symbolized the Trinity and were worn for good luck as well as for protection against witchcraft. It was said that when clover trembled and stood straight, a storm was coming.
Dill: Not just for culinary uses, it was also made into cordials to soothe digestive issues, and was used to perfume soap and cosmetics. Dill was “added to love potions and witches spells, or hung up in a house as protection against the ‘evil eye’.”
Fennel: This herb had a huge variety of culinary, medicinal, and other uses. It was said to relieve a host of digestive issues, improve eyesight, reduce wrinkles, enhance memory, soothe sore throats, help with weight loss, and stimulate milk flow in nursing mothers. It was made into a mouthwash and its seeds were chewed as an appetite suppressant during times of fasting. Monasteries used fennel as a strewing herb, inserted it into keyholes, and hung it over doors to ward off evil spirits. It was also given as an antidote against poisonous snake bites, and poisonous herbs and mushrooms. Fennel was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo Saxons.