My garden is more plant-based than design-oriented, and I generally choose plants for their interesting historical associations rather than their appearance. This doesn’t mean that if a plant is really ugly I won’t yank it out–despite its historical relevance (take that, horehound); I have some aesthetic sensibilities. Three attractive plants that are in full flower now and have been used in all sorts of interesting ways in the past are Lady’s Mantle, roses, and rue.
Lady’s Mantle (alchemilla mollis or vulgaris) is a really common, self-seeding plant which some gardeners perceive as a weed, but I love everything about it: its large and soft gray-green leaves and chartreuse flowers, its neat habit, and its history. It forms a nice border in the shade garden pretty quickly, and blends in nicely with lots of other plants. Here are some views of one of my shade borders, comprised of lots of Lady’s Mantle, sweet cicely,white baneberry, astilbe, and daylillies.
Like most herbs, Lady’s Mantle had lots of medicinal uses in the pre-modern past, but its Latin name, alchemilla, represents the role it played in alchemy, which moved out of the secretive laboratory and into the garden in the sixteenth century. The water preserved on its velvety leaves was used for alchemical distillations, which amplified the healing powers of plants. The common name denotes a multi-layered feminine association: the “Lady” refers to the Virgin Mary (not just any lady!), the “mantle” to an women’s cloak, and (in the words of Nicholas Culpeper, a seventeenth-century physician and author of The Complete Herbal), “Venus claims the herb as her own”, meaning that it had long been perceived as a cure-all for the full range of “women’s problems”.
In addition to its aesthetic virtues, the rose was also used in both medicinal and cosmetic (as well as culinary) preparations in the medieval and early modern eras. I can’t tell you how many rosewater recipes I’ve come across from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For some reason, I’ve never been able to find the rose variety that was prized the most for its medicinal properties in this era, the Rosa Gallica Officinalis (also called the “Apothecary’s Rose”). Instead, I just have really pretty, dependable David Austin roses. Though I generally refrain from showy plants in the garden, this orange rose bush (whose name I can’t remember), blooms all summer long.
Rue (Ruta Graveolens or “Herb of Grace”) was perceived as an extremely important plant before 1800 largely because of its role as a “counter poison” against the plague. To quote Nicholas Culpeper again, rue “causes all venomous things to become harmless”; it was pretty powerful stuff. It’s neat to have in a plague cure in your garden, but I love rue because it’s so beautiful, with the same soft colors as Lady’s Mantle: silvery gray leaves, yellow-chartreuse flowers. It’s a willowy shrub, that can work in lots of (sunny) places. Here’s rue, along with lots of other herbs (skullcap, avens, dill, flax, calamint) at the front of my sunny perennial border, and in a fourteenth-century herbal. The attendant snake is meant to accentuate the plant’s anti-venomous virtues.
I wanted to sneak one more shot of the shade border here from the other perspective, but somehow how an orange kayak snuck in here!