Tag Archives: Herbals

Remarkable Roots

Fair warning: this blog is going into a very random phase, even more random than usual. Normally around this time of year I would have some sort of Labor Day or “Back to School” post, but as I have just started a sabbatical I am unaccountable to any calendar but that of my own projects–of which I have several. I might post on these occasionally, or I might use the blog to take a break from scholarship. Faithful readers know how I feel about Salem’s ever-intensifying Haunted Happenings, so know not to count on me for any October coverage: last year I got out of town for six straight weekends from September to November and that worked very well for my piece of mind. That’s the standard advice offered to anyone who is critical of Halloween in Salem—embrace it or leave town; you know what you were getting into–but in my case it is actually good advice! Fortunately my study is way up on the third floor of our house–and in back, overlooking the garden rather than the street–so when I’m not traveling I can hide away, far from the maddening crowds. So that’s the setting for the next few months, and I’m not sure what I’ll come up with for this space/place. Today is a good case in point: I was looking into the medical use of several plants in the sixteenth century, including artemisia and byrony, and found myself among the digitized manuscripts of the British Library. One manuscript in particular, Giovanni Cadamosto’s Herbal with accompanying treatises on food, poisons, remedies, and the properties of stones (MS Harley 3736; late 15th or early 16th century) provided me with a little escape/break, mostly because of the amazing roots of several of the plants illustrated within.

Scary Root Antora

Scary Roots Brionia

Scary Roots Colstanga

Scary Roots Corrola P

Scary Roots Dragonhead

Scary Roots F

Scary Roots Jordana

Scary Roots Mandrake

Scary Roots M

Scary Roots Morsb Serpen

Scary Roots Polma chi

I am familiar with this manuscript, but I never realized just how many fantastic roots it contained: suddenly that’s all I could see! We all know about that of the magical Mandrake, of course, but that’s just one of eleven by my count. Anthropomorphism always interests me, but in this case it’s a bit perplexing, as this text represents a more realistic Renaissance attempt to draw from nature rather than just relying on traditional motifs. These roots contradict that naturalism, but then again we’re in that transitional time, when a bit (or more) of whimsy could be retained. I’m still working on the plant identifications: “Antora” might by a yellow variety of aconitum or monkshood, “Dragontea” might be dracunculus vulgaris, or dragon lily, and “Palma Christi” must be the castor bean plant, which went by that common designation.


Very Common Coltsfoot

A shout out today for a very common, definitely invasive, and relatively ugly plant: Tussilago farfara, better known as Coltsfoot. The Coltsfoot in my garden is a holdover from the days when I would only have ancient medicinal herbs rather than pretty herbaceous hybrids: they were all rather unattractive so they didn’t last long, though I have incorporated some of the more manageable ones into my perennial beds. I have been unsuccessful at ridding the garden of Coltsfoot so I learned to live with it–and now I rather like it! (A good life lesson). It’s a ancient shade herb that flourishes in any setting–as you can see from the pictures below, it’s growing out of the bricks. It flowers very early in the spring–even in late winter in Britain I think–with a yellow dandelion-type flower, and after that it’s just low-lying leaves that will spread everywhere. I rip most of it out every two weeks or so and then it comes back. I will say that it is a very neat plant despite its tendency to spread. It’s a nice shade groundcover, if you watch it carefully. It never turns brown or wilts; it just wants to take over the garden (world). Coltsfoot is included in all of the classical, medieval, and early modern herbals as a “cough dispeller” (it is often referred to as “coughwort”) and a cure for any and all ailments of the lung, which are improved by smoking its leaves. I wonder if it could serve as a tobacco alternative? Many of the artistic depictions of Coltsfoot—medieval and modern–get it wrong, as the straggly flowers and rather more attractive (hoof-shaped?) leaves never appear at the same time: this was very confusing to the ancients, who portrayed it as two different plants.

Coltsfoot BL

Coltsfoot 1788

Coltsfoot Floral Fantasy Crane

Coltsfoot Poster VA

Coltsfoot tablecloth

Coltsfoot 017

Coltsfoot 021

Coltsfoot and Marshmallow in British Library MS Egerton 747 (Tractatus de herbis; De Simplici Medicina; Circa instans; Antidotarium Nicolai), c. 1280-1310; Coltsfoot in the Botanica Pharmaceutica, 1788, Walter Crane’s Floral Fantasy in an English Garden, 1899, on a 1930s London Transport poster (Victoria & Albert Museum) and a vintage Swedish tablecloth (from Etsy seller annchristinljungberg), and in my garden.


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