Miller-Cory House Museum

Interpreting America’s past 1740-1820


Colonial Herbs

Original article written by the Miller-Cory House Education Committee

 Many of the herbs grown in our country today were brought here by the settlers to be used for medicinal purposes. These original purposes are mentioned in the following text. The herbs are no longer used in these ways.

Note: *Strewing herb: tossed on the floor to eliminate odors. Also some herbs specifically used in churches - to ward off evil - in court rooms and jails to ward off the plague.

ANGELICA: (Angelica archangelica)

Strange flavor that cannot be described. Once used in pagan ceremonies; later adapted for use in springtime festival of the Annunciation. Most places it blooms May 8, Day of St. Michael the Archangel - hence a charm against evil spirits. Medicinally, used against contagion and to purify the blood. The stems are candied and used to decorate cakes.

ANISE-HYSSOP: (Agastache anethiodora)

Native to U.S. and Canada. Principally grown as a bee-flower by honey merchants. Makes a nice tea or garnish for fruit cups and cold drinks.

BASIL: (Ocimum basilicum)

Topical in origin - carried around the world for cultivation by man. Many different varieties, one in Kenya is named for its mountain, O. kilimandscharicum and used as tea for colds and fevers. O. sanctum, sacred in India and planted for use in the temples. In the Mediterranean, it has been the custom to place a pot of basil on the windowsill to keep unscreened windows' free of flies. Today adapts to picnics. Very popular in Italian cooking. Mentioned by Theophrastus in 300 B.C. Common in England in 1597. A root of basil held in the hand with a swallow feather "will relieve the pains of a woman in childbirth".

BEE BALM: (Monarda didyma)

Bergamot; oswego tea. One of the few native American herbs. Colonists substituted leaves for black tea in pre-Revolutionary War days, learning from the Indians. Today a sprig tucked in a garden hat disperses mosquitoes and small gnats. Oil of Bergamot does not come from this plant.

BETONY: (Betonia officinalis)

Cured every ill which could befall one's head ... including nightmares. Used as snuff; removes bruises. Juice heals' cuts, sores and ulcers. Decoction to kill worms; removes pains in the back. If you have it you are charmed and no evil spirits or witches will come near you.

CLOVE PINK: (Dianthus caryophyllus)

Flower prized for fragrance and used to flavor wine and vinegar; a substitute for cloves.

COSTMARY- (Chrysanthemum balsamita'var. tanacetoides)

Alehost because leaves flavored ale in England. French dedicated this herb to the Virgin Mary, but most of its associations are with Mary Magdalene. Common name, "Bible Leaf", came from colonial times when it was used as a marker for the Bible or prayer book; the leaves when chewed gave a minty flavor to keep the reader or listener awake. Leaves used for tea and for fragrance. Also moth preventive.

FEVERFEW: (Chrysanthemum parthenium)

Used medicinally for tea to relieve discomfort of fevers. Today, fresh leaves steeped in rubbing alcohol and dabbed on forehead and arms when working in the garden give protection against small black flies. Located close to dwellings because it was reputed to purify the atmosphere and to ward off disease. Used in treatment of     hysteria, nervousness and lowness of spirits.

FOXGLOVE: (Digitalis purpurea)

Source of the well-known heart regulating medicine. Described by a doctor in 1785 to be administered as a pill made from the dry leaf.

GARDEN HELIOTROPE: (Valeriana officinalis)

Strangely scented root enjoyed a place of prominence in Colonial days. Brewed for tea for hysteria, female complaints. Oil of valerian does have an effect on central nervous system. Soothes nerves, cures insomnia, treats epilepsy. Asiatic variations used as spices and perfumes. Flower very sweet-smelling. Root used as rat bait. Care must be taken in transplanting because dogs and cats are attracted to the scent and will dig up the roots.

HOREHOUND: (Marrubium vulgare)

Used as medicine since early Roman times. Ancient antidote for poisons and serpent bites. Famous as flavoring for horehound candy for coughs and colds and as syrup for same.

HYSSOP: (Hyssopus officinalis)

Small blue flowers loved by bees. Not the true hyssop of the Bible as once considered, as recent research has shown it was not known in Palistine. Once remedy for colds and lung diseases. A decoction of it was supposed to remove bruises, and the oil was used in perfumes and liqueurs. A strewing herb for its antiseptic qualities.

LADY'S MANTLE: (Alchemilla vulgaris )

Named by priests who followed Cortez to Latin America because the leaves appear pleated like the folds of a lady's cloak. Dew clings to edge of leaf giving the appearance of being edged with diamonds. Believed to stop bleeding if the fresh root was used in an astringent lotion. The tall flowers last a time and are loved by bees.

 LAMB'S EAR: (Stachys olympica)

Colonial band-aid - stops the flow of blood from a cut will adhere keeping the wound clean. Roots used as emetic. Flavorful tea with many virtues. Once considered a member of the family and thought to sanctify those who carried it.

 LAVENDER: (Lavadula officinalis(etc.))

Came to England with the Romans. Used by the Greeks and Romans much as today- clean, sweet scent in washing water, soaps. Strewing herb of medieval times. Medicine believed to cure 43 ailments. Always has been used to attract bees and makes an epicurian honey. One herb which has never gone out of style. A perfume made of the oil was described in the first century as being good for "griefs of ye thorax" . Very popular in Victorian days as it was supposed to be an anti-aphrodisiac. The one scent which will overcome mildew odor if the oil is sprinkled in musty trunks.

 LEMON BALM: (Melissa officinalis)

Melissa is Greek for bee. An ingredient of famous Carmelite water. Used with honey as a potion to assure Longevity. Tea supposed to be cheering to the spirits. The platforms on which bee skeps stood were scoured with branches of lemon balm in thel7th century to attract swarms of bees. Today bee keepers grow lemon balm for its high yield of nectar. Oil is distilled today and used in perfume and furniture polish. Green leaves rubbed on wooden furniture rivals commercial products. Also will keep family cat from scratching with her claws. The scent of a spray sold for this purpose has a very similar odor.

 LOBELIA: (Lobelia siphilitica)

Used in herbal medicine.

 LOVAGE: (Levisticum officinale)

One of the oldest of salad herbs, a favorite in colonial gardens. English use it for confection, coating seeds with sugar. Ancient cure for gout and intestinal disorders. Flavor of celery; seeds ground and added to biscuits, blanch stems as celery. Oil from roots flavor tobacco blends.

 ORRIS ROOT: (Iris germanica florentina)

Not an edible herb. A fixative for pot-pourri. Fresh root is dug, peeled and sun-dried, then stored for 2 years. Then ground and emits a violet odor.

 ORANGE MINT: (Mentha citrate)

Bergamot mint. A tea base and punch base. Hanging bunches of mint in an open door or archway for breeze to release aroma. Strewing herb. Sweet water in baths.

 PARSLEY: (Petroselium crispum)

One of the first plants used in wreath making. Chaplets, or wreaths for the head, at Roman and Greek banquets to absorb the fumes of wine and thus prevent inebriation. Eaten after dining to remove odor of garlic from the breath, forerunner of parsley garnish and chlorophyll breath sweetener. Pound for pound contains three times as much Vitamin C as oranges. Rich in iron too. Seeds rubbed on head discourage baldness, and parsley tea "cures" arthritis.

 PEPPERMINT: (Mentha piperita)

Black mint. Used as oil in candies, toothpaste, crème de menthe and medicines. Strewing herb. All mints used to cure many ailments.

 PINEAPPLE MINT: (Mentha rotundifolia variegate)

Used as a garnish for fruit cup, salads and cold drinks. Strewing herb. Used in baths as sweet water.

 RUE: (Ruta graveolens)

Sweet rue; herb of grace. Once used to treat many diseases. Said to bestow second sight, to preserve vision and used against old age and stiffening joints. Arrows dipped in juice of rue supposedly found the mark. Holy water was sprinkled with sprigs of rue, thus "herb of grace". Still used in Lithuania to announce engagements. Some people enjoy sandwiches with rue leaves. Can cause dermatitis in hot weather.

 SAGE: (Salvia vulgaris)

Famous for our Thanksgiving turkey also used in wine as a mouth wash, or in wine or tea for a sore throat. Many varieties; ancient medicinal and culinary herb.

 SALAD BURNET: (Sanguisorba minor)

Came to America with the Pilgrims. As a cordial, it was used to promote perspiration, and infused in wine and beer it was a cure for gout. Has a cucumber flavor without cucumber distress.

 SOUTHERNWOOD: (Artemisia abrotanum (camphorata))

"Young lad's love" because leaves burned to ashes and made into an ointment promoted the growth of a beard. Branches used in chests and closets as moth deterrent. Southernwood and Rue were used to protect judges and prisoners from jail fever. Also reputed to ward off drowsiness, so bunches of southernwood and Balm were taken to church to stimulate the listener and prevent falling asleep. Burned to ashes in the fireplace it is supposed to remove cooking odors from the house.

 SPEARMINT: (Mentha spicata)

Used for mint sauce, mint jelly, tea and juleps. An aid to digestion. Colonial times: tables rubbed with bunches of mint before guests are seated. Strewing herb; applied with salt to bites of mad dogs; good for wasp stings. Used in baths to strengthen nerves and sinews. Once a biblical tithe.

 SWEET CICELY: (Myrrhis odorata)

Giant chervil; myrrh flower; anise fern. Ancient history as a seasoning and fragrant foliage plant. Roots eaten as a vegetable or parboiled and served cold in a salad. Seeds eaten for licorice flavor. In history, was useful in treating coughs and as a gentle tonic. A decoction of the roots in wine was taken for bites of vipers and. mad dogs. An ointment was used on skin eruptions and for the pains of gout.

 SWEET WOODRUFF: Asperula odorata

Waldmeister of Germany. Traditional in May bowls; as a spring tonic. Contains coumarin which is used as a blood thinner. Strewing herb.

 TANSY: (Tanacetum vulgare)

Once used to bring out measles. Also in tansy cakes for Easter festivities. In New England put in coffins as a preservative until ground could be dug. Symbol of immortality, thus used by Greeks and Romans at burials. Supposed to keep away ants and flies, large leaves were kept in Colonial pantries. Kept with meat in safe or canvas closet where it was stored to preserve and keep off insects. Tansy pudding is served after Lenten fast in England. Considered dangerous if taken as an infusion. Could be lethal. An embalming herb.

 THYME: (Thymus vulgaris (etc.))

Manger.hay at Bethlehem. Literature is filled with references to thyme. Huge barons of beef used by the English were rubbed with Caraway Thyme, hence its botanical name T. barona. Ladies embroidered a bee hovering over a sprig of thyme on a scarf, presented it to her Knight to protect him and give him courage.

 WINTER SAVORY: (Satureja Montana)

Virgil grew savory for his bees. Romans used its hot peppery flavor before eastern spices were widely known. Once considered the proper dressing for trout. Used with string beans, other bean dishes, rice, soups, gravies. Uses are the same as Summer Savory, which includes rubbing on bee stings to keep down the swelling.

 WORMWOOD: (Artemisia absinthium)

True wormwood- official drug plant. Source of dangerous drink absinthe banned in France when found damaging to the brain. Used today, or at least recently, in Absorbine Jr. Highly toxic; used to treat fevers; preventative of intoxication, or a remedy for same. Infusion was thought to prevent hair from falling off.