Garden Herbs – a social history, medicinal and culinary uses

I think sometimes we forget that the common overlooked herbs and plants in our gardens, have a rich history and many medicinal and culinary uses. We don’t always need to buy exotic herbs or go to a fancy apothecary, sometimes they are right under our noses. Here, I’m sharing some of the plants in my garden that I use all the time:

Balm, lemon

Lemon scented herb native to the Mediterranean and south-west Asia. Cultivated in England in the 10th century. Also called bee balm in the West Country, as it was planted around hives. 

Lemon balm can be used to keep insects away, keep it in pot near outdoor seating areas. You can also infuse the leaves in oil and make it into a balm to protect from insects.

It is also seen as a sedative, to help ease sleep or to sooth the neves. Make tea from the fresh leaves, I recommend fresh lemon balm and camomile, with a drop of elderflower cordial, chilled and poured over ice. A perfect iced tea before bed on a hot summer’s night!

This herb is also known to help reduce fever and over anxiety. The genital nature of the herb makes it safe for children. 

Lemon balm is also know to fight the HPV virus and is therefore helpful in fighting coldsores. Using the same balm for repelling insects as described above, apply to lips to prevent and fight coldsores. 

Black current

Small shrub believed to have been introduced in the 17th century. Thrives both in the garden and in damp open woodlands and hedgerows. 

The sour black berries are high in vitamin C and were used in the past to prevent colds. The berries can be made into a concentrate, syrup or jam. Enjoy liberally in the cold and flu season! 


A common shrub in the UK. Also know in Devon as Brimmle.

The bramble is a perhaps a bit of a misunderstood plant. Often seen as invasive and annoying, but in the past this plant was wrapped in superstition. Some communities did not see the berries as good to eat, and throughout the UK there were strict superstitions around when they could be picked. See Vickery’s Folk Flora for numerous account of devils and witches urinating on blackberries after a certain date!

On the other hand, blackberry picking is the beloved pastime of British children throughout the country! It’s probably people’s first, and for many only, foray to foraging. In the north of the country, school children would take a week off school in late September – this was called bramble week. Children were expected to pick the free fruit to make into jams. 

The leaves also are helpful for blood and skin disorders. A brew of the herb can be drunk daily and used as a lotion to help eczema.  


A widespread weed and annoyance to most gardeners. It’s name derives from ‘dent de lion’ or lion tooth-shaped leaves.

The seed heads are commonly used in childhood play ‘tell the time’ or ‘predict the future’. Catching a floating seed was seen as lucky and a wish could be made. 

The humble dandelion is is held in the highest esteem by herbalists. The white sap from the plant is a common folk medicine cure for worts. The whole plant can be made into a general tonic or to help disorders of the liver. Wine can also be made from the flowers, traditionally they were picked for this on St. George’s day.

“Dandelion has the highest levels of lecithin from any plant source; lecithin is important for cell membrane protection and replacement, reducing cholesterol, converting fat into energy, prevention of strokes and heart attacks.” – RHS Herbs for the Gourmet Gardener   


Grown in gardens since the 13th century, but now widely found in hedgerows and woodlands. 

As the first summer fruit, gooseberries were often eaten at Whitsun festivities. In both Cornwall and Somerset gooseberry festivals were held the first Sunday after Whitsun. 

During the 1740s the growing and exhibiting of gooseberries became a weird passion  in the midlands. Gooseberry clubs were set up in the Manchester area and a century later, there were over 700 varieties of gooseberry and  171 gooseberry shows. It’s a great pity to all that today only 10 shows remain, most having dyed out after the First World War.

Greater plantain

Perennial herb that thrives underfoot, on roads and paths. Identifiable by its ribbed leaves. 

The leaves are widely know as a ‘folk plaster’, excellent for helping skin ailments, cuts, animal or insect bites, nettle stings and burns, as well as drawing out infections. Traditionally the ‘ribs’ of the leaves were bruised, this side of the leaf was for drawing out impurities and the smooth side used for healing. The leaf can then be wrapped, desired side down, around the ailment. The leaves and root can also be made into a healing poultice – pulped leaves can be applied warm and then wrapped in muslin. Equally the leaves can be made into a balm. 

Internally plantain can be used to sooth the respiratory tract. It soothes and moistens the mucous membranes and lifts mucus from the lungs.  


My favourite herb, the smell always takes be back to sunny days in France, stripping the dried lavender from our garden. The name deriving from the Latin word ‘to wash’. Not only has this herb been used for its perfume since ancient times, but it was also used to deter insects. 

Famed for its relaxing qualities, lavender is used in baths and soaps to relax the mind. The flowers can be eaten raw or added to a tea to steady the nerves. The taste is for everyone, but the dried flowers can be infused into sugar or added to shortbread for a lightly perfumed flavour.

I always keep a muslin bag of dried lavender and hobs under my pillow to ease sleep – an old remedy for poor sleep. 


Pot marigolds, or Calendula is believed to be one of the first flowers cultivated. The flowers are edible and can be added to salads, baked into bread or added to cheese, its beautiful petals add a saffron like colour. 

However, the best use of marigold flowers is for skin complaints. The dried flowers can be infused into oil or milk, which can be made into creams or balms. Use this cream for eczema, warts, nappy rash and spotty complexions. 


A hardier version of the southern growing herb oregano and tasting a little of thyme. Delightfully called ‘joy of the mountain’ in Somerset.

This herb grows with wild abundance in our garden. We often add the leaves to stews, pestos or salads. The beautiful flowers bring life and colour to the garden all summer and can be used in digestion teas. Traditionally mixed with thyme, parsley, lemon and breadcrumbs, which can be used to bread fish or chicken. 

Before the introduction of hops to England, marjoram was used to to preserve and add aroma in beer making!

Marjoram is also an excellent herb for digestion, shaky nerves and morning sickness. 


The creation of mint in roman myth involved a love triangle between Manthe (a nymph), Pluto (the god of the underworld) and Persephone (Pluto’s consort), resulting in poor Menthe being turned into a scented herb that thrives in the damp soils around the entrance to the underworld.But dont feel too bad for mint because in the garden it’s a thug, taking over any damp beds.

Mint has many great uses for summer foods; add to a potato salad, mint soup or quiche, make into a salsa verde or combine with yogurt and cucumber, enjoy in a Pims or as a refreshing tea.

Famed for its digestive properties, mint has always been used in after dinner teas, chocolates and liquors.  

Drying rose petals and marigold flower


The cultivation of rose dates back millennia. They are mentioned on Egyptian tablets and were grown in such commercial quantities that Cleopatra had the sails of her barge washed in rose water. 

Any scented roses can be used for edible or medicinal purposes. The petals can be used to flavour sugar or made into jam, puddings and even put in savoury dishes like rose harrisa or pilaf. The Romans even made wine with the petals. 

The heady sent of roses has always been associated with love and women’s sexuality.


Meaning ‘rose of the sea’ as this herb thrives by the sea in both gardens and in the wild. This evergreen herb can be used fresh all year round. It’s a classic combination with lamb but can also be added to roasted vegetables or savoury bisects. 

Loved by the Romans and recognised as a herb of great medicinal and culinary importance. Throughout history it was burned in hospitals to keep away bad ‘humors’. 

Rosemary is seen as a herb of friendship and a bush planted in the garden will bring kinship with others. Like sage, it was a widespread belief in Britain that two rosemary bushes planted by husband and wife would predict who was the strongest willed in the household.


Derived from the Latin work ‘to heal’ or ‘save’. Long known for its healing properties it makes an excellent herbal tea, especially for ailments of the throat and lungs. However, its medicinal benefits range from a heart tonic, to helping digestion, to helping constipation and obesity. It really was seen as a cure all in times gone by. It was also rubbed on the teeth to clean them and used as a hair tonic for growth and strength. 

Sage is also a useful herb in deterring insects; bunches can be tied and left to dry in clothes closets or around the house. 

Sage is also a well loved herb of the kitchen, pairing well with mushrooms and meat. It’s a traditional British ingredient in sage and onion stuffing


The name coming from the Greek ‘to perfume’.

This is another one of those herbs that can be used in countless dishes in the summer and winter. Essential in making stocks, soups and strews, but also excellent in pastry, bread and with meats. Thyme can be made into an alternative to mint sauce, for serving with lamb. 

Thyme is a herb that has been used since the earliest times. A powerful antiseptic, this herb can be used in natural disinfectants, but also for a wide number of ailments. I have personally found it most useful in treating sore throats; I simply add it to a tea to sooth the throat. However, you can also induce the herb in raw honey, and take a teaspoon when needed. 


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