Roman uses of herbs
I would like to introduce you to a few herbs the Romans used and a little about Roman gardening.
The Romans used their gardens for a variety of reasons:
To show wealth, often by having fountains which were expensive due to the cost of water.
For relaxation, promenades and outdoor dining.
To grow food and medicine.
To place Sanctuaries and Shrines.
To keep birds, fish and animals.
To work in.
To cool the house.
In warmer climates they were able to plant twice yearly and they paid close attention to the moon, stars, sky and timings of festival. Similar to today’s Biodynamic gardening.
Many of the tools they used were similar to today's. When Pompeii was excavated they found hoe heads that exactly fitted modern shafts from that region.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) was a favourite bee plant, in fact 'melissa' is Greek for bee. Hives were rubbed with a balm made from it and bees were controlled with besoms made of its stalks.
This herb was sacred to Diana and leaves were mixed with wine to treat 'griping of the bowels'. As modern Herbalists we would still advise lemon balm to help calm the bowels but also to calm and uplift the mind.
Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) looks similar to an Aloe Vera plant and it seems the Romans used it externally in a similar way. It is cooling and astringent and used for cuts, burns and insect bites. They also used to grow it on their roofs to help prevent fire due to their high water content.
Lavender (Lavandula sp) – from the Latin 'lavare' to wash. Lavender oil was added to bath water and used for headaches and faintness. It was valued for its aromatic and antiseptic purposes. Lavender is well known to help with sleep and headaches. I also use it to the calm my patients and improve their digestion. Many people spend a lot of time under a lot of stress these days and this keeps us in the 'fight or flight response' long term. This response was designed to be a short term measure – to help us escape predators, for example. And when you are being chased by a big cat you don't need to digest anything – you need blood in your muscles to run away! Lavender helps to switch us from the 'flight or fight' state to the 'relax and digest' state.
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) from the Greek 'altho' to heal.
The roots were used as a food. Its main medicinal use was for wounds, bruises, toothache, tumours where it was crushed and boiled in wine which was later thickened and applied to the skin. Today as Herbalists, we still use this plant as a healer: internally the powdered root can be helpful for irritations of the digestive tract such as heartburn and diarrhoea. The leaf is used to help relieve coughs and cystitis. Externally a poultice can be made from the powdered root and this will help to draw out infection and heal wounds.
Bay (Laurus nobilis) was sacred to Apollo, Greek God of prophecy his Temple at Delphi's roof was almost entirely made from it.
It was believed that lightening never struck it. This led to it being worn as a crown or wreath. It was used as an air freshener and the leaves were added to baths to relieve muscle aches and pains. I continue to use bay for this reason in an ointment (a beeswax and oil based rub) mixed with several other herbs. The Romans had many other uses for bay including the juice of the berries for earaches and 'hardness of hearing' for which it was dropped in the ears with old wine and rosaceum (rose oil).
Sage (Salvia officinalis) from salvere – to save.
This sacred plant was always to be gathered with ceremony and never cut with an iron blade (modern science has confirmed that the iron salts react badly with the constituents). It was used as a wound herb, a blood stauncher and for cleansing 'wild ulcers'. Today we use it mainly for wounds of the mouth, for example, gingivitis, abscesses and sore throats. A strong cold tea can be very helpful if gargled or swirled around the mouth.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is one of the oldest plants in cultivation. Legend tells how Prometheus carried fire down from heaven in its stem. It was regarded as a slimming aid and the seeds were chewed to stave off hunger. Gladiators ate it for stamina and courage. The dried leaves were used for eye complaints and snakes were reported to use it to improve their sight (I wonder if they were seen rubbing against it to help loosen their skin when they sloughed it, snakes eyes cloud over as part of this process and clear when the old skin has been shed). It was used to relieve flatulence and stomach problems and the seeds were eaten to promote breast milk production. Fennel is commonly used these days to help relieve bloating and wind. I also use it as part of my 'Nursing Tea' formula to encourage good milk production and flow.
Rose (Rosa sp) were used for decorative purposes including as garlands for banquets. They were highly valued for their scent and were a staple for perfumes. Cleopatra is said to have seduced Mark Anthony while he was knee deep in rose petals. Medicinally they were used for eye problems and for their cooling properties which made them useful for 'heated' stomachs. I still use them for their cooling properties, for example, during menopause or for people who became 'hot headed'. I also use them to soothe emotional upset.
Many varieties of Grape Vine (Vitis vinifera) were known and they were used for commercial and domestic wine production. The plants were multi-purpose as they provided food, wine and shade. Various preparations were used medicinally and many remedies were given in wine as this helped to extract non-water soluble constituents and preserved the medicine. Fresh white grapes were given to those recovering from illness – does this sound familiar?
This concludes our very brief look into the Roman uses of herbs. For more information I suggest you begin with 'Roman Gardens and their Plants' by Claire Ryley. Who I would like to thank as my main reference source for this leaflet and for all those walks I've led around the gardens at Fishbourne Roman Palace.
Please note the information in this leaflet is for historical and modern interest only, please consult a local herbalist is you would like any more information. This information is drawn from a variety of sources and my clinical experience.
When to consult the herbalist:
If you are taking any medications, if you have other health issues you would like to address, if you want something tailored to your individual needs or if the above remedies are not suiting you. The herbalist will take a full case history including past medical history, drug history and family history and from this will devise a regime suitable for you.