This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
Besides those edible Herbs which come under notice here seriatim, there are several others which may be considered collectively, with a more brief, though sufficient, description. These are commonly used, or of cultivation for the kitchen, whilst likewise embodying curative principles for culinary development as foods. John Swann, in his Speculum Mundi (1643), swore by "herbs, hot, and drie, or herbs moist, and cold: herbs of more than ordinairie properties".
"Good Lord, how many gaping souls have scap't By th' aid of herbs, for whom the grave have gap't. 'Tis not alone their liquor inlie ta'ne, That oft defends us from so many a bane, But ev'n their savour, yea, their neighbourhood, For some diseases, is exceeding good".
Valentine, in the Dedication to his Liber Simplicium (Sixteenth Century), bore like witness.
"Herbis, non verbis euro; sincerus in omni Curandi methodo, quem mea praxis habet".
"By worts, not words, I cure - honest in all my ways".
As to certain herbs administered for the relief, or cure of ailments due to a deficiency of energies, or physical atoms, on the hypothesis of such herbs possessing correlative energies, and atoms, it must be remembered that a plant to be in perfect usefulness must find its elective essential elements in the soil producing it; the amount thereof may be exceedingly small, but that amount is all-essential to its health, life, and virtues. The very slightest secular changes are the occasion, or causes of the greatest operations in nature; and the human body is equally subject to parallel laws. The growth of herbs, and plants, is influenced by the moon, as well as by the sun. Shakespeare recognized this when writing (in Troilus and Cressida) "As true as steel, as plantage to the moon, as sun to day;" which allusion is explained in the Discourse of Witchcraft: "The poor husbandman perceiveth that the increase of the moon maketh plants fruitful".
Nor need the outdoor wayfarer in search of health-giving medicaments be ever dependent altogether on any kitchen garden for green stuff, and fruits. The hedgerow, and woodland, the cliffside, and riverside, the meadow, and heath, will furnish blackberries, hips, barberries, dewberries, whortleberries, samphire, seakail, wild chicory, sorrel, dandelion leaves, nettles, watercress, and, of course, mushrooms, as well as the many •other edible fungi now neglected through sheer ignorance.
"Poscas tandem aeger: si sanus negligis herbas, Esse cibus nequeunt: at medicamenta erunt".
"In health, if sallet herbs you won't endure, Sick, you'll desire them, or for food, or cure".
Saith John Swann again in Speculum Mundi: "First, concerning Herbs, I begin with Basil, whose seeds, being mixed with shoemakers' black, do take away warts. We in England, though we seldom eat it, yet greatly do esteem it because it smelleth sweet, and comforteth the brain. But know that weak brains are rather hindered than holpen by it; for the savour is strong, and therefore much smelled into procureth the headach; and hath a strong propertie beyond all these, for a certain Italian, by often smelling the Basil, had a scorpion bred in his brain, and after vehement, and long pain he died thereof. I pray thee, gentle reader, bear in mind this tragic tale, and have a care lest thou, through over-indulgence in one sweet smell, should turn thy brain into the unwilling hostelry of a too lively scorpion! Be discreet in thy generation, and, setting on one side the pot of treacherous Basil, gather to thyself great armsful of never-dying Borage (called also the ' Cucumber herb ')." The herb Basil (Ocymum basilicum) is often used in cookery, especially by the French; it grows commonly with us in the kitchen garden, but dies down every year, so that the seeds have to be sown annually.
The leaves, when slightly bruised, exhale a delightful odour; they gave the distinctive flavour to the original Fetter Lane sausages. The herb furnishes a volatile, aromatic, camphoraceous. oil, and on this account it is much employed in France for flavouring soups, especially mock turtle, and sauces. Dr. Kitchener tells, as a useful secret, the value of adding a table-spoonful of Basil vinegar to the tureen of mock turtle soup; "this the makers thereof will thank us for teaching." "Basil," says Evelyn, "imparts a' grateful taste to sallets, if not too strong, but is somewhat offensive to the eyes." This sweet herb has been immortalized by Keats in his tender, pathetic poem of Isabella and the Pot of Basil, founded on a story from Boccaccio. George Eliot, in Middlemarch, wrote about one of her characters: "He once called her his Basil plant, and when she asked for an explanation he said that the Basil-was a herb which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man's brains".
"It is a day whereon both rich and poore,
Are chiefly feasted on the selfsame dish; When every paunch till it can hold no more,
Is fritter-filled as well as beast can wish; And every youth and maid do take their turn,
And tosse their pancakes up for fear they burn, And all the kitchen doth with laughter sound.
To see the pancake fall upon the ground".
In our day the modern confectioner provides Coltsfoot Rock, concocted in fluted sticks, of a brown colour, as a sweetmeat, flavoured with some essential oil, as of Anise, or Dill. The herb Coltsfoot, which grows abundantly throughout England, especially along the sides of our railway banks, has been justly termed "nature's best herb for the lungs, and her most eminent thoracic." Its very name suggests this virtue, - tussis, a cold, ago, I dispel. All parts of the plant contain tannin, with a special bitter principle, and free mucilage. Coltsfoot tea can be usefully made from the leaves, so strong as to be sweet, and glutinous; liquorice root, and honey may be added, and a decoction prepared therefrom if preferred. The older authors-named this plant "Filius ante patrem," (the son before the father), because the starlike golden flowers appear, and wither, before the broad sea-green leaves are produced, and become conspicuous.