Before chemicals were named or isolated, before synthetic copies of healing substances, there were garden plants. Whether beautiful or insignificant, creeping or flourishing, tasty or bitter, plants were known to the housewives, religious houses and village healers of centuries past for the ways in which they could heal or harm.
A garden can be healing by its very existence – rich in colours, scents and gentle sounds which soothe the weary mind and refresh the spirit. At every time of the year there’s something doing in a well-loved garden – and the gardens at Weleda are no exception.
In the height of summer we’ll see St John’s Wort – hypericum perforatum – opening its bright yellow flowers, bristling with central stamens. It’s called ‘perforate’ because the flowers and leaves are covered in black dots, oil glands which look like holes when held to the light. Early healers saw these as signs from God that the plant would help to heal wounds, and we now know they they were right. We mix hypericum with calendula – another great garden healer – to make an ointment for painful cuts and grazes.
Calendula itself was always considered a bringer of joy, prized for its ability to expel nasty humours, according to the 17th century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper. It had the added benefit of being both tasty and pretty – in sun-deprived northern countries, bright orange and yellow dried calendula flowers were put into soups to lift spirits during dark winter months.
Bitter-tasting and potentially toxic, the Mediterranean herb rue (ruta graveolens) had entered British gardens and the English language by Shakespeare’s time, and he was quick to associate it with regret, bitterness and sorrow. But rue is a tenacious survivor which thrives on poor soils and survives harsh winters, so it also became associated with protection from infections, scattered around sick-rooms and places of contagion as well as stuffed up the nose to block the smell of pestilential air. Once again, more modern knowledge supports these folkloric ideas – we harvest the herb at the beginning of flowering to be made into an ointment and homeopathic remedy, both useful for sprains, internal bruising and damage to tendons.
It may be that most people consider rue a weed, and there’s no doubt that the annual nettle, urtica urens sits firmly in that camp. But another very useful first-aid remedy from the garden comes by mixing arnica with the annual nettle to create the Weleda remedy Combudoron. A herbal remedy, it eases insect bites and burns, once again demonstrating the ancient principle of ‘like cures like’.
Looking around your own garden, perhaps at the English marigolds, mallows, heartsease and nettles, you may see an unruly mess of weeds that need tidying up. But look again and maybe you’ll see what we do at Weleda – a riot of fresh-growing ingredients for first aid.