Following World Environment Day, we're now exploring the Churchyard at St John's Waterloo, a historic green oasis in the heart of London. Jonathan Trustram from the Churchyard of St John's, writes about herbs, and their (historic and sometimes murderous) connections to our local area.
I went to Kew one summer’s day and had a look at the Queen’s Garden, the 17th century herb garden behind the little palace in the Dutch style, built of shocking orange brick, a place I hadn’t visited for years and had always thought was a little dull and academic or the province of Culpepper aficionados. And besides, I had become allergic to Heritage. In other words, like the herbalists I was ignorant and prejudiced.
Although it is surrounded by the inevitable box hedges the garden itself is vigorous and crowded, and when full grown and going to seed in midsummer full of disorderly and competitive plants barely contained by the neat hedges. When seed production is important, tidiness is impossible.
The labels, quotations from the writings of 16th and 17th century botanists and herbalists, make visiting the garden a literary experience. But I read them not as extracts from a pharmaceutical text book, a guide to quaint cures and herbs to help you rest and digest, but as a sampling of the ills and fears and suffering of the time: ulcers and the plague, witchcraft, burnings, scalding and bleeding, wounding, infertility, melancholy, indigestion, sadness. And a fair bit of sex and drinking too.
So many of these plants are familiar already to us in Waterloo. Motherwort (“it makes mothers joyful”) appeared in Mint Street about four years ago and is spreading round the park. Greater Celandine which grows at St John’s against the north east garden wall was used in the treatment of asthma up until the second world war. Epimedium, or barrenwort, was said to make women sterile. Glaucium flavum, the yellow horned poppy, which is a British native found only (as a true 'native') on a few shingly beaches, has seeded itself all around the dry garden at St John’s; its foliage is a match for any Mediterranean silvery grey architectural plant. Gerard wrote in 1597 that it “looseth the bellie gently.” The cardoon, which has already marched across from St John’s to Waterloo Green, is there. It contains the chemical cynarine which has recently been found to protect the liver and lower cholesterol levels. (As old remedies are discredited, new ones are discovered.) Galium verum, ladies’ bedstraw has established itself in the wild flower meadow at Waterloo Green: ‘the root thereof being drunk in wine stirreth up bodily lust’. (And I thought the name came from its being used for stuffing pillows.) ‘The leaves and flowers of Borage’, a vigorous annual very common at Mint Street, ‘put into wine, maketh men and women merrie, and driveth away all sadnesse, dullness and melancholie’. We’re not told what the effect of ladies’ bedstraw or borage without the wine might be. After the fanciful and fantastic, the truth of Gerard’s judgement on Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, which has grown in this country since the middle ages and is common everywhere, is sobering: ‘It mitigateth paine, but leaveth behind a mischief worse than the disease itself.’
The most surprising discovery at Kew was Datura stramonium, which was already one of my favourite plants for the stories it tells. Daily Mail: THE POISONOUS WITCH DOCTOR PLANT WHICH IS SWEEPING THROUGH BRITAIN. It is poisonous and hallucinogenic and although the Daily Mail only woke up to it recently, it sneaked in from America at about the same time as that great legal economic migrant the potato. John Pechey said of it in 1694, ‘Wenches give half a dram of it to their lovers, in beer or wine. Some are so skill’d in dosing of it, that they can make men mad for as many hours as they please.’ Like other demons, it goes by many names: thorn apple, jimson weed, Jamestown weed, mad apple, stinkwort – and I have just been told by a colleague from South Africa that there it is known as stinkblare. It gets around.
It is reassuring to know that there have been almost no cases of poisoning from it. The seed pods, which give it the name of thorn apple, are so prickly that children would find it very difficult to open them and the seeds taste so foul that you spit them out straight away. It is common in SE1 and once earned Putting Down Roots (more on this project in the coming days) an alarmist article in the South London Press, after which we pulled most of them up. But it made a comeback (it is an annual which seeds prolifically). It also got an article in Rail News in 1980:
‘Hard on the heels of the giant hogweed reported in August Rail News comes another rare and dangerous plant – the thorn apple. It was spotted at New Milton station by a retired chemist and local botanist. He told his next-door neighbour, one of Waterloo’s assistants. Apparently, the drug stramonium, which came from the plant, was once used for the alleviation of asthma. And it is believed wizards in medieval times used it. New Milton’s stationmaster was told that the plant was in the station car park and arranged for it to be destroyed. After hacking down the three-foot plant they dug up its roots and burned the lot.’
Interesting that only complete destruction by fire would satisfy the authorities. It is what you have to do to witches, after all. Its seeds, though, are thought to be able to survive in the soil for a hundred years, which might make its sudden re-appearance seem magical.
According to Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica it had ‘…an honorable place in the treament of asthma up to the end of the second world war.’ When supplies were cut off during the war it was grown commercially, and the County Herb Committees were asked to gather wild plants too.
Here are some of the herbs growing in the Queen’s Garden at Kew which can also be found at St John's (with quotes from the labels at Kew):
Epimedium, barrenwort. The root would make women barren that ate it inwardly.