Those readers who delight to delve among pedigrees, genealogies and family connections, may perhaps be a little disappointed to learn that, in spite of the odorous nature of the herbs, there are none whose history reveals a skeleton in the closet. They are all harmless. Now and then, to be sure, there occur records of a seemingly compromising nature, such as the effects attributed to the eating or even the handling of celery; but such accounts, harrowing as they may appear, are insufficient to warrant a bar sinister. Indeed, not only is the mass of evidence in favor of the defendant, but it casts a reflection upon the credibility of the plaintiff, who may usually be shown to have indulged immoderately, to have been frightened by hallucinations or even to have arraigned the innocent for his own guilt. Certain it is that there is not one of the sweet herbs mentioned in this volumes that has not long enjoyed a more or less honored place in the cuisine of all the continents, and this in spite of the occasional tootings of some would-be detractor.
Like those classes of society that cannot move with “the four hundred,” the herbs are very exclusive, more exclusive indeed, than their superiors, the other vegetables. Very few members have they admitted that do not belong to two approved families, and such unrelated ones as do reach the charmed circles must first prove their worthiness and then hold their places by intrinsic merit.
These two coteries are known as the Labiatæ and the Umbelliferæ, the former including the sages, mints and their connections; the latter the parsleys and their relatives. With the exception of tarragon, which belongs to the Compositæ, parsley and a few of its relatives which have deserted their own ranks, all the important leaf herbs belong to the Labiatæ; and without a notable exception all the herbs whose seeds are used for flavoring belong to the Umbelliferæ. Fennel-flower, which belongs to the natural order Ranunculaceæ, or crowfoot family, is a candidate for admission to the seed sodality; costmary and southernwood of the Compositæ seek membership with the leaf faction; rue of the Rutaceæ and tansy of the Compositæ, in spite of suspension for their boldness and ill-breeding, occasionally force their way back into the domain of the leaf herbs. Marigold, a composite, forms a clique by itself, the most exclusive club of all. It has admitted no members! And there seem to be no candidates.
The important members of the Labiatæ are:
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Savory (Satureia hortensis)
Savory, winter (Satureia montana)
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Marjoram (Origanum Marjoram; O. Onites; and M. vulgare)
Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Basil (Ocimum Basilicum, and O. minimum)
Spearmint (Mentha spicata, or M. viridis)
Peppermint (Mentha Piperita)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Clary (Salvia Sclarea)
Pennyroyal (Mentha Pulegium)
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Hyssop (Hyssopus vulgaris)
Catnip (Nepeta Cataria)
Lavender (Lavandula vera; L. spica).
These plants, which are mostly natives of mild climates of the old world, are characterized by having square stems; opposite, simple leaves and branches; and more or less two-lipped flowers which appear in the axils of the leaves, occasionally alone, but usually several together, forming little whorls, which often compose loose or compact spikes or racemes. Each fertile blossom is followed by four little seedlike fruits in the bottom of the calyx, which remains attached to the plant. The foliage is generally plentifully dotted with minute glands that contain a volatile oil, upon which depends the aroma and piquancy peculiar to the individual species.
The leading species of the Umbelliferæ are:
Parsley (Carum Petroselinum)
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Fennel (Foeniculum officinale)
Angelica (Archangelica officinalis)
Anise (Pimpinella anisum)
Caraway (Carum Carui)
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Chervil (Scandix Cerefolium)
Cumin or Cummin (Cuminum Cyminum)
Lovage (Levisticum officinale)
Samphire (Crithmum maritimum)
Like the members of the preceding group, the species of the Umbelliferæ are principally natives of mild climates of the old world, but many of them extend farther north into the cold parts of the continent, even beyond the Arctic Circle in some cases. They have cylindrical, usually hollow stems; alternate, generally compound leaves the basis of whose stalks ensheath the branches or stems; and small flowers almost always arranged in compound terminal umbels. The fruits are composed of two seedlike dry carpels, each containing a single seed, and usually separating when ripe. Each carpel bears five longitudinal prominent ribs and several, often four, lesser intermediate ones, in the intervals between which numerous oil ducts have their openings from the interior of the fruit. The oil is generally found in more or less abundance also in other parts of the plant, but is usually most plentiful in the fruits.
The members of the Compositæ used as sweet herbs are, with the exception of tarragon, comparatively unimportant, and except for having their flowers in close heads “on a common receptacle, surrounded by an involucre,” have few conspicuous characters in common. No further space except that required for their enumeration need here be devoted to them. And this remark will apply also to the other two herbs mentioned further below.
- Marigold, Pot (Calendula officinalis)
- Tansy (Tanacetum vulgaris)
- Tarragon (Artemisia Dracunculus)
- Southernwood (Artemisia Abrotanum)
Rue (Ruta graveolens)
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Fennel-flower (Nigella sativa)
Before dismissing this section of the subject, it may be interesting to glance over the list of names once more. Seven of these plants were formerly so prominent in medicine that they were designated “official” and nearly all the others were extensively used by physicians. At the present day there are very few that have not passed entirely out of official medicine and even out of domestic practice, at least so far as their intrinsic qualities are concerned. Some, to be sure, are still employed because of their pleasant flavors, which disguise the disagreeable taste of other drugs. But this is a very different matter.
One of the most notable of these is fennel. What wonders could that plant not perform 300 years ago! In Parkinson’s “Theatricum Botanicum” (1640) its “vertues” are recorded. Apart from its use as food, for which, then, as now, it was highly esteemed, without the attachment of any medicinal qualities as an esculent, it was considered efficacious in cases of gout, jaundice, cramps, shortness of breath, wheezing of the lungs; for cleansing of the blood and improving the complexion; to use as an eye-water or to increase the flow of milk; as a remedy for serpent bites or an antidote for poisonous herbs and mushrooms; and for people who “are growen fat to abate their unwieldinesse and make them more gaunt and lanke.”
But let us peep into the 19th edition of the United States Dispensatory. Can this be the same fennel which “is one of our most grateful aromatics,” and which, because of “the absence of any highly excitant property,” is recommended for mixing with unpleasant medicines? Ask any druggist, and he will say it is used for little else nowadays than for making a tea to give babies for wind on their stomachs. Strange, but true it is! Similar statements if not more remarkable ones could be made about many of the other herbs herein discussed. Many of these are spoken of as “formerly considered specific” for such and such troubles but “now known to be inert.”
The cause is not far to seek. An imaginative and superstitious people attached fanciful powers to these and hundreds of other plants which the intervening centuries have been unable wholly to eradicate, for among the more ignorant classes, especially of Europe, many of these relics of a dark age still persist.
But let us not gloat over our superior knowledge. After a similar lapse of time, may not our vaunted wisdom concerning the properties of plants look as ridiculous to the delver among our musty volumes? Indeed, it may, if we may judge by the discoveries and investigations of only the past fifty years. During this time a surprisingly large number of plants have been proved to be not merely innocuous instead of poisonous, as they were reputed, but fit for human food and even of superior excellence!