Excellent Herbs Had our Fathers of Old

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old–
Excellent herbs to ease their pain–
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris, and Elecampane–
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue,
( Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you–
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

I’ve been thinking about the opening of Kipling’s poem “Our Fathers of Old” as I write the current Merchant book. The protagonist is an herbalist-healer, or will be. Perhaps. Back in the day, before modern medicine, and sometimes because of what today we’d call academic medicine, people relied on plants and animals for medical treatment. Which for the author means learning a lot more about medieval and Dark Ages plants.

Readers of the series know that the four humors, more or less, are used in the Merchant world. However, once you move past “it it should be wet, dry it; if it should be warm, cool it,” things become a touch more complicated (Tycho Rhonarida’s fondness for spicy fried things notwithstanding.) What about infections, blisters, burns, fevers, coughs? Some of that comes out in White Gold of Empire, when a respiratory disease hits the city. And there have been mentions of “the summer complaint,” which carried off babies and small children well into the 20th century. What about worms and other intestinal problems? OK, the less said about intestinal parasites, the better, more or less. There are some things I don’t care to be fully realistic about.

Everyone knew some basics, if only so they didn’t poison themselves or their livestock. Nightshade, henbane, wormwood, rhubarb leaves, foxglove, and a few other things were to be avoided because they’d kill you. Watercress had a nasty look-alike in a hemlock that slowly paralyses the respiratory and circulatory centers. Mushrooms . . . best left to experts, or at least don’t eat the ones that everyone knows are bad. People also associated darnel (tars) or false-wheat with hallucinations and death because it hosts a fungus very much like ergot, and can host ergot proper. Other plants are caustic and had medical use but needed to be kept out of pastures and hay meadows.

Medical plants came under some broad categories. Fever tonics, anti-inflammatories, internal medicines, wound-care, pain reduction and sleep aids, and “women’s matters.” Even after Christianity became the official religion, some cures required magic, or were intended to chase off supernatural ills such as being hag-ridden or elf-haunted. Some prescriptions called for the herbs involved to be placed in front of an altar for twelve or so masses, then they were compounded and given to the patient. Psychology mattered as much as pharmacopia. Within the main groups you had sub-groups, some of which were pretty specific. Fevers that recurred every three days needed something different than those that returned after four days, or that came without vomiting. Did the patient have problems urinating because of muscle spasms or because of an enlarged prostate? Each of those had a different plant associated with the remedy.

Often, complicated preparations reveal that some of the herbs balance the others, mitigating some of the effects. For example, one for “wendenhearte” or general malaise and weakness includes: lupine, bishopwort, elfthorn, elcampane, cropleek, hindhealth, radish, and burdock. If you sort the plants, aelfthorn and burdock are sedatives of varying strength, and burdock is also an antispazmotic. Radish and elecampane serve as general tonics and attenuate the effects of aelfthorn, as does hindhealth. Cropleek and bishopwort are antiseptics and “draw out” illness, while elecampane also soothes the stomach and serves as an expectorant. Oh, if you are wondering, aelfthorn is a nightshade, one of the milder ones. [Sinead Spearing Mandrake, Wormwood, and Raven’s Eye: Old English Medical Remedies. loc. 630-31 Kindle]

Battlefield medicine made some use of herbs, although surgery, post-surgical care, and reconstruction were common. The basics such as using poppy and other sedatives, burn treatments, and so on circulated among everyone. Herbwives used what they had and didn’t worry too much about Greek and Roman humors and so on. Physicians used Latin, went to schools, studied for years, and treated the great, powerful, and wealthy. Sometimes, herb wives supplied physicians and apothecaries with things that the men wouldn’t or couldn’t get for themselves.

An herbalist has to know what works for what ailment, how to compound tinctures and infusions, poultices and ointments, common dosages and conversions, and what plants are forbidden under most circumstances. He also needs to be able to identify plants in their natural habitat as well as in a garden, and to know that some things need to be gathered without using iron, or compounded without iron. In other words, it is a very skilled trade, and one that needs a lot of training and education. There’s far more to medieval (and Merchant) medicine than there seems on the surface.

I will also add that while there are some real herbs and compounds used in the book, DO NOT try them at home. Consult a modern herbalist and current books for your region if you are inclined to try herbal medicine for yourself. Some things should only be used for external use, and some really are not that great for you.


Frustrated Roses

My rosebushes are terribly frustrated, even though they are supposed to be dormant. That’s part of the problem. It’s been warm enough that they start to bud, and then we get three or five days with lows in the teens F and highs in the 30s-40s. And no moisture. That’s rough on plants. It’s not great for people, but we can layer and unlayer. Roses don’t have that option. I’m seeing more and more black or brown canes and stems that were green.

It didn’t help that we had a form of black-spot the last two years. It caused foliage to drop, so the plants had to spend more effort regrowing the leaves and stored away less in their roots. The plan is, come true spring, to get out the loppers and shears—and the bleach—and cut everything way back, dipping in bleach after every trim. We won’t get any flowers, alas, but it might help ward off the black spot. Pre-treating for grasshoppers is also in the works. They didn’t help. Native bees just trim the leaves a little. Grasshoppers strip plants bare and carry diseases.

it’s better for roses if it gets cold and snowy, and stays that way. Or at least gets cold and stays there. The up and down really do a number on them, especially when we get a high wind from any direction. The wind sucks moisture out of both plants and ground. The worst I recall seeing was in April 2012, when it went from the 60s to the teens with 60 MPH north winds. When I came home from Santa Fe, NM, I had a garden full of rose jerky. Everything had been freeze dried and dehydrated. A number of roses didn’t make it through that mess. It also caught the hawthorn tree. Interestingly, since then, the hawthorn has leafed out and bloomed later than before. Make of it what you will.

Cold and snowy insulates the roses, keeps the ground moist, and helps them remain dormant. While dormant, they just sleep, not using much energy. Come spring, they’re ready to go with full reserves of root strength. We’ve not had a “good” rose winter since the late 1990s. If you can’t get that, a cool, damp, but not too harsh winter works, so long as you don’t have more than one or two deep cold spells. Alternating warm days and nights with deep freeze is what kills the plants, splitting stems if it’s bad enough.

What can you do? You can try to swaddle the plants if it is going to be that bad and they are small. 10′ tall (three meter) climbers are not amenible to that. We use lots of mulch, and water every three weeks or so if there’s not been sufficient snow or rain. Prayer helps, at least for the gardener’s peace of mind.

The High Plains are not natural rose territory. They always need a little cosseting, even monsters like Harrison’s Yellow. I think it’s worth it. Most days. Don’t ask me when I’m trying to prune the sweetbriar and the wind is blowing.

A Winter Reverie

When you live west of the 100th Meridian, “running a quick errand” sometimes driving for an hour or so. In this case, it was forty-five minutes, browse then chat then pay, and forty-five minutes to return to RedQuarters. In my defense, 1) the truck needed highway miles and 2) this time of year, it’s easier to fetch then have shipped when distances are so small*.

Given the construction on the main highway, which is extensive, ever-changing, and nerve-wracking to drive through when surrounded by semis, I took a series of county two-lane roads to my destination. These are Texas Farm to Market (FM) roads, so the speed limit is the same as the highways. Prudence and good sense apply, and doing 75 on a twisting, snow-packed road is generally frowned upon by the laws of Newton. That day we’d gotten “it won’t happen” snow overnight, but the roads were dry by the time I headed out of town. The first few miles were mildly interesting because of the mix of vehicles and the people turning into and out of roadside businesses. However, once past the Last Traffic Light, the cars and trucks disappeared. I saw a total of four on my first long leg. Since you can see traffic coming at least two miles away, relaxing and glancing at the sky and the sides of the road is safe**.

It was 39 F when I left town, and bright sunshine. The clouds that had come with the snow formed a white line far to the south and east, low on the horizon. There’s a different sort of look to retreating snow clouds, sort of soft on the edges and glowing under the blue top edge that separates cloud and clear sky. It probably comes from refracted light and their proximity to the ground. These were stratus, low and flat, not too thick. Soft blue arced from horizon to horizon, untroubled by contrails or clouds. The wind rested, although the forecast had that changing at some point in the day. A few golden brown tumbleweeds moved on the edges of the road, but only when a passing vehicle stirred the air.

I kept one eye on the black trail stretching before me, and another on the brown, dark brown, and occasionally bright green land to the sides of the road. New houses have sprouted up here and there as people build subdivisions “to get away from other people.” No, I don’t really understand it, and I’m not fond of it, but it’s not my money being spent (yet). However, past a certain distance and pasture replaced structure. The short, prickly, dark brown remains of cotton plants filled one former wheat field, explaining the globs and small tufts of “snow” that appeared in the ditch from that field into the next town. The winter wheat varied from very good looking (and irrigated) to barely holding down the soil, a faint green fuzz on the dark dirt. We need snow for the wheat. Rain is good, and almost no one objects to more rain, but snow protects and insulates the wheat, helping it survive truly cold temperatures. Pasture grasses catch the snow, holding it so that it melts into the soil and doesn’t drift (much.) Ranchers are fond of snow in moderation, and don’t really like rain after the grasses go dormant. It “washes the goodness out,” leaching out nutrients from the dry grasses. But rain fills the natural ponds and eases the need to irrigate or pump water, so . . . No, farmers and ranchers are never really happy, and certainly almost never happy at the same time.

Some of the grass looked very good. There were several large swaths of native grass pasture along the road, all well cared for. No cactus intruded, no mesquite poked up, and the grazing had been light and even. The lack of grazing’s not a great sign, because one reason for that is that local ranchers have been reducing their herds while prices are decent. The three years of drought are taking a toll on everyone. The road I took passes through an area that was blessed with more rain than other spots, and a little standing water lingered in the folds and pockets of the land. The only growing plants were the winter wehat. The native grasses are warm-season plants, able to tolerate higher temps and drier soils than the cool season grasses back east. Most of what I saw was western wheat-grass, grama grasses, and some un-grazed buffalo grass. Yes, buffalo grass will look like a nice carpet if it isn’t heavily grazed. Otherwise it is a very typical bunch grass, forming lumps and clumps for self defense. What I saw, with one exception, was pretty good. The one exception had been badly managed in the past, and a few cactus are still holding on despite the good grass cover. There’s one other “bad” place, but it is around a water hole, and has been used to stage construction materials and road equipment in the past, so weeds took over.

The trip passed quietly. I browsed through the shop and as usual left with more than I’d come for. I did not succumb to the lure of the beaver pelts (plews), although it wasn’t for lack of interest. I can justify books and Christmas gifts. A beaver fur for classroom use? Um, not so much. Nor could I justify a vintage men’s XL buffalo coat. For one thing, it was longer than I am tall, almost. Nor did I sign the list for the quarter beef give-away the local ranchers’ group is sponsoring. I have no freezer space, alas. A hair-on gun-rug almost followed me home, but I refrained. The shop owner and I chuckled at people who fussed about the real long-horn head “not looking like a real longhorn.” The visitor then pointed toward the African cattle*** grazing at the edge of town. The lady did not argue with her customers.

On the way back, clouds began filling the sky. Rows and clumps of winter grey dotted the sky, growing thicker as I drove back toward town. A few tumbleweeds danced across the road, chased from north to south. The wind had arrived. The sky reminded me of dollops of dough on a biscuit-topped cobbler. Some times, after being in a place for a few years, you just know what a “winter sky” or “spring sky” look like. This was winter, white and blue-grey stratus sheep grazing their way eastwards over the tawny-coated land.

Two more pickups came into view and then disappeared. Traffic was light on the back road, and light on the little bit of highway I traveled as well. Some schools are still in session, and the Christmas travel rush has not begun yet. Ranchers worked away from the road, and no farm work needed to be done outside, in the cold.

It was a good day to get away and rest my eyes on the land. The world is a lot larger than it feels, some days. It’s good to be reminded of that.

*Small being less than an hour one way at highway speed on dry pavement.

** As safe as looking around at 70 MPH on a rural road ever is.

*** If the horns curve up in a dramatic half-circle, it’s not a native Texas longhorn. You can also tell by body shape and size, and horn spread in some cases. But some things are not worth arguing about.


Spring is running two weeks late. Or at least the flowers are running two weeks late.

A storm was coming in, which made the light odd for a while.
Moving to the back yard . . .
Ye Olde Iris-colored Iris. With columbine, which are about to take over everything. The front of the house and four roses have vanished in the yellow columbine. I’m about to take pruning shears and start chopping.
Iris and foxglove. Please do not chew on the foxglove, even though it is sweet. (Digitalis sp.)
Fluffy rose.
Mini rose. Note paw for scale.
Another miniature, this one to replace a yellow one that failed to survive the -11 F temps.
Because columbine are cute.
Mom and Dad Red went for two bags of potting mix. That’s it, two bags of potting mix. This, and a peach-colored rose, and two bags of potting mix later . . .
A Yellow Rose in Texas. Not THE yellow rose, that’s Harrison’s Yellow, and they sprawl. This one is a super-hardy landscape rose that, for the first time ever, is actually doing as well as the red and pink ones are. Yellows seem to be a little more fragile than reds and pinks.

Runaway Tulips: Free-range, or Feral?

One of the houses in the neighborhood has a, let us say, relaxed yard. It’s not scraggly or weed-filled, but is a bit shaggy compared to the rest of the block. And a miniature, all-white daffodil and solo red tulip are blooming beside the driveway. Something suspiciously like a random iris or two are growing toward the middle of the yard. Continue reading

It Ain’ent Dead . . . Maybe

This year (2021) had been a bit rough on people and plants. Last month we had a bit of cold weather (-11F with wind chills of Let’s Not Go There) after a week of highs in the 70s and lows in the 40s. Spring was springing, when winter came slashing back. That’s a very, very bad combination for plants. The buds are tender, there’s a lot of sap in the stems, and if they freeze, it can rip the cells and thus the plant apart. We got some snow, but was it enough?

It appeared not. The hawthorn tree, being smart, had not budded out. The roses, especially in the front yard? Looked horrible, black from tip of stem to the ground. The buds withered and died. My two “pets” turned completely black and seemed to be as dead as could be. I try to be philosophical about garden plants, but maaaaan, I’m tired of digging up dead roses.

We did not prune anything back. Pruning tends to encourage new growth, and the average last freeze is in mid-April. Something about tempting fate and all that.

Hope springs eternal . . .

Two weeks ago, green appeared. Not on the stems, but at ground level. Keep in mind, these are all own-root (tissue culture [cloning] or seed). So these are not the grafts sprouting at the expense of the desired rose. It seems that the roses have mostly survived. Thus far. Dad braved some of the plants yesterday and cut the obviously dead canes back. Sweetbriar remains untouched, because that is a two person job – one to hold back attack canes, and one with a power saw cutting out (or off) the dead canes. Unless you have a pole saw, you can’t do it yourself without getting stabbed. And even then, well, this IS the Sweetbriar we’re talking about. She likes to get even.

Gertrude takes over . . . as usual.

Feral Helianthus

The wild sunflowers are creeping farther and farther from their point of origin. They started in a bar-ditch on the county black top. They’ve now crossed the road, easing into the edge of the playa plants. A few more grace the low spot at the bend in the road, and one determined plant is standing proudly in a low spot near access to the wheat field near the school.