I come from a long line of gardeners. Back in Cornwall, Croggons are big in gardens: my grandmother was often visited by people who wished to admire her exotics and my Uncle William spent years restoring a historic garden at Creed Rectory in Grampound. My parents merely have to stick things in the ground for them to sprout and bloom. For a few years, my father even made his living with a franchise for Jim’s Mowing.
Somehow, this genetic heritage skipped me: I’ve always been the black thumb of the family. Pot plants took one look at me and withered. Lawns sprouted into lush meadows that rapidly degenerated into fire hazards. In my planticidal world, pelargoniums were as alien as plesiosauri. I am fine with things that shout at me to be fed, but plants are silent, and so they die. I have often felt this as an acute moral failing.
I suppose this inability is, at least partly, unconscious rebellion against a solidly bourgeois background. I certainly had plenty to rebel against. I remember visiting one of my cousins in Cornwall a few years ago after a lacuna of more than three decades. I sat in his beautifully restored Elizabethan farmhouse feeling as if I had dropped in from Mars. One of the first things he asked me was if I had any pictures of my ‘hice’. I suppose he was curious to see what I had done with my Elizabethan farmhice in Orstralia, and I didn’t have the nerve to explain that I rented an ugly brick veneer in the Melbourne suburbs, complete with the aforementioned fire-hazard lawn.
As you get older you understand that, even if you wish to, you can never wholly escape your background. I realised quite recently that this inheritance has been with me all along: it merely took literary form, in an ongoing obsession with ‘herbals’.
Herbals – books containing the names and properties of plants – are almost as ancient as writing itself. The earliest Sumerian herbal dates from about 2500 BCE and is itself copied from a manuscript that dates back to 7000 BCE. The Ebers Papyrus, a medical document from about 1500 BCE, is the oldest surviving complete herbal: among treatments for crocodile bites and instructions on bone surgery are written around 700 herbal recipes. Such books abounded in the ancient world: Greek physicians such as Diocles and Theophrastus all wrote herbals, leading up to the most influential of them all, Pedanius Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, written in 65 BCE, which set the bar for herbalists up to the Renaissance. Then there’s Galen’s De Simplicibus and Pliny the Elder’s monumental Naturalis Historia, the twentieth book of which is devoted to ‘cultivated plants that are proper for food and for medicine’.
The seventeenth century saw a great flowering of English herbals, partly a reflection of the radicalism of the times. Culpeper – ‘an addictive smoker, an Anabaptist, a loudmouth, a political radical, a toper, a good botanist and not-so-good Round-head soldier’ – wrote The English Physician to bring medicine to the people, taking it out of the hands of physicians. But it’s hard to go past the magic of John Gerard’s Generall Historie of Plants, the most popular of its time.
Gerard’s cosy chattiness shines through the loveliness of his prose. Speaking of the Jerusalem artichoke, he is testy: ‘One may wel by the English name of this plant perceive, that those that vulgarly give names to plants, have little judgment or knowledge of them: for this plant hath no similarity in leafe, stalke or manner of growing, with an Artichoke; neither it came out of Jerusalem.’ After noting its history (as told by his ‘oft-mentioned friend Mr Goodyer’) and how it is cooked, he concludes that artichokes are a ’meat more fit for swine than men’.
Then there’s the ‘Earth-Nut, Earth Chestnut or Kippernut’, of which he tells us, leaving us the more curious: ‘There is a plaister made of the seedes hereof, whereof to write in this place were impertinent to our historie.’ And you learn many things: that borage drives away sorrow and increases the joy of the mind, or that oil of Parsnip assuages the Forgetful Evil. Apples of Love (or tomatoes), with their ‘faire and goodly apples, chamfered, uneven and bunched out in many places’, may be a ‘bright shining red’ but ‘yeeld very little nourishment to the body, and the same naught and corrupt’.
Beyond such loafings for the soul is a more profound attraction. Herbals are practical books, the record of a complex human relationship to the natural world that is too easily elided. It’s a relationship that is deeply storied – each herb has its etymology of myth, folklore and classical scholarship – and yet domestic. It’s a relationship of delight, beneficence and balance, expressed in the ancient belief that herbs are the flesh of the gods. And even I can grow them.
Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels and criticism.
© Alison Croggon
Overland 204-spring 2011, p. 29
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