Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Herbal Legend and Lore: Basil, Parsley, Thyme and Dill

Sunday I planted a few herbs in a concrete planter. For years I've grown my annual herbs from seed planted in a garden, but this year I'm changing it up. I realized that I didn't need near as much as I was planting, and that I preferred to have the herbs close by and accessible. Perhaps it's a sign of aging, but planters have slowly been taking over as my planting choice for annual flowers too.

So into the planter went basil, dill, thyme, and parsley. I still have oregano, chives, thyme, fennel and a few others in the garden--the perennials. Rosemary and sage are in big planters on the deck that I can move indoors in winter to keep them alive. Our winters, with their extremes of temperature, are not kind to these tender perennials, and even thyme has a struggle to survive them.

As I planted I realized that I know little about these plants. Well, I know that most of them come from Mediterranean clime. And I know how to dry or otherwise preserve them and how to cook with them. But I don't know a great deal about their history, or the folklore attached to them. So I've been doing a bit of reading up, and here's some of what I have learned.

Our herb garden in 2011. Perennial weeds eventually took over this space, and it became impossible for me to keep up with it, so the herbs were moved to new locations in various flower beds. Except the fennel, which does not like to be moved, so it still occupies a small space in the center of this plot along with some chives.
Basil: to have a successful planting, you must cuss the basil as you plant. Really? Really. And if you want to attract the attention of the opposite sex, put a planter of basil on your balcony or doorstep (Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou? I wonder if Juliet had some basil on her balcony?). Basil might also cause the unwary to have scorpions in their brains. How that could possibly happen the folklore doesn't explain, but just so you know. Given that belief, basil was thought to be a harmful plant, but others considered it to be healthful and a bringer of happiness. Take your pick.

A basket of herbs, ready to dry, from a blog post in 2008
Thyme: Often used as a strewing herb, thyme was believed to have been in the bedstraw when Mary bore Jesus. Strewing herbs were scattered on the floor and around a room to remove unpleasant odors in bygone days, and you can imagine how nice they would smell when trampled underfoot. Fairies, the old lore says, could be found in patches of wild thyme. Thyme was also a key ingredient in at least one love potion, and was used in purification ceremonies. Wearing thyme in your hair might help attract a lover too, so along with basil on your porch, you might want to tuck some thyme in your hair.

Dill: Sometimes called meeting herb because in colonial times ladies chewed the seeds during meetings to stay awake--a trick that we might need to revive! However, some think today that chewing on dill will induce a good night's sleep, so take your choice. Chewing dill seeds is also thought to cure hiccups, and to ease the pain of gout and arthritis. While other herbs are sometimes mentioned in folktales, I do not think I've ever encountered a mention of dill, but there are sure a lot of dill jokes.

Dried parsley
Parsley: While basil must be cussed at to properly germinate, parsley, according to the ancients, has to travel nine times to the Devil before it sprouts--one explanation for why it is so difficult to get the seeds to come up.  The seeds that don't germinate are the ones the Devil keeps! Whoa. I learned to plant in June, and cover the seedbed with newspaper kept moist to encourage good germination. There are some not-so-great associations made with parsley: "Welsh parsley" was slang for the gallows rope, and parsley was associated with other bad luck in many places. In several cultures it was connected with death, and used to scatter over a grave at a burial and to make funeral wreaths. However, the Romans fed parsley to their horses to keep them healthy, and its roots were considered an aphrodisiac. As we now know, parsley is full of vitamins and minerals and considered a healthy as well as attractive addition to foods.

This is just the tip of the iceberg where herbs and their lore are concerned. Here are a few websites to explore for more fascinating insights into the past and present of our culinary herbs:

Our Herb Garden is a compendium of myth and practical advice for the herb gardener.

Mother Earth Living provides history, folklore and growing tips.

The Sanctuary Gardener is a blog by a southern transplant that explores all kinds of gardening wisdom and homesteading, including herbs.

A booklist for further reading by Madronna Holden, Oregon State University.

Then use all those herbs you've grown to make your own bouquet garni for soups and other dishes.


Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

1 comment:

Quinn said...

I had no idea herbs could be such good news/bad news characters! Very tricky!
I guess I'll add "chewing dill seed" to things to try to get relief from joint pain. It will be an inexpensive experiment, which is my favorite kind. I'll let you know whether it keeps me awake or puts me to sleep! ;)

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