A carpet of herbs

June 22, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

During a visit to England in 1560, Levimus Lemnius wrote to a friend in Holland, "Their (the English) chambers and parlours strawed over with sweet herbs refreshed mee; their nosegays finely intermingled with sundry sorts of fragraunte flowers cheered me and delighted all my senses."

Nearly 500 years later, 10 year-old Jennifer Krack, in sprawling but careful script, noted in a Sage Cottage diary: "This is the most comfortable, sweet smelling room I've ever stayed in."

While I have no certain knowledge what scents pleasured Lemnius' nose, I do know the sweet smell that Jennifer encountered came from baskets of sweet woodruff that were stashed on shelves and placed under dressers in all our guest rooms. Early on we had discovered that woodruff had the magical ability to gobble up all kinds of odors - from tobacco-impregnated clothing to pushy perfumes and aftershave.

The custom of affording pleasure, banishing vermin and masking unpleasant odors by strewing fragrant plants is an ancient one. When Cleopatra entertained Mark Anthony, she had the floor blanketed 18 inches deep with rose petals. Roman revelers attending sumptuous banquets were similarly knee-deep in roses. The Egyptian, Greek and Roman upper classes were great ones for bathing, so spreading fragrant plants was not done to mask the smell of unwashed flesh.


As the Roman Empire fell to it was a different story.

In the early Middle Ages, personal hygiene hit rock bottom. The orthodox Christian view held that exposing human flesh for any reason, even bathing, was sinful. One modern author has suggested: "The rich splashed themselves with perfume; the poor stunk."

Enter strewing herbs. They were a logical choice in homes where stone and earth floors called for coverings that would both sweeten the air and deter vermin and insects. In castle homes the floor was often strewn with reeds that served to both warm the floor underfoot and hide litter that was tossed liberally on the floor by careless diners - a perfect breeding ground for bugs.

In the spring the reeds were discarded. In was then that fleabane, identified by John Gerard as Conyza major, was burned indoors in the hope of eradicating its pesky namesake that might have been left behind.

In the beginning, strewing herbs were chosen for their smell or their perceived medical or antiseptic properties. The list of plant material used in Great Britain for strewing is a roll-call of strong-smelling plants: juniper, wormwood, fleabane, fennel, costmary, sweet woodruff, marjoram and the mints.

Wormwood was thought useful because it "driveth away gnats" and was effective "against the biting of the shrew, the mouse and the Sea Dragon."

Culpepper believed hot leaves of arsemart, sometimes called water pepper (Polygonum hydropeper) would also kill fleas, as would alder leaves.

It was left to the Tudors to return pleasure and beauty to strewing herbs. Thomas Tusser (1524-1580), who had a rhyme for every household task, added lavender, roses, violets, daisies and primroses as well as cowslips, wild basil and calamintha to the strewers plant list. In 1629 John Parkinson disclosed that "Queene Elizabeth did mor desire meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) than any other sweete herb to strewe her chambers withal."

In England, those who were appointed Royal Strewers lived at court. That job was discontinued during the reign off Edward VII - early in the 20th century. The custom persists in our own times, when the flower girl, with tiny basket in hand, strews flowers down the aisle, carpeting the bride's path to the altar.

Now is the perfect time to revive the ancient custom of strewing herbs and welcoming guests with a fragrant path. Abundant rain has created a whole garden that is desperately in need of cutting back. Clip wandering stems of lemon balm, mountain mint, lavender, pennyroyal, sweet woodruff and bee balm and toss them under your welcome mat to impart a fragrant welcome to guests.

Step back in time and strew or hang bunches of fragrant herbs on your doorknobs to dry.

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