Gerald's Herbal

Explore the history and strange suggested uses for herbs and vegetables in one of the most famous English herbals: ‘Gerard’s Herbal’.

Garden Museum

First Page of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

John Gerard (1545–1612) was an English herbalist who produced ‘Gerard’s Herbal’. He was in charge of several important gardens including the gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520 – 1598), and the Physic Garden at the College of Physicians. Physic Gardens grew plants for medicinal purposes. He had trained as a barber-surgeon and proposed a physic garden in the City of London for the Barber–Surgeons' Company, although it is unclear if this garden ever materialised.

Gerard also had his own garden in Holborn, London, which "grew all manner of strange trees, herbes, rootes, plants, flowers and other such rare things".

The herbal he produced is mostly an English translation of a 1554 Herbal by Flemish herbalist Rembert Dodoen (1517-85). A Dr Priest had previously begun the translation to English and Gerard failed to acknowledge either Dodoen or the Dr Priest in his book. He did add to Dodoen’s text with plants growing in his own garden and those from North America.

Printed herbals were used by apothecaries to guide them when making pills and medicines described by physicians. Dioscorides, an ancient Greek physician, wrote a herbal in around 65 BC know as ‘De materia medica’. It was very influential until the late 17th century and Gerard refers to Dioscorides several times in his herbal.

Illustration of Citrulus Minor in Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

The Herbal is full of beautiful woodcut illustrations which came from a previous herbal. ‘Eicones plantarum’ was published in 1590 in Frankfurt and the printing blocks were bought by London based printer John Norton. Norton printed ‘Gerard’s Herbal’ with these blocks and 16 new woodcuts.

A Page from Gerard's 'Herbal' (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

‘Gerard’s Herbal’ was first published in 1597 and includes inaccurate or mythical material. It lists many types of real fruits, flowers, vegetables, herbs, corals and fungi as well as a tree that bore geese. After Gerard’s death the herbal was reprinted by Thomas Johnson, a herbalist and apothecary, who made corrections and additions. This 1633 edition includes many more tropical plants such as the Banana.

Page 260 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Here we explore some of the recommended uses for familiar herbs and vegetables from the original 1597 ‘Gerard’s Herbal’. These plants have some bizarre recommendations, as well as, uses that are still relevant today.

Spinach, contrary to knowledge today, is said to yeld little or no nourishment at all in ‘Gerard’s Herbal’. In fact the herbal suggests it easily causes a desire to vomit.

Page 190 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Gerard lists many uses for mustard including the common use of mixing the seeds with vinegar to create an excellent sauce and for toothache, a home remedy still used today. He also suggests beating mustard seeds and putting the powder in the nostrils to causes sneezing and raise women ‘sick of the mother out their fits’.

Page 189 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Illustrations of Mustard

Page 192 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

While the Herbal describes wild rocket as a good salad herb it also warns that if eaten alone it causes a headache.

Page 191 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Illustrations of rocket.

Page 573 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Hemp is noted as hard to digest and hurtful to the stomach and head however it is recommended for hens. The herbal states that, according to ‘Mathiolus’, it causes hens to lay more eggs.

Illustration of Hemp in Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Illustration of hemp.

Page 765 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Cucumber can be found in skin products today and the Herbal suggests they will make your skin smooth and fair when they are outwardly applied. The herbal also provides a recipe which uses cucumber along with other ingredients, such as white wine vinegar and blanched almonds, to take away spots and other deformities of the face.

Illustration of Cucumber in Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Illustration of cucumber.

Page 548 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Basil is recommended for those who are feeling low with the Herbal stating ‘the seed drunke is a remedie for melancholicke people’ and that the smell of basil is good for the heart and head, and will make a man merry and glad.’

Page 871 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Gerard states that parsnips have a rather unusual use according to Dioscorides. The herbal suggests that deer are preserved from snake bites by eating parsnips with wine: that Deere are preserved from biting of serpents, by eating of the herbe Elaphobofcum, or wild parsnip, whereupon the feed is given with wine, against the biting and sting of serpents.

Page 870 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Illustration of Parsnips

Page 781 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John gerardGarden Museum

The potato was one of Gerard’s new additions and it is believed that he was the first to grow them in England. The illustration is thought to be the first published picture of the plant.

It is recommended as a ‘wholesome’ food which comfort, nourish and strengthen the body and perhaps more surprisingly procure bodily lust.

Bastard Pepper from Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

While most would want to avoid getting pepper in the eye, the herbal states that pepper corn resist poison, and is good to be put in medicaments for the eyes.

Peppercorn from Gerard's 'Herbal' (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Illustration and description of pepper.

Page 553 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Mint is listed as wholesome for the stomach, a common use today, as well as being good against kidney stones and stings from bees and wasps. Perhaps the most unusual use for it is as a contraceptive for women, which the herbal states is a teaching from Dioscorides.

Page 552 of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

Illustration of mint.

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