Herbs are plants, parts of which contain essential oils useful in food, medicine and/or cosmetics. Herbs usually grow in temperate regions, both in the wild and as cultivators. Herbs would have been plentiful and inexpensive in colonial American households.
Herbs should be distinguished from spices, which are generally derived from woody plants that grow in tropical areas. Spices had to be imported, making them quite expensive, and therefore of limited use in the early colonial home.
The meaning of the word herb has changed over time. During the 17th and 18th centuries, all plants for human consumption were called herbs. There were three categories of herbs:
- Salad herbs – those plants eaten raw
- Pot herbs – those plants eaten after cooking
- Sweet and simple herbs – sweet herbs were used in leaf form for flavoring, simple herbs were used in concentrated form, often for medicinal purposes.
The need for refrigeration and sanitation was not understood as fully as it is today. Herbs and spices served to make rotting or deteriorating food palatable. It also helped preserve foods.
The herb garden, which included all vegetables for human food, was the responsibility of the colonial housewife. She, with the help her younger children, would be responsible for the planting, maintaining and harvesting of the garden. The garden would have been very close to the house and surrounded by a stockade fence to keep the unfenced animals from destroying the garden. All kinds of eatable vegetation would have been planted. In addition, the colonial housewife also made extensive use of the herbs that grew in the wild.
To help ensure a good harvest, in the days before pesticides and fertilizers, the colonial housewife and farmer made use of plants. All plant waste was used as animal food or compost. Certain plants were used to benefit food production.
- To attract bees the following plants were purposely planted: basil, bee balm, catnip, lady’s bedstraw, thyme and lemon balm.
- To speed compost development, yarrow was added. In addition, yarrow root secretions activated the disease resistance of nearby plants.
- To deter aphids, apple scab and mildew chive plants were planted.
- To improve the scent of the air outside the following plants were suggested for planting near walkways where they might be trodden or crushed: burnet, wild thyme, water mint and hearty chamomile.
To understand the colonial use of herbs, we contemporaries must understand the basis on which decisions were made. Colonists based portions of their world view on teachings of early Greek writers. Theories about alchemy and astrology and concepts such as the four cardinal humors influenced many of the colonists’ agricultural, dietary and medical practices. The four cardinal humors were the body fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. The conditions and proportions of these affected the physical and mental health of the individual.
There were thought to be four basic human temperaments:
- Yellow bile or choler – hot and dry, characterized by a fiery nature and a bilious complexion.
- Phlegmatic (phlegm) – cold and moist, characterized by apathy and a pale complexion.
- Melancholic (black bile or choler) – cold and dry, characterized by depression and sullenness.
- Sanguine (blood) – hot and moist, characterized by great appetites and capacities, and a ruddy complexion.
The educated colonist would study an herbal, a book containing the names and descriptions of herbs, or plants in general, with their properties and virtues.
Much knowledge was passed along from parent to child, since many colonists were illiterate.
Most herbals listed the qualities of temperature of each plant – hot, cold, dry and moist – paralleling the four elements – fire, air, earth and water. These characteristics were said to be reflected in the human temperament.
In almost all individuals one humor was thought to dominate the personality. There were certain potential health disorders or imbalances associated with each humor. For example, the sanguine person was believed to be amusing and good-natured, but prone to overindulgence. Diarrhea or gout could be a problem for such an individual, so cool, dry herbs like burdock or figwort were used to cleanse the system.
Overly cooling foods were given when a patient had a fever, but those same foods were considered unsafe if consumed by a well person. Foods had to be combined to produce the proper combinations for a healthy person.
Melons were chilling, so they were served with ginger or pepper, warming spices. Lettuce was cold and moist, so hot and dry pepper, hot and moist olive oil and cold and dry vinegar dressed it. Vinegar, itself, was considered cooling, so it had to be enhanced with peppercorns, coriander seeds or other warmers. Otherwise, vinegar would “make leane” and cause melancholy.
Another old idea of the period was the “Doctrine of Signatures” or “Law of Similars”. This was the notion that a plant looked like the human organ or symptom of the disease it could benefit. Plants containing a milky juice, like lettuce, were thought to “propogate milk in nursing mothers”. The walnut, which looks somewhat like a brain, when properly prepared and laid upon the crown of the head, was said to comfort “the brain and head mightily”.
The use of herbs and plants in the colonial household was carefully decided based on the knowledge and observations of the time.
Colonial Herb Usage
Herbs and spices have been used for generations to treat ailments. Modern medicine has isolated the important elements of some commonly used plants for use in current drugs. Spices, in general, are the products of tropical and subtropical trees, shrubs, or vines and are characterized by highly pungent odors or flavors. The bark, fragrant leaves, roots, flowers and stems of certain plants of temperate regions are called herbs. Spice seeds such as anise, fennel hand herbs were believed to have magical powers. For example, thyme was considered a source of courage, and tansy and sesame were associated with immortality.
- Chiefly used as flavoring when cooking. Used dried as snuff to relieve headaches and colds. Also used as strewing herb. Basil is in the mint family, native to Africa, Asia, India and Iran. It was brought from Europe to America in the early 1600s and by 1774 was grown commercially in Virginia. Its clove like flavor made many foods more appetizing. Colonists used this herb, also called St. Josephwort, in salads and soups, especially pea soup. Powered Basil leaves were used as a snuff and thought to clear the head.
- Bee Balm
- Bee Stings; Leaf used as a tea substitute after Boston Tea Party. Bee Balm is a member of the mint family. It is native to North America but colonists soon sent seeds to Europe for their friends to plant and enjoy. Tea brewed from its leaves was called Oswego tea and was used as a substitute for china tea after the 1773 Boston Tea Party.
- Burnet or Salad Burnet was carried to New England by the Pilgrims. Its cucumber flavored leaves added zip to salads, casseroles and soups. It was put in wine to which it “yeeldeth a certaine grace in drinking”.
- Caraway can be found cultivated and wild in the United States, Europe and Asia. Seeds were used in bread, cookies and other recipes, and as a flavoring in cordials. The boiled roots of caraway were eaten by native Americans and recommended for those with a cold, weak stomach. A tasty tea can be made by steeping 2 tbsp of caraway seed in 2 cups of boiling water for 10 minutes and then sweetening with honey.
- Infused as a tea for indigestion and gas. Strewing herb and insect repellent.
- Early leaves in salads. Used medicinally as a poultice to heal wounds and reduce swelling. Roll the leaves and tape them on as a poultice for sores. The fresh leaves are also helpful when rubbed on itchy places.
- Coriander is an annual in the parsley family. It has become naturalized in this country, but is a native of southern Europe and Asia Minor. Colonists employed this spice in breads, desserts and pickles. The seeds were chewed as a breath freshener. Early distillers used oil of coriander in flavoring some whiskeys.
- Used in salads and for cooking. Dill was used to flavor soups, salads, breads, stew, fish, potatoes, sauces, pickles and gin.
- To treat skin diseases in sheep and horses. Also as diuretic and for coughs.
- Fennel leaves were used in salads, stews and vegetables. The seeds were used in pies and other baked fruits as well as breads.
- For “female hysteria,” melancholia and constipation.
- Garlic Chives
- Culinary uses as a flavoring.
- For gout, rheumatism, fever and melancholy.
- Used to make a cough syrup. Often used with honey and other herbs. Mixed with plaintain for snakebites. Soaked in fresh milk to repel flies.
- Strew on the floor to prevent the spread of infection. Also used to treat respiratory illnesses.
- Lady’s Mantle
- “A women’s best friend.”
- Strewing herb and insect repellent. Noted for its fragrant flowers, which are cut off when first opened and dried for sweet bags (sachets). Lavender oil is distilled from fresh non-dried flowers.
- Lemon Balm
- Infused as a tea for headaches, indigestion, nausea. Distilled as a treatment to clean and heal wounds.
- Similar to celery in taste, used in similar manner. Also used to treat kidney stones.
- Used in cooking. Also to cure insomnia, nasal congestion and loss of appetite. Sweet Marjoram was used to flavor stews and soups.
- Store mustard is made from the seeds of the white mustard plant, which is not the same as wild mustard. To make a mustard plaster, a favorite home remedy for chest colds, mix one-part mustard with eight or ten parts flour. Add lukewarm water until you have a smooth paste. Spread this between two pieces of cloth such as muslin, sheet scraps or flannel. Rub the chest well with petroleum jelly before applying, and don’t leave it on after the skin is well reddened. Keep away from mouth and eyes.
- Culinary uses. Seeds used as a diuretic.
- Breath freshener. Leaves infused as a tea. Peppermint was also introduced early to the United States. It also went wild. However, since it prefers wetter land, it is not as prevalent as spearmint. Peppermint leaves were chewed to sweeten the breath. Peppermint oil was used to flavor tea, foods, crème de menthe and medicine.
- Strewing herb. Flea and mosquito repellent.
- Used in salads. As a poultice to heal wounds and the seeds to prevent miscarriage.
- Queen Anne’s Lace
- As a diuretic and for kidney stones. Seeds used as a method of birth control.
- Oil used as a rub for sore muscles. Promotes liver functions. Culinary uses.
- Externally to cure warts, ringworm, and poisonous bites. Internally as a treatment for colic and epilepsy. Decocted for earaches.
- Culinary uses as a flavoring for pork, sausage and poultry. Medically in combination with other herbs for headaches. Decocted and as a mouthwash for sore throats and infected gums.
- This tree grows in many parts of the United States. The wood, root and bark can all be used for tea making. File, a traditional gumbo ingredient, is made from dried sassafras leaves. Colonial treatments called for sassafras poultices for treating sores. In the 17th century large quantities of sassafras were exported to England to be used in medicine as a blood purifier.
- Seneca Snakeroot
- A member of the dogbane family, snakeroot has been used as a sedative for centuries. The active element, reserpine, is now used in treating a variety of psychiatric disorders and hypertension.
- For vinegars and as a pot vegetable. As a poultice for infected wounds. To remove stains from linen.
- Spearmint was brought to the United States by some of the earliest immigrants. By 1672 it was growing wild. Spearmint leaves were used to make tea, jellies and sauces. The leaves were sugared and mixed with sugared leaves of rose and wild violet to make a candy.
- St. John’s Wort
- The leaves to treat burns and wounds. The flowers as a tincture for melancholy.
- Stinging Nettles
- Early spring leaves used in salads. A mixture of the seeds, bayberries, gunpowder and honey for rheumatism. Leaves used to line cheese press, and dried as chicken feed.
- Thyme was brought from Europe by the earliest settlers. Sprigs of thyme were placed on lard and butter to keep them from becoming rancid. It was used to flavor soups, stews, meat, cheese and egg dishes, seafood and vegetables.
- Tea made from the bark of the willow tree has been used since the Romans for curing headaches or other pains. Its ingredients, Salicylates, is known to us today as aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid).
Herbs and plants were also used for medicinal purposes.
18th Century Treatments for Common Ailments
- Stomach Aliments/Gas
- Teas of thyme, mint, or chamomile
- Respiratory Illness
- Thyme as a tea
Sage, decocted as a gargle for sore throats
Horehound, to make an expectorant
- Rue decocted
- Cuts and Wounds
- As poultices: sorrel leaves, comfrey roots, St. Johns Wort
Sage, decocted for infected gums
Thyme, dried as an antiseptic
- Kidney Stones
- Lovage as a tea Queen Anne’s Lace seeds
- Feverfew as a tea
tincture of St. Johns Wort flowers
- Female “Conditions”
- Feverfew as a tea
Lady’s Mantle, “A Woman’s Best Friend”
Plaintain seeds to prevent miscarriage
Queen Anne’s Lace seeds as a method of birth control
- Internal Parasites
- Tansy, both seed and flowers
- Stinging Nettle seed with bayberries, gunpowder and honey
- Rue as a tea
Feverfew as tea or leaves eaten
Rosemary as a tea or aromatherapy
Colonial Methods for Producing Herbal Remedies
When reading herbal receipts, it is important to understand the difference between a decoction, an infusion, and a tincture.
- Infusion: An infusion is made like a tea, by pouring hot water over the herb and letting it steep for fifteen minutes.
- Decoction: This method was used for tougher parts of the herb plants, the roots, stem and bark. The herb is boiled in water until water is reduced by 1/2 to 1/3. Roots, stems, bark and seeds are prepared by the decoction method.
- Tincture: A tincture is made by soaking the herb in alcohol, which absorbs the soluble parts of the plant. The liquid is then strained and used.
- Distilled: Infusing the herb with water, boiling same and catching the condensed steam. Makes a condensed form of an infusion.
Herb Use in Cloth Dyeing
Many colonists kept dye pots hung constantly in their kitchens. Different herbs were used to obtain various colors. The following are a few.
- Bloodroot was used by Native Americans and adopted by colonists. The red root sends up a red sap used as a dye.
- Dyers Chamomile, a “cousin” of the tea chamomiles, also called golden marguerite, was used as a yellow or tan dye.
- Goldenrod produced yellowish tans or old gold.
- Dock produced dark yellow.
- Fiddlehead Fern
- Fiddleheads of fern or lichens produced yellowish green.
- Blackberry produced light gray.
- Wild Marjoram
- Wild Marjoram gave a purplish color to wool and a reddish brown color to linen.
Colors varied according to the pot used; iron, copper and tin produced different tones of color. Additionally, the material dyed, whether linen, woolen or cotton would result in the production of a different finished color.
- flies and mosquitoes
- flies and mosquitoes
- repels beetles
- Garlic, onion
- mice, moles, beetles, aphids
- Leeks, chives
- carrot fly, improves general health of plants
- near rose beds, attracts beetles, stuns them
- insecticide, repel aphids
- ants, cabbage moth
- beetles, cabbage moth
- beetles, ants, mosquitoes
- bait for mice
Potpourri was originally made as a moist mixture of petals and leaves that was allowed to ferment, or stew, in a crock for several months. In French this stewing method was called potpourri, meaning “rotten pot.” The word is often used today to mean any combination of items.
Today we have modern spray cans for sweetening the air, but many people still prefer the potpourris (mixtures of dried herbs, petals, and spice) that the colonist used. Almost any combination of herb leaves and flower petals will produce a wonderful scent, and part of the fun is experimenting with different mixtures. You can use herbs you’ve grown yourself or pick some garden herbs and a few flower blossoms. You can also buy herbs and flowers at supermarkets and garden stores, or ask a florist for blossoms that are being thrown away.
Use two or three different kinds of herbs, such as lavender, rosemary, lemon verbena, or mint. Two or three kinds of flower petals will add color as well as aroma. The blossoms of roses, geraniums, marigolds, violets, and hollyhocks work well. Kitchen spices are a nice addition. The scent of your potpourri will last longer if you add a fixative (an ingredient that “holds” the scent), like ground orrisroot (available at natural food stores, some supermarkets, and craft stores) or a scent oil, like sandalwood oil or rose essence.
Many colonial women used flower blossoms to make their own perfume, using a process called “enfleurage.” They coated two shallow plates with lard, then cut the lard with a knife in a crisscross pattern to absorb more of the blossom scent. Next, they placed flower petals on one plate and fitted the second plate over it with the lard side against the petals. After a few days, they removed the petals and replaced them with fresh ones.
After replacing the petals eight or ten times, the women cut the lard into tiny pieces in a jar with a little wood alcohol. They aged the mixture for weeks, stirring it daily, then strained it into a clean bottle with some fixative. Most colonial women added their own secret ingredients to create a one-of-a-kind perfume.