Walafrid Strabo cultivated a wide range of plants on the fertile monastic isle of Reichenau, for food, healing, beauty and, probably, ale.
In Strabo’s poem, ‘On the Cultivation of Gardens,’ often known as ‘Hortulus,’ a term meaning ‘little garden,’ we find the first account of the cultivation of a mediaeval monastic garden. Below is a description of his plants and gardening methods, as far as we know about them.
The poem is full of Latin allusions to the classical gods. His gardening is ‘attending to the concerns of randy Priapus,’ the well-endowed Roman god of fertility, whose statue used to adorn many a classical garden.
Spring in the Garden
In his poem, the first warmth of Spring softens the earth and Abbot Strabo rushes into his garden. While some of his fellows labour handwriting manuscripts in the scriptorium, his squint (Strabo) saves him from this cold and arduous toil, and liberates him to cultivate and write.
Seeing the burgeoning nettles, Strabo seizes Saturn’s horned tool, a two-pronged hoe, and gets to work. His assistants were possibly older monks whose eyes, in an age before spectacles, had deteriorated through long-sightedness to the point at which scriptorium work was impossible.
Strabo makes raised beds from planks, lifting the soil above ground level to aid drainage and to warm it more quickly. The monks break the soil into tilth with a rake and work a rich, yeasty fertilizer into it. This is a puzzle. What fertilizer was it? People use yeast in bread and beer making. Of these only the beer leaves residues, so were the monks using the monastic beer-making residue as fertilizer?
The horticultural abbot is not afraid to dirty his hands, and so he carts buckets of cow manure from the monastery farms to spread on the raised beds. He speaks of watering beds with a bucket, not sloshing, but gently dripping.
The First Herbs
Three herbs introduce the poem. Sage, rue and southernwood are at the front of Strabo’s patch; perennials, they are regular features there, growing every year. There is a well-beaten path there for the infirmarian, who would seek sage as a panacea, rue for ailment of the intestines and southernwood for fevers. These would be bush varieties as opposed to the smaller modern kinds. Clary is a relation of sage mentioned later in the poem, whose English name means “clear eye” indicating a use in eye treatments.
The Edibles in Strabo’s Garden
Strabo gushes eloquently on gourds and melons. He speaks of how gourds swell from tender necks, as they rise upwards, climbing the alder tree, soaring up walls and over roofs. It seems that the monks liked gourds.
Gourds, the abbot tells us with relish, soak up the fat in the frying pan, and they can also make a tasty dessert. Gourds can be left on the tree for their rind to harden, whereupon they make a fine vessel for the fruits of Bacchus, holding sometimes up to half a gallon, which they keep potable for a long time. The reference to Bacchus is a further example of the classical element in Strabo’s thought and his love of the Latin classics.
By contrast, melons grow not upwards, but sprawl over the dry ground. Strabo compares them to soap bubbles. He tells of how his guests enjoy these tasty delights straight from the garden and how the white melon flesh cools the entrails.
As alders like wet ground and melons go for dry, there may have been wet and dry patches in Strabo’s hortulus, so he might understate its size, as it must have been big enough for a variation in soil conditions in it.
Strabo also grows radishes, but as these are a useful second crop in a harvested bed, they may not have had a bed dedicated to them.
Strabo’s Garden: More Herbs
Absinth, Marrubium (horehound) and fennel are next in the discussion. The first two make vile-tasting drinks, though brewers have used horehound as a beer flavouring.
At a time when caregivers administered medications in ale or wine, this may be how they used horehound; a drink of it was given for chest ailments and as an antidote to wolfsbane poisoning. They applied absinth for fevers.
I think that fennel, every part of which is edible, would grow in pots, as fennel demonstrates allelopathy, the ability to suppress the growth of plants near it. Strabo says that mixed with goat’s milk, fennel cures flatulence, and this is an item of lore so widespread that there may be truth in it.
Celery, like fennel an umbellifer, grows, and Strabo adamantly claims that its uses were more than culinary. If mixed with vinegar, he says celery would prevent vomiting, and serve as an aid to digestion.
A Lover of Mint
Several members of the Lamiaceae family thrive in the hortulus. Of Mentha (mint), Strabo is never short. He grows several varieties, and declaims upon its multiple medical uses, declaring that anyone who could tell you all its uses could probably tell you how many kinds of fish there were in the Indian Ocean.
But lovage, used for treating blindness, also merits a place, as does chervil, often administered with pennyroyal [Mentha pulegium] for bad stomachs. (Note: Pregnant women should not take this herb, as it can induce miscarriages, but there are no pregnant women in monasteries, one hopes!)
On the virtues of pennyroyal Strabo states that they are such that space does not allow him room to say all of them. Good for stomach ailments, it is, he declares, prized by Indian merchants. At this point he diverges into economics, speaking of the value of trade between countries, where one can swap one’s goods for those found in another. Pennyroyal would be traded for Indian black pepper.
Other Plants in Strabo’s Garden
Strabo loves roses, to which he devotes much space and he almost certainly grew them to cut and adorn the monastery altar during services. Agrimony, another of those family, was grown for its use in controlling skin infections. Iris would have been grown for church adornment, but also for controlling bladder pains. Strabo also briefly mentions hyacinths, which were for ornamental uses.
Nepeta (catnip) is a useful strewing herb that could lay on the church floor during services to provide a pleasant aroma and deter insects, such as midges, which might have been a problem near a lake. The monks could use tansy (related to costmary), also a strewing herb, to treat worms and parasites.
Herbs for the Emotions
Mediaeval healers used poppy seeds as a sedative. Bettony is interesting, as Strabo speaks of its being drunk in goblets of cider and insists on its great herbal efficacy. Some people consume a drink made from it daily, and it is good for many herbal purposes.
Even though Bettony was growing wild, Strabo was keen to grow it in his garden. Many mediaeval folk drank it at night to avert nightmares, and it was grown in churchyards as people deemed its anti-nightmare properties indicate that it frightened away ghosts.
Strabo’s garden reminds us of the words used in the night time service of compline, “Keep idle visions far away and night’s alarming fears allay….” A nightcap of cider with bettony might have helped.
An Abbot and a Healer
Christian gardens reflect the Christian spirit, in that they are beautiful and useful for food and healing. Strabo speaks of more uses for his herbs than I have had space to give here. You can find more if you read the full poem.