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The Garden Gate: Nasturtium a tasty, colorful flower

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Alexander Necham, Abbot of Cirencester, and Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln were 12th-century authors of lengthy books in poetic metre about plants. But the first known book written exclusively about gardening dates to the 9th century with “Hortolus”, a collection of 27 poems by the Abbot of Reichenau, a famous botanist and the biographer of Charlemagne.

Each poem is a description of a plant he grew in his garden.

Among them were sage, rue, southernwood, poppies, pennyroyal, mint and parsley. Gladioli, lilies and roses are especially mentioned as among his favorites, “better and sweeter than all other flowers” he said.

The abbot’s name was Walafrid Strabo of Swabia, and one of the things he did with his flowers was to create remedies for various ailments. His favorite specifics were oil of roses and horehound tea.

The standard plant medical book of early medieval times was the “Herbarium of Apulets,” which existed in manuscript form for many centuries. It was finally brought out as a handwritten book in the 15th century.

England had an even earlier book, the manual of a Saxon physician called “The Leech Book of Bald.” In the 12th century, students could also consult Macer’s “Herbal,” a popular treatise on plants.

England’s first practical gardening book was in verse form, just as Strabo’s book was even earlier. It was “The Feate of Gardening,” written, appropriately enough, by Ian Gardner about plants and how they were grown in 15th-century England.

Another medieval writer, known even then as “the venerable Bede”, includes much medical lore as practiced by his day’s monks, the most learned scholars in most areas — including horticulture, and the medicine of the time.

The nasturtium is almost universally popular to add spice and color to any garden. It is easy to grow and blooms bountifully, which endears it to gardeners.

Xenophon tells us that nasturtiums were eaten by the Persians about 400 B.C. Native to Persia, the plants spread to the gardens of ancient Syria, Greece and Turkey.

Nasturtiums are also native to this country. Early settlers here found wild nasturtiums in the woods. Called Indian cress, they were mentioned in a 16th-century book published in Spain.

The Indians of Peru lost many treasures to the Spaniards and English during the 16th-century gold-seeking days. Peruvian legend tells of man carrying a bag of gold nuggets down a mountainside. He was attacked by some treasure-seekers, and he begged the gods of the mountain to take back the gold. As he poured the gold nuggets on the earth, there immediately sprang up the golden flowers of nasturtiums.

The legend also says that the high air of the mountains is so pure, soft and clean that the penetrating fragrance of the flowers made one’s nostrils quiver, hence the name. Nasturtium, from Latin, means nose twister.

By the mid-16th century these lovely flowers flourished throughout the countries of Europe.

In his famous “Herbal,” John Gerard tells us they graced the gardens of France’s King Louis XIV. The were lauded by John Evelyn in his late 17th-century treatise, “A Discourse on Salletts.” They are to this day considered a sophisticated salad ingredient in Europe.

The great botanist Linneaus decided in the 18th century that this plant was not a cress. He gave it its generic name, tropaeolum. Nasturtiums are very high in vitamin C and also contain an herbal type of penicillin.

Nasturtiums are also principal ingredents in one of former President Dwight Eisenhower’s favorite recipe for vegetable soup.

We hear a great deal these days about the detrimental effects of tobacco, but this native American plant originally had a different kind of reputation.

It was named for John Nicot, who introduced nicotine tobacco to the French royal court in the late 15th century.

In 1559 a book about tobacco published in France carried the English title “Joyfull News Out of the New Founde World.” A Spanish doctor in Seville stated that it was an herb of great antiquity among the Indians, who had taught its medicinal uses to the Spaniards.

A garden plant regarded as all-healing, it was introduced into Britain from America in 1570. The famous story of Sir Walter Raleigh as the first smoker in England is a matter of history.

Tobacco is only one of the many native American plants which have influenced the diets and the materia medica — or medical material substances — of many of the other countries of the world.

The flowering garden plant nicotinea  is another type of plant related to tobacco. It is still a large cash-crop product in several Southern states, in spite of a growing understanding of the harmful effects of tobacco.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.