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The Garden Gate: Superstition may be creatures’ best protection

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

An amazing book published in France by Charles Estienne in 1550 assures us that “some report a marvelous strange thing of Basil, as namely it grows higher and fairer if it be sown with curses and injuries offered to it, and watered with vinegar.”

Well, you can try this, but it is very likely that modern basil is more civilized.

If you plan on having an herb garden this summer, now is a good time to start serious planning. A sunny spot near your kitchen door is ideal, or perhaps a corner of your vegetable garden.

Comfrey, known also by the colorful names of “knit bone” and “blackwort,” is a perennial herb that grows up to 3 feet tall. Its large leaves often measure up to 20 inches, and it has a long season of bloom in white, yellow, mauve or blue. Keep the flowers cut if you want more leaf growth. Comfrey likes full sun and moist soil.

Comfrey originated in Asia and Europe. The parts used are the leaves and root, which have a subtle, delicate flavor.

The powdered leaves are used to make a tea. The colorful names of this herb indicate some of its medicinal uses.

In past centuries, it was used for sprains or bruises, and it still holds a place in folk medicine in this way.

In a book entitled “Granny’s Recipes” by Mai Thomas, comfrey is listed as a remedy for chest congestion, reducing inflammatory swelling and as a poultice for healing superficial wounds.

Thomas had no formal medical training, but her folk remedies were used by people for miles around.

She lived in a Wales village where residents held her in great reverence and awe.

Some people called her a “white witch,” a reputation that was never really defined.

She learned some of her remedies from the Gypsies who sometimes visited the area. But some of them have a folk history going back to Druid lore.

Comfrey was one of the herbs Thomas regarded as a staple and a necessity.

Mint is another popular herb in our gardens. Sometimes we become so exasperated at the way it tends to overtake everything that we threaten to do away with it all together. But we seldom do, because it has so many uses. And, the scent of mint is so refreshing.

Also, of course, mint refuses to be done away with. When we eradicate it from one place, it is apt to mysteriously reappear in a different place on the other side of the garden.

Herbals are filled with references to mint and its virtues. Geoffrey Chaucer speaks of it in several instances.

John Gerard, in his famous 15th century “Herball,” says, “The smell rejoiceth the hart of Man, for which cause they strewe it in rooms and chambers.”

He continued, “It quieteth mad dogs ... they lay on it for the stings of wasps .. the smelle of mint doth stir up the mind and the taste.”

Mint, an ancient species, is mentioned many times in the Bible. It originated in the Mediterranean lands, Egypt and Israel.

It was once a biblical tithe, and St. Matthew writes, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

In ancient times, mint was an ingredient in both medicines and perfumes. It is used today in the Near East as a condiment, in salads, for flavorings and medicines.

Mint repels flies, which is why it is often used in bouquets on tables of sidewalk cafés in many European cities. No doubt this is why it was so popular as a strewing herb in the Middle Ages. Now, it would make a nice centerpiece for a picnic table.

A lot of people are superstitious about insects. A 19th century book lists remarkable assets and attributes of insects. All you have to do to find your destiny is to consult them.

For instance, it’s sure to rain if you step on a cricket. You’ll have bad luck all summer if you catch the first butterfly you see in spring. Kill a firefly or lightning bug, and you will be struck by lightning during the next thunderstorm.

You’ll lose all your money if you disturb butterflies clustered together. You will break all your dishes if you knock down a mud dauber’s nest. And there will soon be a death in the family if you see a swarm of bees on a dead branch.

To dream about ants means you’ll move to a bigger city, and you will soon get an important letter if a bee circles around your head.

You will soon meet the stranger who is wanting to meet you if a fly persistently buzzes around your head.

It’s good luck if a bee flies into the house in the morning; in the afternoon, just the opposite.

The belief that to kill a ladybug is bad luck has probably saved more of these little critters than any number of statistics showing their value to the gardener.

The best protection for a wild animal, bird or insect may well be just superstition.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.