Flowers for Food and Medicine

Ever since the first cave dweller got the first stomach ache, people have looked at plants to relieve their aches and pains. Which plants would cure which ailments? The question is ageless. Answers first came from {probably often painful} trial and error.
Eventually, though, this was backed by experience and knowledge passed down from one generation to another. Different civilizations, even though they were separated by time and great distances, used similar plants to cure the same ills. People in primitive societies believed, and still believe today, that sickness was a punishment from the gods. They assumed that their discomfort was a direct consequence of their actions. In these societies, no one knew why plants were able to cure many ailments. The men and woman who were knowledgeable about plants and able to treat various illnesses with their herbs were held in special esteem and took an honored place in the social order. Perhaps some of this distinction were based on fear, for the plants could harm as well as heal. An angry herbalist could do great harm. Because superstition was a strong factor in the cures they obtained, herbalists included many rites and rituals along with their magical herbs. One of the first writers to address the field of plants and medicine was Dioscorides, a Roman who published De Materia Medica around A.D. 60. He was a contemporary of Pliny, who wrote Naturalis Historia, a work much admired and used by both ancient and medieval peoples. During the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, monks were the primary instruments for keeping alive the medical and herbal writings of the Greeks and Romans. Outside the cloister, herb men and woman, bone setters, and healers prevailed, and superstition and folklore reigned. During the years A.D. 400 to 1500, the Church had great power. Since Christians believed that illnesses were caused by sin, they also believed that the greatest cures were obtained through prayer and repentance. It was, however, part of a monk’s duty to care for the sick, and these men were able to use many of the herbs growing in their gardens. Monks during the medieval period were in a very good position to perpetuate the teachings of the Greeks and Romans. Not only were they excellent copyists, able to transcribe the classical writings, they were also wonderful gardeners, for they had the time and opportunity to learn a great deal about herbs while working in the cloister gardens. Communication between monasteries allowed for an exchange of information about plants as well as religious matters.
The first herbal published in English was written by a monk, John of Gaddesden, between 1314 and 1317. Entitled  Rosa Medicinae, it combined Greek, Arabic, Jewish and Saxon writings about plants and medicine. In the mid-sixteenth century, an Italian physician proposed the doctrine of signatures, a method for choosing medicinal plants. Giambattista Porta  suggested that the “creator had marked out a path for mankind in the treatment of disease and injury by placing a sign or hint on plants which would be useful in healing them.” In other words, whatever a plant physically resembled, that is what it would cure. For example, plants covered with hairs were used to treat baldness or to wash and clean hair. The overlapping scales of lily bulbs were used to treat scaly skin. The bright red sap of bloodroot was used to treat blood disorders, and the liver-shaped leaf of hepatica was used to treat problems of the liver. This simple method of selecting the right plant for various ailments became quite popular, and a Phyto gnomonical {a book of plant indicators} was published explaining the different plant signs. Science and magic, truth and superstition competed to dominate the minds and souls of men until the seventeenth century. In the late 1500’s an Englishmen, John Gerard, published his Herball or Generall Historie of Plants. For centuries, it was prized for the mass of information it contained, and even today it is popular, in spite of its blatant errors and inconsistencies. The use of garden flowers in natural remedies enjoyed great popularity during the 1930’s. An English physician, Dr. Edward Bach, was one of the first “holistic healers” treating the body as a whole and not simply dealing with separate parts. His book The Bach Flower Remedies includes recipes and instructions for using thirty-eight different flowers. Each flower was used to treat a different emotion that, Dr. Bach felt, could cause disease. Oils from flowers were extracted, mixed with water, and preserved with brandy. Two or three drops of this mixture were drunk several times during the day. For example, pink impatiens were thought to be useful to those suffering irritability, gentian was good for those who were easily discouraged, and clematis was for those who were oversensitive. The use of plants as medicine and folk remedies gradually lost favor. As man became more sophisticated, he came to rely on synthetic drugs and became more and more removed from natural remedies.
healing flower garden
Today, however, some suspect that the very purity of laboratory-made drugs may cause harmful side effects within the patient. Perhaps many of the plants used for medicines contain “checks and balances” that prevent some of these side effects. Modern medicine is beginning to take another long look at the folk remedies that have been used for centuries. Many of the herbal remedies have proven to be effective, and scientists today are learning a great deal from the still-existing herb healers. The World Health Organization has created a Collaborating Center for Traditional Medicine at the University of Illinois to learn from those healers. Most in the Third World, still depend on traditional medicine for their primary healthcare. The World Health Organization’s center hopes that in these countries where “modern medicine” has not intruded, solutions to many health-care needs can be obtained from plants that grow there naturally. This provides a powerful incentive for strong conservation practices. Though some plants have been used for centuries for healing purposes, scientists throughout the world have just begun to discover the treasures contained within our native flora. To lose even one plant species might mean the loss of ingredients that could prove to be essential to our survival.

Ancient Herbal Remedies:

  • Arthritis: violet
  • Blood circulation: marigold
  • Bronchitis: primrose
  • Colic: verbena
  • Complexion: rose water, corn poppy
  • Coughs and convulsions: iris
  • Cuts and wounds: yarrow
  • Epilepsy: peony
  • Eye disease: cornflower, marigold
  • Gout: mallow
  • Head lice: larkspur
  • Heartburn: yarrow
  • Heart disease: foxglove, carnation
  • Infertility: wallflower
  • Influenza: pansy
  • Intestinal disorders: vinca
  • Jaundice: wallflower
  • Liver disorders: daisy
  • Nosebleeds: yarrow
  • Poisoning: columbine
  • Rheumatism: saffron crocus
  • Stomach aches: verbena
  • Sunburn: iris
  • Vertigo: primrose
  • Whooping cough: poppy

Edible Garden Flowers

In addition to their medicinal value, plants and flowers have also been indispensable throughout the ages for seasoning food. Many of the plants we grow in our gardens today for their beauty were at one time grew for their flavor. Many are still useful. Be creative, but be sure you know the identity of the plants you work with. Remember that some of our favorite garden plants are poisonous and should not be taken internally. Gather plant material in the early morning before the sun gets on it. Wash it gently, pull off the petals, and blot them dry. Store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. To make syrup; Place the desired amount of petals in one cup of water. Boil one to three minutes. Strain through cheesecloth and add two cups of sugar. Boil this mixture ten minutes, or until syrup forms. Do not overcook. To flavor honey; Add the desired amount of finely chopped leaves or petals to a jar of mild honey. Place the jar in a warm-water bath and boil gently for thirty minutes. Cool and store for several days before using. This can be strained or used unstrained. To flavor vinegar; Chop fresh petals or leaves, or use dried ones. Pour room-temperature vinegar over the plant material and let it stand one week. Strain and store the vinegar in a cool place. To flavor stock {vegetable or meat}: Simmer stock with fresh or dried leaves or petals. The longer you simmer, the stronger the herb flavor. To flavor butter: Place chopped petals in between layers of softened butter. Refrigerate at least one week before using. To pickle flowers: Place layers of buds or flowers in a glass or ceramic bowl, putting sugar between each layer. Pour boiling vinegar {cider or white} over the layers, add a piece of mace, and store for one week before using. To make jam or jelly: Chop petals and add them to water. Boil gently to extract color and flavor. The length of time you boil this depends on the plant material used. Strain and measure the resulting liquid, add one cup of sugar. Boil this mixture until the jelly stage is reached {a drop of the liquid should form a ball in cold water}. sure-jell can be used if desired. Pour into hot jelly jars and refrigerate or seal properly. To make tea: Use two to three teaspoons of dried {or sometimes fresh} leaves or petals for every cup of water. Steep the plant material in boiling water for three to ten minutes, depending on the type of plant material and personal preference. To make flower fritters: Chop up flowers into the fritter batter. Fry the fritters as you would pancakes.

The following flowers are considered edible. Their flavors vary from quite sweet to hot and spicy. Experiment with different blossoms and leaves in your favorite recipes. Most of these will add an exotic flavor and extra color to any dish. Use large open flowers such as hollyhocks, tulips, and day lilies to hold dip for a party. Use smaller flowers such as Johnny-jump-ups or violets to make candies. Be sure of the identification of each of these before you eat it.
Chrysanthemum, Daylily, Geranium, Gladiolus, Hollyhock, Jasmine {not the Carolina jessamine, which is poisonous}, Johnny-jump-up, Nasturtium, Pansy, Peony, Poppy, Rose, Sunflower, Tulip, Violet

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