Laura Dean Bennett
If, like me, you grew up in the ‘60s, you will remember one of my favorite songs – Simon and Garfunkel’s Are You Going to Scarborough Fair?
And if, like me, you are a cook, or if you keep what my mother called, a “kitchen garden,” you undoubtedly know these four classic herbs.
Many historians suggest that the Simon and Garfunkel song was referring to the four most popular herbs used to ward off the Black Plague.
It was widely believed that the disease was spread by inhaling the scent of a Plague victim.
Thus, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme were used to keep away the smell of decomposing bodies, thereby, the Black Death itself.
Centuries before that, many cultures even credited these four herbs as being the foundation of love potions.
Parsley is the world’s most popular herb. It is native to the Mediterranean region.
Its delicious taste and many healing properties are often overlooked as many Americans have come to see a sprig of parsley on their plates as simply a garnish.
A relative of celery, parsley derives its name from the Greek word meaning “rock celery.”
While it has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years, parsley was used as a medicine before it was used as a food.
The ancient Greeks and Romans thought parsley was a sacred plant, using it not only as medicine, but also to adorn victors of athletic contests and for decorating tombs.
And parsley appeared on people’s plates as a healthful garnish as far back as ancient Greece and Rome.
But it is so much more.
Parsley contains high levels of calcium, B-complex vitamins and iron. Parsley is also an excellent source of magnesium, calcium, potassium, vitamin A, beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin K.
The two most popular types of parsley are curly parsley and Italian “flat leaf” parsley. The Italian variety has a more delicate and less bitter taste than curly parsley.
Among the many health benefits of parsley-
• it acts as a diuretic, helping to keep the urinary system healthy and preventing kidney stones and bladder infections.
• it removes toxins and heavy metals from our bodies.
• parsley roots and seeds help relax stiff joints.
• it is an effective medicine for the optic nerves, the brain and the sympathetic nervous system.
• parsley juice is an excellent tonic for blood vessels.
Pregnant women are advised to avoid large amounts of parsley, especially the use of the volatile essential oil.
So, next time parsley appears on your plate as a garnish, be sure to partake of its healthful properties and gobble it right up.
As a bonus, you’ll also enjoy parsley’s legendary ability to cleanse your palate and your breath.
Sage originated on the northern shores of the Mediterranean.
Its name comes from its Latin name, salvia, which is derived from the Latin salvere, which means “to be saved.”
This refers to its medicinal properties.
During the Middle Ages, there was a famous Latin saying about sage:
“Cur moriatur homo cui Salvia crescit in horto?,” which means “why should a man die while sage grows in his garden?”
Sage is another member of the mint family. It has long been used as a spice to flavor meat. These days, we are all familiar with the scent and flavor of sage – just think of the delicious aroma of turkey dressing.
It contains a variety of essential oils which allow it to act as both an antiseptic and an antibiotic.
Its health benefits include:
• it counteracts symptoms of menopause- night sweats and hot flashes- because of its estrogenic action and because its tannins help dry up perspiration.
• it promotes brain function and has been used in the treatment of cerebrovascular disease for over a thousand years. It helps stimulate better memory. Research suggests that it may help treat Alzheimer’s.
• sage may be of value to people with diabetes for whom insulin does not work as efficiently as it should. Studies indicate that sage may boost insulin’s action.
• it is being studied as a natural antioxidant additive for cooking oils to extend shelf life and help avoid rancidity.
Its antiseptic properties made it good for treating ulcers and sore throat. A gargle made from an infusion of dried sage was used by our ancestors to treat bleeding gums.
Historically, sage has been used as stimulating tonic, to treat typhoid fever, kidney troubles, liver complaints and head colds.
And as if these aren’t enough uses for this little plant, sage can also be used as natural hair coloring to darken the hair!
Rosemary is a popular perennial herb native to the Mediterranean region. The Romans are believed to have introduced rosemary to ancient Britain.
It is another member of the mint family, which may explain its intriguing scent and popularity in many cuisines around the world.
Rosemary is actually derived from the Latin name, phraseros marinus, which means “dew of the sea.”
We use rosemary in our cooking, as a garnish or final spice. The strong aroma of rosemary gives a decided earthy kick to many different dishes.
It makes a wonderful garnish or topping on a fish dish, or it can be roasted inside or beside poultry.
You can sprinkle it into soups and stews, and even top your bread with it as it rises.
One of my favorite ways of using rosemary is to stir the crunchy, raw “spikes” into olive oil and eat it as a “dip” with fresh bread.
When cooking with rosemary, if you want to retain rosemary’s healthful characteristics, don’t heat it up too much. Cooking can cause some of its medicinal components to be lost.
Rosemary can be very useful in treating a number of health issues.
Some people consume the essential oil in small or diluted doses. Rosemary has many internal effects, including reducing stomach pain and indigestion.
Rosemary is yet another member in the mint family. It is an antioxidant and an inti-inflammatory agent. It is also a good source of vitamin E and other important antioxidants.
In addition, rosemary contains 19 chemicals with antibacterial qualities and a number of volatile oils which reduce the airway constriction induced by histamine- the chemical culprit behind asthma and other allergy symptoms. This, rosemary has long been used to treat asthma.
Studies indicate other important health benefits for rosemary:
• as a memory booster
• as a cataract preventative, due to its antioxidants
• as protection against DNA damage by free radicals
• as a wrinkle preventative
Rosemary oil can be an allergen, consult with a doctor before using it if you suspect you may be allergic.
People who suffer from high blood pressure or epilepsy should not take rosemary supplements.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should always avoid large quantities of rosemary. Excessive dosage may affect the fetus and can lead to miscarriage.
Mixed into an oil infusion, it can also be used as a shampoo to improve the health of the scalp and hair or made into a salve for treating skin irritations and infections.
Rosemary’s strong fragrance makes it a handy deterrent for pests and insects, and it can also make a lovely air freshener when made into a sachet.
In Ancient Egypt, thyme was used for embalming. The Ancient Greeks used it as incense in temples, and they added it to bathwater.
The Romans used thyme as a flavoring for cheese and alcoholic beverages.
Hippocrates, known today as “the father of Western medicine,” recommended thyme for respiratory diseases and other ailments.
It was commonly grown in Greek gardens and gathered in the countryside as a flavoring for food and as medicine for a variety of ailments. Thyme was used to make a poultice to draw infection from wounds.
Such was its reputation as a killer of disease, that when the Black Death swept across Europe in the 1340s, people began to wear small bouquets of thyme as protection.
Scientific research does not support any actual effectiveness against the Plague, but modern studies have shown thyme to have a range of real medicinal properties.
The fungus Candida albicans is a common cause of yeast infections, a recurring condition often referred to as “thrush.”
Researchers have found that essential oil of thyme significantly enhanced intracellular destruction of the Candida albicans fungus in the human body.
It is an excellent source of iron and manganese, and a good source of calcium and dietary fiber.
The essential oil made from thyme, called “oil of thyme,” contains between 20 and 60 percent thymol.
Thymol is one of a naturally-occurring class of compounds known as biocides, meaning that it can destroy harmful organisms.
Thymol increases blood-flow to the skin which is believed to speed healing.
Recent studies have shown that washing produce in water containing thyme essential oil – at a concentration of only one percent – practically eliminated dangerous bacteria.
Another study has suggested that thymol can reduce bacterial resistance to common drugs such as penicillin.
Thymol has a range of other uses, from scenting soaps to being an active ingredient in deodorants.
It has been used as an antiseptic, and as an insect repellant. It is even thought to hold promise in killing Tiger Mosquito larvae.
Unlike the fresh or dried leaves of thyme, which we use in cooking, the essential oil of thyme cannot be directly ingested and it should not be used on the skin.
Please be advised, always check with your doctor before using herbs as medicine.
Whatever their historical uses or the reason for their inclusion in the song, the many health benefits of these four herbs make them worth growing and using.