Edible Weeds from the Middle Ages Apr 29, 2014 3:28:28 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Apr 29, 2014 3:28:28 GMT -5
Weeds for Food in the Middle Ages
Our medieval ancestors actively encouraged weeds in their vegetable plots. The Fromond List, compiled by Surrey landowner Thomas Fromond in around 1525, is a list of “herbys necessary for a gardyn.” He recommends many of today’s weeds for sauces, salads, soups and so on. As Sylvia Landsberg explains in The Medieval Garden (British Museum Press), “many weeds and self-seeding crops which today we would destroy were added to the cooking pot.” Our ancestors harvested chickweed (Stellaria media), fat hen (Chenopodium album), langdebeef or ox tongue (Picris echioides) and sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus). The species name oleraceus (which means edible), is applied only to potherbs and vegetables, and indicates their common use.
Medieval gardeners relied on their “weeds” because they filled the hungry gap between the end of winter crops and the beginning of summer ones. Strongly flavoured plants, such as annual brassica swine cress (Coronopus squamatus), added extra bite to bland potages. We still devour watercress and lamb’s lettuce today – and there are British native species of both.
Landsberg has designed several medieval gardens, including the Bayleaf Farm Garden at the Weald and Downland Museum, near Chichester. This was maintained, until his retirement, by a sharp-eyed gardener named Bob Holman. He noticed that the weedy layer sheltered the larval stages of insects during winter and offered nectar for pollinators in spring and summer.
Holman also realised that different flowers attracted different insects. The umbels (such as parsley, skirret, alexander and dill) were popular with predatory Ichneumon wasps, scourge of aphids. Yellow and orange composite flowers, such as dandelions, lured adult hoverflies. Holman found that one parasitic hoverfly larva was capable of eating 1,200 aphids before it pupates. He also noticed that white campion (Silene latifolia) attracted blackfly, so he planted it near the beans – a crop targeted by blackfly – and watched as ladybird larvae sucked up the pests “like a hoover.” Thus, it worked as a diversion and a sacrificial crop.
There was no bare soil in a medieval garden. Every inch was covered with plants and this green mulch kept the soil moist. In August, as flowering waned, the weed layer was dug in as a green manure, improving the soil structure. So, although our ancestors nurtured the plants we now call weeds for food, the presence of such “weeds” added much to the natural habitat, too.
Landsberg says that there is a shortage of documentation about pests and diseases in medieval sources but theorises that “problems were more under control than nowadays”. Illustrated manuscript borders depicted the insects that played an important part in the medieval organic cycle.
“Ugly earthworms, slugs and larvae are not portrayed, but the attractive Our Lady’s Bird has spots that signify the seven sorrows of the Virgin. Pollinating bees, predatory spiders, butterflies, aphid-eating lacewings and damsel flies can all be seen, as well as snails and predatory beetles,” she says.
Perhaps our ancestors understood their relevance in the natural world far better than we do today.
Three step growing. The medieval field system relied on a simple three-year field rotation of pulses (i.e., peas and beans that could be dried), followed by grain, followed by a fallow year. When fallow, these ridge and furrow fields were grazed and manured by stock. Medieval gardens followed the same three-way system – and it was the fallow plot that contained the most weeds.
The garden was divided into short, narrow strips because the gardener leant over rather than walked on the soil. The paths were certainly not mown and probably not scythed either, so they must have been rich in insects. The illustrations in Thomas Hill’s book of 1577, The Gardener’s Labyrinth, show that the system and the beds looked very similar to modern raised “no-dig” beds.
Companion planting is another “modern” technique that the medieval gardener unconsciously practised. Before the advent of the seed drill in the early years of the 18th century, seed was scattered by hand and not sown in rows. It’s known that large amounts of seed were scattered in order to get a crop, far more than is used today. Two or three crops were often sprinkled together and then, if one failed, another would hopefully thrive.
These mixtures are mentioned in The Universal Gardener and Botanist: or a General Dictionary of Gardening by Thomas Mawe and John Abercrombie in 1767. One recipe consists of Cos lettuce, spinach and radishes. This is simple companion planting, the principle being that mixtures of leaf confuse pests and therefore deter them – an idea today considered to be at the cutting-edge of pest control.
Today, farming relies on monocultures that make it easy for pests to target crops. In order to raise yields, pesticides and herbicides have been widely used and wildflowers (and weeds), have declined. The knock-on effects on insect life, bird life and butterflies are well documented.
To counter this, the modern equivalent of fallow land is the wildflower strip left around commercial crops (encouraged by government grant). Trendy beetle banks and insect habitat “towers” also mimic the medieval habit of laissez-faire – not being too tidy.
Dr Rosemary Collier, director of research facility Warwick Crop Centre, has the difficult job of advising commercial growers on pests and diseases. She says: “The diversity provided by weeds can have beneficial effects. For example, weeds can act as companion plants in some cases, reducing colonisation by pests.”
However, she acknowledges that “some weeds and other wild species can and do harbour pests and diseases.”
But, as herbicides become less effective because weeds build up resistance and the range of chemicals available to gardeners steadily dwindles, there will come a point when we have no choice but to remove weeds physically. We may yet see a day when weeds, or wildflowers, play a crucial role in our gardens, as they did for our medieval ancestors.
The War on Weeeds. I have more than my fair share of weeds at Spring Cottage. Bindweed, stinging nettles and ground elder creep under the low stone walls and are impossible to eradicate, although I do control them by weeding them out every time I spot their horrid little heads.
Dandelions, thistles and buttercups seem to drift in from the surrounding fields and then there are patches of bittercress that inevitably pop up besides every new addition acquired from a nursery or garden centre.
Being an organic gardener, I can’t spray, so it’s a good thing that I find an hour’s weeding therapeutic.
Annual weeds. I’ve learnt to time some of my weeding when it comes to annual weeds. Take shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), for instance. The rosettes grow lustily through the winter and tend to attract lots of aphids on the undersides of the leaves early in the year, suggesting the aphids may overwinter on the rosettes. But if you look again by late April, the colonies of aphids are being devoured by ladybirds fresh out of hibernation. So shepherd’s purse is an example of a weed that encourages beneficial insects to stay in my garden. Many aphids will have been mummified, too, reduced to round brown blobs by small parasitic wasps, probably species of Aphidius, laying a single egg in each aphid.
Small birds, intent on feeding their broods, will also frisk the rosettes – another example of how certain weeds actively help my garden by sustaining predators. I only pull up shepherd’s purse once they’ve developed heart-shaped seed capsules, because their tiny flowers also produce early nectar.
This laissez-faire system is best-suited to wilder areas of the garden, but as long as you catch any annuals before the seeds scatter it can work well. I always let some red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum) flower, too, because it’s such a good early bee plant.
Weather and weeds. The rain-sodden summer of 2008 proved to be a learning curve, however. It was one of those years when it was impossible to get on the ground and we (and that’s the royal “we,” I’m afraid), had taken on a new plot on the village allotment and planted maincrop potatoes.
The weather was against us and as June and July progressed the weeds began to win the battle until it became impossible to spot our potato crop among all the thistles. We wrote off our spuds, with a heavy heart, and then tried to avoid the gaze of fellow allotment holders.
When August came it brought muggy, grey, damp days, perfect conditions for potato blight and sure enough it swept through every plot. Late September arrived bringing much better weather, and when we began to tackle the weed-infested area we were amazed to find that the hidden potato foliage was healthy and the tubers abundant.
The thick weedy cover had obviously offered protection from fungal spores and, despite the thick covering of weeds, the tubers had fattened up too – undoubtedly helped by the damp summer.
Source: Val Bourne, The Telegraph, April 27, 2014.