Throughout history the role of gardens has been shaped by cultural viewpoints and conditions specific to the time. Extensive wild-spirited gardens helped ancient people to begin building sedentary societies, develop new lifestyles, improve nutrition, and expand food security. Elite ruling classes across cultures have used immaculately curated landscapes to display their wealth and privilege. In times of war or national crisis, so called ‘victory gardens’ have been planted to show solidarity and support for nationalist causes. People today still plant gardens for many of the same reasons including sustenance, status symbol, political statement, and for beautification. This year’s pandemic garden may have new meaning for many of us.
There is no shortage of anecdotal accounts and scientific studies showing the health benefits of gardening. Gardeners routinely report feelings of happiness and increased well being from the activity of tending to their gardens regardless of their harvests. Researchers have shown the therapeutic and empowering effects of gardening in many different contexts. During a pandemic with stay-at-home regulations, long lines outside many grocery stores, and generalized anxiety about interacting in the community, the garden is a place of increasingly important respite from these practical concerns and emotional realities. It is a way for us to connect with the wisdom of the natural world without leaving our homes.
For many of us who are primarily staying at home as much as possible, the days may pass by without distinction. Time may feel increasingly abstract in pandemic life if we have lost our jobs and daily structure or if we have significantly increased flexibility in our work-from-home day. Many of us are more time-liberated but bound to place. The quality of place and our relationship with it becomes far more significant. The COVID-19 health crisis has brought gardening beyond the realm of hobby, growing food and medicine, or creating habitat for pollinators. It is a safe shelter for the more existential work of sorting out how we feel about our lives past, present, and future. What aspects of pre-pandemic life do we yearn for and which of those would we rather do without now that they are gone? Now that the pollution has cleared, revealing views of long-lost mountains and the vitality of deep breathing, what will we do to keep them?
When we have such an unprecedented and profound opportunity to contemplate the direction of our lives, both individually and collectively, we benefit from strong and stable roots. My garden has served many purposes for me over the years. Most important now is the bridge it builds to my ancestors, who provide the grounding required for this kind of introspective odyssey. Membership in the living mosaic of my yard is a collective of natives from my local environment as well as weeds and classic garden herbs from the Old World. No matter where our familial lineage originates, our ancestors give us a legacy of resilience as the survivors of past epidemics and other societal traumas. We are made of that strength and resiliency. Connecting with garden plants known and loved by our ancestors is a way of rediscovering and reinvigorating that in ourselves.
Trifolium pratense, Red Clover
Red Clover was undoubtedly a well-known food, medicine, and story-telling plant among our Old World ancestors. It is one of the most widely distributed weedy medicinal herbs in the world and has acquired great influence in the lives and cultures wherever it spread. The common name of Clover is likely derived from the Latin clava for ‘club’ and the botanical name Trifolium pratense refers to the 3-lobed leaves growing in meadows. Arriving in 5th century Ireland, legend has it that Saint Patrick used the 3-lobed Red Clover leaves to explain the Holy Trinity concept of 3 persons/one God to the king and people to successfully convert them. This led to the clover’s frequent use in church architecture, its representation of Saint Patrick’s Day, and the trefoil as a form of the Celtic cross. Red Clover has had a strong association with magic, protection, fertility, and wellbeing since Druid times. Stories tell how this plant opens one’s eyes to the faerie world and grows wherever elves live, being potentiated by their presence. Since the 1600s, farmers planted it in their fields to increase soil fertility (fixing nitrogen), grow more nutritious grasses, and fatten their cows. They also kept it in their stables to protect the animals from witchcraft. Clover leaves with more than 3 lobes have long been associated with luck and fortune: 4 lobes for good luck, 5 for fame, 6 for riches, and 7 for prosperity. Four leaf clovers were said to bring safe travels when worn in the shoes, bring dreams of your true love when kept under the pillow, and enable one to identify anyone casting evil spells on you.
As a medicinal herb, its actions and far-reaching and equally applicable in Medieval Europe and modern pandemic America. Flowers are a nutritive tonic, blood purifier, blood thinner, liver tonic, alterative, anti-spasmodic, expectorant, anti-tussive, respiratory tonic, and anti-tumor. With this array of herbal actions, Red Clover blossoms can be prepared as a tea, tincture, syrup, wine, poultice or compress for respiratory weakness or illness, blood and skin purification, and tumors. Syrup or tea is useful for strengthening the lungs and in treatments for colds, bronchitis, or whopping cough and may be particularly helpful for the dry spastic cough associated with COVID-19. Red Clover’s ability to cleanse waste from the blood, move the blood and lymph fluids, and its cooling and moistening effect on dry tissues make it a common ingredient in formulas and poultices or compresses for all types of skin conditions including sores, acne, eczema, psoriasis, swollen glands, mastitis, ulcers, and cold sores. These same coumarin-derived beneficial effects on the blood could potentially reduce risk associated with blood disorders and embolisms (a blockage in the vascular system cause by a blood clot or air bubble) now being identified in some COVID-19 cases (Danzi et al., 2020; Rotzingera et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020). Red Clover is also high in mineral content and is especially rich in calcium, nitrogen, and iron. These nutritive qualities combined with its actions inhibiting abnormal cell growth and regulating hormones, have made Red Clover a commonly used herb for the treatment of tumors, cysts, fibroids, cancer, and menopausal imbalances.
See Dara’s previous post on home health care preparations for COVID-19.
Marrubium vulgare, Horehound
Another herb of ancestral European traditions, Horehound is widely naturalized across much of the mountain west and is a willing colonizer of many dry habitats and disturbed areas. Although a gatherable and potentially invasive non-native plant in many wild places, it also makes a lovely garden herb (if you don’t mind a few burrs) that attracts bees and adds silvery evergreen beauty to your scene. Many ancient Old World cultures held Horehound in high esteem due to its protective magic and medicinal actions. The name Horehound may originate from the plant’s role in Egyptian rituals for the god Horus. It was also thought to guard against witchcraft and fascination, clearing the mind and sharpening mental acuity.
Horehound has a long medicinal history as a valued remedy for colds, coughs, and fevers, bringing this often-underappreciated herb to the front of our pandemic apothecary shelves. Aromatic Horehound leaves are gathered to make tinctures, syrups, infused honeys, cough drops, and even a bitter tasting tea. This herb was described by Dioscorides and Pliny and highly regarded by Egyptians, Romans, and Medieval Europeans. Modern herbalists carry on the traditional respiratory applications of Horehound using it to stimulate fresh lung secretions with new immunological cells (Wood, 2008) and create a relaxant effect on the smooth muscles of the lungs (Hoffman, 2003). This usage may be helpful for COVID-19 respiratory symptoms characterized by dry inflammation and cough. Additional benefits for some COVID cases could lie Horehound’s Old World remedies for diabetes, one of the underlying risk factors for more severe symptoms. Ethnobotanical studies have reported Horehound’s use for the treatment of diabetes within its original Old World range (Barkaoui et al., 2017; Rachid et al., 2012) and research shows a significant reduction in blood glucose levels, total cholesterol, triglycerides, and other hyperglycemic and hyperlipidemia markers (Elberry et al., 2015), potentially reducing risk for those with other underlying cardiovascular risk factors. In addition to these uses, Horehound is also helpful for digestion as a bitter capable of increasing stimulating digestive secretions, peristaltic action, and increasing bile production in the gallbladder.
The pandemic garden of spring 2020 is a place like no other we have known. Being here has the potential to facilitate a new kind of lucidity accessible through our connectivity with nature while our primal awareness is peaked. As we care for a place – a system of life, a gathering of individual beings – we become acutely aware of the reciprocal exchange that occurs between garden and gardener. Where is the boundary between us as we share our life experience and mutually care for one another in a most intimate manner? This union of ourselves and the rest of the biological world reinforces our vitality at a time when anticipation of illness and the weight of mortality seem to haunt us. In our gardens we may see plants shared with us by friends and fellow gardeners, realizing our connectivity with community as contrast to the otherwise isolating effects of the stay-at-home era. We feel hope in the vibrant diversity of our gardens with each participant finding a place, a valued role as a contributor to the whole. The garden is a model for a functioning society, lost on much of this modern world. In this refugia, we can be a both a designing force and a recipient of nourishing care as part of a dynamic living community. Herein lies the opportunity to bring ourselves into a more intentionally and purposefully crafted future that sees us living in balance with place and with life.
If you suspect you might have COVID-19 or have any concerns about your health, make sure to consult with a qualified healthcare provider. Please follow currently recommended COVID testing and prevention guidelines.
May 22, 2020
For a more in-depth discussion of this topic, read my forthcoming essay “The New Meaning of Wilderness and Gardens” in the Summer 2020 issue of Plant Healer Quarterly.
Barkaoui, M., A. Katiri, H. Boubaker, and F. Msanda. “Ethnobotanical Survey of Medicinal Plants used in the Traditional Treatment of Diabetes in Chtouka Ait Baha and Tiznit (Western Anti-Atlas), Morocco.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 198 (February 2017): 338-350.
Cunningham, Scott. Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1985.
Danzi, Gian Battista, Marco Loffi, Gianluca Galeazzi, and Elisa Gherbesi. “Acute Pulmonary Embolism and COVID-19 Pneumonia: A Random Association?” European Heart Journal 41, no. 19 (14 May 2020): 1858.
Elberry, Ahmed, Fathalla M. Harraz, Salah A. Ghareib, Salah A. Gabr, Ayman A. Nagy, and Essam Abdel-Sattar. “Methanolic Extract of Marrubium vulgare Ameliorates Hyperglycemia and Dyslipidemia in Streptozotocin-induced Diabetic Rats.” International Journal of Diabetes Mellitus 3, no. 1 (May 2015): 37-44.
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2003.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico, 2003.
Rachid, Azzi, Djaziri Rabah, Lahfa Farid, and Sekkal Fatima. “Ethnopharmacological survey of Medicinal Plants Used in the Traditional Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus in the North Western and South Western Algeria.” Journal of Medicinal Plants Research 6, no. 10 (March 2012): 2041-2050.
Richardson, Rosamond. Britain’s Wild Flowers. London: National Trust, 2017.
Rotzingera, D. C., C. Beigelman-Aubvra, C. von Garnier, S. D. Oanadlia. “Pulmonary Embolism in Patients with COVID-19: Time to Change the Paradigm of Computed Tomography.” Thrombosis Research 190 (June 2020): 58-59.
Wang, Tao, Ruchong Chen, Chunli Liu, Wenhua Liangc, Wejjie Guan, Ruidi Tang, et al. “Attention Should Be Paid to Venous Thromboembolism Prophylaxis in the Management of COVID-19.” The Lancet 7, no. 5 (April 9, 2020): 362-363.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2008