Faoi na Fuinseoige is the name I have given the little bit of earth under our stewardship. The literal translation of the phrase is “under the the ash”, but I found it translated as “under the protection of the ash” enough that I am comfortable giving it that meaning.
As early as the Iron Age, horticulturist communities were growing what resemble medieval physic gardens. Around 50 BC, the Atrebates tribe is known to have grown wheat, apples, blackberries, cherries, plums, poppies, coriander, dill, fennel, curry plant, marigold and mint. At one site in Hampshire, they are using the excavated seeds to grow a new herb garden.[i] It seems certain that at least some of these herbs were likely to have been employed medicinally as they are mentioned in Roman histories.
To what extent this occurred is unknown. English historian Stephen Pollington laments “the sad fact that native northern European traditions probably informed the greater part of the practice of healing as experienced by the average early English man or woman, but the lore behind this craft was not recorded–at least not systematically in a form in which it survives.”[ii]
In Ireland, Brehon law tracts confirm that herbs were grown as part of a professional medical practice from the very early days of civilization. The Bretha Crólige speaks of “the great service given by garden plants in nursing,” claiming that the primary purpose of gardens is the care of the sick.[iii]
Medieval gardens serve as an excellent example of creative use of space as most gardens were built entirely within enclosures. These early gardeners were also adept at creating microclimates in their gardens which allowed plants such as olive trees to thrive in Britain.[iv] Texts such as Thomas Hill’s The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577) and William Lawson’s The Countrie Housewive’s Garden (1617), detail this knowledge. This was not a practice limited to rural areas. In urban areas, large tracts of land were devoted to market farms and physic gardens. In 1673, The Apothecaries Garden, modernly known as the Chelsea Physic Garden, was founded in London by the Society of the Apothecaries of London to ensure a continuous supply of medicinal herbs, in the city.[v]
As our medieval ancestors seemed to understand, it is preferable to cultivate medicinal plants in local gardens or in common areas rather than harvesting them from the wild. An effective way to do this is first to identify the plant in the wild, learn the function it serves in its ecosystem and the growing conditions that support the plant, and attempt to emulate those functions in your own garden. This is the method of gardening sometimes referred to as permaculture. Here in Iowa City a local group and volunteers have planted an edible food forest using these methods, which incorporates many medicinal species.
Using this type of ecological design to plan teaching gardens is far less labor intensive than conventional gardening. In an ecologically designed group of plantings known as a polyculture, we can include plants such as nitrogen fixers which feed the soil eliminating the need for fertilizing and plants that provide ground cover which eliminate weeding and conserve moisture. There may plants which can be used for addressing specific problems such as bioremediation of heavy metals and other toxins.
Gardens based on this type ecological design heal the planet. They create pockets of wellness in the ecosystem and promote mutually beneficial relationships with other creatures healing the rift between humans and nature. This is an integral part of creating wellness. Humans are only one part of a much larger system; until the integrity of that system is restored, we can never truly be well.
I have decided that a combination of ecological design and intensive medieval techniques may work best for people gardening in small urban spaces. This is the manner in which I am developing my teaching garden Faoi na Fuinseoige.[vi] Faoi currently incorporates over 100 food and medicinal plants and it is my hope that it can serve as an example of a balanced ecosystem which provides for the needs of all its members.
References: [i] Maev Kennedy, "Silchester Iron Age find reveals secrets of pre-Roman Britain." The Guardian. July 31.2012, accessed August 10, 2O12, http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/jul/31/silchester-iron-ageroman-britain. [ii] Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms Plantlore and Healing. (Cambridgeshire: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2011), 34. [iii] Kelly, “Irish Medical Law,” 75. [iv] These gardeners skilled use of microclimes makes it difficult to establish the extent of importing herbs for medicine. It should not be assumed that all Mediterranean medicinals were imported. [v] “Chelsea Physic Garden – A Brief history,” accessed 28 May 2014, http://chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Brief-History-A4-2014.pdf [vi] Gaelic meaning “Under Protection of the Ash.” It is pronounced: Fwee nuh FWIN-shoy-geh.