Medieval Herbal Advice for Today’s Homes

It is time to turn to the fall maintenance of our beloved herb gardens , which provided so generously for us over the summer.  We herbalists are all organizing our overflowing apothecaries and trying to fit in our new harvest of plant allies which often involves displacing last year’s harvest.    I generally won’t harvest perennials past the end of October,  so I am closing in on the end of the season and  trimming back herbaceous perennials for the winter.

If you, like me, are a frugal sort, you are probably questioning what to do with these leftovers as often they still taste and smell very potent.  Juliette De Bairacli Levy recommends tossing old herbs into the compost or directly on your garden, but I think they still serve a purpose in our preventative care measures; guarding our home against  disease carrying pests,   pathogens and other unwanted visitors <—nod to the esoteric uses of protective herbs as Samhain approaches.

Really, what better use is there for herbs that aren’t spent, but aren’t at their peak of freshness?  The real experts on using herbs for household maintenance were those folk who had no alternatives and so much useful knowledge can be gleaned from medieval domestic texts.

Strewing Herbs jpg.Strewing Herbs – Strewing Herbs were commonly tossed about to sweeten the air in a room and ward off pests. These were the predecessor to potpourri but more utilitarian in nature.   Thomas Tusser made these recommendations about which herbs to use for strewing h in his 500 Points of Good Husbandrie,  published in 1557. For want of explanation Baulm  refers to lemon balm, not the monarda spp.  Maudeline  is Tanacetum balsamita var. camphoratum; the camphor plant.

In Medieval Days the herbs were likely strewn around on the floor and crushed by people walking on them or shoved in mattresses.   I still use them under  rugs, appliances,  the boy’s mattresses and between our mattress and box spring, but you don’t often find them just lying around on the floors except in  garage underneath our bulk food storage bins.

I’ve posted this modernized version for carpet cleaning on the blog before.  This is really the only time I use borax and salt in strewing herbs.

Strewing Herb Powder For Carpets and Rugs

1 cup borax
½ cup salt
½ cup powdered mint
½ cup powdered rosemary
½ cup powdered mugwort
anti-microbial or aromatic essential oils of your choice (absolutely optional)

Mix the dry ingredients together and stir in 10-15 drops of essential oils in any combination you desire. Sprinkle the mixture on your carpets or rugs in the evening and vacuum them in the morning.

DSC04276Sachets  –Often referred to in Medieval texts as “sweet bags” Sachet are made by crushing herbs and sewing them up in linen or silk bags.  They were then  hung amongst the clothing to ward off pests.  I have also adopted this practice to protect the bulk dried goods I keep on a shelf in my garage and in other areas where I would simply like to ward off noxious odors.

Once word of advice: Unlike a potpourri, you don’t know want a sweet bag to hold its scent, rather it is the wafting off of the scent that repels insects. I’ve seen directions for sachets which include orris root powder or charcoal. These substances have a habit of absorbing orders thus detracting from their usefulness as repellents.


Most often called “sweet waters”, these were used for scenting clothing and linen by brushing them on or “sprinkling with pine sprigs.  I’ve done this because I am a SCA  nerd.
For the most part,  we use  spray bottles set on the mist setting . I use “sweet waters” to mist on bed linens when making the bed and find them to be quite useful for misting the air in a sick room. My daughter,  has been known to take the bottle and spray it directly toward people when they are ill. I must, of course, recommend against this.

Making a distillate for household use doesn’t  require a still. I find this to be an excellent use for fall trimmings. I have experimented with fresh and dried and oddly enough I have found that ground dried herbs tend to make more aromatic distillates. Any aromatic herb known for  its volatile oils is a good candidate for distillation. Mints, roses, lavender, orange peels are some of my favorite choices.   Conifer needles like pine and spruce work so well for this.

Directions for making a distillate:

  1. In a large pot with a tight fitting lid, place a small inverted bowl,I have a glass nesting bowl set that works well for this. Stainless steel works, too.
  2.  Place your choice of aromatic herbs around the inverted bowl and add water until the bowl is just covered.
  3. Set a larger bowl right side up on the inverted bowl . Place the lid to the soup pot on it in an inverted fashion. I like to throw some ice on the top as well.
  4. The steam from the boiling herbs will collect on the underside of the inverted lid and run into the larger bowl.
  5. Bring to a boil and then simmer over low heat, for as long as you like until the water in the pot boils down and most of it is collected in the larger bowl.
  6. Once cooled, this can be bottled and tightly covered. I store mine in our second refrigerator.

 My favorite herbs for strewing or distillates:

The artemisia family are especially known as having strong repellant properties. Artemisia abrotanum (Southernwood ) was once known as “garde robe’. There is an ancient text which talks of boiling together rue and wormwood and then spraying the water on clothes to repel moths. I would hazard a guess that any of the artemisias would be suitable for this purpose.    I tend to use mugwort for the purpose of strewing and sachets.   I think John Gallagher was the first person I heard call mugwort the “white sage of the Northern Europeans”.

Ruta graveolens –  Rue has long been known as a protective herb.   According to M. Grieves “Rue has been regarded from the earliest times as successful in warding off contagion and preventing the attacks of fleas and other noxious insects. It was the custom for judges sitting at assizes to have sprigs of Rue placed on the bench of the dock against the pestilential infection brought into court from gaol by the prisoner.”(Grieves, 1931)   Rue works well  as a sprig for splashing around distillates.

Galium_odoratum – Sweet Woodruff is known to have a high concentration of coumarin, the ingredient in the modern rodent poison warfarin, and was used for strewing and stuffing mattresses to repel disease carrying pests.  I grow it purposely for using in my strewing herbs that go under the stove and in other areas that mite be prone to mice- like under the shelving where I keep my bulk food bins or under the sink behind the bar.

R. Rugosalavendula officinalis , calendula officinalis –  who doesn’t love  flowers?   I tend to put flowers, woodruff and rue in the bags I hang near the clothing and around the beds where I don’t want the stimulating scent of the mints.

Lamiaceae Family –  I pretty open to using any sort of mint due to reading this study about how it repels cockroaches.   Catnip and spearmint are probably more plentiful in my strewing herbs,  but that is because I have so much growing.  I hoard my peppermint as it is just coming back from spraying incident a few years back.

Conifer needles are also often ground up and used in a lot of ways around here.   I am not really fussy about the kind.  I love spruce, pine, cedar, fir.   The kids will tell me if the house starts to smell too much like  a forest.

Tusser, T. (1557). Five hundred points of good husbandry;... (pp. 123-124). Retrieved from hundred points of good husbandry

Grieves, M. (1931). A Modern Herbal. (Vol. 2, p. 695). New York: Dover.

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