The Magic of Herbs

By Sophie Shields

A magical aroma is beginning to dust the streets of the Glebe. What could it be? It is the unmistakable fragrance of herbs – rosemary, thyme, mint, lavender, basil and more. These plants are sprouting out of the ground and bringing with them mystic etymologies and centuries worth of history.

Let’s begin with a herb hidden under a cloak of magic. Legend has it that as the Virgin Mary fled to Egypt, she dried her cape by throwing it on a nearby rosemary bush. The white flowers miraculously turned blue and were known from then on as the “rose of Mary.” A similarly curious history exists behind the word basil. Herbologists in the Middle Ages hypothesized that basil could be used to protect people from tiny venomous serpents called basiliskos (“little king” in Greek). So, the plant was named basileus from the Greek “king.” Moving into the world of mythology, mint is said to be a herb born of violence and rage. When Persephone, the wife of the Greek god Hades, found out that he was consorting with a nymph named Minthe, she trampled on the latter until she was transformed into a plant – mint.

Other herbs have names more directly related to their historic uses. For instance, dill takes its name from the Old Norse term dilla (“to lull”) as it was commonly used to soothe babies and settle the digestive system. Similarly, sage’s botanical name, salvia officinalis, is derived from the Latin word salvere, meaning “to save.” A common Latin proverb emphasizes sage’s healing properties: Cur moriatur homo,cui calvia crescit in horto? (Why should a man die while sage grows in his garden?).

Indeed, in the Middle Ages, sage was one of four components in a concoction meant to ward off the plague. If you’re superstitious, this might be the summer to plant sage.

To truly appreciate this festival of senses, it helps to understand the history of the plants before your nose. From vengeful nymphs to lifesaving concoctions, the world of herbs, erbe (c. 1300, Old French, “grass, green crops, herb”), is just waiting to be discovered.

Sophie Shields is a Carleton student studying global literature and a proud Franco-Ukrainian who is learning German. She is the social media coordinator for the Glebe Report.

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