Historic herbs

Information sheet

Many of our familiar plants have an interesting history behind their origin, name or use.

  • School term: All year round
  • Level of experience: No experience needed
  • Subject(s): Science, History, Social Studies


Bay Laurus nobilis
A British native plant used in many ways by the Romans. This was a sacred herb for Apollo, the Greek God of Prophecy, but was regarded as a symbol of victory by the Romans. It was often placed on the Roman god Jupiter's alter, the god of gods and god of the sky. Bay was also a symbol of peace and passed between enemies when the fighting was over. Emperor Tiberius wore a crown of bay as he believed it would stop him being struck by lightning.

Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis
Introduced into Britain by the Romans. It was plaited into crowns and garlands and thought to give the wearer improved intelligence and memory. An unusual use is to boil it in water to warm up the body before exercise.

Thyme Thymus vulgaris
Introduced into Britain by the Romans and still popular today. The oil was used for massage and put into baths to increase vigour. It was thought to be an antidote for snake bites. 

Fennel Foeniculum vulgare
A Roman introduction. It was used to give gladiators strength and stamina. The dried leaves and seeds were used to cure eye infections and inflamation. The seeds were eaten as a slimming aid to stave off hunger.

Garlic Allium sativum
Garlic has been cultivated in Mediterranean countries since ancient times. Romans and Greeks enjoyed garlic to eat, whilst the Egyptians considered it a sacred herb. The plant appeared in British herbals from the 900’s onwards and it was used as an antiseptic in World War I. Garlic is most commonly used today in cooking.

Marigold Calendula officinalis
The petals of this flower were mixed with others to make a tea which King Henry VIII believed could combat the plague. A cream made from the flower was used in World War I to clean the wounds of soldiers and is still used to treat skin conditions.

Caraway Carum carvi
Introduced by the Romans.  Dioscorides wrote that the seeds are chewed to relieve flatulence and indigestion. Julius Caesar referred to chara, a bread made from caraway root mixed with milk.

Lavender Lavandula angustifolia
A British native plant.  It is valued for its aromatic and antiseptic properties in the past and is still a popular herb. The name comes from lavare ‘to wash’ and the oil was added to baths and used as an aromatherapy treatment for headaches and faintness.

Marjoram and Oregano
Origanum majorana
A British native plant, with relatives throughout Europe and Asia.  It has been used for its medical properties since Egyptian times to calm fevers and help the digestive system. The name ‘Oro-ganos’ means ‘joy of the mountains'.

Wild Plants

Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna and C. laevigata
In the language of flowers Hawthorn means hope. This reflects the meaning given to it by Greeks, where Hawthorn crowns were worn by brides. Romans placed the leaves in newborn babies hands for luck. The tree was also sacred to the Celts. Its leaves, flowers and berries have been used to treat heart conditions in several countries.

Bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus
This low growing shrub is native to Europe, Russia, North America and Northern Asia, where it has been used as a medicine for nearly 1000 years. Its summer fruits are commonly used to make jams and syrups which was used to combat scurvey in Europe before World War 2. The fruits and leaves are still used in medicine today.

Only use herbs to treat illness under the direction of a qualified practitioner.


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