Starting a little patch of paradise

THE old copper cylinder from the hot press makes a grand, tall, objet, ready antiqued with verdigris, for the centrepiece of …

THE old copper cylinder from the hot press makes a grand, tall, objet, ready antiqued with verdigris, for the centrepiece of the new herb garden. Good to sit on, too, in a rest from raking the sun warmed metal kind to the haunches.

Closing my eyes, I sort out September's silence: bumble bees at the fuchsia; linnets, stonechats, a raven's pinions whistling overhead, on course for the mountain. From the strand, the chatter of a tractor fetching shell sand, and the slow susurration of surf.

By any civilised standards, this is silence. And thus, almost before I have planted anything, the herb garden is doing me good.

The very words "herb garden" start out with a beneficent aura: all those medieval woodcuts and soothing New Age teas. Among the potent archetypes in Simon Schama's Landscape And Memory is the secret garden, the walled in paradise. For some, as he describes, it has been "a wizard's maze rather than a gardener's patch"; for Cistercian monks and others, "a little allotment of Eden".


A herb garden has all those gratifying associations; a sharing in mysteries, if only of the culinary sort. So it has to pretend to be hidden away, if only in a backyard patio. One thing wrong about the herb garden at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin is its lack of romance: not a nook or shadow in sight. Whereas ours is properly cloistered and "secret", set among hedges of fuschia and hawthorn that don't quite close out the sea.

A ring of lady's mantle round the centre, low hedges of hyssop leading in clumps of marsh mallow, mullein, lovage, elecampane, viper's bugloss, clary sage, edgings of burnet and marjoram: as I plant the first seedlings, the idea is taking on a fine green shaoe. Next spring I shall sow tansy and lavender, rue and germander, catnep, fever few and a dozen more: even some slightly sinister sounding things: skullcap, arnica, horehound ...

These are not, for the most part, herbs that one keeps in tubs and fish boxes outside the kitchen door (although drifts of mint and tarragon, for harvesting and freezing, will certainly find a place). And we do not, all that often, need remedies for gallstones, round worms or irregular menses. So what's it all for?

Ah, well, there you have me.

It will look beautiful and smell ravishing and the humble bees will throng there all summer. But much of its appeal is simply cultural, each plant a link with centuries of the healing power that lived - and still lives - in herbs. Even to a non herbalist, the plants are simply more interesting than big showy garden flowers that have been bred for their looks alone.

It is salutary to make a herb garden of which one hedge is a field bank topped with hawthorn and blackberry briars and nursing, at its foot, a layer of wildflowers and "weeds". Almost everything that grows there - nettles and cleavers included - has a potent medicinal use. Having spent all these years grubbing up the hedgebottom for neatness's sake, it delights me now to be replanting it with the yarrow (for arthritis) which rightly belongs there.

As if in endorsement, untended corners of the acre have suddenly proferred, from nowhere, a dozen fine plants of borage smothered in starry blue flowers. This is one of the many "feelgood" herbs that our forebears used to brew as tea or dunked into their daily beer or wine to counter states of melancholy.

Readers may have met borage as a rather prickly, awkward barman's garnish to a Pimms No 1 cocktail (if anybody drinks this any more). More usefully, the whorled leaves of woodruff, which I grow in a shady place, give an upmarket lift and a bouquet of new mown hay to your everyday cabernet sauvignon. Salad burnet, a similarly low and pretty rosette of leaves, is another herb for wine "to which it yieldeth a certaine grace in the drinking".

Some of the drinkers' herbs have fascinating chemical affinities. The botanical name for evening primrose, Oenothera, derives from the plant's reputation for preventing hangovers and easing post drinking depression: a capsule of its oil is, I can vouch, a prudent precursor to a late night out. Oenothera is rich in gamma linoleic acid, now also discovered at high levels in the seeds of borage not merely a garnish, after all.

All this might seem merely quaint and bibulous if it were not for some other trends in modern herbal medicine, now more grandly called "phytotherapy". St John's Wort, for example, with its sunny yellow flowers and red juice, was once the herb that protected against elves, demons and witchcraft. Today, in Germany it continues to ward off demons outselling Prozac as an anti depressant.

Feeling good, in the herbal sense, need not involve a "high". Lovage, that huge umbellifer packed with volatile oils, gives a strong, yeasty tang to soups and stews; one uses it with caution. But it also makes a drink that brings a feeling of calmness and well being. Sean Boylan, a fifth generation herbalist when not coaching Meath, dispenses lovage and ox eye daisy in a wonderfully restorative cocktail.

Herbs, their uses and traditions, are the substance of Ioclain na mBanta - Pharmacy Of The Fields - a series of six short films which Ethna and I have made for Teilifis na Gaeilge and which will be shown among the station's early programmes. For those with a cupla focal, peppermint tea is recommended as a pleasant aid to concentration.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author