In March and April of 2009, when telling of Ivy, the Scottish pixie, strewing herbs were mentioned. I knew what she meant, but if asked to expound on the topic I would have been at a loss.
With a little investigating, I’ve learned more about the strewing herbs ~ their purpose, which herbs, and how they were used.
In the Middle Ages in Europe, bathing was put aside, as were other forms of cleanliness and hygiene. Obviously, odors and contamination were wide spread. To counteract bodily odors, as well as those in homes, people began to scatter, or strew, nicer smelling herbs.
Some just smelled good, other have astringent properties. Many of the herbs are also insecticides and disinfectants. Bedrooms, dining halls, and kitchens ~ all were strewn. The herbs were lain on the floors, along with reeds, rushes, or straw. As people walked over them, oils containing their individual pleasant odors were released.
Rich or poor, commoner or royal, all households used strewing herbs. In 1660 King Charles II created the post of Royal Herb Strewer. The last official strewer was Anne Fellowes, who scattered flowers and herbs at the coronation of George IV in 1820. To this day, the Fellowes claim this position for the eldest unmarried daughter of the family.
Thus, our custom of strewing rose petals before the bride as she enters the sanctuary.
Queen Elizabeth I, in the late 1500’s, favored Meadowsweet.
|'Queene Elizabeth of famous memory, did more desire it than any other herb to strew her chambers withall.'|
John Gerard, Gerard's Herbal, published in 1597
In 1557, Thomas Tusser published Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, including a list of Strewing Herbs. He was a farmer poet, best known for his proverb A fool and his money are soon parted. If you’d like to peruse his book, it’s available for reading on Google Books .
|Tusser’s Strewing Herbs|
Bassell [Basil], fine and busht, sowe in May
Bawlme [Lemon Balm], set in Marche
Costemary [Costmary/Bible Leaf]
Cowsleps and paggles [Cowslips, ?]
Daisies of all sorts
Hop, set in Februarie
Lavender [Lavendula officinalis]
Lavender spike [Lavendula latifolia is very similar to other lavenders, but not as sweet and somewhat stronger]
Lavender cotten [Santolina]
Marjorom, knotted, [Sweet Marjoram] sow or set at the spring
Mawdelin [Camphor Laurel]
Peny ryall [Pennyroyal]
Roses of all sorts, in January and September
Red myntes [Peppermint]
Other Herbs popular for strewing ~
Basil ~ the "king of herbs", a symbol of love
If you've lived or traveled in Asia, you will be familiar with the Thai Basil Seed Drink which has a consistency something like watermelon. Basil being a symbol of love, the bride and groom might consider sharing a cup.
|Basil Seed Drink|
1 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
1 teaspoon honey
2 teaspoon basil seeds
Mix the water, sugar and honey together until sugar has dissolved. This is quicker if you use warm water. Add the basil seeds and let stand for two or three minutes until they have developed their jelly-like consistency. Serve immediately. A little coconut milk may be added.
Bay also known as Sweet Bay, this is the laurel wreath of ancient Greece, given as a prize in the Olympic games. It’s also the clan plant of the Grahams, a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, and on the flag of the Dominican Republic.
Camphor laurel, known to the ancients as Mawdelin and used by Mary Magdalen to anoint the feet of Jesus.
Cedar, both shavings and branch tips
Chamomile, also known as earth apple for the apple like scent. The national flower of Russia, it is sown as grass on the lawns of Buckingham Palace. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV ~ "the Camomile; the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows".
Clove pinks render a spicy, clove-like scent, available in many colors, each having a separate meaning ~
- Light red carnations ~ admiration
- Dark red ~ deep love and affection
- White ~ pure love and good luck
- Striped or variegated ~ regret that a love cannot be shared
- Purple ~ capriciousness, while in France it is a traditional funeral flower, given in condolence for the death of a loved one
- Pink ~ a mother’s undying love, with tradition claiming that as Mary, the mother of Jesus, shed her tears as Jesus carried the cross, pinks sprang up where each tear fell
Costmary, also known as Bible Leaf, used in Medieval times as a place marker in Bibles and widely grown in Elizabethan knot gardens
Cowslips, or primulas, which grow in Sutherland and on Orkney, used to flavor country wines. Some other intriguing names are Peggle, Key of Heaven, Fairy Cups, Plumrocks, and Lady's Keys. A favorite food of wild rabbits, they were also used as garlands on Maypoles.
Feverfew, better known to us as pyrethrum, an insecticide, but also know as featherfew.
Fleawort, also known as ripple grass or plaintain
Scented Geranium, also known as Cranes bill and Dove’s foot
Germander Speedwell, also known as men's faithfulness and Bird's eye
Hyssop. Biblically refers to cleanliness in Psalm 51
Lady's Bedstraw also known as Maid’s Hair, smells of new mown hay
Lady’s Mantle which grows along many rivulets in Scotland
Lavender, also called nard and spikenard which was one of the holy herbs used to prepare the holy essence used in the temple and mentioned in Song of Solomon as a fine spice
|A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; |
a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates,
with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard,
Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense;
myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices:
A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters,
and streams from Lebanon.
At weddings, it has become a popular confetti to toss upon the bride and groom as they depart the celebration, in lieu of rice.
Lavender flowers can be candied and used as cake decorations.
Lavender Cotton, also known as Santolina
Marjoram, used to sweeten bedsheets
Meadowsweet, also known as Queen of the Meadow and Bbridewort, because it was strewn in churches for festivals and weddings, and often made into bridal garlands. Chaucer called it Meadwort, an ingredient in a drink called "Save".
Oregano Origanum vulgare
Pennyroyal, also known as Lurk in the Ditch, Pudding Grass and Run by the Ground
One of its popular names, Pudding Grass, is from pennyroyal being an ingredient in hog's puddings. Often grown in cottage gardens and often hung in bedrooms, doctors thought it better than roses for maintaining general health.
In folklore, a garland of Pennyroyal made and worn about the head relieved swimming, pain, and giddiness in the head.
| Pennyroyal ~ A Carol|
'Far away in Sicily!'
A home-come sailor sang this rhyme,
Deep in an ingle, mug on knee,
At Christmas time.
In Sicily, as I was told,
The children take them Pennyroyal,
The same as lurks on hill and wold
In Cotsall soil.
The Pennyroyal of grace divine
In little cradles they do weave
Little cradles therewith they line
On Christmas Eve.
And there, as midnight bells awake
The Day of Birth, as they do tell,
All into bud the small buds break
With sweetest smell.
All into bud that very hour;
And pure and clean, as they do say,
The Pennyroyal's full in flower
On Christmas Day.
Far away in Sicily!
Hark, the Christmas bells do chime!
So blossom love in thee and me
This Christmas time!
---W. B., Punch, December 19, 1917
Rose, a favorite strewing herb of Cleopatra
Rosemary was often strewn in churches, a symbol of remembrance, its name originally meant dew of the sea. In the Middle Ages, a bride would wear a rosemary headpiece and the groom and wedding guests would all wear a sprig of rosemary. Newly wed couples would plant a branch of rosemary on their wedding day. If the branch grew it was a good omen for the union and family. In ‘A Modern Herbal’, Mrs. Grieves says "A rosemary branch, richly gilded and tied with silken ribands of all colours, was also presented to wedding guests, as a symbol of love and loyalty."
Rue, in Lithuanian folk songs, known as an attribute of young girls, associated with virginity and maidenhood.
Sage, an ingredient in Four Thieves Vinegar, believed to have warded off the Plague. Some church-goers relied on the herb's sharp scent to keep them awake during long sermons
Sweet Flag, long a symbol of love and a favorite of Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Known in the Bible as calamus, there are several references including Song of Solomon 4:14 mentioned above under lavender.
Sweet Woodruff, also known as wild baby's breath and master of the woods
Tansy, also known as Bitter Buttons and Golden Buttons
Thyme, ladies would often give knights and warriors gifts that included thyme leaves as it was believed to bring courage to the bearer.
Violets, delicious in salads, several liqueurs, candies, and scones
Wormwood, once used to spice mead
A Few Additional Ideas