How Herbs Were Used

The herbs commonly found in gardens during the Victorian era were brought to America by the first European settlers. That repertoire was expanded by the addition of herbs used by Native Americans. Some of the new plants became cash crops for the settlers as they cultivated and exported tobacco, sassafras and ginseng.

In the early 19th century, the Shakers began producing and selling herbs and seeds commercially. This change enhanced the variety and availability of herbs. No longer would they have to rely upon the “spurious and adulterated” herbs and drugs that generally were sold before then.

[Who is being quoted with "spurious and adulterated?"]

Herbs are generally described as belonging to one of three categories of use:

Medicinal Herbs
While both physicians and medicines were available to most Americans by the middle of the 19th century, home remedies were also important, especially in the southern United States and in rural areas. Asia Booth Clark, sister of John Wilkes Booth, wrote:

"We were not friends of the doctors, and [were] entirely unknown to chemists and druggists. Both father and mother were skilled as well as our Negroes in the preparation of simples;† on occasions draughts of liquorice and green figs, or camomile, or sassafras perfumed the house, or pennyroyal, marsh mallows, or spearmint brought comfort to the sufferer."‡

Culinary Herbs
These are the herbs that we eat. Culinary herbs are divided into “pot herbs” which are cooked with food to flavor it (e.g., sage, thyme, rosemary) and “salad herbs“ which usually are eaten raw (e.g., parsley, garlic, chives).

Aromatic Herbs
This category includes herbs used in cosmetics and household preparations as well as herbs used for their scent. Aromatic herbs were strewn in the house to freshen the air and repel vermin. “Strewing herbs” include tansy (flies hate it), chamomile, mint, rosemary (also repels evil spirits), hyssop, sweet woodruff, lavender, sage, rue (repels fleas), santolina and marjoram.

Sometimes categories overlap. An example of an overlap between aromatic and culinary herbs is the farmer’s practice of planting “bee gardens” which consist of a variety of “honey herbs” (thyme, rosemary, lemon balm, bee balm, lavender, borage and savory). The flavor of the honey is influenced by the particular herbs to which the bees have access.

Harvesting and preserving herbs was an important activity in the Victorian household. To learn how to keep herbs for use all year long.

[Last sentence is an incomplete thought.]


†Medicinal herbs were called "simples" because each herb was supposed to possess some simple remedial virtue.

‡Hilltop Garden Club, “The Mary Surratt House Victorian Herb and Flower Garden.” October 1975 (booklet), page 2.  [Is this the source for the Asia Booth Clarke quote? You're quoting a secondary source that quotes a primary source. I suspect the primary source is The Unlocked Book.]