The Power of Nature: Medicinal Gardens in the Ancient World


Take a journey back in time and explore the advantages of medicinal gardens, which gained popularity in the medieval era.

Medicinal Gardens: In Ancient period
Herb Garden, Huntington LibraryWikimedia Commons

Throughout history, our ancestors turned to the power of nature to heal and soothe their ailments, using medicinal plants and fungi as their primary source of healthcare. Today, this tradition still lives on in many parts of the world, with about 80% of the population, particularly in developing countries, relying on these natural remedies for their health needs (Juan José Maldonado Miranda of the University of San Luis Potosí in Mexico).

Interestingly, in recent times, there has been a renewed interest in the healing properties of these age-old remedies, especially after the pandemic. As we come to appreciate the importance of our health and well-being, it’s heartening to see people re-discovering the natural goodness of medicinal herbs and plants.

By utilizing the natural power of plants, we can effectively address a wide range of health concerns, from allergies and migraines to chronic fatigue and even cancer. Herbal medicine involves using remedies made from various parts of plants, such as leaves, seeds, stems, bark, and roots. This provides a natural and safe alternative to pharmaceuticals, as research by Carrillo Esper et al. (2010) has shown.

But it’s not just about the benefits of herbal medicine. The preservation of traditional knowledge in areas with limited access to healthcare has resulted in a wealth of fascinating studies and literature from various landscapes. From forests to mountains, this knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation, providing remedies for a wide range of ailments.

Many people are considering incorporating herbal medicine into their own healthcare routines. This is not only about tapping into the wisdom of our ancestors, but also accessing a safe, natural, and effective form of healthcare. With so many benefits, it’s no wonder that the use of herbal medicine is on the rise worldwide.

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Medicinal Gardens in Ancient Europe

Medicinal Gardens
Medicinal Plants Collection in the University of Warsaw Botanic Garden

During the Middle Ages, monks and medical students were ahead of their time, cultivating gardens of medicinal plants that not only offered cures for various illnesses and beauty problems but also acted as research and study centers for apothecary students. Monks and nuns gained a wealth of knowledge on medical botany that spanned across Europe, with pioneers like Hildegard von Bingen listing over 500 species and their effects on patients in their books.

Medicines were made from a wide range of natural ingredients such as herbs, spices, and resins. Dioscorides, a Greek physician, wrote his Materia Medica in 65 AD, which was a practical text dealing with the medicinal use of over 600 plants in the second century. Some plants were used for specific disorders, while others were credited with curing multiple diseases.

For example, sweet-smelling herbs such as rose, lavender, sage, and hay were used to treat headaches and aching joints. Coriander was used to reduce fever, and stomach pain and sickness were treated with wormwood, mint, and balm. Lung problems were treated with a medicine made of licorice and comfrey, while cough syrups and drinks were prescribed for chest and head colds and coughs.

Vinegar was widely used for cleaning wounds as it was believed to kill disease. Mint was used to treat venom and wounds, and myrrh was used as an antiseptic on wounds.

Medicinal Gardens in Italy

Medicinal Gardens - Chamomile
Chamomile by Natalia Osipova via pixabay

In the Middle Ages, plants were only studied for their medicinal purposes. Gardens in Italy were enclosed by walls and were mostly used for growing vegetables, fruits, and medicinal herbs. The standard work on botany until the 16th century was incomplete and lacked many of the native plants of Italy. However, in 1533, the University of Padua established the first chair of botany and appointed Francesco Bonafede as the first Professor Simplicium, a professor of medicinal plants. In 1545, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, a scholar from the University of Padua, wrote a book on medicinal herbs that systematically described and gave the medicinal uses of 1200 different plants. This scientific work was aided by explorers who brought back samples of unknown plants from the New World, Asia, and Africa.

Another medicinal garden is the Giardino della Minerva in Salerno, which is loaded with an eclectic range of medicinal herbs and flowers. This garden is not only a stunning sight to admire but also one of the world’s most important natural pharmacies. Back in ancient times, physicians believed that an imbalance in the four humors caused illness. These humors were based on the four elements: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Ancient physicians used herbs and flowers to bring their patients back into balance, and gardens like the Giardino della Minerva provided these remedies.

Medicinal Garden in Scotland 

Medicinal Garden Kit to make herbal tea
Mareefe via pixabay

In the western lands of Scotland, one can stumble upon the remnants of a monastic garden, now known as Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, which holds one of the most important Physic gardens of the ancient world. This garden, officially linked back to Charlemagne’s time, was designed to teach medicine at cathedral schools under the name Physic. The garden’s original layout included 90 medicinal plant species and was overseen by Edinburgh’s top physicians. Some of these plants, such as spotted lungwort, hairy kidneywort, scurvy grass, and birthwort, were believed to cure pulmonary infections, stop epileptic fits, help with scurvy, and aid in childbirth, respectively.

Medicinal Garden in England

Medicinal Gardens at Chelsea Physic Garden
Chelsea Physic Garden, Elisa Rolle via Wikimedia Commons

In London, the Chelsea Physic Garden is another one of the world’s most respected natural pharmacies, with about 4000 medicinal plants growing in a microclimate along the River Thames. Established in 1673 by the creatively named Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, the garden became a one-stop-shop for enthusiasts to grow and learn about medicinal plants in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, medical students with a passion for plant-based medicine come to study this discipline’s long history.

Medicinal Gardens in Nordic Countries

Medicinal Gardens
Asparagus via pixabay

Nordic medicinal gardens have a rich history deeply rooted in monastic traditions. The Rule of St. Benedict, a famous monastic leader, emphasized the importance of a well-arranged monastery with all necessary things, such as water, a mill, a garden, and various crafts within the enclosure.

This rule was later translated into the Old Norse language, indicating the influence of monasticism in Nordic countries. Additionally, the monastic rule of St. Isidore, bishop of Seville, specified the need for a garden in the cloister. As a result, several thousand monasteries were founded in Europe, including the northernmost ones located in Greenland, Iceland, and central Norway.

Norway and Iceland were highly influenced by Anglo-Saxon and Irish Christianity, where monastic gardens were common. In Norway, 26 monasteries and five nunneries were established, and according to Lange’s account in 1847, all of them had a garden, often several, that was well-tended. Monks brought fruit trees, cuttings, herbs, and flowers from abroad to plant them in Norwegian soil, and some of these gardens still exist today.

The plants grown in these monastic gardens were diverse and included leek, onion, garlic, ground elder, fool’s parsley, mugwort, asparagus, daisy, barberry, hep, chicory, spindle, and many more. These plants were not only grown for food but also for medicinal purposes, highlighting the importance of plants in the treatment of various ailments.

The dissolution of monasteries during the Lutheran Reformation c. 1536 marked the end of an era for Nordic medicinal gardens. However, their legacy continues to this day, with some of these gardens still surviving and providing a glimpse into the rich history and traditions of Nordic monasticism.

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Medicinal Garden in India

Medicinal Plants
Mexican Poppy via Wikimedia Commons

The ancient practice of Ayurveda, a natural system of medicine has been a part of Indian culture for over 3,000 years. In this timeless doctrine, each plant and herb is revered for its unique qualities and healing properties, offering a vast array of remedies for a multitude of ailments and diseases. From the soothing qualities of aloe to the invigorating effects of ginger, Ayurvedic home remedies have long been used to combat throat and skin-related issues.

For ages, indigenous people in India have turned to plants as a source of medicine to control various ailments affecting humans and their domestic animals. One particular community, the “Nath” community of snake charmers, has played a significant role as healers in treating snake bite victims. These snake charmers also sell herbal remedies for common ailments, using plants and their sap in various forms such as application onto the bite area, chewing leaves, and bark, or drinking plant extracts or decoctions to counteract the venom’s effects. Such practices are still followed by rural populations in India and many parts of the world.

In addition, plants like the Mexican Poppy (Argemone mexicana) and datura metel have been used in the treatment of various health issues. Argemone mexicana is traditionally used to address female fertility problems, eye diseases, mental disorders, skin diseases, toothache, and wound healing. On the other hand, datura metel is known for its effectiveness in treating cough, male fertility problems, mental disorders, and respiratory problems.

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Medicinal Plants Used by the Native Americans

California Poppy, medicinal gardens
California Poppy via pexel

The Native Americans are known to have used herbs for thousands of years. Through their oral traditions, the knowledge of nature’s medicines was gained by observing sick animals.

One of the most revered herbs in Native American culture is tobacco, used for healing, rituals, and ceremonies. Unlike today, it was smoked pure without any chemicals. Sage was also held in high esteem as it was believed to heal a multitude of problems, including those of the stomach, colon, kidneys, liver, lungs, skin, and more. It was even thought to protect against harmful spirits, drawing them out of the body or soul.

While the list of medicinal herbs used by Native Americans was vast, certain remedies were frequently carried in a Healer’s medicine bundle. American Ginseng and Boneset were used for common colds, Wild Black Cherry, Pennyroyal, and Hops for aches and pains, and Dogwood, Feverwort, and Willow Bark for fevers.

The California poppy is another powerful herb with multiple uses. All parts of the plant were utilized, from the bright orange roots to the leaves, flowers, and seedpods. The Costanoan tribe used the flowers as a strong tea to kill head lice, while the Ohlone people mixed the crushed seeds with bear fat as a hair tonic dressing. Tribes in the Mendocino area juiced the roots to treat headaches, stomachaches, and toothaches. Pomo women used a poultice or strong tea from the mashed seedpods to dry the flow of milk when weaning their babies and applied it to their breasts.

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Have Your Own Medicinal Garden

Chicory plants, medicinal gardens
Chicory plants by Manfred Richter via pixabay

Please note the content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Consult your physician before consuming the plants medicinally.


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Heyleena is the lead contributor to Mystik Maze, who enjoys sharing her knowledge in various fields including History, Self-development, Wellness, and many more. She doesn't like to limit herself when it comes to sharing information that can empower anyone.

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