Herb gardens are basically a 20th century invention. Gertrude Jeykll lead the fashion for herb gardens with a bold formal framework of paving and evergreens to set off the simple, sometimes untidy and vigorous plants, and to make the garden more appealing during the bare winter months. The example shown at Hamilton Gardens demonstrates how effective this simple formula with four rectangular plots can be.
There is certainly no ideal way to display herbs and they often mix well with ornamental planting to take advantage of a range of growing conditions. Over the past 300 years there have been cycles of popularity for herbs and for the different forms of herb garden.
In medieval times all plants, cultivated and uncultivated, were believed to have medicinal values and some like the stinging nettle had dozens of uses. Gardeners then used the word 'herb' to describe all useful plants, weather they were used for food, flavouring, medicines, disinfectants, pesticides, perfumes, poisons, dyes, narcotics or hallucinogens.
It was not until the 18th century that plants used mainly for food began to be called 'vegetables' and the word 'herb' described other practical plants. The use of herbs for culinary purposes is well known although these days it is to enhance flavour rather than to disguise the taste of bad meat.
In the late 19th century it was common for many households to concoct tonics, lotions, purges, poultices and salves using plants from their garden. While using wode to make your face blue has gone out of fashion and geranium tea is certainly an acquired taste. Many herbs are still used for medicinal, cosmetic and perfume purposes and in some parts of Asia there are still genuinely productive herb gardens. Chinese doctors have used many of these herbs for at least 5,000 years, when the first surviving Chinese herbals were written. Medicinal use of herbs in Europe largely originated from the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. One extremely influential book called 'The Doctrine of Signatures' promoted a theory that plants which looked like the symptoms of an illness would cure it. Cosmetic use of herbs included colouring the hair or skin, skin cleansers, facemasks, shampoos, bath oils, soaps, talcum powders, oils and creams. The four beds in the Hamilton Gardens example are defined by their purpose, - culinary, medicinal, cosmetic and perfume herbs. Two other sections of the Herb Garden at Hamilton Gardens contain herbs used for dyes and for herbal teas.