September in the Garden 2019

It seems to have been a very unpredictable summer, with wide ranges of temperature, and long dry spells interspersed with very wet periods. These conditions have suited the unusual-looking coral fungus, (Ramaria stricta) that has sprung up in various places around the garden. It’s a fairly common fungus, that often grows on buried wood – ours is very close to the fence – but easy to overlook as it’s only a few inches high, so doesn’t announce its presence like larger or more brightly coloured fungi.

Coral Fungus – about 2in/5cm tall

But there is also colour still to be found, in the bright blue of flax and chicory, that have been flowering steadily for many weeks…

The glorious blue of flax

…and the vivid yellow of Rudbeckia, known as Black Eyed Susan in its native USA,  saves itself for an end-of-season flourish. [Find out more below]

Rudbeckia looks splendid en masse

The mint is in flower as well, providing fuel for butterflies.

Comma butterfly on the mint flower

Our Black Cohosh is producing some dramatic spikes of pretty flowers, much appreciated by the hoverflies. This plant , like Rudbeckia, also originated in North America, where it was known as “squawroot” for its use in relieving symptoms of the menopause: you can learn more by reading our August 2017 blog.

The delicate blooms of the Black Cohosh

We did a bit of tidying up round the building, around the middle of the month. This clears the way for the start of our project to put up a new utility building, and made things a bit more presentable for Open Day. It’s amazing how much rubble had accumulated – a lot of it dug up when our terraced lawn was created out of uneven ground that had previously been allotments.

John and Nick get busy on the heap of rubble

It was a lovely sunny day for our Open Day on 21st September, bringing about 150 people to learn about the history of the Bath House, and enjoy the garden.

David starts his tour in the upper room of the Bath House

David gave the history talks, and Barbara Wilkinson of the Herb Society gave her popular tours of the garden, with fascinating information about the health benefits of a number of the plants. More information, and herbal products, were available on her stall.

Barbara’s knowledgeable tours draw a crowd

The Old Saw Mill also ran a stall, selling apple juice, cider vinegar, and preserves. Our own sales of plants, books and raffle tickets did well. Huge thanks to everyone who visited and gave support on the day – many of whom had travelled some distance to be here.

Once the Open Day was over, it was time to start clearing out the borders, tidying up the profusion of summer growth.

Lyn and Linda working on the borders

We are replacing some of the lavenders that had become a bit swamped – that Valerian gets everywhere! The badgers have also been at work, enthusiastically scarifying the grass for us. Happily, we have other new offers of help, from among our visitors on Open Day, and plenty more to be done!


Rudbeckia hirta
A dazzling addition to the autumn garden, this American native is widely available from nurseries and garden centres and has even escaped in some areas of the UK into the wild. An annual plant, it loves full sun, can cope with a degree of drought,  but will tolerate light shade, and has good disease resistance, so it is a low-maintenance choice. The main problem with this plant is choosing the right variety for you: the RHS lists 164 results from a search for Rudbeckia!

Myth and Magic
Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist largely responsible for the way we catalogue plants into families, named the plant in honour of both his patron Olof Rudbeck and his father of the same name, who had been an eminent botanist and founder of the first botanic garden in Sweden.

Several Native American tribes have been recorded as using Rudbeckia as an aid in treating a variety of conditions.

Widely naturalised across the USA, it is the official flower of the state of Maryland.

Medicinal Properties
Rudbeckia were used by early North American Settlers as a diuretic and as a stimulant. Dried plant leaves were usually consumed in the form of a tea. They were presumably guided in this practice by the Native Americans, whose knowledge of the plant is extensive.  Conditions that they treated with Rudbeckia include dropsy, worms, snakebite, earaches. There are also records that they used it for the common cold and as pain relief for gynaecological and venereal problems.

Rudbeckia is related to, and sometimes confused with, the better known Echinacea – both being members of the plant genus Asteraceae.  While Echinacea, or cone-flower, is much more widely used in modern herbal medicine, Rudbeckia is however still recognised as making some contribution, as suggested by this recipe for Rudbeckia tea: steep 5 tsps of dried root in boiling water for five minutes, and strain before drinking. As always, we recommend caution – get advice from a professional before self-medicating.

Modern science may yet discover more uses, as there have been several investigations in recent years.  Research into the potential for medicine of Rudbeckia hirta has focused on the qualities of its roots, looking into the value of its antioxidant, immune-stimulating, antitussive and anti-inflammatory properties.

There have been some reports of  Rudbeckia causing skin irritation in humans, and the plant is reputed to be poisonous to cattle, pigs and horses.


Acknowledgements – thanks to the following for much of the information above,uk

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August in the Garden 2019

The first half of August brought a record amount of rain, flattening many of the taller plants.  Last year we had to top up the pond and bog garden – no need for that this year! The waterlily is doing well, producing a fine succession of flowers, and a healthy amount of leaves.

The Water Lily

In the bog garden area around the pond a tall, pale version of the Common Selfheal has appeared (it could be Prunella intermedia, a hybrid of common selfheal and cut-leaved selfheal). Apparently the bill-hook shape of the flower led people to believe that the plant would heal wounds made by sharp tools. It does in fact have anti-bacterial qualities, and has been the subject of several recent scientific studies that found it has anti-viral properties. [See below for more about Selfheal]

Unusually tall and pink Selfheal

Just when we thought that the rain would never stop, we came into a dry spell, allowing for more work on the Bath House. The exterior has now been brushed down, spruced up, painted and looks as smart as it must have done in 1820! David then volunteered to paint the upper ‘warming’ room, a perfect Georgian parlour in miniature which has not been redecorated since the original restoration of the building, nearly 20 years ago. At that time, flakes of possibly original light blue paint were found, and so a quick colour match ensured that this colour, typical of the Georgian period, was retained. After a lot of shifting of furniture and sorting of assorted ‘stuff’ by the team, David was able to get going.

David the Dedicated Decorator

He did an excellent job of the walls, the skirting boards (in dark green) and finally the dado rail and the ceiling: the freshness and light created is a real boost to this charming room. We will in due course clean and treat the wooden floorboards, and create display areas for some of the many oddments of pottery, bottles, clay pipes and other items found during our work on the site.

At the end of the month we hosted a day of performances during the annual weekend of Congleton Jazz and Blues Festival, and the Saturday proved to be the perfect day for relaxing in the Physic Garden and listening to music. It was warm and sunny, with a lovely view over the garden to the rest of the town beyond. Lots of people found their way up the hill, to listen to performances by the Madhatters, Musical Moments, and the Jazz and Blues Band Workshop.

First the Madhatters got everyone singing along to a selection of familiar tunes. The performers were all members of the ‘Can’t Sing Choir’, although this was not evident on the day!

The Madhatters lead the singing

Plenty of children discovered the fine rolling conditions of the lawn while the adults enjoyed the music.


Later, there was a performance by a Jazz and Blues band specially put together for the occasion. Some were new to playing in a band, but they all left the audience wanting to hear more. Their music created the perfect laid-back atmosphere for a sunny afternoon on the lawn.

World Premiere at the Bath House!


Selfheal  (Prunella vulgaris)

Selfheal, (also spelled Self Heal) heal-all, slough heal or woundwort, is a native British perennial plant, found among short grass on waste ground, grassland, roadside verges and open spaces in woodland, not to mention garden lawns.  Growing close to the ground, it is easily overlooked, but its heads of violet blue flowers bloom from June to September and left alone it can sprawl to cover a whole grassy bank or lawn. It can be confused with Bugle (Ajuga reptans), another common British plant that grows in similar habitat. Selfheal also resembles mint, and apparently also tastes slightly minty, though other descriptions include slightly sweet, mildly bitter, and ‘a hint of rosemary’…

Myth and magic
Astrology in medicine is the belief that the stars and planets control different body parts, different diseases and thus different ingredients used in remedies. Culpeper, in the 17thcentury, was not unusual in following this idea, as medical science then included many practices that we now consider odd, irrational or frankly dangerous! Medicinal herbs were ruled by individual stars or planet: yellow flowers belonged to the Sun, and thorny or stinging plants to Mars, (named after the Roman god of War).

Another medieval medical system was the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’, the belief that a plant’s appearance indicated its usefulness in medicine.  In the case of Selfheal this can be seen in the list of alternative common names listed by Culpeper: carpenter’s herb, hook-heal, and sickle-wort.

But it was as a ‘herb of Venus’ that he suggests this rather delightful remedy: ‘The juice thereof, used with oil of roses, to anoint the temples and forehead, is very effectual to remove the headache.’

Medicinal Uses
Selfheal’s common name shows it has been a widely used medicinal plant, although some herbal books don’t list it. It has been used for many centuries: Dioscorides, the ancient Greek physician, used it to cure inflammation of the throat and tonsils. It is known as a ‘summer-dry’ herb in Chinese medicine, prescribed for signs of heat and liver conditions, while in Korea it is used to treat oedema, nephritis, scrofula and goitre.

Selfheal’s Latin name is said to be derived from its German name Brunelle. This name is thought to relate to a disease of the gums called in German Breuen;  or Bräune, the German word for quinsy, a severe sore throat caused by abscess of the tonsils. Both suggest that it’s been known for a long time as a cure for problems in the mouth.

Modern medicinal herbalists prescribe it as a gargle or mouthwash in cases of sore throat, mouth ulcers and bleeding gums, and externally to reduce the swelling around bites and stings.  Its affinity with the lymphatic system means it is also offered for a range of conditions including glandular fever, mumps, cancer and swollen glands.

Modern laboratory studies have shown Selfheal’s constituents to have a number of applications: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, astringent, anti-viral and antimicrobial.

Other Uses
Selfheal leaves are edible, and make a useful pot herb in a soup or stew, although cooking reduces the nutritional value. Raw, they can be tossed in  a salad, or added to mashed potatoes. A cold water infusion of freshly chopped, or dried, leaves makes a nourishing drink, or you can make a ‘tea’ by using boiling water instead.
The flowers and stems can be used to produce an olive-green dye.


Acknowledgements – thanks to the following for much information above`
Culpeper’s Herbal


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July in the Garden 2019

We were all busy getting the garden ready for two lots of judges this month. Firstly, we were to be judged for North West In Bloom in the category It’s Your Neighbourhood (IYN), and later we’d be inspected in a separate visit by the judges for Britain in Bloom. Lawns were cut…

Not quite a billiard table, but looking good

… hedges were trimmed…

Trimming the hedge along the footpath

… paths swept…

Sweeping the path by the shelter

… and borders tidied.  ‘Tidying’ is always a difficult judgement call, as there are no such things as weeds in our garden, only medicinal plants that sometimes try to take over where not intended. We were quite pleased with how everything has turned out, and hoped that the judges would be too!

The first judging was on 9thJuly, and it seemed to go very well. Particularly attractive on the day were our wild flower meadow…

Wild flower garden in full bloom

….and the border of medicinal plants.

The Officinalis border

One of our favourite, and most dramatic, herbs is Chicory (Cichorium intybus), whose beautiful blue flowers start to appear in mid-July – but you need to get there in the morning to see them at their best. By lunch time the flowers start to fade and close, although the tall branching flower spikes have plenty more to come, and last throughout the summer. [See below for more about Chicory]

Chicory seen through the lower gateway

There don’t seem to have been so many bees about this year, and hardly any butterflies, which is a bit worrying, but one bee, at least, found our Meadowsweet.

Bee on the Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet has been known for its health benefits since ancient times. In 1830, German scientists discovered it was a source of salicylic acid, and named the chemical Spirsäure after the plant’s Latin name, Spiraea. In 1893, another German chemist managed to make a synthetic version of the chemical, which they named AcetylSpirsäure, and this was eventually marketed as Aspirin. People who love words as well as plants probably know that ‘salicylic’ itself comes from a plant name: Salix, the Latin for Willow. Willow, known for thousands of years as a medicinal plant, was previously a common source of the same chemical.

The Britain in Bloom judges were due on Thursday 25thJuly and, as you all know by now, it turned out to be the hottest day of the year. The judges arrived at 11:30, which we thought would be in good time to see the Chicory flowers, but they had already had enough of the heat, and folded up! At least we had managed to take a picture for ourselves earlier in the day, and our new Passionflower put in an appearance for the judges instead.

Passionflower in full bloom

Meanwhile, at the Bath House itself, this month has also seen much activity. The sight of volunteer Nick up a ladder has been a rare one of late as he has concentrated on groundwork for our new utilities building, installation of seats and arches in the Physic Garden and the completion of a wonderfully restored flight of ten stone steps leading down from the Bath House. But we had realised that the building itself deserved some TLC so Nick, ably assisted by Andy and David, has repaired and weather proofed the two main sash windows before painting them in an attractive pale sage finish.

Nick working on the windows

Our three wooden doors also benefitted from a clean, gentle rub down and a coating of linseed oil. Some oak strips fitted round the edges top door were also needed to seal off some surprisingly wide gaps. Our beautiful listed building has now had a good face lift and looks all the better for it. A check of the gutters and slate roof will complete its “annual service”.


Chicory Cichorium intybus

Chicory is native across Britain, Europe and Asia, but is often grown in the UK as a garden annual or perennial for its beautiful blue flowers that bloom throughout the summer season. It can also be found as a wild flower in the UK in rough grassy areas, roadside and railway verges and wasteland. Sometimes known in the UK as Succory, it has many other common names in the USA including blue daisy and blue dandelion.

In the garden, as well as being decorative it also attracts bees and other useful insects, being on the RHS list of Plants for Pollinators. The blooms open in sunlight but close in wet weather; and as well as the brilliant sky blue it is also seen in white or pink forms.

Myth and Magic
Chicory was reputed to have the power to confer invisibility, and it was said you could open a locked door simply by placing a branch of chicory against the lock. Culpeper, who knew the plant as Succory, suggested its efficacy in a wide range of ailments, including ‘hot stomach’, ‘swoonings’, and ‘passions of the heart’.

Its habit of closing petals in dull weather led the botanist Linnaeus to include it in his Floral Clock.  His clock was based on his observations of the time of day when individual plants opened, and chicory was positioned at 4-5am. It was an idea that appealed to many leading gardeners at the time, who tried it out with varying degrees of success. Linnaeus was a serious 18thcentury scientist, and his system of plant classification, although modified, still influences botany and horticulture today; but we now appreciate that climate, altitude and latitude, not to mention soil type, are all significant factors in plant growth so we’ll stick to our digital watches for now…

Medicinal Uses
Chicory has been known in folk medicine since the time of the Pharaohs, and is still used in herbal medicinal preparations in many countries around the world. The following examples demonstrate the wide range of uses for different parts of the plant:
– South Africa: a ‘tea’ made from the plant is recommended for jaundice, and chicory syrup is given as a tonic to children;
– Turkey: the leaves are made into a skin ointment to reduce inflammation;
– Italy: a decoction of the leaves is prescribed for high blood pressure;
– Morocco: a decoction of the whole plant is given in cases of kidney disorder;
– Poland: a tea made from the roots is prescribed for digestive complaints.

Chicory was discovered in the 1970s to contain up to 40% inulin, and is therefore safe for diabetics as it has a negligible effect on blood sugar. It  is now grown commercially to produce inulin.

Culinary uses
You will usually find Chicory (Cichorium endivia, a species related to the native flower) in the vegetable or salad aisles as a tight bunch of pale leaves (rather like a mini Cos or Romaine lettuce), or in ready-bags of mixed salad leaves.  Eaten raw in salads, it has a bitter tang that’s not to everyone’s taste, though the fresher it is the milder the bitterness.  Chicory in this form is ‘forced’ – grown quickly in darkness – and the leaves are harvested after only a few weeks.  Another name to look out for in those salad bags is radicchio, referring to a red-veined variety of the same plant.

Like other green leafy vegetables such as leeks, lettuce, and celery, chicory can also be cooked:  recipes often suggest braising or roasting.

Confusingly, in much of Europe the vegetable is actually known as endive – a name that in Britain usually refers to a variety of curly lettuce!

Older people in the UK may associate chicory with a certain brand of liquid ‘instant coffee’ that was actually made mostly with roasted chicory root, baked and ground, and full of sugar to disguise the bitterness. It’s still available, and is also useful as an easy ‘coffee flavouring’ in classics like coffee and walnut cake.  You can also buy powder-type instant coffee drinks containing chicory in varying proportions to actual coffee beans.

Chicory drinks are also available without any coffee addition: they are said to taste like coffee but slightly woody and nutty. As this type of drink contains less caffeine than coffee, it’s a possible alternative for those who are trying to reduce their caffeine intake.


Acknowledgements     Thanks to the following for much of the information above

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June in the Garden 2019

After only a few days away from the garden, we discover everything has suddenly doubled in size and come into flower.


The colours of the comfrey, wisteria, clematis and peony are looking lovely – soon to be joined by the lavender.

Comfrey, Clematis and Wisteria

We recently bought some fencing and two arches, using money awarded by the Tesco Bags of Help scheme last year – thank you to all who placed their votes! These have now been installed, with much digging and careful levelling. The fence provides a good south-facing support, where we hope to grow a grape vine.

Andy, Nick and David putting up the fence

The arches have added some height, and a new feeling of arrival, in the lower garden – and the air is full of the scent of valerian, and the buzzing of bees on the chives.  We have been planting up one of the new arches with Akebia quinata– the Chocolate Vine. It has pretty leaves and purple, chocolate scented flowers in spring. The stems, when dried, have been used medicinally to control bacterial and fungal infections.

Linda adjusts the Akebia on the arch

We had a great spot for our stall at the Congleton Food and Drink Festival, and the day even started out sunny for once… Lots of people came by, bought a plant, and learned a bit more about our garden. We sold nearly all our plants, so it was a successful day all round, with more visitors coming to enjoy the garden, and a bit extra in the tin to help us pay the bills. Thank you to everyone who contributed, and we hope to see you again.

Lyn, Ros and Linda on duty at the Food & Drink Festival

The wild flower meadow is looking good this year – colour of petals and texture of leaves and grasses combine to make it a favourite spot.

The Wild Flower Meadow

And our baby Sumac tree is happy. We planted this Stag’s Horn Sumac (Rhus typhina) for its dramatic autumn foliage. It has been used in native North American medicine, and both the bark and the leaves can be used in dyeing. Although it has been described as potentially irritating, the sap of ornamental sumacs does not normally provoke itchiness. There are many other Sumacs that may, including a distantly related tree found in the wild in America and known as Poison Sumac (botanic name Toxicodendron vernix). However, there is no medical evidence that any part of our Sumac tree is poisonous, although eating it is not advised because it would taste extremely bitter!
[See below for more information about Sumac]

Our baby Sumac tree

The dragonfly is less happy though, seen here sheltering from the weather under a meadowsweet leaf by the pond. Possibly a female Southern Hawker?


We, however, have been lucky to stay mostly dry for our work in the garden on Mondays during this record-breaking wet month, and were very happy to welcome a number of new visitors who came to see the garden and the Bath House.


Stag’s Horn Sumac – Rhus typhina
Sumacs are deciduous shrubs native to North America, Africa, and the Middle East. They are suckering plants and tend to be invasive, growing in thickets on waste ground and anywhere they are unchecked. Also spelled Sumach and Sumaq, there are around 35 different species, with Stag’s Horn Sumac being the most commonly grown as a garden ornamental in Britain. It may have gained a reputation for being an irritant because of the Poison Sumac, Toxicodendron vernix, a noxious tree growing wild in North America.

Stag’s Horn Sumac can grow to 18-20 feet high, and suckers freely, so it should be coppiced in order both to control its spread and increase its longevity. It is grown not so much for its dense panicles of small summer flowers, but for its large pinnate leaves (like ash or elder) that turn bright red in autumn. Flowers can develop into bright red furry berries later in the year, but these will only form if male and female plants are grown together. (Note: Varieties of Sumac with non-hairy berries are poisonous).

Sumac was used extensively by Native Americans for food and medicine. Young shoots and roots were peeled and eaten raw, while the raw or cooked fruits were eaten or made into a sweet drink – what  Americans know as ‘pink lemonade’. 

Myth and Magic
Since Sumac is not a European tree, and was introduced to Britain as a garden plant, there are no local legends or supernatural attributes. In North America, however, it is said tp  bring harmony and resolve difficulties: I even found a suggestion that, if found guilty in a court of law, carrying sumac berries in your pocket will reduce your sentence!

On a more practical note, the Smudge Stick, (commonly used in folk rituals and magic ceremonies), when made from Sumac berries or leaves, creates a mildly aromatic smoke reputed to help with creative thinking – and such a pleasant smoke can also be used by a traditional bee-keeper to calm the swarm.

Medicinal Uses
Modern research is being carried out into the active constituents in Sumac. It has been suggested that these may be useful in some cancer therapies, as well as in treatments for diabetes and tuberculosis.

In herbal medicine, Sumac was employed for the treatment of several ailments. Having antiseptic and diuretic properties, the bark would be powdered and made into a salve. Sumac bark and roots were also used in infusions for colds, sore throats and fever, as well as for infections, inflammation of the urinary tract, and for diarrhoea. External application was recommended for burns and skin conditions.

The leaves were also used in a poultice for skin rashes or as an infusion for asthma, and chewed in cases of sore gums or lips.   Sumac berries (red) were used in various treatments for diseases and conditions of the digestive tract; for menstrual problems; and fever.  An infusion of Sumac blossoms could be made into an eye wash for sore eyes, while the milky sap was used as a salve for sores.

Other uses

Some species of sumac, especially Rhus coriaria, have long been used widely in Asian and Arabic cooking as a spice for meat and vegetable dishes, rice, and in desserts. Herbal wine can be prepared from the gum-like ‘galls’ formed when the sap leaks from the cut stems.

Leather manufacture
The leaves of Sumac contain considerable quantities of tannin, as does the galls mentioned above which also contain gallic acid. The tree is therefore very useful in tanning leather, and its Hebrew name translates as “tanner’s sumac”.

The berries can be processed to produce dyes ranging from red through brown to black, suitable especially on wool. The tannin-rich leaves are used both as a brown dye and as a mordant. The roots, and the inner bark along with the pith, also produce dyes – yellow and orange respectively.

An oil can be extracted from Sumac seeds to be used in the manufacture of candles that, while burning well, give off a pungent smoke.

Other uses
The young shoots can be made into pipes, for drawing sap from sugar maples; and boiling seeds and leaves together produces a dark ink. Sumac’s suckering root system makes it useful planted as a windbreak and where soil erosion is a problem. 


Acknowledgments     Thanks to the following for much of this information:

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May in the Garden 2019

This month saw our now regular Spring Open Day, and over 100 people came to visit us. They took guided tours both of the Bath House and of the medicinal and dye plants in the garden. Many visitors told us they’d only discovered this secret garden in the centre of town for the first time on Open Day; but we were pleased to see many others coming back for more, which made our hard work in preparation all the more worthwhile. How many volunteers does it take to put up a marquee?

I’m sure that goes there…

More than you’d think, and we often have to draft in friends and neighbours. But it was done in record time on this occasion, as we’ve learnt from previous experience that it is best to put the cover on the right way up! And if you would like to lend a hand, not just with marquee-erection but with any other construction or gardening jobs, do come and see us on any Monday morning.

The marquee successfully in place, we set up stalls for the Alsager Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers; the Herb Society and medical herbalists; apple juice, second hand books, and plants. Not needed so much to shelter from the sun, despite recent heat, but also thankfully not as protection from the rain which has drenched previous Open Days!

The Marquee!

Barbara Wilkinson, of the Herb Society, gave her ever popular talks about the medicinal uses of our plants. She is a stalwart supporter of the garden and we’re grateful for her willingness to return time after time!

Barbara captivating another audience

Nicola, from the Alsager Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers, gave a fascinating tour of the dye plants, showing the colours that can be achieved with such plants as madder, dyer’s camomile and woad – that’s the tall yellow flower in the picture. [See below to find out more about Woad] 

Nicola explains the dye plants to the crowd

The group also gave us demonstrations of hand spinning, and a rainbow display of  colours available from our plants, and how these vary with different mordants and modifiers.

A rainbow palette of dyed wools

The first prize in the raffle was a box of goodies donated by The Old Saw Mill, as well as some that we made ourselves. Many thanks to everyone who bought a ticket – it all goes to help us maintain this special place.

Happy winners

Tearing ourselves away from the everyday practicalities of maintaining and developing our historic building and garden, and putting on events such as the May Open Day, we’ve also devoted some time to serious thinking about the future and how we could encourage visitors. After much deliberation and debate over various options, we arrived at a new logo to encapsulate the idea of the Bath House and Physic Garden, using it to help to raise our profile on future communications, events, and items for sale.

Our new logo

The logo represents the late-Georgian Bath House surrounded by a selected number of herbs from the Physic Garden. This shortlist was more difficult to choose than Desert Island Discs, but we ended up with Ginkgo, Borage, Rosemary and Hawthorn (leaf and berries) – all significant inhabitants of the garden with interesting uses and stories to tell. Many thanks go to Laura Weir for her skill, patience and inspiration in designing the logo. She is also drawing up a map of the garden for us, and we hope to use it in a new leaflet, as well as on a much-needed revamp of the website. Watch this Space!


Woad    Isatis tinctoria

Isatis tinctoria – Woad

A hardy perennial or biennial, this tall striking plant can be grown in most soils and tolerates shade and sun. It may have originated in southern Russia but has naturalised widely since early times. Because it was the main source of blue dye in Europe, it was later grown extensively as a commercial crop, and may thence have escaped into the wild. So prolific is it in the USA that it is there considered an invasive pest.

Myth and Magic
Woad is associated in British legend with warpaint, reinforced in recent culture via such films as Braveheart. 2000 years ago, the Roman writer Eumenius described the northern tribes as Picti, meaning ‘painted ones’.  Similarly, an old Celtic word Brithon means stained or painted man, and some historians believe that’s how we got the word Britain.

Woad has also been used in magic and pagan rituals, as an aid in ‘shape-shifting’. It was also supposed to help you look into past lives, perhaps from its reputation as a   hallucinogenic. However, its actual ‘mood altering’ properties are that its raw sap can cause numbness and dizziness in some people, and no hallucinations have been reported.

Another name for woad is Glastum, and one theory is that Glastonbury, that centre of ancient mysteries and modern festivals, actually means ‘the place where woad grows’.

Use as a dye
Woad has been cultivated as a dye plant in Europe from the Stone Age, and an important dyeing industry developed in Britain, particularly in East Anglia. The leaves were harvested, ground into a paste in a mill, and hand-rolled into balls. These balls were dried over a few weeks until hard as wood and then crumbled into powder, sprinkled with water and left to ferment. When this mixture also dried, it was packed in barrels for the dyers.

The powdered dyestuff

The dyers poured hot water over the woad, and added potash or urine, and it was again left to ferment for three days before it could be used as a dye bath.  The whole process was so smelly that Queen Elizabeth I decreed that it could not be carried out within five miles of any of her palaces.

The plant Indigofera tinctoria grows in India and South East Asia, and as the British Empire spread from Tudor times onwards,  this gradually – and more cheaply – replaced woad in the indigo dye vats. These imports, and the development of synthetic dyes from Victorian times, killed the woad industry, and the last mill closed in Lincolnshire in 1932.

Woad is not often commercially used nowadays, except by artists and craftspeople interested in working with natural materials. Although it is famously blue, when mixed with dyer’s greenwood (Genista tinctoria) it produces an excellent green.

Medicinal uses
The leaves and roots of woad contain antibacterial and antiviral compounds, useful in treating a range of ailments. The leaves also contain fever-reducing chemicals.

Culpeper, in his 1653 Herbal, wrote that woad was so drying and astringent it should only be used externally, for treating ulcers and to staunch bleeding. However, in Chinese herbal medicine it is taken internally at quite high doses, and is associated with treatments of a wide range of ailments including mumps, influenza, heat rash and pneumonia. The roots are used to treat cold and throat infections.

An anti-cancer chemical, glucobrassicin, found in broccoli, has now been identified at twenty times greater quantities in woad. As extraction from broccoli is difficult, woad may prove an effective alternative source.


Acknowledgments     Thanks to the following for information and opinion:
 – www.

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April in the Garden 2019

April brings the first stirrings of new growth to the garden:
our frogspawn has turned into tadpoles…

This year’s tadpoles

… and Sycamore – the plant of the month in February –  has become the bane of our lives. Bending down in any one spot allows you to retrieve a whole handful of tree seedlings – and there will be more hiding, for you to find next time.

A handful of trees!

However, there is plenty to lift the spirits as well. The fan trained plum tree has come into blossom, and the Forsythia is a blaze of yellow.

The fan trained plum tree

And it is always worth pausing by the Rosemary to pick a flower and eat it, for a burst of sweet, herby flavour – and the hope that it will do something for the memory. [See below for more about Rosemary]

Rosemary – Ros marinus

As well as eliminating seedling trees, we have also been planting larger ones. We found a Yew tree to replace the one that died last year, and mirror its partner on the other side of the garden shelter.

The garden shelter and its guardian yews

We have also planted a White Mulberry tree. We had been looking for one of these for some time, to add to the border containing plants relevant to the textile industry. This mulberry is the food of choice for the silk moth. Black mulberries grow well in Britain and the fruit was much enjoyed in the past, but they aren’t as good for silk moths, producing an inferior fibre to that from white mulberry. White mulberry, however, doesn’t grow as readily in cool Britain as in sunnier France, where the European silk industry was a near monopoly in the 17th century. James I ordered 10,000 trees to kick start a rival silk industry here but, whether by design or accident, he ordered black; and either the trees or the silkworms failed to produce the goods. So we have no home grown silk, but Congleton did weave silk fabric from imported thread.

Congleton Museum, and museums in Macclesfield, will tell you more about the successful local silk industry: go to  for more about mulberries!

The new Mulberry

Now that we have connections to mains water and drainage, we have been able to plumb in a Portaloo. Not the most spectacular of developments, and only temporary – but good news for the volunteers, and their tea-drinking habits! Perhaps you don’t need a photo…


Rosemary   Rosmarinus officinalis
Attractive to many beneficial insects, sporting pretty blue flowers and exuding a pleasing aroma, the Rosemary is familiar to gardeners and cooks alike. Its botanical name originates from the Latin ros marinus (dew of the sea), referring to the salt spray of its native Mediterranean coastal habitat. This evergreen shrub grows well in many soils, tolerates salt, loves the sun, even copes with drought – but cannot tolerate shade. Possibly introduced into southern Britain by the Romans, but definitely being grown here by the 14thcentury, it became a garden staple in the Middle Ages. The 16th century philosopher and statesman Sir Thomas More wrote: “As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship…”   And a century later, the botanist and physician Nicolas Culpeper noted Our Garden Rosemary is so well known that I need not describe it.”   It is commercially grown for its essential oil, (i.e. an oil containing the essence of its fragrance) used in perfumery, soaps and medicinal remedies.

Myth and magic
Grown in gardens since ancient times, Rosemary was considered to have powers of protection against evil spirits. In some traditions, a sprig would be placed under the pillow to ward off ‘daemons’ and guard against nightmares. The herb was also considered sacred by the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean region.

The Greek goddess Mnemosyne, who gave the balm of forgetfulness to the spirits of the dead, was pictured carrying rosemary since she also gave capacity for memory to the living. This belief in the association of rosemary with memory was so strong that Greek students in ancient times wore rosemary wreaths on their heads during examinations (and there have been some studies recently using similar techniques… worth investigating?)

Rosemary is traditionally considered a symbol of friendship, loyalty and love, and it was woven into bridal bouquets, or worn by the groom, to ensure lifelong fidelity.

In 17thcentury Wales, a rosemary branch would be thrown into the grave at burial, to ensure the person would live on in memory; in the same period, a French visitor to England noted that followers of coffins each carried sprigs to throw into the grave. Another Welsh burial tradition was that, when planting a flower on a grave, it should be rosemary if the person died in old age, spring flowers for an infant and roses for an adult.

A Christian legend states that rosemary flowers were originally white but, as the Virgin Mary fled from Herod’s troops, her cloak fell over a rosemary bush and the blooms took on the holy blue colour.  It has also been a Christian tradition that the shrub will live no longer than 33 years, Christ’s lifespan on earth.

Medicinal Properties

Reducing memory loss
Rosemary has long been recommended by medical herbalists as a boost to memory and concentration.  This ancient belief is now getting strong scientific backing, as research has shown that rosemary contains several compounds useful in the field of brain aging and cognitive impairment. For instance, Rosmarol, an extract from the leaves, shows high antioxidant activity: antioxidants are linked to brain health. Dr J Duke, ex-Chief of Medicinal Plant Research at US Dept of Agriculture, said: “It’s fabulous that the classical herb of remembrance has so many compounds that might help people suffering from Alzheimer’s”.

Massage with rosemary oil is recommended for sufferers with Raynaud’s Disease, where the blood supply to fingers and toes is severely reduced, causing numbness and cold. Rosemary therapies are also advocated in reducing high blood pressure and to treat varicose veins. As a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, it is likely that it could boost the immune system and improve blood circulation, and modern research, though still limited, has produced encouraging results in this field.

Antiseptic, anti-inflammatory
Research has shown that the plant is rich in volatile oils, flavanoids and phenolic acids, which are strongly antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. Rosemary can thus protect the body from bacterial infections, and possibly heal mild skin conditions. It should be noted that it is possible to get an allergic reaction to rosemary oil, causing a skin rash, so use with care.

Hair treatments
Traditionally used as a fragrant hair wash, and in modern times a frequent ingredient in shampoos and lotions, it is also said that rosemary can help prevent hair thinning and hair loss. This attribute of rosemary is gaining strong scientific support, as in a 2015 study when rosemary oil showed better results in treating male balding than the regular chemical treatment on offer. Rosemary oil also promotes healing of the scalp, reduces dandruff, and decreases hair loss after shampooing. It can also be used to treat head lice.

A headache remedy can be made by an infusion of the flowering stems. Alternatively, massaging the temples with a liniment containing rosemary oil may be similarly effective.

Colds and Flu
Rosemary therapies have been proposed as an aid to the respiratory system, good for treating bronchitis and having positive effects on asthma. It is also recommended as an aid to recovery from flu, and in treating the symptoms of colds.

Analgesic and muscle stimulant
Rosemary is said to relieve pain, muscle spasms, sciatica and rheumatism. It can also stimulate and strengthen muscles before and after exercise.

Eye treatments
A distilled water from the flowers is used as an eyewash for mild infections or irritations. Recent research has associated carsonic acid, a component of rosemary, with reduced deterioration in damaged retinas. Although the research is at an early stage, this would indicate a potential treatment for such conditions as macular degeneration, a major cause of blindness in the elderly.

As a general tonic
Rosemary is suggested to be an ideal tonic and pick-me-up when feeling depressed, mentally tired or ‘nervous’, as it reduces toxins in the body and improves mood.

Other Uses

Rosemary oil is used in natural pesticides and helps keep away some mosquitoes and ticks. The growing plant is said to repel insects from neighbouring plants. Branches or sachets of the leaves are sometimes placed in clothes cupboards to keep moths away.

The whole plant is edible: young shoots, leaves and flowers can be eaten raw or cooked, fresh or dried. The leaves do have a tough texture, and are mostly used finely chopped or removed before serving. They are also strongly flavoured, even bitter and resinous, whereas the flowers are milder. Useful in both meat and vegetable dishes, whether sweet or savoury, rosemary is one of the cook’s most versatile herbs.  A fragrant tea can be made from the fresh or dried leaves, said to be especially pleasant when mixed with tansy.

A natural yellow-green dye can be obtained from the leaves; with iron as a modifier, the result is a greyish sage-green.

Never use the essential oil neat, directly onto the skin. And, as always, we recommend taking professional advice before embarking on any treatment. Excessive or inappropriate use of any substance can be harmful and even fatal.

Random facts about Rosemary

  • ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance’ is a well known quote from Hamlet, but Shakespeare also mentioned the herb in four other plays: A Winter’s Tale; King LearPericles; and Romeo and Juliet.
  • The Emperor Charlemagne (742-814), who led military campaigns across most of Western Europe to create the Holy Roman Empire, strengthened European economic and political life, and promoted a great cultural revival, also found time for horticulture and insisted rosemary be planted in his many gardens.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte had a monthly standing order for 50 bottles of eau de cologne with its key ingredient of rosemary, a reminder of Corsica where he grew up.
  • It takes 200 kilos of flowering rosemary stems to produce one kilo of essential oil.
  • The song Scarborough Fair, most famous in its Simon and Garfunkel version, was based on a medieval folk song about lovers vying to prove their love, and had very little, if anything, to do with the common herbs mentioned in the refrain ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’.
  • Rosemary was supposed to flourish in gardens where the household was controlled by the woman.

The last word on Rosemary goes to Culpeper who, as well as being a revolutionary, a physician, a botanist and a writer, was also a man of his seventeenth-century times, with some beliefs, including astronomy and magic, that we now find unscientific. But I enjoy his suggestions: “The herb is good for a dull and melancholy man… if they take the flowers, and make them into powder, and bind them on the right arm in a linen cloth, this powder, by working on the veins, will make a man more merry than ordinary.”   


Acknowledgments      Thanks to the following for their helpful contributions 


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