Hildegard believed that our food was the best medicine to prevent illness and maintain overall health. In her work, Physica, she dedicated a section on plants and grains she believed to possess healthy properties and healing powers.
Though she would study 230 plants in Physica, there were a handful of plants she believed to be particularly useful for medicinal and healing purposes. These were the staples of her monastic healing garden.
Hildegarden: a Hildegard-inspired modern medicinal medieval garden.
We’ve selected some of Hildegard’s favorite plants that you should include in your very own Hildegarden, but before we get to the short-list of healing plants, we need to credit our friend, Patricia Banker for her work around Hildegarden!
A wander through the history of the medicinal medieval garden.
The Monastic Gardens
From their inception monasteries included gardens. Monasteries were meant to be as self-sufficient as possible. They were often isolated from population centers or located in otherwise remote areas, thus the production of food supplies was an essential part of daily life. Monks would labor in these gardens according to the Benedictine rules that encouraged manual labor to avoid idleness.
Early on, the gardens were mainly for food production, thoughwithin the monastic life the roots of food and medicine had long been entwined. The origin of monastic medicinal gardens comes from Benedict of Nursia, founder of the monestary of Monte Cassino in 529 AD who said, “Before all things, and above all things, special care must be taken of the sick.”
Foreign Exposure to Healing Plants
These early monastic medieval gardens were typically limited to the plants indigenous to the local environment. But as the missionary movement expanded its frontiers, monks returning from the far off lands introduced new medicinal herbs. Over time, the monastic garden would expand to include a wide variety of medicinal herbs for use and study.
Monastic gardens reflect much about monastic life. We tend to think of monasteries as being solemn places of idle contemplation. This is true in some ways, but the reality was that the constant, humble work of tending to the gardens and the ancillary work of making cider, wine, and other necessary provisions was an important aspect of the monastic discipline. The monastic life was often busy with labor and study and like the gardens, was much more varied than we tend to imagine.
Separate Gardens One Monastary
Monastic gardens were not merely one specific plot but rather several different types of gardens for different purposes. A monastery would typically have a physic garden, a hortus conclusus or secluded garden, separate vegetable and fruit gardens, orchard or cemetery gardens, as well as fishponds and dovecotes. The gardens each had a specific purpose and place within the walls – or in the surrounding grounds of the monastery.
The physic garden originated in the time of emperor Charlemagne (800 AD) and included various sections of medicinal herbs for use and study. These areas, called herbularias or hortus medicus (Latin for medicinal garden), were the central feature of the physic garden. Considered to be the essential garden for the practice and study of traditional German herbal medicine, they were part of every medieval European university medical school. The medical students tended these gardens, just as the monks tended them as a routine part of the practice of monastic medicine.
Physica Garden for Medicinal Plants
The physica garden contained plants with known medicinal values as well as those that had not yet been understood to have medicinal value but were thought to demonstrate potential. These well-ordered and meticulously maintained gardens were the predecessor of the modern botanic gardens of today.
The hortus conclusus, or secluded garden, was an emblematic representation of the Virgin Mary and the associated biblical allegories such as the Immaculate Conception. The imagery of being closed-off, untouched, and protected was represented in the design elements and contents of this garden.
The secluded gardens were enclosed within fences or walls, and had trellis arbors for privacy and shade. There were fountains, scented flowers, walkways and secluded seating areas. In private homes and palaces, these gardens were more closely associated with earthly delights. In either case, the secluded garden was a place meant to enjoy peaceful contemplation and to relax in nature.
All of the areas of cultivation were important parts of a thriving monastery, but it was within the physic garden that Hildegard advanced her work in monastic medicine and natural healing, so it is fro this garden that we draw our own version of a modern medicinal garden, our Hildegarden.
Creating Your Hildegarden
“For it was that same Love which planted a glorious garden redolent with precious herbs and noble flowers–roses and lilies–which breathed forth a wondrous fragrance, that garden on which the true Solomon was accustomed to feast his eyes.” – HILDEGARD OF BINGEN, letter to the Monk Guibert, 1176
The medieval garden, as with any garden, is a work of love. Gardens are instruments of healing, a means to provide sustenance and health, and reminders of our connectivity with the natural world.
Many of Hildegard’s foundational beliefs manifest in the cultivation of a medicinal garden: the elements of nature; the microcosm and macrocosm; a balance and harmony; discipline and humble labor toward wellness; spending time outside; the practice of moderation; food as medicine; and of course viriditas – the greening power of the divine.
Hildegard Healing Plants
So whether you are able to construct an expansive medieval garden including plants associated with Hildegard of Bingen medicine, add a section of healing herbs to your annual vegetable garden, or your environment mandates a more limited approach, you can enjoy the practice of gardening while planting the seeds of better health and wellness by including some these healing plants.
- Lemon Balm
- Milk Thistle
- Rose (wild)
These plants are readily available and grow in a wide variety of climate zones. Many are also suitable for potting or window boxes. If you are looking to recreate the monastic style, consider a series of raised boxes, with each plant labeled with name and uses. In a traditional garden bed, be sure and make room for a path to provide access for tending and harvesting.
Even if you don’t intent to harvest some of these plants for your medicinal use they make great additions to your garden, so pick a few and give them a try and let us know what you think. We’d love to see your creations and hear your thoughts about the process of cultivating your own healing garden.