Tuesday 15 May 2018

Herbs For Hanging Baskets

Herbs can be grown in hanging baskets to great effect; my fool proof plan for keeping them in tip-top condition begins with a liner, I use coconut fibre liners these days, but you could use hessian sacks, old wooolies, and even empty compost bags they’re usually black on the inside, just make sure the inside faces out and prick a few holes in the plastic for drainage.

Before I add compost, I place a saucer - or in my case a shallow dish - in the base of my basket, a trick my Grandad taught me when I was first learning to garden over 40 years ago, WOW I'm getting old! Hanging baskets are notorious for drying out quickly on hot summer days, so anything you can do to help retain moisture in the basket will help. I also add water retaining crystals, I use a type called Gardman Nutrigel - Water Retaining Crystals & Plant Food, the crystals which hold water are also pre-mixed with plant food that lasts all season which feeds your baskets throughout the growing season.

Next add a good compost suitable for hanging baskets, I’ve had great success with Horizon Organic Peat Free compost in the past but it’s got harder to obtain locally, so I favour using Westland Jack’s Magic All Purpose Compost, it’s enriched with seaweed and is a multi-purpose variety. I’ve seen good results so far and the herbs seem to like it and thrive. For best results pick low growing herbs for your herbal hanging basket, tall growing herbs won’t thrive in a basket.

Plant your herbs up fresh every season, previous seasons plants can be reused, the chives in my basket are from last year’s display, I divided them and replanted in fresh compost. Keep baskets well watered and harvest regularly to keep the herbs producing new leaves and looking their best. If you don’t use slow release plant food, make sure you feed your herbs every 3 weeks or so during the growing season. I purposefully leave gaps and add seeds of herbs such as nasturtiums, basil and alpine strawberries, so new things emerge in the baskets as the season progresses.

You can plant baskets with just one variety - a basket of variegated lemon balm can add a splash of colour to a shady spot - or have themes. The basket I planted up above has a ‘Sunday Roast’ theme, chives, marjoram, oregano, sage and 2 varieties of thyme, are all ready for adding to meat and veg for roasts. You could add garden mint or an excellent flavoured prostrate rosemary like ‘Blue Lagoon’ to the mix if you like, which will hang down the sides of the basket. Different themes you can try include: - Chamomile, chocolate mint and lemon thyme for herb teas, Italian herbs for pizza and pasta, herbs for the BBQ or add calendula, lavender and thyme to an herbal first aid basket.

A few years ago I visited Yorkshire Lavender and came across a cracking idea for herbal hanging baskets using single varieties of butterfly lavenders in baskets to make aromatic balls of colour. Something I’m keen to copy this year for hanging near my new seating area. That idea led me to think about ways to showcase single varieties of herbs and I’ve hit on the idea of tying two baskets together that have been filled with compost, and I've experimenting with lawn chamomile, small leafed basil Piccolino, and tiny leaved and highly aromatic, creeping Corsican Mint to make single herb balls, much better than those artificial ‘herb’ balls that some people seem to be favouring these days, even if you do have to keep watering them!

Sunday 13 May 2018

Old Apothecary Remedy Measures

I have a collection of 19th and 20th century books on herbs and some from the 18th century, as regular readers to my other blog will know, and through the wonders of the internet I’ve discovered examples of herb texts and manuscripts that date back to the 5th century and beyond. Sadly many of the recipes and formulas for herbal remedies that they contain, appear to be written in a foreign language that is all Greek to me lol!

For example William Bowker's 19th century "Valuable Herbal Prescriptions" book is filled with drachm and grain weight measurements, along with pints and ounce measurements. Other books like Peter MacEwan’s "Pharmaceutical Formulas: the Chemist and Druggist’s’ Book of Useful Recipes for the Drug Trade" contain the same drachm, grain and ounce measurements, as well as containing plenty of formulas that contain old apothecary measures, as can be seen from the photo below.

What Were Apothecary Weights & Measures?

First we need to define what the old apothecary weights were, but before I can do that, I have to add a caveat, my examples below only apply to the UK. The old herbalists who wrote books in America employed a different set of weights and measures, so it is important that you know from where the person writing the book you’re reading comes from, and also which market the book was intended for.

For example in the UK, 1 Pint in apothecary measurements was equal to 20 imperial fluid ounces of water, or approximately 568.26ml. In the USA a apothecary measurement of a pint was 16 fluid ounces approximately 473.18ml. So if you are reading “Elixirs and Flavoring Extracts” by 20th century American Eclectic Medicine practitioner John Uri Lloyd and a recipe calls for 1 pint, you’d need to work your recipe on 16 fluid ounces (473.18ml).

If the book you're referencing is by 19th century English Medical Botanist George Slack for example, and a formula calls for 1 pint of a liquid such as 'Spirits of Wine' then you'd add 20 fluid ounces (568.26ml). Unless, and this is where it starts to get complicated, the recipe in the English book is citing an American reference, if that is the case make sure you chose 1 measure and add the corresponding measures to your recipe.

For liquid measure, or liquid capacity, the basic unit was the gallon, which was divided into 4 quarts, 8 pints, or 32 gills. In the U.S. a gallon, also known as a wine gallon, is equal to 231 cubic inches (cu in.). A British imperial gallon is measured as the volume of 10lb of pure water measured when it is at the temperature of 62°F and was equal to 277.42 cubic inches (4.55 Litres approx). As you can see British units of liquid capacity were approximately 20% bigger than the same American units. The U.S. fluid ounce being 1/16th of a U.S. pint; the British unit of the same name is 1/20th of an imperial pint.

Apothecary weights were a system of units of mass that were used by apothecaries and druggists throughout the English-speaking world before 15th, and were based on the grain weight a unit of weight equal to 0.065 gram, or 1/7,000 pound avoirdupois. The avoirdupois system abbreviated avdp. is a measurement system of weights which uses pounds and ounces as units, it was first used in the 13th century and was then updated in 1959 and is still in use today in most English speaking countries. Grain weight was one of the earliest units of common measure and also the smallest, it is a uniform unit in the avoirdupois, apothecaries’, and troy systems.and each weight had its own symbol which to the person not schooled in the system can look like hieroglyphs.

One grain = gr.
On Scruple (20 grains) = ℈
One Drachm (60 grains) = Ʒ
One Ounce (437½ grains) = ℥
One Pound (16 ounces) = ℔
One Pint (20 ounces) = O abbreviation for Octarius
One Quart (2 pints) = qu
One Gallon (8 pints) = C abbreviation for Conguis)

16th century apothecary formulas also contained references to Handfuls which were abbreviated to M.j. Half handfuls written as M.β and little handfuls written as P.j. to further complicate matters, a handful measure was literally what you could hold in a cupped palm, you can see the problem with consistency using that unit of measure, due to the varying sizes of hands.

I have to say that despite reading and seeing references to handfuls having been used as a measure of weight in the Apothecary system since the 16th century, it is fairly uncommon and so far I have found no definitive proof of what the exact measure was. I have discovered references to another measurement for dry weight used around the same time called the lock which was used to deter the amount of dry weight goods that a person could grasp in one hand, and further discovered that the Greek word drachmē means “handful.”

Moving to the late 19th century, and the introduction of the 1878 British Weights and Measures act that required apothecaries to use the avoirdupois weight system that had been around since the 13th, instead of apothecaries’ weight, initially to measure goods that they sold, and then subsequently for using to measure medicines as well.

Up until the late 19th century the drachm was known as the dram, when the new system was put in to place the spelling of dram was changed to ‘drachm’ to mark the difference between the avoirdupois ‘dram’ and the apothecary ‘drachm’. In 1971 the use of apothecary weights was formally abolished and chemists and druggists used the metric system to measure out and make up medicines.

Old Formulas also made use of roman numerals for quantities the roman numeral for 1 is i, 2 is ii a ½ was denoted as ss so if a formula called for 3½oz it would be written ℥iiiss, in some formulas, a lower case j is used but it still has a value of 1. Walter Bastedo explained in his 1918 book “Materia Medica: Pharmacology: Therapeutics Prescription Writing for Students and Practitioners”.

Roman numerals of prescriptions small letters are employed as: iv = 4, xlviii = 48. In writing, small letters are used for one (i or j), five (v), and ten (x), and capitals for 50 (L), 100 (C), and 1000 (M); and it is customary to draw a line above all the letters making up the number, the dots of i and j being put above this line. In a number with terminal one, as one, two, three, seven, or eight, the last letter is printed j, or written as i with a stroke projecting below the line, e. g., ij, iij, vij. This is to signify that it is terminal. Errors have been made because of a comma inadvertently added, and even because of some mark, such as a fly-speck, upon the paper. The dot over the terminal one is an additional check; for if all the letters i and j are not dotted, the pharmacist may be in doubt as to the number intended. As v, x, 1 and c are not dotted letters, it is incorrect to place dots over them.

So to translate the formula for Tinctura Aromatica in the above photo: -

Calling for: -

Cassia Ʒx ℈ij
Ginger Ʒiv ℈j
Galangal Root Ʒij. gr. x.
Cloves Ʒij. gr. x.
Cardamom Ʒij. gr. x.
Rectified Spirit and Water of each enough to make Ʒxvj.

You would need the following amounts: -

Cassia 10oz + 2 scruples (0.0914oz (total approx. 286g)
Ginger 4oz + 1 scruple (approx. 114g)
Galangal Root 2oz + 10 grains (approx. 57g)
Cloves 2oz + 10 grains (approx. 57g)
Cardamom 2oz + 10 grains (approx. 57g)
Rectified Spirit and water 16 fluid oz

A further example from Bowker’s book is for a formula for pills to be taken at night time to ease an ulcerated stomach, which called for: -

Solid Extract Cascara - 2 drachms
Capsicum – 1 drachm
Extract of Chamomilla 2 drachms

All to be mixed with gum mucilage and made in to 4 grain pills making them approximately 0.26g each by weight.

Until now I've never got my head around these old weights and measures, until I converted a set of measures of mass and capacity into modern day metric based on a list of old weights, measures and equivalents taken from Harold Wards "Herbal Manual" from 1936, below I’ve given approximate metric equivalents for today which I hope the reader will find of use?

Apothecaries Measures of Mass

1 Grain = 0.0647g
20 Grains = 1 Scruple (1.295g)
3 Scruples = 1 Drachm (3.885g)
8 Drachms = 1 Ounce (31.08g)

Measure of Capacity

1 Minim = 0.059ml
60 Minims = 1 Fluid Drachm (3.6ml)
8 Fluid Drachms = 1 Fluid Ounce (2.84123ml)
20 Fluid Ounces = 1 Pint (0.568 litre)
8 Pints = 1 Gallon (4.5459631 litres)

Equivalents in Domestic Doses

1 Minim = 1 Drop (0.059ml)
1 Drachm = 1 Teaspoonful (3.6ml)
2 Drachms = 1 Dessertspoonful (7.1ml)
4 Drachms (½ Fluid Ounce) = 1 Tablespoonful (14.2ml)
2 Fluid Ounces (5 Tablespoonsful) = 1 Wine (sherry) glassful (71.0ml)
5 Fluid Ounces (8 Tablespoonsful aka a Gil) = 1 Teacupful (142.1ml)

Thursday 10 May 2018

Growing Mint

Mint can be a rather unruly thug in the garden if it’s left to its own devices, but the human race has had a soft spot for this herb dating back to around 1,000 B.C. The Romans believed the consumption of mint would increase their intelligence; the ancient Egyptians used it as part of their funerary rites, and in medieval times mint was used to cure mouth sores and dog bites. It’s helped to whiten teeth and prevented milk from curdling. The Elizabethans used it as a strewing herb to keep fleas at bay and it’s also been used to help deter ants.

In Greek myth, Minthe aka Menthe and Mentha was the name of a beautiful water nymph pursued by Pluto, the God of the underworld. When his wife Persephone found out about the dalliance she turned Minthe into a plant that would be trodden underfoot. Having been caught in the act, Pluto could do nothing but accept his wife’s vengeance.

The Roman, Pliny the Elder, advised scholars to wear a crown of mint to aid concentration, but he also warned lovers that it was contrary to procreation. The Greeks, however believed the opposite - their soldiers were warned to avoid mint during a war as it was feared that increased love-making would diminish their courage. Mint is said to bring luck and helps to increase your money prospects if a few leaves are rubbed into the purse. Mint has been used to cleanse and protect the home from disease and negativity and is also a traditional folk cure for a headache; the cure was achieved by rubbing a few mint leaves on the forehead.


Mint is an herbaceous perennial with a square stem like other members of the labiate family, and has spikes or whorls of flowers in summer; the flowers come in a variety of shades including white, through to purple with a wide range of pink and bluey lilac shades in between. In height they range from 15-90cm. Most of the plants cultivated today originated in the Mediterranean, but only a handful of varieties can be sown direct from seed e.g. Spearmint, Peppermint and Curly Mint, the rest have to be raised from cuttings. Saving seed from your pineapple mint, won’t give you true to type plant, but will revert to the plant the cultivar was crossed with, so take stem or root cuttings of mints.

Most mints grow year in year out, only needing to be lifted, divided and replanted or given a top dressing of fresh compost, they will grow in almost all soils types and situations, so long as the soil is not too dry or too cold.Mint actually prefers soil which is slightly acidic and will thrive in heavy clay soils also. Mint will grow well in pots so long as you keep it well watered, don't allow it to dry out and re-pot it occasionally! Most mints have aggressive spreading roots and, unless you have the space to let them roam, they need to be restrained by some means such as planting them in containers that are buried in the soil to help contain their roots.

Propagating mint is very, very easy and both are a good way to help rejuvenate your mint plant stocks, both methods are a good way of getting kids involved with gardening as they give quick results. 

Root Cuttings - Mint puts out stems under the ground that sprout roots to anchor the plant, and to help it self propagate. To make fresh plants harvest several 2"-3" pieces of these rootlets and lay them on top of a pot of fresh compost and then cover lightly with compost leave water and leave for a couple of weeks. Pretty soon you will see new plants emerge that can then be used to replace older mint plants, or give them to friends.

Water Cuttings - Another quick and easy way to propagate mint is to take cuttings from the mint plant. You'll need a glass or a glass jar, I use one of our drinking glasses, you'll also need some water, you can use tap water but some areas have chemical nasties added to the water that can interfer with the root growth, you can use clean rain water but I always use bottled spring water when taking my cuttings.

Take a piece of you mint plant which is long enough to fit in your container usual around 6" in length. Ensure you remove the leaves from any part of the stem that will be under water, if you leave them they will rot and you'll get a slimey mess in the water and not healthy young roots.  Trim the stem with a clean knife or scissors just under a leaf node - a leaf node is the area underneath where the leaves grow on the stem (see photo to the right) your rootlets will emerge from the leaf node areas that are under the water in a few days if the weather is warm.

Depending on the conditions your cuttings are taken (sunlight, water type used etc.) you could have a new mint plant(s) to pot on in 1 - 2 weeks. Other herbs can be rooted this way and I'll add information on this very soon, but mint is one of the quickest to root using the water method, making it ideal for children who want to see quick results.

Problems & Pests

Mint can fall prey to pests such as frog hoppers and aphids and some diseases, the main ones are the fungal disease Mint Rust (Puccinia menthae) and a strain of Powdery Mildew (Erysiphe biocellata). Mint rust appears as rusty coloured blotches on the leaves, at the first sign, pick the leaves off the plant and get rid of them, I pinch out the whole stem to be sure. Don’t allow the spores to get into the soil, and don’t put the infected plants in to your compost bins. You can use a fungicide to treat the rust but NEVER on mint plants that you plan on consuming.

Powdery mildew generally appears when the plants are very dry and suffering from water stress, keep the plants well watered and make sure that air freely circulates around them to keep mildew at bay. Should your mint plants become infected, spray with a simple solution of 1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to 1 litre of water.

There are mint varieties which can be resistant to mint rust available if it’s a problem in your garden look for varieties such as Tashkent, Moroccan and Curly Spearmint from the spicata mints and Swiss Ricola and Black Peppermint from the piperitas Mentha's.

The Mint Leaf Beetle (Chrysolina menthastri) can also cause quite a bit of damage to mint plants. Despite the fact that each beetle is no bigger than 5-10cm long, they have a huge appetite for mint foliage. They're most active between May and August, in late Summer if you look closely at the mint you may also spot the larval stage of the mint beetle, a blackish, squidgy-looking grub which also munches its way through the mint leaves. This pest will also chew on other plants in the labiate family such as Lemon Balm, Catnip and Hyssop. The only successful way to eradicate these beetles is to pick them off and 'squish them' or find another way to dispose of them.


Over 30 species belong to the mint-family. The most common types used to breed new varieties are Peppermint (Mentha piperita) with its dark green leaves, reddish stems and lavender flowers, and Spearmint (Mentha spicata) which has lighter green, pointed leaves and pink flowers and is gentler on the stomach for lots of people. Some find peppermint too strong and an irritant, spearmint is milder. There are several hundred varieties of mint worldwide, and more are being added all the time, as well as the two already mentioned, varieties include: Apple, Grapefruit, Lemon, Camphor, Cinnamon, Orange, Bergamot, Corn, Field, Water and Basil.

Herbaholic’s Favourites

My two favourites by far have to be ‘Bowles Mint’ - which was the very first mint I ever came in contact with, even today when I smell it, it takes me back to my childhood and the lamb roasts cooked by my mum on Sunday's, accompanied by fresh mint sauce from the garden. Bowles was the only ‘herb’ my dad grew and for me it’s THE mint to make mint sauce with, I’ve tried others but I always come back to Bowles.

My second favourite mint is ‘Chocolate Peppermint’, which makes what has to be one of my favourite herbal teas, the chocolate flavour seems to intensify when you dry the leaves, it never fails to give me an ‘after eight’ moment, and the taste is refreshingly indulgent, try using it to flavour homemade ice-cream.

I grow a lot of ‘Moroccan Mint’, its lovely as a tea either hot or cold and I chop it and use it sprinkled on cous cous and salads. I have favourite mints that I use for making pamper treats and household items, ‘Eau de Cologne Mint’ is great added to pot pourri to deter flying beasties, it makes a rather nice addition to a foot bath as well. Although I’m becoming fond of ‘Lavender Mint’ for that purpose these days, the scent of lavender is very pronounced, with the mint it’s like having two of my favourite herbs in one. ‘Swiss Ricola Mint’ is a really good mint to use in a facial steam when you have a cold; its minty camphor aroma is great for clearing stuffy sinuses.

There are a few mints I grow mostly for their decorative value, ‘Silver Mint’ is one of them, the leaves are like soft velvet, inviting you to stroke them, they have a soft spearmint aroma and make an excellent pot plant placed near a seated area in a sensory garden. ‘Corsican Mint’ is a semi evergreen, creeping mint with tiny leaves and tiny mauve flowers which prefers a moist and shady spot for optimal performance. I grow it in pots buried in the path, when its stepped on, it releases a pennyroyal like aroma.

‘Ginger Mint’ has variegated leaves that add colourful golden yellow splashes to break up greens, the flavour to me is more lemony than ginger, its one I grow but don’t use in the kitchen. ‘Curly Spearmint’ is a pretty mint, but the flavour just doesn’t really do much for me. Unlike the variegated ‘Pineapple Mint’, which I use it primarily as an ornamental, in tubs amongst summer annuals as a foil for the bright colours, but I do harvest the leaves to add to fruit salads and float in summer drinks, it has a flavour that is more fruity than minty but it’s lovely nonetheless.