A Slew of Strew

| July 8, 2011 | 0 Comments

Aromatic herbs have a long traditional of use for good housekeeping.  Today we see the remnants of this in some of the well-recognized cleaning products such as Pine-sol and Orange Oil cleaners that take advantage of the antiseptic properties of the plant extracts. Many homes still contain bowls of colorful and fragrant, dried blossom potpourri to sweeten the air. Hundreds of years ago, the plants were much more in evidence, in their raw, whole form.

First, let’s consider an architectural feature that we now take for granted. At the main entry doors into the house there is as board that is called a threshold. When we take the word apart, we see that it is a simple description of its function: to hold the thresh. Thresh, more than being the left over straw from threshing the wheat, barley and rye, also included the twigs, leaves and small branches of readily available, tough and hardy, aromatic plants.  In the Mediterranean areas this would include rosemary, thyme, lavender, sage, fennel, and bay laurel.  In northern Europe and England this would have included pennyroyal, mint, and chamomile, roses, tansy, violets and river rushes called juncus.  This mélange of plant matter, called “strewing herbs” served in place of floorboards, or to cover the flag stones of the manse.

A threshed floor offered insulation, a soft, non-muddy or less dusty surface to walk on, and it was a deterrent to such pests as fleas, lice, weevils and flies. The volatile oils in the fragrant plants repelled the insects.  To this day, pet owners use dried pennyroyal (a.k.a fleabane) to treat pet bedding, for just this reason.  Since it was the custom to throw table debris onto the floor, grease and crumbs were gathered into the floor covering and were discarded along with periodic replacement of it.  The pleasant odor of the herbs would compete with the less savory one of rancid oils and mold.

Homes that could afford large quantities of thresh, had higher thresholds to keep it in place; the poor, who could not indulge in this practice, had no thresholds on their dwellings.  This elegant practice even extended to China; the measure of a person’s social and economic status in traditional China was showcased by the height of their threshold at the main entrance, resulting in some doors with thresholds that were a much as two feet tall.

Since household use of aromatic herbs was in high demand, anyone who could do so would dedicate a portion of their growing space to fragrance gardens. These employed low-growing plants, such as thyme and mint, as the walkways.  They also included chairs or benches with seats formed out of a shallow bed of live plants, intended to be crushed when sat upon. The rest of the garden surrounded the visitor with additional opportunities to release strong and pleasant odors that would cling to the clothes, just by brushing past them. Lemon verbena, dianthus, hyssop and some of the wormwoods like Sweet Annie were common.  In a time of limited bathing and infrequent washing of clothes, meeting a friend in the fragrance garden for a leisurely stroll was a way to deodorize the fibers of the cloth. The drapery of long skirts and full pants became saturated with the oils to impart a long time-release effect of antiseptic properties countered body odor from bacterial growth.  If you have ever come back from a mountain hike stinking of the sagebrush, you can get an idea of how effective this strategy can be.

In those times, leaves of the Artemesia/Wormwood plant family, such as mugwort and southernwood, were used to make writing ink for books, since it repelled bookworms and kept the scarce and precious paper safe from being eaten. During the Black Plague, households that were liberally strewn with pungent plants enjoyed a measurable protection from illness. Judges would have the courtroom benches covered with rue to combat the spread of typhus, a common jail fever. This was due to both the dose of antiseptic in the air and the reduction of the fleas that carried the disease.

For a modern day take on the use of strewing herbs, consider laying down a bed of trimmings for scented geraniums, eucalyptus, and even society garlic, in the back yard during a barbecue. This will offer your lawn some protection from foot traffic, and when the event is over, a quick raking will clear up any spills and debris from the festivities. Consider stuffing outdoor seat cushions with fresh trimmings from cedar and juniper.  This will also discourage mosquitos and gnats from attending the party, while adding a spicy complement to the enticing aroma of the roasting foods.  Surround yourself with the classic scent of a healthy tradition.

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