Plants of Special Interest

Culinary Plants

Apple – (Malus domestica)

A particular highlight of autumn for us is the harvest of apples and, when circumstances permit, to our Apple Day. There are a glorious variety of apples available to us all, including those in the Jubilee orchard at Cressing. It contains a number of old varieties from Essex and Suffolk, including ‘Queen’ (Billericay, 1858), ‘Monarch’ (Boreham, 1888), ‘Chelmsford Wonder’ – I shall leave you to decide where that originated! – (1870), ‘D’Arcy Spice’ found at Tollshunt D’Arcy Hall in about 1785 and ‘Dr Harvey’ (1629), named after Dr Gabriel Harvey, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The full list can be found in ‘the Gardens’ section of the website and they can be sampled and purchased during the Apple Day or can be found on our fruit and veg cart.

The apple originated in central Asia, but careful selection and breeding over centuries has meant the development of over 7000 varieties still known today. During medieval and Tudor times, apples were widely available. The costard apple – the source of the word ‘costermonger’ – was the most common culinary variety; we grow a costard tree in the walled garden. Apples were mostly cooked in pies or made into sauces; drying them meant that they kept through the winter.

Bottle Gourds

An annual, these interesting shaped gourds, originate from Africa and some form of gourd was grown and added to soups, pottage and pies in medieval and Tudor times. They require a warm sunny spot and the walled garden is perfect for this regardless of the weather that our summers can throw at us. Gourds require a lot of space to grow and the space beside the gardener’s shelter is ideal.

Alexander Neckam (1157-1217), an English scholar, scientist, teacher, theologian and the abbot of Cirencester, wrote extensively about natural history, including gardens. He described a ‘proper’ garden like this:

“It should be ornamented with roses and lilies, the heliotrope, violets and mandrakes. One should have also parsley, cost, fennel, southernwood, coriander, sage, savory, hyssop, mint, rue, dittany, celery, pyrethrum, cress and peonies. There should also be made beds for onions, leeks, garlic, pumpkins and shallots. . .”

Given that pumpkins were not introduced into Europe until Columbus bought back seeds in the 15th Century, I am speculating that the pumpkin Neckham was describing is a gourd just like ours!

Skirret (Sium sisarum)

Looking for an alternative to carrots and parsnips? Why not consider skirret? Although its origins are unknown it is well suited to the UK climate, is very hardy and has no recorded susceptibility to any pests or diseases. It is also one of the few vegetables that will grow well in a shady area.

The white roots of skirret can be eaten both raw and cooked and have a sweet, floury taste with a slight nutty flavour when raw.  The roots do have a woody core which may need to be removed on larger roots.  Roots can be boiled, baked, roasted or added to stews, or they can be pre-boiled and then fried in butter.  If you are feeling very adventurous the roasted root can even be used as a coffee substitute.

So how do you grow it?

Skirret can be grown from seed (sown in situ in early Autumn or in pots in winter), or from root divisions of existing plants if you are lucky enough to have one.  They should be grown in a light but moisture retentive soil which should be kept moist throughout the growing period to prevent toughening of roots. If you live in a drier area of the UK consider planting in a shadier location to make this easier. Skirret can be grown in full sun or part shade and has also been grown successfully in almost full shade.

Roots will be ready for harvesting after the first year of growth. Harvesting should take place when the plant is dormant in winter for two reasons:

  1. The roots are less likely to be woody
  2. You can take advantage of the perennial nature of the plant by harvesting some of the roots then replanting the plant to continue growing next year.  If the plant is mature and has several interlocking crowns, these can be separated and planted 30cm apart to increase the number of plants for next year.

So why not give it a go and even if the flavour of the roots is not for you, you will at least be able to enjoy the 1m tall, white umbel flowers throughout the summer.

Find this plant: In the potager in our walled garden

Sacred Plants

Holly – (Ilex aquifolium)

A plant steeped in superstition, holly is considered bad luck if you burn it, chop it down, remove branches or bring it indoors (except for at Christmas time). In the past, holly was thought to possess magical properties. It was kept to protect against unfriendly spirits and to ward off ailments in children. Pliny tells us that holly should be planted near the house to repel poison and protect against lightening and witchcraft.

The use of holly in wreaths is thought to descend from a Roman custom of sending holly boughs and other gifts to friends during the festival of Saturnalia. The custom was then adopted by early Christians. Holly berries are moderately poisonous to humans but are an important winter food source for numerous species of bird, especially after they have been softened and made more palatable by frost. According to Culpepper:

“The bark of the tree, and also the leaves, are excellently good, being used in fomentations for broken bones and such members are out of joint. The berries expel wind and therefore are held to be profitable in the cholic”

Medicinal Plants


Hellebore – (Helleborus niger)

Not strictly native to Britain, but traces have been found on Neolithic sites and it was certainly known in Roman Britain. It is native to central and eastern Europe and became a well known plant in this country by medieval times.
The genus name, Helleborus, is Greek in origin and came to represent any plant used to cure madness.  Hellebore comes from the Greek elein (to injure) and bora (food), indicating its poisonous nature. The species name niger comes from the black roots, for centuries believed to be a cure for insanity, mania and melancholy. According to Gerard  a ‘purgation of Hellebore is good for mad and furious men’. Also held to be  powerful agent against evil spirits, Hellebores were often  planted as close to the entrance to the home as possible to ward off assorted devils.

Medicinally it was used as an effective purgative and treatment for worms but it was a powerful one, sometimes inadvertently killing the sufferer. It was often a treatment chosen for dropsy (water retention) and amenorrhoea. All parts of the plant are extremely toxic if ingested. The roots contain cardiac glycosides similar in effect to those found in Digitalis. Helleborin and Helleborcin are both powerful poisins and strongly narcotic. Like so many plants in the middle ages it had a wide range of applications including as a treatment for lice and a means to bring on an abortion (it stimulates both the heart and the uterus). The root would have been harvested in autumn and then dried and ground to a powder. The powdered root can also cause violent sneezing.

Christmas rose is a semi-evergreen perennial growing up to 30cm, with leathery dark green leaves and pure white or pink-flushed white, bowl-shaped flowers up to 8cm in width.
It thrives in neutral to alkaline soils that are moist, fertile and humus-rich, ideal for heavy clay in partial shade. Provide shelter from strong, cold winds. Mulch annually in autumn. Propagate by seed in pots in a cold frame as soon as seed is ripe or by division after flowering in early spring or late summer.

Houseleek – (Sempervivum tectorum)

Originating from Central and Southern Europe the houseleek gets its name from the Roman practise of growing it on rooves of houses.  This was thought to protect the house from lightning.  Other common names for this plant include: hen and chickens (from the growth habit of a main plant with lots of plantlets spreading around it), Devil’s beard and Welcome-home-husband-however-drunk-you-be! Its latin name “Sempervivum” means “always living” and “tectorum” means “of house rooves”.

The houseleek is a succulent plant adapted to growing in hot, dry locations by storing water in its fleshy leaves.  It is usually green in colour with red tipped leaves. This is a very attractive feature but also serves a beneficial purpose to the plant. The red pigment acts as a sunscreen protecting these thin protruding sections from damage by the sun.

The juice from the leaves of the houseleek are used in herbal medicine as an astringent and in the treatment of skin and eye diseases.

Find this plant – In the medicinal border of our walled garden.

Mandrake – (Mandragora officinalis)

Found growing under the gallows of murderers, the mandrake has a human shaped root, which screams upon being pulled from the earth, causing death to all who hear it.  Or so folklore and superstition would have you believe.

The mandrake is a perennial from southern Europe which has been known since ancient times and has been grown in the UK since at least 1562.  The leaves have been used to make cooling ointments and the root as a pain killer and an anaesthetic, although with the unfortunate side effects of delirium, madness and death if used in too large quantities. One of the chemical components found in mandrake root (hyoscine) is still used today in motion sickness tablets and occasionally for pre-surgery preparation.

The plant itself consists of a large taproot (usually the shape of a carrot but may branch to give a more humanoid shape) and dark green leaves. It has upright bell-shaped flowers in spring with dark veins and yellow apple type fruits in autumn.  The root and fruit of the mandrake may be poisonous although plants vary significantly in the concentration of toxic alkaloids contained.

Mandrake will grow well in the south of the UK given a warm, sheltered location and deep well drained soil.  They need to be protected from excessive winter wet and not be disturbed once established.  Pull up the root at your own risk!

Tobacco – (Nicotiana rustica)

This plant is new to us in 2015, but was originally bought over to Europe in the 16th century. N. rustica is a native of N. America and has been supplanted by the milder and larger leaved N. tabacum to make tobacco products. John Gerard in his herbal likened it to opium and called it Indian henbane; with care it could be used as an insecticide and to expel worms. If you visit Cressing this summer you will find N. rustica growing in the Nosegay garden.

Seasonal Interest

Winter Aconite – (Eranthis hyemalis)

This tuberous plant comes from southern Europe and is now widely naturalised in Britain. One of the first flowers to appear from mid January it is a very welcome source of early nectar, as our picture illustrates. In Suffolk the yellow flowers have been named ‘choirboys’ because of the ruff of leaves that surrounds them. They will grow happily in both sun and part shade but prefer a moist, well drained soil. A good way to get more of them is to lift a clump after flowering has finished in spring, split up the tubers into smaller clumps and replant them. Make sure you don’t let them dry out in the process.

Winter aconites are part of the buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family, a primitive group of plants which has all its floral parts (petals, sepals, stamens and pistils) separate from one another. A good way of recognising flowers in the buttercup family is the multiple, simple pistils at the centre of the flower, which often have a hook at the tip.

The predominent property of plants in the buttercup family is an acrid glycoside which is poisonous and fortunately very unpleasant to taste. Winter aconites are only mildly poisonous, but will cause a stomach upset if ingested. It is one of the few flowers that the rabbits leave alone at Cressing! Winter aconites are charming winter flowers that remind us of spring to come. Gerard (1597), described the aconite as:

“Coming foorth of the grounde in the dead of winter, many times bearing the snowe upon the heades of his leaves and flowers: yea, the colder the weather is and the deeper that the snowe is, the fairer and larger is the flower”