Skip to main content

The Regimental Flower Garden

"When you can put your foot on seven daisies, summer is come."--English proverb.

While summer in Minnesota is still a bit away, here is a short guide to some flowers available in Scotland during the seventeenth century and growable in Minnesota, as well as their historical uses, lore and cultivation. However, please consult your herb wife or physitian before using any of the cures listed here.

Common Crocus, C. vernus.

Native to most of Europe, the common crocus is a cousin to the saffron-producing crocus of the Near East. Saffron has been highly valued since the days of Greece, and was well known in Europe in the seventeenth century. Gerard, in his Herball, says that saffron "quickens the senses, makes merry, (and) shakes off drowsiness," but too much may affect the brain. Saffron, mixed in apple juice, is also used in Westphalia as a cure for jaundice. A garland of crocuses is said to ward off drunkeness. Saffron was so valued that several death sentences were pronounced in Nuremburg during the 16th century for apothecaries who had adulterated their saffron. Crocus corms should be planted in the fall where they will receive full sun.

Daffodil, Daffadowndilly, Jonquil, Narcissus, N. pseudonarcissus.

"Daffadowndilly has come to town
In a yellow petticoat and a green gown."
--English children's rhyme

Daffodils, a corruption of the Greek asphodel, were said to grow on the banks of Acheron and bring delight to the dead, and also on the Elysian Fields, from which comes the custom in some parts of Europe of planting daffodils on graves and in cemeteries. The daffodil is of no great medicinal value, but is recommended by Culpepper for swellings and ear infections: "A plaster made of the roots with parched barley meal dissolves hard swellings and impostures, being applied thereto; the juice mingled with honey, frankincense, wine, and myrrh, and dropped into the ears is good against the corrupt and running matter of the ears." A plaster of daffodil root is also said to be good for stiff and painful joints. Daffodils may be planted in the same manner as crocuses, but remember that it is unlucky to bring the blooms into the house until after the goslings have hatched.

Common Daisy, Bairnwort, Llygad y Dydd, Bellis perennis.

"Well by reason men it call maie
The Daisie or else the Eye of Day."

Called Bairnwort in Scotland because of children's affinity for it, St. Mary Magdalen's flower is recommended by Gerard for "all kinds of pains and aches," fevers, inflammation of the liver, and "alle inward parts," and is used by the Slovaks to cure a toothache. Livestock usually stay away from the daisy because of its acrid tasting leaves and poisonous roots, but humans, being not as bright, use the leaves in salads. However, even Sir Francis Bacon in his Essays alludes to the superstition that if one boils daisy roots in milk and gives the concoction to puppies, the animals will grow no more. Daisies may be grown from seed or nursery stock in well drained soil where they will receive full sun.

Dandelion, dent de Lion, dens leonis, Leontodon, Priest's Crown, taraxacum officinale.

The English name comes from early associations with the jagged shape of the dandelion leaves and a lion's tooth. In the Ortus Sanitatis, 1485, (quoted in the Modern Herbal) an account is given of a "Master Wilhelmus, a surgeon, who on account of its virtues, likened it to "eynem lewen zan, genannt zu latin Dens leonis (a lion's tooth, called in Latin Dens leonis)." The leaves are also likened to a lion's tooth in Brunfels' 1532 Contrafayt Kreuterbuch (also quoted in the Modern Herbal). The name Priest's Crown comes from the middle ages, when the shorn head of a priest was a familiar sight.

A dandelion tea, made by infusing 1 ounce of dandelion heads in a pint of boiling water for ten minutes, decanted, and sweetened with honey, drunk several times a day is used in the treatment of dropsy and bilious affections. 1 ounce of dandelion root, ½ ounce of ginger root, ½ ounce of caraway seed, ½ ounce of cinnamon, ¼ ounce of senna leaves, gently boiled in 3 pints of water until there is 1 ½ ounces of liquid, strained and mixed with ½ pound of sugar, boiled, skimmed, and cooled, and given in teaspoonful doses, will cure jaundice. For the liver and kidneys, one may boil together 1 ounce broom topes, ½ ounce juniper berries, ½ ounce dandelion roots, and 1 ½ pints water for ten minutes. Strain and add a pinch of cayenne, and take a tablespoonful three times daily.

Dandelion beer, made with nettles and yellow dock, is a good general tonic for health, as is dandelion wine. Dandelion coffee, being made by cleaning large, two-year-old roots, slicing them and drying at a low heat until coffee colored and ground, is good for dyspepsia, does not cause wakefulness, and is not as bitter as chicory coffee. The young leaves of dandelions may be picked early in the season and added to salads, along with lemon juice and pepper, to promote digestion, and are especially good if the leaves are first covered and left to blanch for several days before picking. In Wales, roots, aged two years, are sliced and added to salads. Dandelions will grow anywhere they want, whenever they want, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Yellow Iris, Fleur de Luce, Fleur de Lys, Jacob's Sword, Segg, I. pseudacorus.

A native of Great Britain and northern Europe, the yellow iris became one of the ubiquitous symbols of France when the pagan king Clovis, who, when faced with defeat in battle, was compelled by his Christian wife Clothilde to pray to her God. Upon his victory, he replaced his emblem of three toads with three irises, a flower sacred to the Virgin Mary. Six hundred years later, when King Louis VII was on his crusade against the Sarcerens, the Fleur de Louis was corrupted into the fleur de lis or fleur de lys, its three falling petals symbolizing faith, wisdom and valor. Lys is also the name of a river in Flanders, along the banks of which the yellow iris is particularly abundant.

The Anglo-Saxons called the yellow iris Segg, Skeggs or Cegg, meaning small sword, because of the leaves' resemblence to daggers.

Gerard recommends the juice of the roots for coughs, "evil spleens," convulsions, serpents' bites, adding that it "doth mightily and vehemently draw forth choler." He goes on to say that "the root, boiled soft, with a few drops of rosewater upon it, laid plaisterwise upon the face of man or woman, doth in two daies at the most take away the blackness and blewness of any stroke or bruise. . . An oil made of the roots and flowers of the Iris, made in the same way as oil of roses and lilies. It is used to rub in the sinews and joints to strengthn them, and is good for cramp." A slice of root held against the teeth or held in the mouth will cause tooth pain to disappear, and Culpepper recommends distilled iris water for weak eyes, and an ointment of iris for ulcers of the skin or swellings.

The flowers of the yellow iris will produce a yellow dye, and the root, with a sulphate of iron, a black dye. The tannin content of yellow iris root is such that it may be used to replace galls when making ink.

German Iris, I. germanica.

Orris root is made from the root of the purple german iris, and was used as early as 1480 as a linen powder, when orris root and anise seed were bought for the scenting of King Edward IV's linens. Powdered orris root may also be added to laundry rinse to scent the wash, and in making rose petal beads to fix and preserve the scent. In 1590, Lyte says that "the Iris is knowen of the cloth workers and drapers, for with these rootes they use to trimme their clothes to make them sweet and pleasant."

Mary Doggett, in Her Book of Receipts, 1682, (quoted in the Modern Herbal) gives "A perfume for a sweet bagg,": "Take half a pound of Cyrpess Roots, a pound of Orris, three quarter of a pound of Calamus, three orange stick with cloves, two ounces of Benjamin, three quarters of Rhodium, a pound of Coriander seed, and an ounce of Storax and 4 pecks of Damask Rose leaves, a peck of dried sweet Marjerum, a pretty sitck of Juniper shaved very thin, some lemon pele dryed and a stick of Brasill; let all these be powdered very grossly for ye first year and immediately put into your baggs; the next year pound and work it and it will be very good again." Orris root powder may be made from sliced and dried iris roots which have been aged for two or more years. Although it doesn't smell like much when fresh, orris root develops a subtle violet fragrance as it ages through a type of fermentation.

Orris root was and is used in Russia with honey and ginger to honey brandies, is distilled in other parts of Europe, and was used in Verona for teething infants. It is also recommended to prevent chafing to moist thighs and armpits, and was used in Elizabethan England as one of the few non toxic additives to white face powders.

Irises of all species may be transplanted after they finish blooming, usually in late July or August, and may be planted any time of the year in full to partial sun. Yellow irises prefer partial sun and moist soil. I. germanica, I. sibirica, I. spuria and I. setosa are all native to northern Europe and grow well in Minnesota.

Lilies of the Valley, May Lilies, Concallaria majalis.

Lilies of the valley, even though they represent new life and the rebirth of Christ, are thought to bring extremely bad luck in the British Isles if brought into the house, and in England, it is believed that anyone who plants a bed of lilies of the valley will die within the year.

They are the flower of St. Leonard, who fought a dragon in the woods near Horsham, and beating the dragon ever deeper into the woods in mortal combat, sustained many grievous wounds, and everywhere his blood spilled, lilies of the valley sprouted. The frangrance of lilies of the valley is said to draw the nightengale and cause him to choose his mate. Gerard quotes a prescription for gout, saying "a Glasse being filled with the flowers of May Lilies and set in an Ant Hill with the mouth close stopped for a month's space and then taken out, ye shall find a liquor in the glasse, which being outwardly applied helps the gout very much." This is also recommended for sprains and rheumatism. An ointment of bruised roots and lard is good for ulcers and helps heal burns and scalds without leaving a scar. Bruised roots, boiled in wine, are also good for pestilential fevers.

Aqua aurea (golden water), distilled from the flowers, "doth strengthen the Memorie and comforteth the Harte." Also, "take the flowers and steep them in New Wine for the space of a month; which being finished, take them out again and distil the wine three times over in a Limbeck. The wine is more precious than gold, for if anyone with apoplexy drink thereof with six grains of Pepper and a little Lavender water they shall not need fear it that moneth." This is also good to cure dumb palsy, vertigo, and heart disease, as well as treat leprosy.

In the Germanies, a wine is made with raisins of the flowers, and the powdered flowers are used across the Continent as a snuff to clear the head. Lilies of the valley should be planted in a shady spot in the spring or fall.

- "from the Herbwife - Lily of the valley is deadly poison."

Sweet Violet, Wood Violet, Viola odorata.

"You must wear your rue with a difference.
There's a daisy; I would give you some violets, but they withered."

"Lay her i' the earth:
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring!"

--Shakespeare's Hamlet

A symbol of humility, the sweet violet is often associated with early or untimely death. Violets, with their three lower petals representing the trinity and the two upper petals the duality of Christ's human and divine nature, are said to droop because the shadow of the Cross fell upon them at the crucifixion.

Violets, if steeped in goats milk, were believed by the ancient Celts to enhance feminine beauty, and a garland of them worn about the head will dispel wine fumes and prevent a hangover. According to Gerard, "it has power to ease inflammation, roughness of the throat, and comforteth the heart, assuageth the pains of the head and causeth sleep," when made into a syrup.

'Sirrup of Violets. Take a quantity of Blew Violets, clip off the whites and pound them well in a stone mortar; then take as much fair running water as will sufficiently moysten them and mix with the violets; strain them all; and to every half pint of the liquor put one pound of the best loafe sugar, set it on the fire, putting the sugar in as it melts, still stirring it; let it boyle but once or twice att the most; then take it from the fire, and keep it to your use." Forming the base of Oriental Sherbert, this syrup is recommended for ague, epilepsy, sleeplessness, and jaundice.

Violets grow mostly wild in shady, wooded spot, but may be transplanted in the spring to a similar spot.

"If you would be happy for a week take a wife; if you would be happy for a month kill a pig; but if you would be happy for all your life plant a garden." --English proverb


Bruce-Mitford, Miranda. Illustrated Book of Signs and Symbols. DK Publishing, New York. 1996.
Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper's Complete Herbal. Published by W. Foulsham & Co, New York. N.d.
Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physitian, 1652.
Gerard, John. Marcus Woodward, editor. Leaves from Gerard's Herball: arranged for garden lovers. Peter Smith, New York. 1990.
Grieve, M. Edited by C.F. Leyel. A Modern Herbal. Dorset Press, New York. 1992. Also available online at
Heise, Jennifer. Scents of the Middle Ages.
Leach, Maria, Editor. Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. Harper and Row, San Fransisco. 1972.
Wyman, Donald. Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia. Macmillam Publishing Co, Inc., New York. 1977.

Back to Articles

decorative needlepoint
decorative needlepoint