Herbs Shine a Light on History

Herbs are adored for food flavoring and their healing properties. Another feature of these little powerhouses is their ability to shine a light on history. In fact, almost every herb has a tale to tell. Here are some of them.

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris): This mint family plant native to Europe sheds some light on Renaissance times when a Swiss professor of medicine named Paracelsus published the Doctrine of Signatures. In this book, he decreed that every plant bore an outward sign by which its value to mankind was revealed. For example, the delicate leaves or “tresses” of the maidenhair fern might cure baldness. Flowers and roots also suggested cures: bloodroot for blood ailments, snakeroot for snakebite and toothwort for toothaches. The upper lip of the pale-blue self-heal flower is shaped like a hook. Since billhooks and sickles were a primary source of injuries in the agricultural societies of the Middle Ages and Renaissance Europe, farmers concocted a poultice or compress of stems and leaves to heal wounds.

Ho Shou Wu (Polygonum multiflorum): The common name for this aggressively robust vine from Asia is based on the story of a Chinese man who was the first consumer of the herb in about 800 A.D. As the story goes, he reached the age of 58 and had not been able to father a child. He was also most unhappy about his graying hair. A monk advised him to eat roots gathered from a nearby mountain, and he commenced consuming it regularly. Perhaps that monk perceived the vine’s youthful, energetic growth habit as a sign of its utility because soon after, the man fathered several children, his hair turned black, his vision improved and he lived to be 130 years old, still with black tresses. He became known as Ho Shou Wu, which means, “Mr. Ho’s hair is black,” a name that was adopted to refer to the herb as well. Today, the vine, often called fo-ti, is the darling of the herbal world. In traditional Chinese medicine, the dried or cured root is used to strengthen blood, revitalize the liver and kidneys, enhance longevity, increase vigor and promote fertility. It is considered among the pantheon of China’s great herbs, the other four being ginseng, garlic, gingko and ginger.

Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum): Houseleek is similar in use to aloe vera, with leaves that can be crushed and applied to sunburns and insect bites. In the Middle Ages, King Charlemagne decreed that these succulents be planted on every structure in his empire. Requiring very little soil or water, they were used on rooftops to fix gaps between thatches or tiles, protect against fire and, most importantly, ward off evil. Though it seems comical to us now, feuding families were quite serious when they plucked the protective plants off their enemies’ roofs, believing that left the homes vulnerable to natural disaster and the families unguarded against demons and sorcerers.



Sally Sandler, Docent
San Diego Botanic Garden
230 Quail Gardens Drive
Encinitas, CA 92024


You can find these herbs and many others in the herb garden at San Diego Botanic Garden during the Spring Garden Festival from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on March 14 and 15.

Categories: Gardening