Spikenard, nardostachys jatamansi, is a member of the Valerian family and grows up to 1m in height with pink, bell-shaped flowers. It’s usually found in the Himalayas, around altitudes of 3000m-5000m. In Tudor times, it was used as a perfume, incense, or sedative, as well as to fight insomnia and help with childbirth. There are no direct references to spikenard in Shakespeare’s works, but it is frequently mentioned in Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes thought to have been compiled in the 4th or 5th centuries AD. Pliny’s Natural History lists twelve different species of ‘nard’, and in Homer’s Iliad Achilles uses the oil to perfume Patroclus’ body. Similarly, in the New Testament, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anoints Jesus’ feet with nard.
Skirret is a root vegetable something like a skinny parsnip, which grows in bunches of fingers. It reaches about 60cm in height, producing tiny white fragrant flowers which attract insects such as lacewings. Originally from China, skirrets were brought to the British Isles by the Romans. The roots can be stewed, baked, roasted, fried in batter or creamed, or used raw and grated in salads. It was a mainstay of Tudor cooking, praised as ‘pleasant and wholesome’ in Thomas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and was believed to be helpful for balancing the humours. John Worlidge, in his Systema agriculturae (1675), describes skirret as ‘a great restorative and good for weak stomachs’, as well as declaring it ‘an effectual friend to Dame Venus’, which suggests that it possesses aphrodisiac properties. Unlike spikenard, which is still a popular essential oil, skirret seeds are difficult to get hold of now, but it has a sweet, carrot-like flavour with a stronger peppery aftertaste. They recently appeared in an episode of Gardener’s World and the BBC website has a recipe for Skirret Pie .
Finding out about plants and herbs used by the Tudors can help bring us that little bit closer to understanding their world, and shed light on the way they relied upon the flora and fauna around them. Herbals and older classical sources show us the great variety of plants they were familiar with, and the amazing array of uses they put them to!
This blog was written by Helen Clifford.