It's getting to that time of year when our work with herbs starts up again, and some of our forthcoming work will be celebrating the work of a Cheshire-born herbalist whose writings haven't been out of print in over four centuries.
John Gerard was born in Nantwich, Cheshire in 1545. He went to school in nearby Willaston, and some of his exploits with his friends were later recalled when he was writing about superstitions regarding yews, one of which was that sleeping in the shadow would kill you; "when I was yong and went to school, divers of my school fellows and likewise myself did eat our fills of the berries of this tree and hath not only slept under the shadow thereof, but among the branches also, without hurt at all, and that not one time, but many times". All parts of the yew are poisonous, excepting the flesh of the berries but including the seeds, so eating the berries is a particularly dangerous thing to do!
Gerard was apprenticed to a barber surgeon aged 17 and at some point thereafter he seems to have spent time as a ship's surgeon travelling in the North Sea and Baltic. He later settled in London, living in Holborn where he superintended gardens belonging to William Cecil, Lord Burghley in the Strand and also at Theobalds in Hertfordshire for 20 years.
In 1596 he published his first book; a work of 24 pages listing plants he had cultivated in his own garden. This was the first complete catalogue of any one garden ever published. In 1597 Gerard published, ‘The Herbal, or General Historie of Plants’. He had a good practical knowledge of plants, and due to his powerful connections at court and elsewhere, he was able to add many new and previously unseen plants to his gardens. Gerard combined his botanical observations with folklore about the plants and comments on the best time to harvest and use them. Woodcuts of the herbs were commissioned to assist gardeners and apothecaries.
Queen Elizabeth I was presented with a copy of the Herbal. Gerard gave Elizabeth a tour of the kitchen garden at Theobalds where he dug up a ginger root for her to have at supper.
In 1606 James I visited Theobalds and persuaded Robert Cecil, William’s son to exchange it for Hatfield House. Gerard was appointed royal gardener and herbalist and the new Queen Anne of Denmark gave him an additional garden next to Somerset House where he grew plants for the palaces.
In 1608 Gerard was elected as Master of the Barber Surgeons’ Company. Gerard died in February 1611-12 and is buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn. Gerard's Herbal remained a standard reference work for apothecaries and medical students for a couple of centuries. Gerard's work continues to inspire gardens today, including two projects in his native Cheshire.
At the start of May, we will be taking an early edition of Gerard's Herbal to a major garden festival at Powderham Castle in Devon. We're representing the Herb Society, of which Sue is a committee member, and exploring the world of Tudor herbalism in a living history display. Soon after, the copy of the Herbal will be taken to the Garden Museum in London to be put on show there.