As a master gardener, I am often asked which ten or twelve herbs are the most important to grow in a garden. I usually tell people to cultivate those things that their families will use and appreciate. This is not what most people want to hear. They want a list; cultivate this, and this, and this. For the past 35 years, I have worked with food storage, food storage and emergency preparedness, I have learned a lot about herbs and what works for my family. The point is, what “works” for my family may not be the same as what works or is useful for yours.
Most gardeners are more interested in culinary herbs than medicinal ones. Many plants serve a dual purpose and in recent years I have been writing articles about them one by one. Some gardeners have a higher purpose in growing herbs: that of the sacred. I mean those plants and herbs that people hold in high regard to help them reach the divine.
Herbs have been used in ceremonies and religious practices since the beginning of time. Its uses include incense, protection, purification, ritual, healing, purification, blurring and as an access to vision. Each civilization and society has had its favorites. It is very interesting that many of the same herbs take place and continue to “pop” (pun intended) across continents and ages.
In ancient Egypt, chamomile, verbena (verbena), blue lotus, cornflower, hyssop, garlic, roses, frankincense and myrrh were often used in magical and religious observances. The Babylonians had their own special options: poppy, thyme, mustard, coriander, cinnamon, and garlic. The Babylonians also used saffron and white sage in some religious ceremonies, and cannabis was widely grown and used.
Sacred herbs recorded from ancient India (from 2000 BC) included soma. Soma was a drink obtained from the juice of the stems of a plant. The ancient Persians also used a soma potion. The mention of whatever soma herb is made is, in context, archaic and confusing. However, from my research, everything indicates that the soma is Ephedra pachyclada or Ephedra sinica or something closely related to it. It is an evergreen tree that has hallucinogenic properties in high doses. Other herbs adopted were cannabis (bhang, ganja and charas) and tulsi (sacred basil).
Even the first Christians considered tulsi sacred and gave it another name: San Basilio. They considered many other herbs to be sacred, such as rosemary, rue, sage, frankincense, myrrh, verbena (verbena), angelica, and St. John’s wort (the “Christian” name of mugwort). Some of these herbs are still used in some Christian ceremonies.
The ancient 10th-century Saxons had a poem of “charm”: a collection of nine herbs used to ward off evil and promote positive energy (I would say Chi, but not Saxon). It was played by early Christian communities and pagan communities at the same time, although neither recognized the other. The nine herbs were fennel, thyme, apple, nettle, mugwort, lamb’s cress, betonia, plantain, and chamomile. Neem (seeds and oil) and verbena (verbena) were also considered sacred.
The ancient Celts had seven herbs that were considered sacred. They were the dandelion, comfrey, mugwort, burdock, mistletoe, nettle and Guelder rose. The Druids had nine, although there are many disputes between historians and writers. Some say there were seven sacred herbs (like the Celts) and others twelve. The nine that are generally listed are henbane, mistletoe, verbena (verbena), clover, wolfbane (aconite), primrose, peppermint, mugwort, and anemone (Pulsatilla).
Many Native American societies share common sacred herbs for their smudging rituals. Most resources (and tribes) tell us about four sacred herbs for the four directions; sweet grass for the north, cedar for the south, tobacco for the east and sage for the west. Aside from fuzzy herbs, nine herbs are known to be used over and over again in tribal religious ceremonies. These are mugwort, banana, kinnikinnick, nettle, fennel, cress, chamomile, rose hip viper (Echium vulgare), sweet cicly and sumac. The tribes I grew up with had a different list: corn pollen, mugwort, plantain, yerba santa (Eriodictyon), peyote, bear medicine (osha root), roses (petals and hips), juniper berries, mullein and chamomile.