Horticulture and Health in the Middle Ages: Images from the Tacuinum Sanitatis

Horticulture and Health in the Middle Ages: Images from the Tacuinum SanitatisPlants used in medieval medicine

Jules Janick (Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Purdue University) &

Kim Hummer (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, National Clonal Germplasm Repository)



The present-day emphasis of horticulture and health is an extension of ancient and medieval traditions. The relationship of healing and the horticultural arts predates written history and relates to ancient wisdom, custom, and folklore. The use of herbs as medicine may be part of animal instinct. Sick animals tend to forage plants rich in secondary metabolites such as tannins and alkaloids. Because these phytochemicals often have antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and antihelminthic properties, these wild animals may be self- medicating (Engel, 2002).

The uses of herbal medicine may predate the evolutionary development of Homo sapiens based on the discovery of pollen of common herbs in Neanderthal graves at Shanidar Caves in Kurdistan, Iraq (Solecki, 1975; Solecki et al., 2004). The prehistoric discovery that certain plants cause harm and others have curative powers is the origin of the healing professions and its practitioners (priest, shaman, physician, and apoth- ecary) as well as the professions devoted to plants (botany, pharmacy, and horticulture). The Iceman, a Bronze Age man from 5300 years ago murdered in the Italian Alps, carried a birch fungus attached to a leather thong probably for medicinal use.


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