Learn the history and reasoning behind the cleansing capabilities of strewing herbs.
Imagine the scene: you have traveled all day on foot or by horse. It is centuries before hotels, but you know you will be lodging with the local baron. You arrive at dusk, share a rowdy, highly seasoned meal in the torch-lit main hall, and get ready for sleep. The preparations are simple: the trestle eating tables are broken down and stacked against the walls. You elbow your way to a position near the central fire, make a pillow of your baggage, wrap yourself in your cloak, and stretch out on the hard floor, which is thickly strewn with rushes. You share the hall with all the other guests, much of the baron’s household and family, and the household dogs. You are quite comfortable by the standards of the day, when beds are rare and separate sleeping rooms are virtually unheard of.
If your hosting family is blessed with a skilled chatelaine, the discomfort of stench and insect pests may be mitigated by the addition of strewing herbs—fragrant plants mixed with or strewn on top of the rushes that cover the floor. Herbs and scented plants had long been a part of households of all ranks, ranging from the wild herbs hanging to dry in a peasant’s cottage to the fragrant spices locked in a noble’s larder or the cartload of violets strewn in the great hall to celebrate a noble heir’s wedding. Dried rushes (Juncus effusus) were used as insulation and cushioning—a sort of botanical wall-to-wall-carpeting—over stone or dirt floors. A fresh top layer might be added for special occasions—sometimes perhaps the fragrant flowering rush, Butomus umbellatus—but even in well-to-do households, rushes were changed completely only twice a year. In the intervening months, they collected dropped food, spilled beverages, mud, fleas, and assorted unmentionables generated by people and animals of all ages. The result must have been literally breathtaking, and the antidote to such unintentional compost was strewing herbs, which were added as seasonally available. Vinegar might also be boiled or burned to “purify’’ the air.
By contrast, our own culture makes a virtual fetish of cleanliness. We like things to smell fresh, as so many high-powered advertisements remind us. We buy and use a terrific array of products to make our homes smell like pine forests, country gardens, citrus groves, herb gardens, harvest festivals, cedar groves, and the ocean (presumably at high tide). However, the use of strewing herbs instead of commercial scents can give much the same pleasure to our noses without synthetic or simulated ingredients.
A list of strewing herbs from the late medieval/early Renaissance period (roughly twelfth to sixteenth centuries) contains many that are familiar to us today: sage, tansy, violets, roses, mints, pennyroyal, winter savory, marjoram, hops, germander, sweet fennel, cowslips, lady’s-mantle, balm, basil, costmary, lavender, juniper, rosemary, chamomile, “daisies of all sorts’’, lavender cotton, and sweet woodruff.
Many traditional strewing herbs were valued primarily for their aromas; others also had cleansing or pest-repelling qualities, either raw or in various preparations. Herbs of the genus Mentha (mints), particularly pennyroyal, are flea and tick repellents. Cedar (Cedrus, Thuja, or Chamaecyparis spp.) shavings or branch tips remain popular as moth and flea repellents. Australian gum or eucalyptus leaves, pine needles, and sage have insecticidal properties. Scented geraniums, rosemary, basil, fir needles, and bay leaves are said to kill as well as repel insects. Juniper needles, chamomile, lavender, lemon peel, lemon balm, orange peel, oregano, thyme, and sweet woodruff are all insect repellents. Perhaps discovered by accident or trial and error are the disinfectant, antiseptic, or bactericidal properties of many medieval strewing herbs. Though less effective than when used in washes or infusions, the salient properties are found in the raw states of many plants.
Today, some of us may dimly remember older family members engaging in real spring and fall cleaning, when virtually everything in a house was scrubbed, pulled up, laundered, taken down, oiled, put up, painted, washed out, or taken into the yard and beaten. Strewing herbs came into play as well: dried southernwood and lavender heads were added to the straw under the wool winter carpets before they were tacked down, lavender and cedar sprigs tied up in bags with woolens when they were stored away each spring, lemon oil used to polish wood floors and furniture.
Few of us nowadays go through the ritual of semiannual cleaning, complete with the removal and merciless beating of winter carpets. We clean our area rugs and wall-to-wall carpeting occasionally by machine and vacuum regularly throughout the year. Although we may feel as though we’re mucking out the rushes when we clean, our uses of strewing herbs are more subtle and a bit less desperate.
You may place dried leaves, blossoms, and branches of favorite herbs under area rugs, either loose or in large, loose cloth bags—old pillowcases are ideal. (Don’t use fresh herbs, or you may indeed have something to muck out!) You may also tuck bagged dried herbs under sofa and chair cushions, between the mattress and mattress cover of a bed, under the pillows in pet bedding—wherever their aroma will be released by pressure or warmth. A thick layer of freshly dried aromatic leaves or branches laid on newspaper and topped with a small area rug is a delight in closets. Wherever you use dried herbs, be alert for possible allergic reactions to them; in my experience, allergies and irritation of mucous membranes are particularly likely with the insect-repelling herbs, and fine dust may be released when bagged herbs are sat, stepped, or slept upon.
Personal taste also should have a bearing on herb choices. When I first discovered Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), I was so enchanted with its fresh, pungent odor that I brought armloads of the stalks into my house and office. I quickly learned that its odor is not equally attractive to everyone—in fact, it seems to smell different to different people—and it was thus unsuitable as a strewing herb. (It took my frustrated mother months to locate the source of the “strange” odor in her guest room: I had left a bag of dried Cleveland sage under the mattress cover.)
Check bagged plant materials frequently if you live in a humid climate. They are apt to mildew if rugs become damp or if the weather is unusually muggy.
Perhaps the most practical way of using strewing herbs today is the technique outlined by Kate Carter Frederick in “Herbal Housecleaning” (Herb Companion, April/May 1991). She suggests grinding dried herbs and spices in a coffee grinder or spice mill, then mixing them with baking soda in a ratio of 2 cups soda to 2 1/4 cups of assorted ground dried herbs and 4 teaspoons each of ground clove and cinnamon. This mixture is sprinkled lightly on a carpet, left for an hour or so, then vacuumed up. This can be done any time you vacuum, and besides giving the room a pleasant scent which may last a couple of hours, it helps neutralize odors in the carpet. My experience tells me that staining of light-colored carpet is unlikely as long as the ingredients are completely dry and the vacuum cleaner has plenty of power. If you’re concerned, strew the mixture on a test area and vacuum it up before applying it to the whole carpet.
Strewing herbs have an attractive outdoor use as well. You may scatter handfuls of lightly crushed fresh herbs around a patio or lawn just before a party. I’ve had the pleasure of attending outdoor weddings where the aisles, or even the entire wedding site, were strewn with combinations of lavender, scented geranium leaves, sage leaves, cedar tips, and/or rosemary.
Pick the herbs early in the day to maximize their scents, keep the stems in water until ready to use, and use small stems or finely chopped larger stems to keep footing safe. Add an extra doormat if your guests will be coming indoors from the garden: damp herb bits can stick to shoes.
Strewing herbs obviously cannot be used as copiously or as often as they were centuries ago, when organic matter was ankle-deep on the floor anyway and a few more sticks and leaves didn’t matter. Nowadays, we prefer not to track bits of foliage around the house or stain floor coverings with ground-in plant juices. However, their modern use is limited primarily by your imagination and the availability of freshly dried materials. Please your nose, freshen your rugs, and rout a few fleas—strew those herbs!
Strewing Herbs: Further Reading
• Addison, Josephine. The Illustrated Plant Lore. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1985.
• Freeman, Margaret B. Herbs for the Medieval Household. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971.
• Hartley, Dorothy. Lost Country Life. New York: Pantheon, 1979.
• Hatfield, Audrey W. A Complete Culinary Herbal. Wellingborough, Northhamptonshire, England: Thorsons, 1978.
• Howard, Michael. Traditional Folk Remedies: A Comprehensive Herbal. London: Century Hutchinson, 1987.
• Kowalchik, Claire, and William Hylton, eds. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1987.
• Leyel, Mrs. C. F. Herbal Delights. London: Faber and Faber, 1937.
• Shaudys, Phyllis. The Pleasure of Herbs. Pownal, Vermont: Storey Communications, 1986.
• Tolley, Emelie, and Chris Mead. Herbs. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1985.
Robbie Cranch of central California is an avid historian, a Unitarian Universalist minister, an herb grower and crafter, and a freelance writer. And as if that weren’t enough, she’ll soon give birth to her second child.