Herbs have a long history of use, from pre written word days right up to the internet. They can add flavour, lifting a simple dish into one fit for royalty. So it is only fair to include them in your novel, where you may find they lift your descriptions in the same subtle way they do in real life. I have explored some real life uses of herbs, and ways in which other writers have used them in their novels. The scent and flavour of herbs is evocative and usually familiar, so you can mention a herb and immediately the reader will know without you having to tell them all about it.Herbs in fiction – add a pinch of sensory enjoyment for readers. Click To Tweet
Some excellent resources are available for herb use, from Culpeper’s original Herbal, where he discusses the doctrine of signatures. This was the belief that a herbs shape (leaf, flower or root) and its resemblance to a body part meant it was a sign from God that it was useful in problems relating to that organ. Others include Readers Digest ‘Magic and Medicine of Plants’ and ‘The Herb Bible.’ Make sure you use herbs bearing in mind their country of origin. Mediterranean herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil etc) are different to plants used as herbs in America or India for instance. This relates to a fantasy world climate just as much as an historical. With historical, you also need to find out if the herb was imported – many British plants were brought there by the Romans.
Herbal teas are common, used today for health as much as they ever were. Mint for digestion and flavour, sage, rosemary, lemon grass – all these are common and can be used by a character. In one popular fantasy series, Jean Auel’s Earth Children (Clan of the Cave Bear) her main character was a medicine woman, and herbs are an intricate part of the overall series.
Herbs in food can be used to add an element of interest. Questing elves, dwarves and barbarians can forage along the way and flavour a stew or porridge with sage, bay or wild garlic. Use rosemary stalks to baste a joint of meat over the fire, or throw woody herbs on the fire for their aroma and to repel insects. Many spices were expensive, so they can be used as a subtle indicator of wealth, or their transport can be woven into the story with ship or caravan transports and thieves.
For hygiene purposes, your heroines or dandies could use floral scents in various ways. Floral waters and oils using lavender, rose or jasmine, or perhaps stored clothes could smell of old lavender or sandalwood, a costly scented wood. Soapwort is a low growing plant that was once used to wash old tapestries, as its roots make a gentle lather when pounded in a mortar. Strewing herbs were popular in medieval times, where sweet rushes (iris), and other sweet herbs were left underfoot to reduce smells. Pomanders (oranges stuck with cloves) and tussie mussies (herb bouquets) were also used to cope with unpleasant smells, such a drains and sickrooms in Victorian times.
In a science fiction book, I can imagine herbs being a reminder of the home world. I was given a plastic tube once, and told by the marketer it held the essence of New Zealand. The scent was fresh grass – I can see this in an old freighter, being sniffed by a grizzled half cyborg veteran before launch. Andre Norton uses exotic spices as a trade item in many of her books, including strange coloured woods.
On darker topics, herbs can be used for ill. Herbs mashed into ointments gave women delusions of flying in witchcraft trials. The toxic rust ergot on rye grass was believed to be the cause of mass hallucinations at the Salem Witch trials. The smoke from burning herbs could give dreams and visions, such as the ancient oracle at Delphi. Some herbs are just flat out poisonous, as any reader of the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters will be familiar. Even today, certain mushrooms are used as hallucinogens.
So, like herbs in real life, sprinkle them sparingly in your fiction.
(Photos from ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician.’ reproduced from a 1826 edition, Magna Books.)
For those that have not read Druid’s Portal yet, here is a link to the first chapter DruidsPortal