Key Stage 3 Science: Botany

15th century flowers and herbs

Today, plants are imported from all over the world but in the fifteenth century, there was little contact with the world outside Europe and the Middle East.  Exploration of the Americas began after Richard’s death, Africa was largely unknown, India and China were very distant trading partners for spices to preserve and to add flavour to food.

England has over a thousand species of plants which have grown here since the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. Some of these have been cultivated for food, some for medicine, some for decoration.

A very popular type of book in the Middle Ages was a “herbal”: a book describing plants with healing properties. When printing was introduced to England in the last quarter of the 15th century, herbals became one of the most popular books after the Bible. Few original printed copies survive; the earliest that we know of date from the first quarter of the 16th century, but these would have been based on earlier handwritten books dating back for centuries.

Here is a herbal from about the year 1500, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, showing plants with descriptions in Latin.

Medieval painting of a plant. (c) The Walters Art Museum

Your task

Make your own herbal by researching (Google) the uses of some common plants which grow in your area. Collect a small cutting from each plant to stick into your herbal or take an image of the growing plant so as to leave it undisturbed. Write a description of how each plant is used in cooking or as a medicine.

Ten plants used in the 15th century, with their modern Latin names, which you might find growing in your area or in shops:  Parsley (Petroselinum crispum); Sage (Salvia officinalis); Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus); Thyme (Thymus vulgaris); Lavender (Lavandula spica); Roses (Rosa arvensis); Mint (Mentha spicata); Basil (Ocimum basilicum); Marjoram (Origanum majorana); Sorrel (Rumex acetosa).

Five plants that were imported to England from Asia in the Middle Ages and are still in use today: Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum); Coriander (Coriandrum sativum); Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum); Black Pepper (Piper nigrum); Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Some non-native plants frequently used for flavouring food today and which you may find in local shops and markets: Bell pepper (Capsicum anuum); Chilli (Capsicum chinense); Cumin (Cuminum cyminum); Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans); Sesame (Sesamum indicum); Star Anise (Illicium verum); Tumeric (Curcuma longa).

Add as many others as you can find.