This section is from the book "A History Of Gardening In England", by Alicia Amherst. Also available from Amazon: A History Of Gardening In England.
All the herbs already in cultivation were retained, mostly on account of their medicinal properties, which were in many cases both varied and comprehensive. For instance, the decoctions of " Blessed Thistle " or carduus benedictus, either the leaves ground, or the juice drunk, or the leaves applied outwardly, were supposed to cure deafness, giddiness, loss of memory, the plague, ague, swellings or wounds, the bites of serpents, or mad dogs, and many other complaints. With faith in such a catalogue of its uses, it is not astonishing that the "Blessed Thistle" was cultivated in every garden. Another plant that was grown in all gardens, from the tenth century onwards, was the Mandrake (Mandragora vernalis and autumnalis). More ridiculous superstitions cluster round this plant than are attached to any other. The roots were supposed to resemble the figure of a man, and to possess certain mystic powers, therefore spurious roots were manufactured in this form, and sold as charms. It was said to shriek when pulled from the ground, and the sound was so horrible that anyone who heard it went out of his mind, or died. Shakespeare refers to this superstition :
* Second Charter, 1616, in the possession of the Company.
† There is an account of the Company in Bradley's Treatise on Husbandry and Gardening, 1726.
" And shrieks like Mandrakes torn out of the earth, That living mortals, hearing them, run mad".
Romeo and Juliet, act iv. scene 3.
Not only in the Herbals proper, but in almost every practical work on gardening, the " vertues and physic helps" of each flower are enumerated. Thomas Hill devotes four pages to the " physicke helps and worthie secrets of the Colewort," or cabbage. Even Parkinson finds some medicinal use for nearly every plant, and only a few " are wholly spent for their flowers sake " ; * even of tulips he confesses to have " made trial," and preserved the bulbs in sugar, and found them pleasant. "That the roots are nourishing, there is no doubt .... for divers have had them sent by their friends from beyond sea, and mistaking them to be onions, have used them as onions in their pottage or broth, and never found any cause of mislike, or any sense of evil quality produced by them, but accounted them sweet onions." † By far the most important introduction into the kitchen garden was the pot4to. The generally received idea is that the potato was first brought to Europe by Sir Walter Raleigh, from Virginia, but this is doubtful. There have been great discussions among botanists on the subject of its native habitat. That Sir Walter Raleigh and his companion, Thomas Herriott, brought the potato back with them from the New World, in 1585 or 1586, is a fact. But it was also brought to Europe by the Spaniards between 1580 and 1585. The potato has been found in a wild state only in Chili, but, it is probable, that before the arrival of the Spaniards in America, the plant had spread by cultivation into Peru and New Granada. From thence it was most likely introduced, in the latter half of the sixteenth century, into that part of the United States now known as Virginia and North Carolina, and there discovered by Raleigh, unless he found it among the provisions of some Spanish ship captured by him on its way from Chili or Peru. Gerard gives a picture and account of the " potatoe of Virginia" (Solanum tuberosum) which " he had received " from that place. The original species still exists in cultivation, in Europe, and differs but slightly from the ordinary varieties now grown. Gerard's description of the flower and root is accurate. He calls it " a meate for pleasure," being " either rosted in the embers, or boiled and eaten with oile, vinegar and pepper, or dressed any other way by the hand of some cunning in cookery." He thus describes the tuber, " Thicke, fat and tuberous, not much differing either in shape, colour or taste from the common potatoes, saving that the rootes thereof are not so great nor long, some of them round as a ball, some ouall or egge fashion, some longer and others shorter, which knobbie rootes are fastened into the stalkes with an infinite number of threddie strings." " The common potatoe " he refers to, is at first sight puzzling, but he really means the Batata or Sweet Potatoe, Ipomcea Batatas. The origin of this plant is also a subject of discussion ; America and Eastern Asia both lay claim to it, but the strongest evidence seems to point to its introduction from the New World. Christopher Columbus is supposed to have brought the plant back to Queen Isabella, and early in the sixteenth century it was cultivated in Spain. Both Gerard and Parkinson grew it in their gardens, but as it was always killed by the frost at the end of September, they never saw it in flower. Sweet potatoes were eaten in various ways, roasted, sopped in wine, or cooked with prunes, and conserves were made of them. They were sometimes called Skirrets of Peru. Parkinson names a third plant in his list of potatoes " Potatos of Canada." " We in England, frome some ignorant and idle heads, have called them Artichokes of Jerusalem, only because the root being boiled is in taste like the bottom of an Artichoke head." " This plant has no similitude . . . with an artichoke . . . neither came it from Jerusalem or out of Asia, but out of America."* None of these authors make any attempt to account for Helianthus tuberosus being called " Jerusalem," but it can be explained, as the plant is a kind of sunflower or " Girosole," of which latter word Jerusalem is a corruption. Goodyer gives the history of its first introduction. † " In anno 1617 I received two small roots thereof from Master Franqueuill of London . . . the one I planted, the other I gave to a friend, mine brought mee a pecke of roots, wherewith I stored Hampshire." Of the use of these Parkinson writes, " The Potatos of Canada are by reason of their great increasing, grown to be so common here with us at London, that even the most vulgar begin to despise them, whereas when they were first received among us they were dainties for a Queen, but the too-frequent use, especially being so plentiful and cheap, hath rather bred a loathing than a liking of them." Goodyer also classes them as " meat more fit for swine than men".
* Larkspur, Paradisus, p. 278.
† Parkinson, Paradisus, p. 77.