Emily here. In honour of this week’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I thought it was time for a quick look at where some gardens are popping up in the course of our face research. Several exhibits at Chelsea are foregrounding the health benefits of gardens, such as the gorgeous St John’s Hospice Modern Apothecary garden designed by Jekka McVicar (pictured).
Plants have of course played a key role in human, animal and environmental health throughout history. Our friends at Swansea University, led by Professor Liz McEvoy, are currently investigating ‘The Enclosed Garden: Pleasure, Contemplation and Cure in the Hortus Conclusus 1100–1450’, which is something we’re following with keen interest after hearing the project’s Theresa Tyers speak on medicinal plants and the face in the medieval period at our Effaced from History? conference.
I am currently working on a group of medical texts by surgeon and physician Daniel Turner (1667–1741), who mixes plants and medicine in a range of ways. De Morbis Cutaneis. A Treatise of Diseases Incident to the Skin (1714) was the first European book dedicated to diseases of the skin, compiled from a mixture of classical and modern medical texts and Turner’s own case histories. Plants are still used to treat a variety of skin conditions — my mother always swore by lavender oil to treat pimples!
The garden functions as both a curative and injurious space in Turner’s text—not only where you can find useful plants for food and medicine, but also where you might run into the problem of thorns, insect bites and sunburn. The face is particularly liable to different skin problems, “not only on Account of its thinner and finer Texture; but more especially for that [it is] more exposed to the Air’s Cold, and the Sun’s Heat”. Turner treats “freckles” and “the Sun-burn, so called”, warning that “yellow and red-hair’d Persons are most troubled with them”. Though he offers a multitude of different concoctions to lighten the skin again, he concedes that some have effect with “Rose-water sufficiently sharpen’d with Oil of Sulphur”, or “only a destill’d Rain Water with Juice of Lemons and a little Camphir [camphor].” Lemon juice is still touted for lightening skin and hair today.
Diets of warming or cooling fruits and vegetables played an important role in balancing a patient’s humours, in addition to their more overtly therapeutic purposes. For piles or haemorrhoids Turner recommends sitting in a basin of warm milk and oil of violets for thirty minutes to an hour, “or for poor People Flannels wrung out of the same, prepar’d in lesser Quantity may suffice” (Turner treated patients at all social levels, as well as writing for the education of younger surgeons). A more decadent garden remedy, for St Anthony’s Fire, was “the Pouder of the Swallow’s Nest with Honey, mention’d also by Mr. [Richard] Wiseman.”
One of the hot-topic plants of the period was guaiac/lignum vitae, which was mooted as a treatment for the pox (syphilis) that might supplement or even replace the standard mercury treatment. The pox could have a particularly devastating effect on the patient’s face, including collapse of their nasal cartilage.Turner published an extended treatise on the disease (Syphilis. A Practical Dissertation on the Venereal Disease: 1717), which was successful enough for him to extend and reprint it in 1724, 1727, 1732, and 1737. By the later editions he was remarkable as a staunch hold-out in the mercurial camp, where other surgeons were moving away from the administration of mercury in high doses.
Gardens can also hide a myriad of creepy crawlies, and Turner includes sections in De Morbis Cutaneis on “the Bites of venomous Creatures” and “venemous Insects”. One woman is recorded burning spiders and their webs with a candle, only to have one “presently burst with a great Crack and thr[o]w his Liquor, some into her Eyes but mostly upon her Lips”, from which a great swelling ensues. Yet spiders’ webs, he records, can also be of use, and are “so much in request among the Antients, and at this Day by the common People, apply’d to recent Wounds, on Account of the Flux of Blood, which are according to Celsus, a noble Agglutinative for small Hurts”. Shakespeare says as much in Bottom’s address to Titania’s servant, Cobweb: “I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master Cobweb: if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, III.i).
Bees, although providing honey for various remedies and very important themselves for environmental health, could of course injure as well, and the stings of bees and wasps, “however slighted by some, [are] very troublesome and dangerous to others”. For the anatomy of the sting, he refers the reader to Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), where it “is elegantly and truly describ’d” and depicted with the benefits of microscope technology (pictured below). For wasp stings, he says, “Some of our Country People apply hot Cow-dung upon the Part, others anoint only with Honey, or lay on some bruised Mallows”. But apparently he did not consider these to be fool-proof remedies: by this “they pretend to remove all Hurts of this Nature, tho’ I have known them foil’d, and sometimes disappointed.”
Lastly, although Turner does not address the possible aphrodisiacal qualities of different plants and other foods in this book (unlike many of his contemporaries), he does offer a recipe using insects. The Oleum Formicarum (‘oil of ants’, which might be crushed ants in oil, rather than oil solely crushed out of the ants themselves) rubbed over the pubic region “is reported to occasion venereal Erections, beyond all those Remedies directed inwardly, whether Perfumes, Aromaticks, Analepticks or others, prescrib’d as Aphrodisiacks.” Just so you know.