Monestir de Sant Quirze de Colera – 9th Century Benedictine Monastery

Monestir de Sant Quirze de Colera

The Monestir de Sant Quirze de Colera was discovered, quite by luck, on a recent trip to northern Spain.

Unfortunately it was a dreich day (good Scottish weather word). Fortunately not cold but very wet. Still even the bad weather did not dampen the visit. A remarkably beautiful area with a fascinating 9th century Benedictine monastery.

It has proven quite difficult to find information about the monastery. Any I have found is mostly in Catalan or occasionally, Spanish. Unfortunately neither language of which I have much knowledge. However, both the Monasteries de Catalunya and the Província de Girona Art Medieval websites are worth a look for the stunning photographs alone.

Monestir de Sant Quirze de ColeraStories abound. A document apparently suggests two brothers Libenci and Assinari took possession of the Albera range of valleys and mountains from the Saracens during the time of Charlemagne. Whether or not these two brothers founded the monastery is unknown. However, this appears to be the general belief.

The protected Albera range is stunning and so tranquil. A flora and fauna lovers paradise. Interestingly it is one of the last areas in the Iberian peninsula to find the Hermann tortoise in its natural environment. I didn’t see one but being sun worshippers I’m sure they were all hiding away from the bad weather. There is always next time.

Benedictine Monks and Medicinal Plants

Many plants grow around the monastery. This led to a wonder of what medicinals the Benedictine monks utilised.

On researching I found a particularly interesting paper from the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Titled, The Pharmacy of the Benedictine Monks and published in 2012. The study concentrated on old prescriptions from a monastery in Brazil. However, as a Benedictine monastery the knowledge, and plants it would seem, were largely acquired from France. Strongly influenced by Galenic/Hippocratic medicine. In fact some 84% of the medicinals were not Brazilian natives.

The root of Gentiana lutea, recorded in several prescriptions as an aperitif and tonic, is still in use medicinally. A bitter digestive remedy. It seems plant roots were more frequently utilised. The authors surmised this may be due to preservation issues.

Other herbs included elderflower, lavender, dandelion, peppermint, juniper, ash, wormwood, hyssop, chamomile, sweet violet, soapwort, valerian. All herbs still in use today and plants I could imagine growing near the Monestir de Sant Quirze de Colera.

If ever in the beautiful natural reserve of the Albera area, the Monestir de Sant Quirze de Colera is well worth a detour.

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum – an eclectic exhibit

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

New Orleans Pharmacy MuseumI have written previously about my visit to New Orleans and Voodoo. Looking through some old photographs recently reminded me of this trip. The photographs included in this post are from an enjoyable visit to the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum seven years ago.
New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

I do love visiting old pharmacies and seeing all the old herb bottles and jars and drawers and accoutrements.

The one in New Orleans was a wonderful example. In true New Orleans style some Voodoo potions are included in the exhibits. Should you ever visit New Orleans the pharmacy museum is well worth a visit.

There were many things I enjoyed about the museum. Especially relevant, the information on plants and herbs was of particular interest to me.

This settler’s quote from 1760 mentions ginseng and sarsaparilla. Nowadays, both plants well-known and in use by European herbalists, particularly ginseng. At the time, sarsaparilla would have been less well-known in the UK. It is a woody vine from the Smilax genus. Found growing in southern Europe and throughout Asia.

The ginseng mentioned here is probably Panax quinquefolius or American ginseng. In Europe P. ginseng, the Asian or Chinese ginseng, is more popular. However, in 1760 ginseng would have been relatively unknown in European medicine.

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

In addition, I enjoyed reading the botanical magic and superstitions. There are many ticks in the forests in this area in France. How-in-ever, I doubt very much I would fancy walking around with a piece of fennel in my right shoe. That would be a little too uncomfortable, I fear!

However, I may source a dollar bill to wrap around a horse chestnut next time I fear my winter EDF electricity bill hitting my postbox.

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

Four Robbers Vinegar and Secret Ingredients

Four Robbers Vinegar and Secret Ingredients

four robbers vinegar and secret ingredients
St Lizier apothecary

I have previously written about my visit to the wonderful ancient pharmacy of St Lizier. The guide for the apothecary had many tales to tell. One of the apothecary anecdotes refers to the famous four robbers vinegar and secret ingredients.

The story goes thus …

It was the time of a plague. A highly contagious, epidemic disease with a high degree of mortality. Characterised by high fever, often with delirium, swollen lymph nodes and infectious lungs.

Any unfortunate soul found dead during this plague had their body stripped by the four robbers.

Bizarrely the thieves never fell ill with this highly contagious disease!

Eventually the Sisters discovered the thieves’ identity. Following capture, their sentence was death. However, in exchange for their freedom they were asked to divulge their secret for plague protection.

And so, the four robbers secret ingredients?

Four Robbers Vinegar and Secret Ingredients

Their secret was a strong smelling remedy of five medicinal plants in vinegar.

Those famous plague prevention plants ?

Thyme, rosemary, lavender, mint and sage.

I am not sure if they drank this remedy or covered their skin and clothing in it. Perhaps a combination of the two?

All five plants grow wonderfully well in this region. A wonderful story. So it seems the four robbers vinegar and secret ingredients is no longer quite so secret.

St Lizier Apothecary in the Ariege Department

St Lizier Apothecary in the Ariege Department

The History of the St Lizier Apothecary

St Lizier Apothecary Recently on a visit to a neighbouring department Ariege, I visited an 18th century apothecary in St Lizier. The hospital was funded by a wealthy bishop with a personal fortune. The Sisters of Nevers became the nurses.

The Sisters of Nevers were from a religious institute founded in 1680 to minister to the sick and poor. In St Lizier they took in the sick and wounded, beggars and elderly.

In addition they took in abandoned children. A special opening remains visible to the left of the hospital main entrance. The abandoned baby entrance. After baptism, every child took the surname DeDieu, meaning from God. Apparently a common surname in the area to this day.

The St Lizier Apothecary

St Lizier apothecaryThe Apothecary was a step back in time to 1764. It is quite small. The woodwork is from fruit trees, I believe it was pear and cherry trees.

Behind the glass doors are shelves for jars and vials, liquid contents. Furthermore there are 50 drawers for storing dried herbs. Each drawer numbered with a copper plate. Hence some of the drawers still had labels inside detailing the original contents. The example in the image (slideshow below) is guimauve or Althea officinalis. The English common name is marshmallow.

Behind the glass fronted doors there are a wide of array of glass vials and jars and ceramic pots. Often the contents are on the container. For example ‘H. de Chamomille’ is oil of chamomile. Those with ‘H’ is for huile whereas ‘S’ is for syrup. There are also aromatic waters for example ‘Eau de Menthe’ is peppermint aromatic water.

Other cabinets contained ceramic pots, no doubt used for storing unguents. The small ceramic dishes, like odd shaped egg cups, are eye baths.

Interestingly I assumed the ceramic canards (ducks in English) probably containers for treating the nasal cavity for infections. However, the guide described them as possibly early beakers for giving medicines to weak, infirm or children.

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Although a short tour, at around 20 minutes, it was extremely interesting. Furthermore, St Lizier itself is very beautiful. In conclusion, a wonderful way to spend a morning, particularly with a visit to the St Lizier apothecary.

Death by Gold Ring – Pretty Poisonous Potion!

Death by Gold Ring

Death by Gold Ring
Inverary Castle

On a brief trip to Scotland last week, I visited Inverary Castle. A cousin was visiting from Australia and he was keen to visit the ancestral home of the chief of the Clan Campbell.

Although the site of an earlier castle, certainly since the 1400’s, building began on this particular castle in 1743. There are some later additions. The conical roofs of the corner towers are such an addition from 1877.

I personally have always thought this particular building more French château than Scottish castle. The interior continues this theme with French-influenced rooms with Beauvais tapestries. The castle also boasts paintings by French artists Girard and Guinand.

However, for me, I found two particular pieces most fascinating. One was a rubbing stone and the other a poison ring!

Rubbing Stone

Death by Gold RingThe rubbing stone, as you can see, apparently cured colic.

Of course, in some cases a mild colic benefits from a gentle massage, or rubbing, over the tummy area. Perhaps in some cases the rubbing stone was helpful! I can think on several much more effective digestion remedies though.

Poison Ring

Death by Gold RingI would have loved a closer look at the poison ring but unfortunately it was safely stored within the glass display cabinet.

The particular example in the castle is Italian but it seems these were quite popular throughout Europe in the 16th century.

Any fans of singer, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, may remember she used a poison ring to eliminate some of her competitors in the Murder on the Dance Floor video. A lady determined to win that dance competition.

Downtown Abbey

The castle may look familiar to Downtown Abbey fans. The Christmas 2012 episode was filmed in and around Inverary Castle. It served as the fictional Duneagle Castle. Duneagle Castle was the home of cousins young Lady Rose and her parents. Thankfully there was no death by gold ring in that episode!

Voodoo and New Orleans Spells with Herbs

Voodoo and New Orleans Spells

Some years back I was lucky enough to visit New Orleans. A fabulous fun place of blues and jazz. In addition, and right up my street, there are fascinating weird and wonderful herbs and voodoo and New Orleans spells. In fact it is one of the most enjoyable places I have been fortunate enough to visit. Blues, jazz, voodoo, weird and wonderful herbs and fascinating characters – what’s not to like?

Cemeteries and Voodoo

I was there at Halloween so partook in a Cemetery and Voodoo trip. We met at a French cafe. The guide was an entrancing character full of interesting anecdotes with long hair of a similar length and colour to my own. He commented on this to which I replied “Yes, grey”. I still laugh when I hear in my head his response in that New Orleans southern drawl

No honey youse and me just natural platinum blonds.

Voodoo and New Orleans spellsOn the cemetery tour we visited the future pyramidal tomb of actor Nicholas Cage and the tomb of the legendary Marie Laveau, the voodoo priestess.

The tour ended with a visit to a present day, and living, voodoo priestess. I was in a group of perhaps a dozen people. She singled me out asking where I was from. I have to confess I was somewhat unsure what she was going on about but I think she liked me and I had no intention of upsetting a voodoo priestess so happily agreed with whatever she said.

At the end of the trip I felt obliged to purchase some items from her spellbinding wares of herbs, voodoo and New Orleans spells. This brings me on to the focus for this post as one of the items I purchased was a modern herbal spell book!

Tidying the bookcase…

We’ve had some tremendous heat, in the 30’s, this last 10 days or so. This is quite high for this time of year and the garden has required watering most days particularly my small vegetable patch. My water butts for rainwater harvesting are very low.

While tidying my bookcase I came across my New Orleans purchase. Tidying the bookcase is often a lengthy process as I invariably come across a book I haven’t read for sometime and the tidying gets forgotten about for another few hours, days or weeks… and so the book…

Voodoo and New Orleans spells

And so to a make rain spell…

Quite apt for my poor draining water butts I thought!

  • Fill a large pan with water and add a handful each of sulphur, sea wrack and valerian.
  • As you put in each of the ingredients repeat the passage from Deuteronomy 11:14.

I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil.

This spell should be performed on a Monday, the day ruled by the Moon which is the planet controlling weather.

So there you have if it. Should you ever require a bit of rain you could always try the above spell, on a Monday. Good luck.


Aude Arboretum

Aude Arboretum

Trees, Trees and more Trees

I discovered a fabulous arboretum last weekend. There were some fascinating native and introduced species. As an added bonus it is not too far away so I will be able to visit regularly and see the trees change with the seasons.

The image to the right is a Sequoia sempervirens. This is more commonly known as a coast or Californian redwood. These trees can grow to a considerable size. In California these are the poor trees you may see that have had pathways cut through the middle of them. They are so large. I love the thick spongy bark.

AnAude arboretumother unusual species for this part of the world, the Cryptomeria japonica to the left. This is more commonly known as the Japanese red cedar. I am particularly fond of the cones of this tree. They look quite fluffy though they are actually quite spiky.

There were many native trees too. These included the Quercus petraea, commonly known as sessile oak and the Sorbus aria better known as white beam.

I am looking forward to visiting again in the spring when the broadleaf trees will be bursting into life.

Moroccan Spice Souks and Medicinal Herbs

Visiting Morocco

Whenever I visit a new place I am always keen to see or learn about their use of herbs and spices.

Introduction to Moroccan tea…

My first Moroccan introduction to a medicinal ally was in a riad. A riad is a traditional house built around a central courtyard. The word is from the arabic ‘riyad’ which means ‘gardens’. Riads are tranquil retreats found in the midst of an effervescent medina. This is particularly true in Marrakesh! They are a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle. Many riads are now converted into small hotels and guest houses.

Moroccan Spice Souks and Medicinal HerbsShould you choose to stay at a riad you are greeted with a typical Moroccan welcome, a pot of green tea with Moroccan mint. My first herbal encounter in Morocco!

The Moroccans have an incredibly sweet tooth. Something I have discovered throughout the Arab world. They choose to heavily sweeten this green tea and Moroccan mint blend. Occasionally, in more touristic areas, they will ask a Western palate before sweetening.

Moroccan Spice Souks and Medicinal Herbs

Moroccan Spice Souks and Medicinal HerbsNaturally on a trip to Morocco the spice souks lured me! These souks bewitch the senses; the aromas, the colours and display, the tastes and the textures of the produce, and the sounds of the busy market.

Step inside to see rows and rows of jars. Of course the Moroccans are always keen to get that sale. They have many herbal blends on offer from aphrodisiacs to detox, slimming blends to anti-stress! It is not all blends, there are individual spices too and many other weird and wonderful things. Moroccan Spice Souks and Medicinal Herbs

Almost every store in the spice souk will sell argan oil. Argan oil is popular in many cosmetics and usually, outside Morocco, very expensive. In Essaouria you frequently see shops selling only products made with argan oil. Travelling to or from Essaouria by road you see many argan trees growing. I shall write more on these trees in a future post.

All photographs taken at the spice souk in Marrakesh or the souk at the medina in Essaouira.

Moroccan Spice Souks and Medicinal Herbs

Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier

Oldest Botanical Garden in France

Jardin des plantes de MontpellierOn Sunday I visited Montpellier. Montpellier is within the Languedoc region in the département de l’Hérault, near the Mediterranean.

During my visit to this corner of the Languedoc I was keen to see the Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier.

Established in 1593 it is the oldest botanical garden in France predating, my personal favourite, the Chelsea Physic Garden established in 1673.

At the request of Henri IV, this garden was the creation of Pierre Richer de Bellaval for the study of medicinal plants. Richer de Bellaval was a professor of botany and anatomy. Naturally, I was particularly excited to be visiting this garden.

Jardin des plantes de MontpellierMontpellier is historically important  in the medical world.

La Faculty de Médecine, formed at the end of the 12th century, is one of the oldest operating medical schools in the western world.

Jardin des plantes de MontpellierSo Montpellier is the perfect location to find a historical medicinal plant garden. At one time keenly used to learn the trade!

Over the years the garden has expanded and is no longer only for medicinal plants. It now includes some tropical green houses, an orangery, palm trees and an arboretum.

My Visit

My trip was somewhat of a disappointment. The garden is currently undergoing some rehabilitation! Many areas were closed to the public. The central, and oldest section, essentially the medicinal plant area was sadly inaccessible.

The Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier was certainly in dire need of some TLC!

Jardin des plantes de MontpellierHowever, I was able to see the large, and well known, male Ginkgo tree of the garden planted in the late 18th century. Well over 200 years old.

There were several smaller Ginkgo trees too. Autumnal leaves and fruits strewn underfoot.

Unfortunately, I could find no information on the timescale for the renovation project. I hope the works at the Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier are finished when I next visit.


A little change from l’Aude…

A little change from l’Aude

heather-in-the-new-forest-october-2016Road Trip to UK

I haven’t written a post for a couple of weeks. I have been away on a bit of a road trip. The trip included some time in both England and Scotland.

It has been an extremely hot and dry summer here in the Aude. Driving north, first through France and then England, the sharp contrast in the colours of nature was all too apparent. From sun parched yellows and browns in the Aude to glistening bright greens in the wetter Northern climates of Cumbria and on to Scotland.

When living in Scotland I tired of those grey, wet days. I was fortunate to have some glorious days in Scotland this trip, if a little cold particularly in the mornings and evenings. This trip was a reminder of just how important weather is to our health and wellbeing. Plants need water (rain) as well as the sunshine. The abundance of plant life in the UK was astounding compared to my poor, parched, dry medicinal herb garden here in the Aude. Of course, too much rain can be just as damaging as not enough!

Anyway here are a few wonderful photographs from my trip. Some lovely sunny days and some wet and wild days. These photos were taken in Cornwall, East Devon, Cumbria or Scotland. All taken between late September and early October.

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