It is a native of the Orient, but has now become naturalized in many parts of southern Europe and was formerly to be found in almost every garden in this country, having been introduced into England in the sixteenth century - Lyte, writing in 1578, said it was then 'very common in all gardens.' Gerard, twenty years later, says 'it groweth everywhere in gardens,' and Parkinson mentions it among other sweet herbs in his garden, but it has now so completely gone out of favour as to have become a rarity, though it may still occasionally be found in old gardens, especially in Lincolnshire, where it is known as 'Mace.'
In distinction to the feathery leaves of its near relative, the Tansy, the somewhat long and broad leaves of Costmary are entire, their margins only finely toothed. The stems rise 2 to 3 feet from the creeping roots and bear in August, at their summit, heads of insignificant yellowish flowers in loose clusters, which do not set seed in this country.
---Cultivation---The plant will thrive in almost every soil or situation, but will do best on dry land.
Propagation is effected by division of the roots in early spring, or in autumn, planting 2 feet apart, in a dry, warm situation. As the roots creep freely, the plants will probably spread over the intervening spaces in a couple of years and need dividing and transplanting every second or third year.
Grown in the shade, Costmary goes strongly to leaf, but will not flower.
---Medicinal Action and Uses---On account of the aroma and taste of its leaves, Costmary was much used to give a spicy flavouring to ale - whence its other name, Aletcost. Markham (The Countrie Farmer, 1616) says that 'both Costmarie' and Avens 'give this savour.'
The fresh leaves were also used in salads and in pottage, and dried are often put into pot-pourri, as they retain their aroma. Our great-grandmothers used to tie up bundles of Costmary with Lavender 'to Iye upon the toppes of beds, presses, etc., for sweet scent and savour.'
The name Costmary is derived from the Latin costus (an Oriental plant), the root of which is used as a spice and as a preserve, and 'Mary,' in reference to Our Lady. In the Middle Ages, the plant was widely associated with her name and was known in France as Herbe Sainte-Marie.
It was at one time employed medicinally in this country, having somewhat astringent and antiseptic properties, and had a place in our Pharmacopceia until 1788, chiefly as an aperient, its use in dysentery being especially indicated.
Green's Universal Herbal (1532) stated, 'A strong infusion of the leaves to be good in disorders of the stomach and head,' and much celebrated for its efficacy as an emmenagogue.
An ointment made by boiling the herb in olive oil with Adder's Tongue and thickening the strained liquid with wax and resin and turpentine was considered to be very valuable for application to sores and ulcers.
Achillea ageratum (Linn.), the Maudlin or Sweet Milfoil, a native of Italy and Spain, introduced into England in 1570, an aromatic plant with a sweet smell and a bitter taste, and yellow, tansy-like flowers, was used by the earlier herbalists for the same purposes as Costmary. Culpepper speaks of it growing in gardens and having the same virtues as Costmary, but by the time of Linnzeus its use was obsolete. Both Costmary and Maudlin were much used to make 'sweete washing water.'
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