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Thursday, February 2, 2012
COSTMARY OR ALECOST - ONCE A MUCH-USED HERB IN COOKERY AND MEDICINE: HISTORY AND HEALTH BENEFITS OF COSTMARY
Costmary gets its name from the oriental herb Saussuria costus or Indian orris which is an aromatic herb which Theophrastus mentions in regard to its use in perfumes in ancient
. Its leaves have a eucalyptus-like aroma which has been alternatively described as being rather like camphor, or like garden mint with hints of balsam. The Latin name costus comes from the Sanskrit, kustha. Greece
In the past it was known as Tanecetum balsamita which comes from the Greek anathasia meaning immortality which is perhaps a reference to its long-lasting odour. It is a member of the Compositae or Asteraceae family (daisy family) and is a close relative of feverfew and tansy. It is a native of
Western Asia, but was commonly grown in British gardens by the 16th century because of its value as a medicinal, strewing and ale-making plant. It was also added to salads and soups so had culinary value too. The name Alecost was given to it as it was added to ale long before the arrival of hops for beer in at least, as it gave ale flavour and cleared and preserved it. Britain
Another name for this plant was Bible leaf as it was used as a scented bookmark in colonial times in
North America, as was tutsan. The smell from the leaves may have helped to prevent congregations falling asleep during lengthy sermons and chewing on the leaves was believed to temporarily at least assuage the appetite.
It was used in mediaeval times as a strewing herb not only because of its pleasant smell which masked bad smells, but because it has insecticidal properties. Putting a bruised leaf on an insect bite or stem will help soothe the pain too.
This semi-evergreen plant is also known as mint-geranium, balsam herb, balsam-mint and balsam-tansy. In
it is herbe Sainte-Marie, or Saint Mary’s herb, another herb of the Virgin Mary. France
It was used in medicine, and Nicholas Culpeper, writing in the 17th century in his “Complete Herbal” has this to say about its uses:-
“Government and virtues. It is under the dominion of Jupiter. The ordinary costmary, as well as maudlin, provoketh urine abundantly, and moisteneth the hardness of the mother; it gently purgeth choler and phlegm, extenuating that which is gross, and cutting that which is tough and glutinous, cleanseth that which is foul, and hindereth putrefaction and corruption; it dissolveth without attraction, openeth obstructions, and healeth their evil effects, and is a wonderful help to all sorts of dry agues. It is astringent to the stomach, and strengtheneth the liver, and all the other inward parts, and if taken in whey worketh the more effectually. Taken fasting in the morning, it is very profitable for pains of the head that are continual; and to stay, dry up, and consume, all thin rheums, or distillations from the head into the stomach, and helpeth much to digest raw humours that are gathered therein. It is very profitable for those that are fallen into a continual evil disposition of the body called cachexia, being taken, especially in the beginning of the disease. It is a good friend and helps to evil, weak, and cold livers. The seed is familiarly given to children for the worms, and so is the infusion of the flowers in white wine, given them to the quantity of two ounces at a time: it maketh an excellent salve to cleanse and heal old ulcers, being boiled with olive oil, and adder's tongue with it; and after it is strained, to put in a little wax, rosin, and turpentine, to bring it to a convenient consistence.”
It can be made into a tisane with a quarter cup of fresh leaves with five or six whole cloves to one cup of boiling water, left to steep for five to ten minutes before straining and drinking with honey for coughs, colds, catarrh, and stomach cramps.
Costmary leaves can be added to lemonade and other drinks for the flavour which is actually refreshing. The leaves can also be infused in boiling water and left to steep for a few hours and used in rinse water after washing clothes. Lavender can also be added to this water. The dried leaves may also be added to sleep pillows with dried rose petals, lemon balm and cloves, or to pot-pourri. The leaves are best collected when the flowers are in bloom along with the flowering tops and dried for later use. The plant flowers between July and September.
In cookery the leaves can be added to stuffing for veal or poultry and can be chopped and used with butter to flavour peas and new potatoes in place of mint. They can be laid on the base of cake tins and cooked with fruit cake and a few- but use sparingly because of their somewhat overpowering taste- may be added to salads.
Costmary or Alecost is an old-fashioned herb that deserves more consideration in modern times.