Herbs in history


The Canterbury Cathedral herb garden is about to go where no herb has gone before with the introduction of new NFC (near field communication) tags.

Visitors will be able to use a smart phone to scan the label and information will pop up on the phone’s screen from a book in the Cathedral library.
Philip Oostenbrink (head gardener) explained:

“We have somewhere in the region of 80 odd plants in the herb garden and we’re planning on putting NFC tags on each of the plant labels. This will take visitors to a page from ‘Gerarde’s Herbal’ from 1597, where they can see the original drawings and information about the plants as recorded in the 16th Century, a time when the herb garden would primarily have been used by the monks for medicines.”

The small circular labels contain coils of wire which, when exposed to an electromagnetic field from an NFC enabled smartphone, transmit a tiny signal to the device. It’s the same technology that allows some smartphones to be used as an Oyster card on London transport.

Philip and his team have been working closely with Karen Brayshaw from the Cathedral Library to locate each plant in the 1597 edition of The herball or generall historie of plantes: gathered by John Gerarde of London master in chirurgie. Very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Johnson citizen and apothecarye of London.

“It’s a fascinating book,” says Karen “because it contains some really interesting additions following Drake’s voyage to the Americas. There are the first references to the potato and tobacco for example, which would have been considered really exotic in their day.”

Plant Heritage members have an exclusive opportunity to see the herbals and other garden related books from the Canterbury Cathedral library on December 2. Apart from visiting the library on this Saturday, you will also have a chance to see the herb garden and do a tour of the Precincts grounds (with some significant historical trees). During this afternoon a cream tea will be served in the Cathedral Lodge. Bookings can be placed using the booking form.
Original text by Adrian Smith, Press Office, Canterbury Cathedral.