The costmary (Chrysanthemum Balsamita) in my garden is now tall and — in what I think of as the Yellow Time of Year — is producing small, nondescript flowers. The most striking thing about costmary is the fragrance of its leaves.
Few people grow costmary anymore, but in the Middle Ages, it was among the sweet herbs used for strewing floors and scenting the washing water at meals. It has a bitter taste, though occasionally it is still used for cooking (I’m told it’s good minced, e.g., into tuna, egg, or shrimp salads) and there are those who enjoy costmary tea or who add the young leaves to lemonade. It was sometimes called “alecost,” because it was used as a flavoring in ale and beer. Costmary makes a potent sachet when mixed with lavender.
Costmary was originally found in the Orient but not introduced to the West until the 16th century. The 17th-century English herbalist, Nicolas Culpeper, liked it “as a salve to cleanse and heal ulcers, being boiled with olive oil, and Adder’s Tongue with it. After straining a little wax is added to thicken it.” Other herbalists employed costmary for strengthening the liver, treating stomach disorders, as a diuretic, a gentle laxative, and, contrarily, for the treatment of dysentery.
My favorite traditional use of costmary is as a bookmark. It was especially handy for marking the pages of Bibles and prayer books (hence the nickname “Bible leaf”). It’s said that sleepy parishioners, bored by long sermons, eyelids drooping, heads nodding, pulled a costmary leaf from the prayer books, took a nibble and a good sniff and were instantly revived.
I often save my place in books with costmary and am always happily surprised to find that even as the leaf has dried, the gorgeous scent remains.
Costmary, like motherwort, is left over from my attempts years ago at a medicinal herb garden. It spreads by division, not seeds. It thrives in many difficult areas, such as the hellstrip between the sidewalk and the street.