When you drive or take the tram to Cloister Lioba in Freiburg’s Gunterstal, you’re greeted by flowers swaying with the gentle breeze and kissing themselves. The ochre-coloured cloister buildings evoke memories of Toskana. A 700-square metre garden with over 300 plants and a good many medicinal, biblical plants await you.
There’s no entry fee but you drop a few coins in the box to help the sisters of St. Lioba take care of the gardens, and they’ll be thankful for your small donation.
It was fascinating to go through the garden with healing herbs (Heilkräutergarten) which was divided into the mystical and symbolic plants, beds with aromatic species and kitchen herbs. There was even a section devoted to biblical plants that have played a role in Christianity.
The healing plants are purposely laid not on the ground but in long, rectangular crates to help the visitors see and feel the plants. The biblical healing plants were arranged in a round bed and symbolised the creation of the world by the Christian God, which was created well but was broken by the original sin which caused suffering, against which there are many medicinal plants that can cure almost all maladies, except death. Christianity promises to overcome even death through Jesus Christus. Linseed is one such biblical meal ingredient as told in the story of Esau and his brother Jacob. Mustard corn is another and then the Rizinus, which reminds the Christians of a prophet named Jona. In order to make the healing plant garden complete, some plants mentioned in the holy book were planted at St. Lioba, with the concept of creation in mind.
Above the biblical garden you can see vines and a fig tree (Feigenbaum), the symbol of the Old Testament for ‘shalom,’ which is peace and healing in the broader sense. According to the holy Benedict, the cloister society had to be self-sufficient, and not dependent on the outside world. That’s why fruits and vegetables were planted in abundance. There were monks and nuns who had knowledge about gardening, crossing plants, growing spices and how to make edible, long range products out of fruits, in addition to nursing flowers and the use of medicinal plants.
Cloister Medicine (Hildegard von Bingen): It was Benedicter Walahfried Strabo (9th century) from the Isle of Reichenau in Lake Constance, Odod von Meung (11th century) and the abotess Hildegard von Bingen (12th century) who wrote down the worked of cloister medicine which, till then, had been handed down orally. Cloister medicine reached its zenith in the works of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). She wrote a materia medica with the title ‘Physica’ and a book of diseases ‘causae et curae’ and was regarded as a ‘holy herb-witch’ and others thought she was a mystic. The fact remains that she was the first German Nature researcher. The ‘Physica’ describes 230 herbs, 63 trees, many stones, fishes, birds, reptiles and other animals.
Paracelsus: It was Paracelsus (1493-1541) who added three occult qualities to the four elements earth, water, air and fire, namely sal, mercurius and sulphur. His correct name was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, and worked as the city-physician and professor in Basle (Switzerland), and held medical lectures in German. Otto Brunfels (1489-1534) who was a theologist brought out ‘Herbarium vivae eicones,’ a Latin Kräuterbuch with illustrations on wood by Hans Weiditz. Another contemporary of Paracelsus was Hieronymus Bock (1498-1544) who was a priest and physician-cum-botanist. His ‘New Kreuterbuch’ has 477 wooden engravings.
The cloister garden changed with the passage of time. Every epoch had its own form and elements in the garden landscape. Even the tastes of the people changed with time in terms of aesthetic beauty, and with it the picture of the cloister. All you have to do is compare the strictly structured garden of Walahfried Strabo with the blooming garden creation of Baroque, Rokoko and the modern garden landscape of St.Lioba today.
‘Nature is the apothecary of God,’ goes an old folk adage, which is correct. Around a wild apple-tree, a symbol of healthy nutrition, are 18 high beds arranged in the form of a star with a great deal of healing plants and seldom used krauts. Medicinal plants with controversial healing properties were consciously left out.
It might be mentioned that the traditional system of medicine in Tibet has an unbroken continuity for over 2500 years. It is based on a holistic, integrated Buddhist concept of mind-body, a system of psycho-cosmo-physical healing. The five cosmic energies in Buddhism are earth, water, fire, air and space. Tibetan medicine uses 3 roots, 9 trunks, 47 branches, 224 leaves, 2 flowers and 3 fruits to heal. The rGyud-bzhi dates back to the 12th century AD, and the Vaidurya sNgon-po was written by Desi Sangye Gyatso in 1703 AD. The gSo-wa Rig-pa system of medicine is still practiced in Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Tibet, Ladakh and Sikkim. (Further reading Fundamentals of Tibetan Medicine, Tibetan Medical Centre, Dharamsala, 1981. Translator and editor: T.J. Tsarong).
Botanical Excursions in the Himalayas: The cloister garden at St.Lioba brought memories of my days as a student of Zoology and Botany in the foothills of the Himalayas where we went on botanical excursions with Indian and Nepalese botanists. In the classification of Himalayan raw drugs you have precious stones like turquoise, which is called Rinpoche, and has anti-toxic, hepatic and antiphlogistic properties. Sulphur has a nasal haemostatic effect, the barks of Santalum album are used for their febrifuge effects to heal heart and liver maladies. Musk from the Himalayan musk-deer is used as an anti-toxin, vermifuge, nephritic and for hepatic diseases. Shrubs like Glycyrrhiza glaba are used as an antitussive and as an expectorant. Himalayan plants like Picrorhiza kueroa can be used for their pharmaco-dynamic properties, and have hepatic, coagulant and febrifuge healing abilities.
The medicinal plants that you find in St. Lioba are thistle also called Mariendistel in German, which is used to in the case of inflammation of the liver and the weakness of the gall bladder (bile). The good old artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is used against weak digestion and low liver function, as is Bärlauch. Garlic (Allium sativum) is good when you have weak digestion, and against cerebral sclerosis. Potentilla anserine is used against stomach maladies, and is known as Gänsefinger in German. Another common plant useful during indigestion is basilikum, and majoran (Oreganum majoran) has similar effects. Eberraute is used when the patient suffers from loss of appetite and weak digestion.
In the case of inflammation of the stomach mucosa Süßholz (Glycyrrhza glaba) is very handy. Citrus melisse is useful in treating a nervous stomach and it help to ease the cramp in the belly. The May flower, (Convallaria majalis) also called Maiglöckchen, that you come across abundantly in the meadows are used to cure weakness of the heart. Menstruation pains are used relieved by Gänsefinger (Potentilla anserin): During the climacterium the pain is eased by Wanzenkraut alias Traubensilberkerze. The common Rosmarin is used against weakness of the blood circulation. Pestwurz (Pelasites hybridicus) is used in the case of menstruation problems. Turnips are beneficial against coughs, as is Maluva sylvestris and Huflattich (Hedera helix). Throat inflammation can be treated with Umckaloabo (Pelargonium sidoides). Migranes can be eased with Pestwurz (Pelasites hybridus).
Did you know that the peppermint leaves from your garden help when you have headaches? Just drink tea with the leaves (Mentha piperata). Do you have problems with your immune defence and want to bolster it? Roter Sonnenhut (Echinacea purpurea) might help you. If you have an infection of the urinary tract, or the bladder, Bruchkraut (Herniara glaba) would be helpful. If you have chronic inflammation of the bladder try cranberry (Vaccinum macrocarpon). In the case of throat inflammation Eibisch (Althea officinalis) is useful, and also Spitzwegerich. Curcuma longa, which is called Gelbwurz in German and ‘haldi’ in Nepali and Hindi, is used to treat weakness of the gall bladder. Dandelion (Löwenzahn), Echter Alaut (Inula heienium) and peppermint have a similar effect.
You can also get the herbal medication from your local apothecary and they’ll prepare tinctures, salves and so forth for a price. If you have the time, and the inclination, to know more about healing plants, do drop in at St. Lioba. I enjoyed it immensely.
(c) satis shroff, freiburg
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