The term "ground cover" wasn't one medieval gardeners were known use. Yet many of the lower-growing herbs and flowers of the medieval time period work beautifully today to replace lawn or soften areas under trees and along paths. Important medieval medical texts such as the Lacnunga ("Remedies"), along with period tapestries and paintings, tell us much about plants of the day and how they were used.
Flowery Mead Plants
For the ultimate in authentic medieval ground covers, create a "flowery mead." Medieval land owners considered these grassy areas crucial for lounging and playing games. In flowery meads, gardeners mingled common grass with columbine, heartsease, borage, campion, poppies, hellebore, cowslips, primroses, wild strawberries, violets, daisies and daffodils.
For your own flowery mead, you might either establish flower seedlings here and there in an existing lawn, leaving wide swaths of easily-mown grass, or let the entire area grow into a field. Alternatively, choose only spring-blooming plants, enabling you to mow the entire area starting in early summer.
Thyme may represent the ultimate medieval ground cover, because it appeared in kitchen, medicinal and pleasure gardens of the day, as well as special "thyme lawns" meant to delight the nose when trod upon. Thyme's antimicrobial properties, and certainly its culinary and aromatic ones, were already known in the medieval age. Use thyme in a sunny garden to replace a grass lawn, or place it between flagstones to give an ancient feel to a path or patio. In late summer, the velvety-soft small leaves will blossom with pink, white or light purple flowers.
Together with creeping thyme, chamomile was among the most popular of the medieval lawn herbs. Its soft foliage was sometimes even used as a cushion for tufted garden benches. The leaves, when walked upon, scent the air with the fragrance of apples, while the daisy-like flowers make for calming teas or hair brighteners. Both thyme and chamomile seem to flourish the more they are walked upon, soothing bare feet with their softness and the eyes and nose with their beauty and fragrance.
The Lacnunga lists plantain as one of the nine sacred herbs, as herbalist Maude Grieve indicated in the 1930s "A Modern Herbal," which is now an online resource. Yet today's homeowners sneer at the herb for its weedy nature in grassy lawns. But the broad, ribbed leaves contain healing properties that help soothe irritated or wounded skin and make for a lush ground cover. Use it in a sunny herbal lawn, mixed with cheerful medieval-era flowers, or in a large patch of its own. In late summer, plantain bears spiky, brown flowers. The 11th century herbalist Alfric specifically recommended plantain as a roadside ground cover because of its reputation for soothing the weary feet of travelers.
The artemisia variety mugwort was a staple of healing gardens during the medieval period. The Lay of the Nine Herbs in the Lacnunga calls mugwort "the mother of herbs," according to author Anthony Gardiner in "A Garden Herbal." The low-growing foliage herb makes an attractive ground cover in sunny conditions and dry soil. Use it to line paths or top a retaining wall. It has broad green leaves on top with a silvery underside.
The recreated medieval Mary Garden at England's St. Mary de Haura Church includes violets, The church's web site notes that, like many flowers of the Middle Ages, violets represented an aspect of the Virgin Mary legend. In this case her modesty and loyalty were thought to be symbolized by the violet's heart-shaped leaves. Violets make a delicate ground cover for woodland or part-shade gardens. Grow them in part moist soil and space seedlings about 4 inches apart. As medieval cooks once did, crystallize violet flowers to top cupcakes, or infuse syrups or cream with fresh flowers for desserts. Use the aromatic leaves in potpourris or facial steams.