Sandy’s Garden ... Dill

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

During the past winter, we had an unexpected death in the garden.

The dill which had seemed perfectly content growing in its pot in the little herb garden on our back doorstep failed to self-seed and accordingly passed away without ceremony. Since all the other herbs survived the winter without complaint, I am at a loss to understand what ailment claimed our dill. However, as my grannie used to say, “Facts are chiels that winna ding,” … essentially, ‘You cannot argue with facts’. And the simple fact is that our dill passed away.

You, gentle reader, might be forgiven for assuming that I had no more to do than visit my local garden centre to find as many dill plants as one could shake a stick at on open display in the area given over to herbs. Not so. The first two garden centres that I visited in my seemingly simple quest had none; and it was only at the third port of call that I found a few of my sought-after species; and, although none of them looking particularly healthy and I would normally advise people against paying good money for plants which seem to be in less than the best of nick, I wanted to replace my dead dill and accordingly parted with my hard-earned cash to satisfy this wish.

Dill … Anethum graveolens in proper botanical terms … is said to have taken its common name from the Icelandic word ‘dilla’ meaning ‘lull’. The generic name Anethum comes from the Greek name for the plant, while the specific name graveolens means ‘strong-smelling’ and dill is assuredly an aromatic herb. Anethum graveolens came originally from south-west Asia and is described in the Chelsea Physic Garden’s Herbal (copyright 2004 by Quarto Publishing Ltd.) as “an upright, hollow-stalked, hardy annual, 60-90cm (2–3ft) tall, with glaucous, ovate leaves, divided into thread-like segments.” That means it is an upright annual plant, with egg-shaped leaves covered in a downy bloom, leaves which have a feathery appearance. And yes, the feathery-looking leaves are very like those of fennel, making the two plants appear very similar. Dill is a herb favoured by cooks to bring out the flavour of fish, seafood, potatoes, soft cheeses and eggs; and it is a favourite flavouring in Scandinavian dishes, particularly gravlax (preserved salmon) and pickles. And it is this Scandinavian connection which may account for its common name.

Why do we use the Icelandic word for ‘lull’ as the name of a herb? Our ancestors knew part of the answer to this question, for dill has been used in the Middle East for at least 3 000 years for its calming effect on the digestive system, easing indigestion, colic and wind. And my guess … and I have to say that I cannot claim any authority for this statement … my guess is that dill was brought to our islands by Norse invaders some time during the ninth century, bringing its Icelandic name with it. Nor were our ancestors wrong to place their confidence in dill as a medicinal herb, for the essential oils present in dill activate the secretion of bile and digestive juices. This makes it good for treating stomach upsets, including diarrhoea, which is caused by indigestion and microbial action, and … although this is much less common nowadays … dysentery, where the disinfectant qualities of the herb’s essential oils combat the fungal infections which are characteristic of the disease.

Dill has also been used to treat insomnia, diabetes, arthritis and hiccups although, gentle reader, I add my usual caveat that I am only reporting these claims and am not endorsing any of them. However, dill is definitely used to this day in the preparation of gripe water, although it is for its culinary rather than its medicinal properties that I value this herb.