A Statement of Purpose

Since 2012 I have been responsible for
the garden at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum on Antietam National Battlefield. The Pry House garden began as a 19th century style medicinal and kitchen garden, including medicinal plants, herbs, and vegetables. As close as possible, these plants mirrored those available to the Pry Family in the 1860s, meaning heirloom varieties. Since then, the garden has transformed to focus exclusively on medicinal plants, becoming an exhibit of the flora that was employed by military and civilian caregivers in the Civil War Era.

I am strictly an amateur, with no real experience in growing a garden. The purpose of this blog is to document my experiences as I learn by doing. It is anything but authoritative and I welcome any comments and advice for a greenhorn. Please be kind!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Cardinal Blooms

It is summertime and many plants are blooming, including one of my favorites, the Cardinal Flower. Lobelia cardinalis can be found growing wild as a native plant in this region, but it can also be seen in the Pry House Garden. This time of year it gives bright scarlet blooms that really stand out.

I have stumbled on cardinal flowers growing in the wild several times recently. They usually are a water-loving plant, growing on riverbanks, swamps, and other freshwater wetlands with a little bit of shade.

Cardinal Flower at the Quarry Pond
at Fountain Rock Park in Frederick County, MD - 2014

Cardinal Flower on the bank of the Shenandoah River
at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park - 2012
Perhaps one of the reasons why I like the cardinal flower so much is that I have struggled with it for multiple seasons. I tried growing them from seed, but very little came of that effort. Another year I purchased the plant and seemed to do well, but never flowered and never came back after winter.

This year I planted the cardinal flower in a normal bed of the garden, not particularly wet probably a little too sunny. Nevertheless, it really seems to be doing well. It grew to a good size and shot out a lovely red spike of flowers. I hope that it will continue to do well for seasons to come.

Cardinal Flower in the Pry Garden - 2014

Lobelia cardinalis is part of a family of medicinal plants which are native to a wide swath of North America, including Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata) and Great or Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). They were discovered by Europeans in the early 17th century and exported to Europe for their beauty and perceived medicinal value, but native peoples had been using them for centuries before. According to the USDA:

 The Iroquois had many medicinal uses for cardinal flower. The root was boiled together with the root of Cichorium intybus and the liquid was used to treat fever sores. The mashed roots, stems, leaves, and blossoms were made into a decoction and drank for cramps. The plant was also used as an emetic for an upset stomach from eating something bad. The plant was added to other medicines to give them more strength. The Delaware used an infusion of the roots to treat typhoid. The Meskwaki used this plant as a ceremonial tobacco, throwing it to the winds to ward off a storm. The Pawnee used the roots and flowers of cardinal flower in the composition of a love charm.

Cardinal flower was also employed by some peoples to treat colds, flu, chest congestion, bronchitis, and the respiratory symptoms of other complaints. Writing in 1863, Confederate Surgeon and bontanical medicine expert Dr. Francis Porcher also noted that cardinal flower had been used by native peoples as an anthelmintic, meaning that it expelled parasites from the body.

Cardinal Flower at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park - 2012
Unlike its relative great lobelia, cardinal flower was not adopted by the Confederate Medical Department as botanical remedy. Nevertheless, it remained an important part of American folk medicine in many regions throughout the 19th century.

It does not appear that anyone today is marketing cardinal flower as a nutritional supplement or herbal remedy, and for good reason; as a member of the Lobelia family, cardinal flower is considered toxic to humans. There appears to be no strong evidence, apart from centuries of tradition, that Lobelia cardinalis actually possesses any medicinal qualities.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Marshmallows and Beetles

This year the marshmallows which I sowed as seeds two years ago have grown gigantic. They are almost too big for their space!

The common marshmallow, Althaea officinalis, is native to North Africa, but has been used by many cultures for millennia, including the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians, all of whom ate the roots for food.  The extract, sap, and pith of the plant have also been used in confections since ancient times.

Today's fluffy white marshmallows that we roast over the campfire do not contain any part of the Althaea officinalis plant, but earlier versions of marshmallow candy did. Sap extracted from the roots was whipped with sugar to create a spongy, chewy treat. Eventually, egg whites and/or gelatin mixed with starches replaced the labor-intensive and expensive process of extracting marshmallow sap, but the name remains.

Marshmallow plants were used as a medicine long before they were a dessert. In fact, their medicinal origins are likely connected to their confectionary use. The plant's extract seems to have a healing effect when applied to irritations and inflammations, especially in mucous membranes. It can form a thick gel that helps coat the throat, esophagus, stomach, etc. It has traditionally been a remedy for sore throat, cough, and the painful irritations of asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory ailments. When sap or other extracts from the plant were mixed with honey to sooth sore throats it created a crude early form of marshmallow confection.

Marshmallow Root
Marshmallow sap has also been used for thousands of years as an effective emollient, helping to treat irritations, rashes, and minor wounds of the skin. It has also been taken internally to inflamed bowels, stomach ulcers, and other digestive ailments, as well as inflammation of the bladder and urinary tract.

Still in use today

In the Civil War Era, marshmallow was mainly taken internally as a tisane. The roots were dried and chopped, then boiled in water. It was used for all of the above purposes, but mostly commonly to sooth sore throats and the irritations of respiratory diseases.

While the plants in the garden are flourishing this year, they are coming under heavy attack by hundreds of Japanese beetles. This is a problem I have not had before in the garden, even though several of the other plants, like hops, are supposed to be a magnet for the pests. Still, they really seem to like the marshmallow.

The Japanese beetle was accidentally introduced to America just over a hundred years ago. Since then, they have been a major pest to agriculture and flower gardens alike. I remember the awful nuisance they made on my father's roses every year when I was growing up.

Despite how many beetles are using the mallows as a breeding ground, they don't seem to be doing any major damage and the plant is taking it in stride. I decided not to try and do anything about the little invaders, as it would be a lot of work or might have unintended consequences, and the plants don't seem to be suffering too much. They are unsightly though, and I hope they might possibly be fewer in number next year.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sesqucentennial: Medicinal Plants on Monocacy National Battlefield for the 150th Anniversary

Last week, on Wednesday, July 9th it was the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy. Many people may never have heard of the battle, but that small, bloody fight outside of Frederick, Maryland is credited as "the battle that saved Washington" from capture by the Confederate Army.

I had the day off and spent my time on the battlefield taking part in the National Park Service's four real-time hikes, led by the park's excellent interpretive rangers. We negotiated heat, humidity, and torrential thunderstorms, but the day was a great success with high attendance.

While I was hiking around all day, I realized I was surrounded by a number of plants that people used as medicines during the Civil War. I thought I would take pictures of a few of them and share them on here!

The first think I noticed were the Queen Anne's Lace and Chicory growing along Araby Church Road.

The hill in the distance formed the right flank of Gen. James Ricketts's Union line. As the line there collapsed under pressure from Gen. William Terry's Virginia it prompted the inevitable retreat of Gen. Lew Wallace's small, outnumbered Union force.

Queen Anne's Lace, also called Carrot Flower for the plant's foliage that resembles a carrot plant, grows on roadsides and open places. It seems to be everywhere this time of year. Likewise, Chicory is seen blooming in abundance anywhere you turn right now. Both were used in 19th century folk medicine.

Carrot Flower, Daucus carota, is native to Europe, but introduced to America centuries ago. A long enough look will suggest it was used for nearly every medicinal purpose imaginable, but American folk medicine made use of it as contraception and an abortificant, help with menstrual problems, a diuretic to purge the urinary system, and cure for indigestion.

Common Chicory, Cichorium intybus, is also native to Europe but long since naturalized in the U.S. It has likewise seen myriad medical applications. It appears to be an effective anthelmintic, expelling intestinal worms and other parasites. It was also commonly used to treat problems of the liver and gall bladder including gall stones and jaundice.

Later, as I took a walk on the Gambrill Mill Trail I noticed a couple more more medicinal plants along the way. The building was used as the main Union field hospital during the Battle of Monocacy. Unfortunately the location did come under indirect Confederate artillery fire during the battle.

Gambrill Mill
In the mill race and all along the trail are growing one of my favorite medicinal plants, Jewelweed. Both Orange and Yellow Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis and Impatiens pallida are native to Maryland and flourish in moist, shady areas like the Gambrill Trail. They have traditionally been used to relieve skin irritations caused by poison ivy, bug bites, and stinging nettles, with the juice being applied topically, sometimes in a poultice.
Jewelweed in the mill race
Someone else's better picture of Jewelweed

Also near the mill are two handsome Sweet Gum trees. Liquidambar styraciflua is a native American tree; it's the culprit behind those "spiky ball" seed pods in the fall. According to Dr. Francis Porcher, writing in 1863, the tree's resin was traditionally used to treat scabies, a tortuously itchy and contagious skin infection caused by mites. He also claims that Native Americans used it to reduce fevers and promote healing in wounds.

In a beautiful park like Monocacy National Battlefield there are certainly a plethora of traditional medicinal plants abounding. These are just a few examples that I stumbled on without really even looking.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Blooming Black-Eyed Susans

It is a beautiful early summer day on the Antietam Battlefield! The birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, and the flowers are in bloom!

Here in the Pry Medicinal Garden, our healthy crop of Black-eyed Susans are in peak bloom and looking gorgeous!

The common Black-eyed Susan, or Rudbeckia hirta, is native to a wide swath of Eastern and Central United States. It is type of daisy and coneflower, alternatively known as Golden Jerusalem, Gloriosa Daisy, or Yellow Ox-Eye Daisy. The Black-eyed Susan is, however closely related to another plant in the Pry Garden, the Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. The two were once listed in the same genus.

The Black-eyed Susan has long been associated with Maryland and was officially designated as the state flower in 1918. The flower's association with Maryland stems not only from its ubiquitous summer blooms in open places across the state, but also for its colorful resemblance to the yellow and black Calvert family crest. Cecil Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore, founded Maryland in 1634, though he never personally set foot there.
The modern Maryland state flag, featuring the yellow and black Calvert crest

Cecil Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore

The root of the Black-eyed Susan plant has been used medicinally for untold centuries, beginning with eastern Native Americans. The plant was not officially adopted by either the Union or Confederate Medical Departments, but it continued in popular use as a folk medicine.

Rudbeckia hirta roots

Black-eyed Susan root is and was most commonly used similarly to its cousin the Purple Coneflower. When ingested, it is believed to boost the body's immune system and reduce they symptoms and duration of common diseases like cold and flu. It is also a mild astringent that might be used to relieve minor swelling and skin irritations. It is also believed to be a mild diuretic, promoting urination and removing water from the body. Some accounts indicate that some native peoples may even have used Black-eyed Susan root as an external treatment for poisonous snakebites, though the efficacy of that seems doubtful.

To most people today, the Black-eyed Susan is simply a beautiful summer flower that can be found growing wild and in flower gardens, especially here in Maryland.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Deadly Predator

In the Pry Garden, I see a myriad of small creatures, or signs that they have been there. Some of these are bad for the garden, some are very good, and others are neutral. I encounter amphibians like toads and salamanders, mammals like rabbits and groundhogs, birds like bluebirds and wrens, and a host of insects and arachnids, many of which I cannot identify.

A Praying Mantis in the Rosemary Bushes of the Pry Garden

A favorite and regular insect that I see in the garden is the Praying Mantis. We have so many at the Pry House that I frequently encounter them while in the garden. I have always had a great affinity for the mantis since I was very young, and to find one was always very exciting.
A Mantis which I Photographed Last Year in the Garden
In doing some reading on the mantis, I have learned that there are many different species, not just around the world, but right here in Maryland. Some are native the United States, but others have been introduced, intentionally or accidentally, from Europe and Asia. Some are quite unusual, but most look fairly similar and I can't quite tell the difference. Therefore, I am not sure which species we have living here in the Pry Garden. (If anyone might know, please comment!) I also learned that the name "Praying Mantis" traditionally applies to just one European species, Mantis religiosa, but we generally apply it to all mantises.

A sandy-colored mantis photographed in California; up close, it looks like an alien creature!

Up close, the mantis really looks like a scary alien creature from movie. That impression is somewhat justified, as it is a super-alert and voracious predator. A praying mantis feeds mostly on large insects, but it will eat just about any creature it can successfully subdue. A mantis has not poisons or stings, but grabs its prey and begins to eat it alive. Mantises will even eat one another, especially when young; the female praying mantis is infamous for the practice of killing and eating her mate, which is true, if exaggerated.

An Asian Species of Mantis Chows Down on an Insect!
Here in the Pry Garden, the praying mantis a mixed blessing, but mostly good. It eats just about every insect it can get its raptorial legs around, which are mostly pests, but could also include beneficial insects like native pollinators. Some people purchase mantis eggs to encourage them as a form of pest management in the garden.

A Shed "Skin" from a Praying Mantis in the Garden

Someone else's picture of a mantis egg case

The mantises that I have photographed here are not yet mature. Praying mantises will hatch as tiny nymphs from eggs when the weather warms in Spring or early Summer. They will undergo several periods of growth and molting of their exoskeletons before reaching adulthood. Most species of adult mantis have wings and the smaller males can usually fly short distances. In the Fall, mantises will mate, lay eggs which will overwinter, and die with the arrival of Winter.

The praying mantis is well-adapted at camouflage, which helps it to snag unsuspecting prey, but also to avoid becoming prey itself to larger animals. Their color, usually green or brown, blends in with their environment of leaves and bark. Some mantises can also slowly change their color over successive moltings. Most mantises will also gently rock back and forth, which may be an attempt to mimic foliage blowing in the wind, but might also be a technique to improve their vision. I have often seen them doing this on the bushes.

I see you! The camouflage is fairly effective in our rosemary bushes.

The praying mantis may be a dangerous creature in the world of insects, but they are totally harmless to humans. The next time you are outside, look closely in the leaves and you just might find this odd-looking critter. Don't be afraid and don't kill them; they are really a good friend to keep you company in the garden.

A friend was hanging out

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

In the Weeds Again

As I said last week, the weeds in the Pry Garden have really exploded lately and I have been working hard to cut them back and keep them at bay. I have to thank Karen Dammann, the wife of the Chairman of our Board of Directors, for spending many hours weeding over the past weekend. Much is left to do, but it is really starting to look pretty again, thanks in large part to Karen's work!

I wrote before that many of the plants that we usually consider common weeds were important medicinal plants in the Civil War Era. When most people find them in their garden they pull them out, but I begin to nurture and cultivate them instead.

Dandelions are such a common yard weed and everyone is so familiar with them that I don't waste any space with them in the garden. Nevertheless, they were used as medicine during the Civil War, both on the home front and in Confederate armies. It was principally used as a diuretic (promoting urination) and also as a mild laxative and a tonic to improve digestion. Modern herbal medicine still uses dandelion root and leaves in each of these capacities, especially as a diuretic. Victorians also used dandelion to treat an array of liver, kidney, and bladder conditions, though its efficacy is dubious. The Confederate Medical Department paid citizens by the pound for collected and dried dandelion root.

Another weed that is sometimes used as a medicine is Common or Great Mullein. It has been used as a medicine since ancient times in Europe, from where the plant originates. Mullein's chief use is in treating pulmonary complaints, like chronic cough, asthma, bronchitis, consumption (tuberculosis), and chest congestion. It might be taken as an herbal tea or inhaled as smoke. Mullein is still popular in modern herbal treatments for cough, asthma, etc. The leaves and/or root could be applied topically in a poultice to treat a variety of conditions including ulcers, skin infections, boils and abscesses, and even tumors. I was surprised when a quick search of current research seemed to indicate that there may be some validity to these topical applications, including the treatment of tumors.

The main plant I planned to talk about this week is Jimsonweed or Jamestown Weed, Datura stramonium. Jimsonweed is a very common agricultural weed in this area and it would grow all over the garden if I didn't control it. It grows to be quite large and I find it somewhat ugly. When broken or pulled out of the ground it has a strong, unpleasant odor, not unlike that of the noxious Ailanthus tree. It blooms during the summer in large purple-white flowers that open at night. Jimsonweed produces golfball-sized seedpods which pop open in the fall. The seedpods are covered in small, sharp spikes giving Jimsonweed the alternative name of "thorn apple."
Jimsonweed is native to the US but has spread throughout most of the temperate world. I have allowed it to flourish in one bed of the garden because it was heavily used as a medicine throughout history, including in the Civil War.

Jimsonweed growing in the Pry Garden

In 1863, Confederate Surgeon Francis Peyre Porcher wrote that Datura is,

... a well-known narcotic and antispasmodic, employed in mania, epilepsy, chorea, tetanus, and palsy... [a doctor] frequently saw maniacs restored to perfect saneness of mind, which they never afterwards lost, by the continued use of the extract of our common stramonium; and by the same means he effectively cured the delirium so often attendant upon childbirth, where every other remedy had proved abortive.
                    - Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, 1863

One of its chief applications was the treatment of asthma by inhalation of smoke, which temporarily paralyzed spasming pulmonary branches of the lungs. As Porcher noted, it was also employed in many conditions involving temporary insanity, muscle spasms, and involuntary movements; it was the drug of choice in treating epilepsy. Datura was also used in the treatment of acute and chronic internal pain, as might result from rheumatism or venereal diseases. Certain compounds found in Jimsonweed are used today to combat symptoms of Parkinson's Disease and other neurological conditions, including drug and alcohol withdrawal. It was also employed in early ophthalmology, as Procher wrote;

Preparations of stramonium applied to the eye, it is well known, diminish sensibility and dilate the pupil. I have seen the extract employed to a large extent in the New York Eye Infirmary, in which institution it has entirely taken the place of belladonna [nightshade] as an application for dilating the pupil.

Jimsonweed is a very powerful but dangerous psychoactive drug. Native American tribes from the Atlantic to the Pacific utilized the plant, especially the seeds, to create visions which might span days and to communicate with deities or the spirit world. When used improperly, the drug can cause hallucinations, delirium, amnesia, rapid heart rate, hyperthermia, and death.

This goes for just about all of the medical subjects I write about on this blog, but especially in this case,

Do Not Try This!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Chicory and Other Weeds

My blog has been on a bit of an unplanned hiatus for the past month or so, but I am returning to posting this week. We have seen a great increase of visitation here at the Pry House lately, and that has kept us quite busy! I am glad to also say that I survived 10 days in Gettysburg for the 150th anniversary of the battle earlier this month! It was a memorable experience, but one I am glad I will not have to repeat for a while!

Gettysburg's Lutheran Theological Seminary opened Schmucker Hall as a new museum on July 1st, the 150th anniversary of its appropriation as a field hospital. It's exhibits feature several artifacts on long term loan from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

If you did not hear it already, while I was at Gettysburg I was a guest on one of my favorite public radio programs, The World, produced by the BBC and PRI. I talked about how Gettysburg was an important moment in the history of emergency medicine and explained how there is a direct link between the battle and the Boston Marathon bombings 150 years later. Check it out here:

Kyle's Interview for The World

The fictitious portrayal of a field hospital in the Gettysburg Cyclorama

Since I was away all that time though, the garden has been filled with weeds! It has been a lot of work just trying to catch up with all of those weeds and get the garden back into some semblance of a presentable appearance. It doesn't help that it has been very hot and humid here lately.

One weed that we are all seeing a lot of right now is Chicory. If you don't know what chicory is, you are undoubtedly already very familiar with it, but just didn't know what it was called. At this time of year we see it growing everywhere from the side of rural farm roads and highways to vacant urban lots. It blooms in distinctive powder blue flowers, sometimes called a Blue Daisy or Blue Dandelion. Many people seem to find it an eyesore, but I have always thought that, at least while in bloom, it's quite pretty.

Common Chicory is actually native to Europe, but has been so common in the United States for two hundred years or more that many people think of it as a native wildflower. Its most iconic use during the Civil War was as a coffee substitute for the Confederacy, which was starved of the genuine article by the Yankee blockade. For such use, the root was harvested, baked, ground and used like coffee grounds. However, while chicory has become the iconic form of Southern ersatz coffee, rye, wheat, corn, and other grains were actually far more popular coffee substitutes within the Confederates. Chicory as a coffee substitute was actually much more common in Europe during the Second World War. People have also used chicory as an animal fodder and as a human food, eating the leafy greens,which are fairly bitter.

What interests me more about chicory is its traditional medicinal use, including during the Civil War. Most substantial, I think, is its quality as an anthelmintic, meaning that it will kill and expel worms and other parasites from the body. Volatile oils in the plant make it a highly effective anti-parasite medicine and for this reason it is still a popular additive to livestock feed.

Chicory was also used to treat a variety of liver and gall bladder ailments, such as jaundice and gall stones; it was believed to stimulate a healthy production of bile. Chicory was also employed as a diuretic (promoting urination) and a laxative. It was included in digestive tonics, under the belief that it stimulates the appetite and helps to cure gastritis and other digestive ailments. It would appear that practitioners of herbal medicine still advocate the use chicory in these capacities today.

I can't say that I have ever experimented with chicory in any of these ways. Nevertheless, I think it changes our understanding and appreciating of those scrubby weeds on the side of the road when we remember how useful and valuable they have been to people not so long ago.