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, November 13, 2012

Seeds and Salamanders

It has been a long time since my last post on this blog, but I am going to be more faithful about keeping things up to date! It is mid-November and the garden is preparing to go dormant for the winter months. I hope that I can find enough subject matter to keep posting regularly during the cold.

It is fall, so many of the plants in the garden are producing seeds which might overwinter and sprout in the spring. I am making an effort to collect some of those seeds and store them for future planting. Seed catalogs and companies were not a large institution in the United States until the late 19th century. Prior to that, most home gardeners collected seeds in their own garden from year to year, or shared seeds and cuttings with neighbors.

One of the advantages to growing heirloom varieties of fruit, vegetables, and other plants is that they will usually produce viable, true seeds to replant the next year. Many modern plants popular in in both vegetable and ornamental gardens will produce a sterile seed, not capable of growing another plant. Even viable seeds from hybrid plants will generally not grow into the same variety of plant which bore them.

Most of the seeds which I have been collecting from the garden are not from vegetables, but the medicinal plants and herbs in the garden. I will take some space to show a few of the seeds I have been working with.

The Toothache Plant is an annual, meaning that it will have to be replanted from seed in the spring.

The seeds are very small. each dried flower head contains scores of seeds.

While many medicinal plants used during the 19th century are now viewed as poisonous, the toothache plant is not. When eaten raw, the leaves and flowers will produce a mild sour, tingling, and numbing sensation in the mouth and throat, making it an effective treatment for toothaches and sore throats. Many Eastern cultures still use the plant in food, both cooked and as a raw green. Here at the Pry House, we have enjoyed tasting the plant and experiencing it's unique effect in the mouth.

White Horehound is another popular 19th century medicinal plant which is still considered safe and edible. Many people still use horehound, usually in lozenges, to relieve sore throats, improve digestion, and reduce inflammation. I also believe that it tastes very pleasant in candies.

Horehound seeds are even smaller than Toothache Plants and very difficult to extract. In frustration, I gathered many of the seed pods to spend time later in extracting the seeds. Horehound is a perennial plant, however, meaning that it will survive the winter and return in the spring without sowing new seeds. These seeds will only be necessary if I wish to grow new plants or the existing ones should have a mishap.

Not all of plants going to seed in the garden were intentionally planted there. Some are volunteers that most gardeners would consider weeds, but because they were used by people in the 1860s, I have left them. Sweet Annie, for example is growing all throughout the garden. It is getting ready to scatter it's tiny seeds (smaller than a pinhead) to winter in the soil.

 I have not found any medicinal use for it in the United States during the Civil War (I am still looking!), but it was used for making wreaths and garlands because of it's unique, strong, sweet scent. I do not care for smell of Sweet Annie, but I seem to be alone in this. The plant is not native to the United States, but it has become an incredibly common weed across the country.

Another great volunteer has been Jimson Weed, also called Datura. Jimson is native to the United States, but has spread across the world. It's spiky egg-shaped pods open to expel scores of seeds.

Jimson Weed was frequently used as a highly effective treatment for asthma, and by native peoples as a quasi-anesthetic, as well as for spiritual practices. Jimson is very powerful and unpleasant hallucinogen that is very dangerous if taken improperly. Modern medicine continues to explore it's potential in treating a wide range of problematic conditions.

Jimson Weed seeds I have collected

Another seemingly obvious source of seeds to save would be the unharvested pumpkins. However, because my Connecticut Field Pumpkins grew alongside two other varieties of squash, I cannot be sure that they did not cross-pollinate. In other words, I cannot be sure that the squash did not interbreed and that these are true Connecticut Field Pumpkin seeds.

 In preparing to remove the rotten pumpkins and throw them away, I discovered several Red-backed salamanders living underneath! I decided to leave the pumpkins in place for the time being, as the salamanders are a very welcome addition to the garden. Not only are they neat to see, but they are native to Maryland and will help to eat garden pests. The above picture shows the lead-backed variant.

Here is better picture that someone else took, showing the red-backed variant, which I also found in the garden, but did not snap a picture.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post. There was a time when I was searching for mid 19th century seed packet design – it now makes sense that something like that wouldn't have come along until later...

    I enjoyed the salamander surprise you discovered under the pumpkin!