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!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Medicinal Plants at Christmas

I am trying to post regularly to this blog every Tuesday, but since yester day was Christmas, I am posting this a little late. In keeping with the holiday, I am detouring from the Pry Garden for this post to talk a little bit about some of the plants we have come to associate with traditional Christmas celebrations. Many of the familiar evergreens that we might use to deck the halls were also used as medicines during the 1800s.

American Holly, Ilex opaca

Holly has been associated with winter celebrations in Europe since pre-Christian times. It has served as symbol of Christian faith since early medieval times. This has carried over to the United States, where American Holly often stands in for more traditional European varieties.

In the 19th century, holly root was prescribed for a variety of ailments and complaints. It was a common treatment for coughs, colds, and the flu. It was also touted as a treatment for a variety of eye problems, including pain, inflammation, and staphyloma.

Father and Son Cut a Christmas Tree in the Winter Forest
 by Franz Krüger, Germany, Early 19th century

Pine, spruce, and fir trees have been serving as Christmas trees in American homes since before the Civil War. The tradition of decorating evergreens for Christmas seems to have it's earliest origins in late medieval Germany and it was slowly introduced to America by German immigrants in the 1700s. Its adoption by Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert led to the Christmas tree's adoption by mainstream American society in the 1850s.

Evergreen trees that might have served as early American Christmas trees were also fundamental in the production of several medicines popular in the 1860s. Pine tar was used as a treatment for racking coughs and bronchitis, as well as dry, cracked, and irritated skin. Creosote, distilled from pine and other wood tar, was directly applied as an antiseptic to healing wounds, ulcers, psoriasis, and other skin irritations. It was administered internally to treat a host of complaints, especially respiratory problems like tuberculosis and pneumonia, as well as neuralgia, epilepsy, diabetes, and kidney dysfunction.

Balsam Fir, Abies balsamea

Turpentine, distilled from evergreen tree resins, likewise had a multitude of applications in Civil War medicine, some efficacious, some highly dubious. Turpentine might be applied topically to abrasions, wounds, inflammation, and irritations. Internally, it might be prescribed for ailments of the respiratory, pulmonary, digestive, renal, reproductive, and other bodily systems. Turpentine was also long held as an anthelmintic, a drug used to expel worms and other internal parasites.

Harvesting pine resin for turpentine, ca. 1912

The needles of pine and spruce trees can also be boiled into a tea that is very rich in Vitamin C, thus a treatment and preventative for scurvy.

European Mistletoe, Viscum album

Mistletoe is another green plant at the center of traditional American Christmas. It's association with Christmas and the notion that men and women should kiss when passing under it together both seem to derive from British customs. In Britain, mistletoe is the species Viscum album. In the United States, Viscum is not native and Phoradendron serotinum or flavescens, which appears very similar, generally stands in its place.

19th century use of mistletoe as a medicine is sporadic and conflicting. Prescriptions for its use range from the treatment of epilepsy, palsy, and vertigo to circulatory problems, rheumatism, complications in pregnancy, and snoring. There appears to be some evidence that mistletoe is effective in combating high blood pressure and also as a gentle sedative. Mistletoe is also touted as possessing anti-cancer properties, a claim that is not without controversy.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Eggplant, Tomatoes, and Nightshade

Sometimes vegetables very familiar to modern Americans just were not on the dinner table in the 1860s. This is the case with vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. Broccoli as an edible vegetable predates the Roman Empire, but it was not common in the United States until the 20th century. I have no heartache over this, and in the words of President George H. W. Bush, "I do not like broccoli and I have not liked it since I was a little kid." Unfortunately I am not President of the United States, so it is a bit harder for me to escape that sinister green vegetable.

However, when it comes to a tasty treat like eggplant I am sad to leave it out of the garden at the Pry House. Americans did commonly grow eggplant in the 19th century, but strangely enough, Victorians usually cultivated it as an ornamental, rather than as a food source. The reason for this may be that eggplant is a relative of nightshade and it was therefore perceived as poisonous. In fact, the leaves and flowers of eggplant are mildly toxic.

There are some noted exceptions, however. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Andrew Johnson were all great enthusiasts of eggplants, as was the honorary American, the Marquis de Lafayette. Eggplant was Johnson's absolute favorite food. Ordinary Americans, however, were largely unfamiliar with the purple and white fruits as a food.

Presidents from Tennessee seem to love their eggplant!

I have a similar problem with trying to grow tomatoes in the Pry Garden. As another relative of the nightshade plant, early Americans generally avoided tomatoes, or "love apples" as a poisonous plant. Again, they were sometimes grown as ornamentals, but usually not as a food.

Deadly Nightshade, Atropa Belladonna

By the 1860s, however, most Americans were becoming comfortable with eating tomatoes. After a long and determined campaign by a few enlightened souls, white Americans began to accept the tomato as a safe and uniquely tasty garden fruit. The tomato was originally a New World plant, but was not found in English America until its reintroduction by Europeans. The exact history of the tomato's origin's, spread around the globe, and introduction to the dinner table remains fairly murky and often conflicting, but we are at least certain that the fleshy red fruit was on its way up well before the Civil War.

"Red Apples from the New World" - 1563
from Johannes Kentmann's Kräuterbuch (Book of Herbs)

Nevertheless, it's never that easy! The vast majority of the scores and scores of tomato varieties available to the modern gardener have no place in the 1860s. The plump, round, smooth tomato so dear to us today was not developed until the decades after the Civil War. Earlier tomatoes were short, squat, and looked like they were puckered, with deep ridges around their circumference.

Purple Calabash Tomato, very reminiscent of early tomatoes

I am still struggling to find some good varieties of tomatoes which would be appropriate for the Pry Garden. I believe I have found a few and will move forward with procuring them for the spring.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Seed Catalog

The 2013 seed catalog came last week from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Baker Creek has been the Pry Garden's go to source for seeds because it has such a wide selection of old heirloom varieties of vegetables and other garden plants. I have been very distracted lately, poring over the pages and making some selections for next year's garden.

I thought I would share a few of the more interesting items that are offered and some selections for the garden at the Pry House.

Some garden vegetables may seem very straight-forward. A carrot is a carrot, a potato is a potato, and a cucumber is a cucumber. That may not always be the case! We eat many of the same kinds of fruits and vegetables today that Americans enjoyed 150 years ago, but the varieties we are most familiar with today often did not exist during the Civil War. Likewise, some varieties of produce which were very popular in earlier centuries are extinct or very rare today. Sometimes the differences are subtle and we might hardly notice them, but often the difference between an 1860s apple and the Red Delicious you can find at the supermarket are striking.

As an example, the Baker Creek catalog offers over two dozen varieties of true cucumbers, but none of them appear to be correct for a an American Garden in the 1860s. Instead, I may plant burr gherkins, also known as maroon cucumbers. They are not true cucumbers, but are a close relative, also originating in Africa and coming west with enslaved peoples. Though rarely seen today, they have been in the United States for over 200 years and were once a very popular food. Reviews indicated that it heavily producing plant. They are small, spiky, and pretty wild-looking!

Burr Gherkins

Sometimes the heirloom seed catalog offers a wide spectrum of varieties more strange and exotic-looking than anything you will find in the grocery store or the garden store's seed rack. It can be a lot of fun to look at dozens of fruits and vegetables that are so different from what we are probably used to seeing on our own tables. Sadly, many of these fun varieties are not period to the 1860s or are not local to the United States in that time period.

This year's catalog offers 88 varieties of melon, not counting watermelons. Some are fairly wild-looking and I would love to grow them, but they just don't meet the standards of this garden.

Tiger Melon from Ukraine

Rich Sweetness 132 Melon from Russia

Ushiro Uri from Japan

Thankfully not all of the interesting and different-looking melons are beyond my reach. I will likely grow this variety of melon which Baker Creek labels as "Ananas D'Amerique A Chair Verte." It is of French origin, but has been grown in the United States for over 200 years. According to their catalog, it was grown by Thomas Jefferson and has been available commercially in America since 1824. I have never been a fan of melon, but others like it and this will be fun to try growing.

Ananas D'Amerique A Chair Verte Melon

This year I have decided to plant cowpeas in the garden. You might be more familiar with black-eyed peas, a more common variety of cowpea today. The seed catalog offers a number of varieties purported to date from the 1860s and beyond, but I will likely go with the simple Clay Cowpea.

Clay Cowpeas

Several seed companies correctly indicate that this was a common staple of Civil War armies, especially in the Confederacy. I have never grown anything like these before, so I am looking forward to learning how to plant, tend, and harvest these little beans. I am very curious to see how they might taste compared with more familiar black-eyed peas.

More on seed selections next week!!!

Several photos taken from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at rareseeds.com. Check them out!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Milkweed Seeds

I have been doing a bit more seed collecting recently, so I thought I would talk about two plants in the same family that I have collected, one from the garden and one from the wild.

This spring, I added Butterfly Weed to the garden. Sometimes called Pleurisy Root, it is a native perennial plant in Maryland. It is more commonly seen in ornamental gardens for the appeal of its clustered orange flowers that appear in the late summer. As the name suggests, Butterfly Weed can be very attractive to various species of butterflies, including the Monarch.

The root of Butterfly Weed was used commonly by native peoples as a medicine. It was quickly adopted by white settlers and continued to serve medicinally through the 19th century. During the Civil War, the Confederate States Medical Purveyors listed Butterfly Weed as part of it's official pharmacopeia. The confederate government paid civilians to harvest the roots for use in the Southern army.

Butterfly Weed was most commonly used to treat a variety of respiratory/pulmonary ailments, including consumption (tuberculosis), pneumonia, bronchitis, and pleurisy (a painful inflammation of membranes between the lungs and chest wall). It was thought to relieve pain and inflammation and act as an expectorant. Butterfly Weed was also sometimes prescribed as a treatment for a host of unrelated conditions ranging from colds and fevers to rheumatism and venereal diseases. I have no idea if it actually worked.

The Butterfly Weed that I planted this year did not fare terribly, but it did not flourish either. I believe that this is because of soil conditions. This plant prefers to grow in gravely or sandy soils and that is not what I had given it. Perhaps I will replant it in a more appropriate soil come spring. One of the plants did do well enough, however, to produce healthy-looking seeds, which I have collected. I am going to try planting these in the spring to produce enough Butterfly Weed that I can begin harvesting some of the roots for future educational programming.

While visiting a pasture in southern Pennsylvania recently, I collected seeds from a close relative of Butterfly Weed: Common Milkweed. Both plants are members of the genus Asclepias. The genus is named for the Greek god of healing.
Asclepius, holding his snake-entwined staff

Milkweed is also a native perennial plant that is very attractive to Monarchs and other butterflies, but it's appearance is a bit different and less attractive to flower gardeners. Milkweed also likes to grow in gravely or sandy soil.

It's root was used to treat a variety of complaints. Like Butterfly Weed, it was believed efficacious in treating respiratory conditions like asthma and bronchitis, but also indigestion, diarrhea, kidney problems, menstrual cramping, dropsy (edema: swelling caused fluid retention), and other surprising ailments. Once again, I have no idea if there is any merit to these prescriptions.

Both types of seeds will require cold treatment, or stratification, to allow them to germinate when I plant them in the spring. That's another blog post!

It looks like our museum mascot Lacey was playing with my camera while I wasn't looking!