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, 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.

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