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, 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.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Search for Plants - Your Help is needed!

I did not get a chance to post to the blog yesterday because we were so busy here at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum and I was hopping! If you have not yet  come to pay us a visit, it's supposed to be a beautiful weekend coming up!

Don't mind the weeds!!!

The Pry Garden has really expanded this year. We have some new medicinal plants this year that we have never before been able to display at the Pry House. Nevertheless, there are still so many more plants which were used as medicine by Union and Confederate armies, as well as civilians on the home front. I would like to add as many as possible into our exhibit at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum.

Some new additions:

Fringed Bleeding Heart/Cranesbill

Milk Thistle


To expand the collection, I am turning to friends, family, and my other blog followers. Below is a list of the plants which I am most keep to obtain for transplant into the garden. I thought people would enjoy seeing a list of the kinds of things that I am looking for. Many of them are native, most can theoretically be found in the wild in our region.

Indian Tobacco, a species of Lobelia, is native to our region


Those listed in bold are specifically listed by the Confederate Medical Department during the Civil War.

Spreading Dogbane / Fly-Trap Dogbane - Apocynum androsaemifolium
Hemp Dogbane / Indian Hemp / Rheumatism Root - Apocynum cannabinum
Yellow Lady’s Slipper - Cypripedium pubescens
Pipsissewa / Prince’s Pine - Chimaphila umbellata
Hemlock - Conium maculatum
(Black) Henbane / Stinking Nightshade - Hyoscyamus niger
Senega Root - Polygala Senega
Queen’s Delight - Stillingia sylvatica
Lobelia / Indian Tobacco - Lobelia inflata
Burdock - Arctium lappa or minus
Goldenseal - Hydrastis canadensis
Steeplebush or Hardhack - Spiraea tomentosa
American Gentian - Gentiana Catesbaei
American Columbo or Yellow Gentian - Frasera caroliniensis
Flowering Spurge - Euphorbia corollata
Indian Physic or Bowman’s Root - Gillenia trifoliata
Horse Gentian or Feverwort - Triosteum
Virginia Snakeroot - Aristolochia serpentaria
American Centaury / Rosepink - Sabatia angularis
American Wormseed - Dysphania Anthelmintica or Chenopodium ambrosioides
Fleabane - Erigeron
American or Wild Senna - Senna hebecarpa
False or Indian Hellebore - Veratrum viride
American Wintergreen /Teaberry /Checkerberry /Boxberry /Partridgeberry- Gaultheria procumbens
Woody Nightshade /Bittersweet /Bitter Nightshade /Fellenwort - Solanum ducamara
Calamus /Sweet Flag - Acorus calamus
Skunk Cabbage - Symplocarpus foetidus
Sesame Plant - Sesamum indicum
Blue Vervain - Verbena hastata
Agrimony / Agrimonia
Mad-dog Skullcap - Scutellaria lateriflora
Self-heal / All-heal - Prunella vulgaris
Oxalis / Wood Sorrel - Oxalis acetosella
Colt’s Foot - Tussilago farfara
Compass Plant/Flower - Silphium laciniatum
Prairie Dock - Silphium terebinthinaceum
Sweet Everlasting/Rabbit Tobacco - Gnaphalium obtusifolium (Not Life Everlasting, a sedum)
Mugwort/Felon Herb/Chrysanthemum Weed/Wild Wormwood - Artemisia vulgaris
Pilewort/Fireweed - Erechtites hieracifolia
Toothwort/Crinkle Root - Cardamine diphylla
Wahoo - Euonymus atropurpureus
Indian Hellebore is native to the Eastern US and was used commonly by both
Union and Confederate Surgeons.

I can afford to purchase plants from commercial sources, but these have either been too tricky to find, or have proved to be prohibitively expensive. If anyone knows of a good and affordable source for these specimens, please let me know! If you have any of these plants, live near us, and would like to donate some to the Pry Garden, I would be ever so grateful!

Bittersweet/Woody Nightshade - native to Europe and Asia, but is a problematic
 invasive species in North America. Unfortunately for me, I can't find it here!

Please do not go trespassing on private property to find these plants or remove them from the wild if it is illegal to do so!

Goldenseal is a native but endangered species in Maryland.
It is still a very popular medicinal plant.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Most Ancient and Healthful Herb of Valerian

One of the plants which I have been trying to grow from seed, but with very little luck, is Valerian. Thankfully this year I was able to find a healthy plant for sale at the Landis Valley Herb and Garden Faire, so I snatched it up and it is currently in bloom in the Pry Garden.

Valerian Growing in the Pry Garden

Valerian is one of those plants that has been used as medicine from a time before recorded history, right up through the present. Hippocrates prescribed it and it can be picked up in the herbal supplements aisle of the drug store today.

Valerian - Valeriana officinalis is a rugged perennial plant native to Europe and Southwest Asia, especially in the Mediterranean. It flowers in the spring with white or rosy pink flowers. It has been introduced in North America and elsewhere around the world, but is neither very common nor particularly invasive in the wild.

Valerian's usage has not changed substantially from ancient times to the present. It is generally taken today as a mild sedative thought to be efficacious in anxiety, depression, insomnia, and tension headaches or migraines. That has always been its primary usage, but historically it has also been prescribed as an antispasmodic and anticonvulsant, including for epilepsy.

Valerian was a standard item on the U.S. Army Medical Supply Table during the Civil War. Fluid extract of Valerian was listed as an antispasmodic used in epilepsy, hysteria, dyspepsia, spasmodic cough, and neuralgia.

Valerian was included in the U.S. Army Medicine Pannier, a fully stocked wooden medicine chest which was produced and sold by the laboratories of Dr. Edward Robinson Squibb in Brooklyn, NY. Squibb became a primary supplier of drugs for the U.S. Army during the Civil War.

Original Squibb Pannier in the collection of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

The Label inside the lid of the original Squibb Pannier

Detail photo showing Valerian listed as #23 on the Squibb Pannier label

The Confederate States Medical Department valued Valerian just as strongly as their Union counterparts. Nevertheless, the blockade of Southern ports by the U.S. Navy made it nearly impossible to secure so many  supplies for the war effort, among them Valerian and other medicines. Confederate surgeons were often obliged to make due with limited supplies or find more obtainable substitutes.

In the case of Valerian, Confederate Doctors turned toward Yellow Lady's Slipper, Cypripediun pubescens, known by many alternative names, including American Valerian. In 1863, Francis Porcher wrote of the plant, "It is employed by the Indians, and held in high estimation in domestic practice as a sedative and antispasmodic, acting like valerian in alleviating nervous symptoms; said to have proved useful in hysteria, and even in chorea. A Teaspoon of the powder is taken as a dose." In 1862, the Confederate Government was paying one dollar per pound of lady's slipper root, presumably dried.

While the Confederates could not obtain Valerian and switched to the more plentiful lady's slipper, I have found Valerian, but not the lady's slipper.

I am on the hunt for Yellow Lady's Slipper! If you have any leads on this plant, let me know!!!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mustard: Not Just for Your Hot Dog

This week I am going to talk a little bit about a truly versatile plant that grows in the Pry Garden, Mustard. It has an important place in both the garden's medicinal and kitchen aspects as a spice and a green vegetable.

Mustard has been grown by man since ancient times. It figures prominently in a famous parable of the Gospels:

Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. - Matthew 13: 31-32

Most people are familiar with yellow or brown mustard as a condiment on their hot dogs and sandwiches, or an ingredient in their cooking.

This comes for grinding the tiny mustard seeds into powder and mixing it with water, salt, and other ingredients to form the many varieties of condiments available in the store. Mustard was as common and popular during the Civil War as it is today.

Less popular today, mustard greens were once a staple vegetable in the United States, especially in the South. They can be eaten raw or cooked up like collard greens, turnip greens, kale, and other leafy vegetables.

I am normally a big fan of cooked greens, but I was sorely disappointed upon trying these mustard greens to find that I could not abide them. To be fair, I have never really liked mustard in my food and these leaves do taste surprisingly strong of raw mustard. I am sure that some other people around the museum might find them a bit tastier.

 In his definitive 1863 text, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Francis Porcher writes, "The demand for the production of this plant as a local irritant, should induce every planter and farmer to grow it. Enormous quantities are required to supply the armies; besides that, it is largely consumed in every household." Porcher continues to explain that mustard is useful in cooking as well as in its capacity to produce mustard oil, which was valuable in industry, agriculture (feeding livestock), and domestic use (cooking and burning for light). Mustard is very closely related to the canola or rapeseed plant, which was used in the 19th century, just as it is today, to produce canola oil for cooking and industrial applications.

Commercially available mustard plasters from 1906
Almost unheard of in the 21st century, mustard was considered a powerful and commonplace medicine in the 1800's. It's most common household application was in mustard plasters. Mustard seed was ground to a powder, mixed with flour and water or egg, and the paste was applied to a cloth. This was then employed as a poultice on the exposed chest or back as a common treatment for colds, bronchitis, or other lingering respiratory problems. It might also be used as a treatment for rheumatism, a general term for chronic pain and problems with joints and connective tissues. The belief was that mustard would help to stimulate what we today the immune system, as well as alleviate pain.

Commercially available mustard plasters from the early 20th century
For a great illustrated explanation of how mustard plasters were (and apparently still are) applied, check out this blog.

In Dr. Joseph Carson's Materia Medica of 1851, mustard is listed as an important medicine, primarily as a rubefacient, which is a substance that causes redness of the skin by dilating blood vessels and increasing circulation when applied topically. Carson's reasoning seems to be that such application would help to reduce pain and inflammation by improving circulation in the nearby skin, but the correlation is not fully explained. Perhaps this is something of a holdover from the heroic era of medicine, which was based on the humors of the body and included such practices as bleeding and cupping. Carson also lists mustard seed as an effective laxative.

During the Civil War, the Confederate Medial Department listed mustard as an important medicinal plant for which it would pay 75 cents per pound of seeds.