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, 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.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

New Plants and Planting in the Rain

Last Friday was one of the days that I look forward to all year. Along with April Deitrich and Judy Candela, my coworkers here at the museum, I went to the annual Landis Valley Herb and Garden Faire in Lancaster County, PA. It's a long drive, but the incredible volume and variety of plants for sale at the Landis Valley Museum every Mothers Day Weekend makes it worth the trip.

Though it is so easy to be distracted by all of the beautiful and unusual plants, I was on a mission to acquire new medicinal plants for the Pry Garden. I made a two-page wish list and both April and Judy got their own copy. I was hoping to scratch a few more items off the list than I did, but I came home with a good haul and we all had a great time. It all seemed to be over too quickly!

Here are some pictures from the trip:

heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables

April and Judy!

Plant Sitting! The museum would babysit your plants while you kept shopping!

Even though I did not get as many different plants as I wanted, I still had a lot to plant.

I also had to plant the the seedlings that I have been growing at home since winter.

Tomatoes from seed!
Saturday was our scheduled planting day, but unfortunately the weather did not cooperate. We had rain throughout most of Friday night and Saturday. That kept most of our volunteers away and made the garden paths very muddy. Luckily a few dedicated volunteers did come out to help and we had a two-hour stretch without and rain, and even a little blue sky!

Standing in the mud!

Refreshments for volunteers

For a brief time, it was a beautiful day!

 Thanks to those who came out and helped! It really made an ambitious day possible!

Despite the thick mud, it's not looking too bad!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Clearing, Planting, and Sprouting!

This Saturday, May 11th, we will be having a garden work day from 11AM to 2PM! Come out to the Pry House and help us as we put in many brand new plants, especially different medicinal plants that were used by the Confederate Medical Department during the Civil War! You can make your own green thumbprint on the Pry House Medicinal and Kitchen Garden! Please dress appropriately and bring gloves, and any shovels if you have them.

Several people have already been working very hard in the garden lately, and it really shows! I have to thank David Price, Tom Frezza, Karen Dammann, and everyone else who helped to transform the and clean up the garden while I was out of the state this week! I can't thank them enough!

As this picture from my last post shows, the garden was very overgrown! It was just too much to handle with hands and shovels alone, so we moved ahead into the 20th century for some mechanical assistance!

Thanks to a gas-powered tiller, the garden is looking a million times better! Karen Dammann, the wife of Gordon Dammann, the Chairman of our Board of Directors, spent many hours weeding between the beds and pulling out piles of weeds! I cannot thank her enough for all that hard work!

There is only so much that a machine can do though. I had to spend some time pulling out all of the weeds from the bottom of the new trellises. Still, it was only a fraction of the daunting task that I thought was facing me!

 With the rubbish all cleared, now I can actually make use of the space and begin to plant! I am planting three kinds of beans on the new trellis.

Sowing pole beans in the soil

Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans. These are your average "garden variety" green beans. They are real climbers and produce plentiful  crops of large tasty green beans. They are still a popular variety today,  and while the name has often changed, the Kentucky Wonder  variety has changed little since the mid-1800s.

Painted Lady Runner Beans. Runner Beans are very similar to other common garden beans, but one of the big differences is that they grow in cooler weather. I should have planted these earlier, but I have been too behind in building a trellis and clearing the garden space. Painted Lady beans have been grown since the late 16th century or even earlier!

Clay Cowpeas. These are basically a kind of black-eyed pea. They look just like your common variety, but are quite small. These were once a very common food staple, especially among poorer peoples in the South, including slaves and Confederate soldiers.
Beans aren't the only vegetable in the garden; a number of green plants are starting to fill out the vegetable beds!

Three Varieties of Beets

Mustard Greens

Six Varieties of Leaf Lettuce

Things are looking great in the garden now, but this is only the beginning! This is still so much to be added and completed!

This Saturday, May 11th, we will be having a garden work day from 11AM to 2PM! Come out to the Pry House and help us as we put in many brand new plants, especially different medicinal plants that were used by the Confederate Medical Department during the Civil War! You can make your own green thumbprint on the Pry House Medicinal and Kitchen Garden! Please dress appropriately and bring gloves, and any shovels if you have them.