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, 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.