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 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.


  1. Chicory is the valuable herb which for a long time has won popularity in national medicine.Chicory was also often prescribed by herbalists of recent centuries to cure a whole host of ailments; the herbalist of the middle ages often recommended herbal remedies made from the chicory roots as tonics, as laxatives, and as diuretics.

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