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 29, 2014

Marshmallows and Beetles

This year the marshmallows which I sowed as seeds two years ago have grown gigantic. They are almost too big for their space!

The common marshmallow, Althaea officinalis, is native to North Africa, but has been used by many cultures for millennia, including the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians, all of whom ate the roots for food.  The extract, sap, and pith of the plant have also been used in confections since ancient times.

Today's fluffy white marshmallows that we roast over the campfire do not contain any part of the Althaea officinalis plant, but earlier versions of marshmallow candy did. Sap extracted from the roots was whipped with sugar to create a spongy, chewy treat. Eventually, egg whites and/or gelatin mixed with starches replaced the labor-intensive and expensive process of extracting marshmallow sap, but the name remains.

Marshmallow plants were used as a medicine long before they were a dessert. In fact, their medicinal origins are likely connected to their confectionary use. The plant's extract seems to have a healing effect when applied to irritations and inflammations, especially in mucous membranes. It can form a thick gel that helps coat the throat, esophagus, stomach, etc. It has traditionally been a remedy for sore throat, cough, and the painful irritations of asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory ailments. When sap or other extracts from the plant were mixed with honey to sooth sore throats it created a crude early form of marshmallow confection.

Marshmallow Root
Marshmallow sap has also been used for thousands of years as an effective emollient, helping to treat irritations, rashes, and minor wounds of the skin. It has also been taken internally to inflamed bowels, stomach ulcers, and other digestive ailments, as well as inflammation of the bladder and urinary tract.

Still in use today

In the Civil War Era, marshmallow was mainly taken internally as a tisane. The roots were dried and chopped, then boiled in water. It was used for all of the above purposes, but mostly commonly to sooth sore throats and the irritations of respiratory diseases.

While the plants in the garden are flourishing this year, they are coming under heavy attack by hundreds of Japanese beetles. This is a problem I have not had before in the garden, even though several of the other plants, like hops, are supposed to be a magnet for the pests. Still, they really seem to like the marshmallow.

The Japanese beetle was accidentally introduced to America just over a hundred years ago. Since then, they have been a major pest to agriculture and flower gardens alike. I remember the awful nuisance they made on my father's roses every year when I was growing up.

Despite how many beetles are using the mallows as a breeding ground, they don't seem to be doing any major damage and the plant is taking it in stride. I decided not to try and do anything about the little invaders, as it would be a lot of work or might have unintended consequences, and the plants don't seem to be suffering too much. They are unsightly though, and I hope they might possibly be fewer in number next year.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sesqucentennial: Medicinal Plants on Monocacy National Battlefield for the 150th Anniversary

Last week, on Wednesday, July 9th it was the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy. Many people may never have heard of the battle, but that small, bloody fight outside of Frederick, Maryland is credited as "the battle that saved Washington" from capture by the Confederate Army.

I had the day off and spent my time on the battlefield taking part in the National Park Service's four real-time hikes, led by the park's excellent interpretive rangers. We negotiated heat, humidity, and torrential thunderstorms, but the day was a great success with high attendance.

While I was hiking around all day, I realized I was surrounded by a number of plants that people used as medicines during the Civil War. I thought I would take pictures of a few of them and share them on here!

The first think I noticed were the Queen Anne's Lace and Chicory growing along Araby Church Road.

The hill in the distance formed the right flank of Gen. James Ricketts's Union line. As the line there collapsed under pressure from Gen. William Terry's Virginia it prompted the inevitable retreat of Gen. Lew Wallace's small, outnumbered Union force.

Queen Anne's Lace, also called Carrot Flower for the plant's foliage that resembles a carrot plant, grows on roadsides and open places. It seems to be everywhere this time of year. Likewise, Chicory is seen blooming in abundance anywhere you turn right now. Both were used in 19th century folk medicine.

Carrot Flower, Daucus carota, is native to Europe, but introduced to America centuries ago. A long enough look will suggest it was used for nearly every medicinal purpose imaginable, but American folk medicine made use of it as contraception and an abortificant, help with menstrual problems, a diuretic to purge the urinary system, and cure for indigestion.

Common Chicory, Cichorium intybus, is also native to Europe but long since naturalized in the U.S. It has likewise seen myriad medical applications. It appears to be an effective anthelmintic, expelling intestinal worms and other parasites. It was also commonly used to treat problems of the liver and gall bladder including gall stones and jaundice.

Later, as I took a walk on the Gambrill Mill Trail I noticed a couple more more medicinal plants along the way. The building was used as the main Union field hospital during the Battle of Monocacy. Unfortunately the location did come under indirect Confederate artillery fire during the battle.

Gambrill Mill
In the mill race and all along the trail are growing one of my favorite medicinal plants, Jewelweed. Both Orange and Yellow Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis and Impatiens pallida are native to Maryland and flourish in moist, shady areas like the Gambrill Trail. They have traditionally been used to relieve skin irritations caused by poison ivy, bug bites, and stinging nettles, with the juice being applied topically, sometimes in a poultice.
Jewelweed in the mill race
Someone else's better picture of Jewelweed

Also near the mill are two handsome Sweet Gum trees. Liquidambar styraciflua is a native American tree; it's the culprit behind those "spiky ball" seed pods in the fall. According to Dr. Francis Porcher, writing in 1863, the tree's resin was traditionally used to treat scabies, a tortuously itchy and contagious skin infection caused by mites. He also claims that Native Americans used it to reduce fevers and promote healing in wounds.

In a beautiful park like Monocacy National Battlefield there are certainly a plethora of traditional medicinal plants abounding. These are just a few examples that I stumbled on without really even looking.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Blooming Black-Eyed Susans

It is a beautiful early summer day on the Antietam Battlefield! The birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, and the flowers are in bloom!

Here in the Pry Medicinal Garden, our healthy crop of Black-eyed Susans are in peak bloom and looking gorgeous!

The common Black-eyed Susan, or Rudbeckia hirta, is native to a wide swath of Eastern and Central United States. It is type of daisy and coneflower, alternatively known as Golden Jerusalem, Gloriosa Daisy, or Yellow Ox-Eye Daisy. The Black-eyed Susan is, however closely related to another plant in the Pry Garden, the Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. The two were once listed in the same genus.

The Black-eyed Susan has long been associated with Maryland and was officially designated as the state flower in 1918. The flower's association with Maryland stems not only from its ubiquitous summer blooms in open places across the state, but also for its colorful resemblance to the yellow and black Calvert family crest. Cecil Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore, founded Maryland in 1634, though he never personally set foot there.
The modern Maryland state flag, featuring the yellow and black Calvert crest

Cecil Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore

The root of the Black-eyed Susan plant has been used medicinally for untold centuries, beginning with eastern Native Americans. The plant was not officially adopted by either the Union or Confederate Medical Departments, but it continued in popular use as a folk medicine.

Rudbeckia hirta roots

Black-eyed Susan root is and was most commonly used similarly to its cousin the Purple Coneflower. When ingested, it is believed to boost the body's immune system and reduce they symptoms and duration of common diseases like cold and flu. It is also a mild astringent that might be used to relieve minor swelling and skin irritations. It is also believed to be a mild diuretic, promoting urination and removing water from the body. Some accounts indicate that some native peoples may even have used Black-eyed Susan root as an external treatment for poisonous snakebites, though the efficacy of that seems doubtful.

To most people today, the Black-eyed Susan is simply a beautiful summer flower that can be found growing wild and in flower gardens, especially here in Maryland.