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, August 12, 2014

Cardinal Blooms

It is summertime and many plants are blooming, including one of my favorites, the Cardinal Flower. Lobelia cardinalis can be found growing wild as a native plant in this region, but it can also be seen in the Pry House Garden. This time of year it gives bright scarlet blooms that really stand out.

I have stumbled on cardinal flowers growing in the wild several times recently. They usually are a water-loving plant, growing on riverbanks, swamps, and other freshwater wetlands with a little bit of shade.

Cardinal Flower at the Quarry Pond
at Fountain Rock Park in Frederick County, MD - 2014

Cardinal Flower on the bank of the Shenandoah River
at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park - 2012
Perhaps one of the reasons why I like the cardinal flower so much is that I have struggled with it for multiple seasons. I tried growing them from seed, but very little came of that effort. Another year I purchased the plant and seemed to do well, but never flowered and never came back after winter.

This year I planted the cardinal flower in a normal bed of the garden, not particularly wet probably a little too sunny. Nevertheless, it really seems to be doing well. It grew to a good size and shot out a lovely red spike of flowers. I hope that it will continue to do well for seasons to come.

Cardinal Flower in the Pry Garden - 2014

Lobelia cardinalis is part of a family of medicinal plants which are native to a wide swath of North America, including Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata) and Great or Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). They were discovered by Europeans in the early 17th century and exported to Europe for their beauty and perceived medicinal value, but native peoples had been using them for centuries before. According to the USDA:

 The Iroquois had many medicinal uses for cardinal flower. The root was boiled together with the root of Cichorium intybus and the liquid was used to treat fever sores. The mashed roots, stems, leaves, and blossoms were made into a decoction and drank for cramps. The plant was also used as an emetic for an upset stomach from eating something bad. The plant was added to other medicines to give them more strength. The Delaware used an infusion of the roots to treat typhoid. The Meskwaki used this plant as a ceremonial tobacco, throwing it to the winds to ward off a storm. The Pawnee used the roots and flowers of cardinal flower in the composition of a love charm.

Cardinal flower was also employed by some peoples to treat colds, flu, chest congestion, bronchitis, and the respiratory symptoms of other complaints. Writing in 1863, Confederate Surgeon and bontanical medicine expert Dr. Francis Porcher also noted that cardinal flower had been used by native peoples as an anthelmintic, meaning that it expelled parasites from the body.

Cardinal Flower at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park - 2012
Unlike its relative great lobelia, cardinal flower was not adopted by the Confederate Medical Department as botanical remedy. Nevertheless, it remained an important part of American folk medicine in many regions throughout the 19th century.

It does not appear that anyone today is marketing cardinal flower as a nutritional supplement or herbal remedy, and for good reason; as a member of the Lobelia family, cardinal flower is considered toxic to humans. There appears to be no strong evidence, apart from centuries of tradition, that Lobelia cardinalis actually possesses any medicinal qualities.


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