Gunston Hall Plantation in Virginia has a sampler herb garden without the lovely strolling paths found in Colonial Williamsburg. We grow the herbs that graced the 18th Century kitchen garden that once included a large variety of vegetables and flowers. The garden reveals some of the herbs used in cooking, medicine and in household tasks. The garden is composed of two rectangular plots.
Hops are growing up, around and down three sturdy poles.Down below horseradish is growing. In April the horseradish grew beautiful tiny white flowers that tasted a bit like horseradish, but milder. The flowers are gone, and now we're waiting for the hops to bloom. The red fence in the background leads to the kitchen yard.
Southernwood grows on the other side of the hops. People say it smells similar to cedar. It's easy to understand that it was used to keep pests away from the woolen clothes and from crops stored in the attic.
Rue presides on the opposite rectangular bed from the hops. The smell is quite intense and was used to fumigate areas. One caution about rue is to not touch the plant in the sunlight, especially when blooming. It can give you a nasty rash, and you will "rue" the day you did not heed the warning.
Mint heads the other end of the rectangular bed, opposite from rue. It begs to be picked, a small bouquet is better then one leaf, so that the plant spreads out instead of getting leggy. Since the picture the deer heard my invitation, and chomped down more then a few bouquets.
The Herbs Growing in the Garden
(Salty herb, “Middle nature, neither warming or cooling” culinary and medicinal) [Sauer, 2001] Most prized spring vegetable of many Virginians. Jefferson grew it in a special way, “littered (mulched) the plants with tobacco leaves and dressed (fertilized) with manure.” Medicinally asparagus was made into distilled water to help with “gravel stones” (kidney stones) and lumbago. [Hatch, 2012]
(Pungent, warming and drying) Cultivated in Britain since 16th century. Wreaths or crowns were made of bay to bestow honor on heroes and poets. The modern word baccalaureate may come from this practice. Medicinally bay used to be given to people who had taken too many opiate medicines. [Grieves, 1971] Bay was used in cooking to flavor food. Beef was made to taste like “Red Deare” where bay leaves were placed under and above the cooked beef. [Hess, 1981]
(Pungent, warming & drying) “Also called Bergamot or Oswego tea, the citrus flavored leaves were used by the Oswego Indians as a tea. After the colonists refused to import British tea, they used Oswego tea as a substitute.” [Mary Ober] Medicinally Bee Balm helps keeps airways open when there is a cold or cough. [Kress, 2013]
(Pungent, warming and drying) Catnip was and is still used for fevers, colds and restlessness for both adults and children. It was considered the colic herb for centuries and is still used today. [Kress, 2013]
(Bitter/pungent taste, warm and dry in nature) A tea brewed from dried flowers was used to calm nerves and to soothe upset stomach. Sauer’s herbal states, “…staying all manner of pains, for emolliating (moistening), for healing, for opening, and for dispelling windiness and vapors."
"For quartan ague, take one quart of good wine and put it in a new earthenware vessel that can be well sealed. Stand this for one hour over glowing coals, then add half a handful of chamomile flowers. Seal it tightly, but do not let it boil." [Sauer, 2001, p. 91]
Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)
(Pungent, warming & drying)”The mucilaginous juices drawn out of the seeds when soaked in rosewater, then mixed with the water of fennel, will take away inflammation, redness, and pains in the eyes.” Clary Sage was also put in wine to flavor the wine and give warmth to an irritable stomach and cold head. [Sauer, 2001, p. 105]
(Salty (mineral rich), cooling and moistening) Used as a wound herb externally and internally. “Surgeons ought to hold comfrey in high regard, because it is quite useful in treating all sorts of wounds, ruptures, and injuries.” Also known as “Knit Bone,” because it also healed broken bones. [Sauer, 2001, p. 115]
(Sour (flowers), bitter (berries), cooling and drying) The flowers made into a tea encourages the body to sweat during a fever. The berries made an excellent wine and prevented colds and flu. [Sauer, 2001, p. 130]
(Bitter/pungent,warm & dry in nature) "It possesses numerous balsamic components from which it draws its capacity to open, to dissolve, to ease difficult breathing, to stop coughing, to withstand poison, and to strengthen the stomach. A fine electuary (herbal medicine mixed with honey), using, one half pound of honey that is brought up to a boil and then scummed well. This is good for coughs and asthma.” [Sauer, 2001, p 133]
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), beginning to produce its sweet seeds
(Pungent, warming, drying gently, strengthening the stomach) The distilled water is good for the inflammation of the eyes. Fennel leaves were pounded in a mortar with twice its weight in sugar, allowed to sweat for several days in a glass vessel tightly closed up and set in the sun. The syrupy condiment that resulted was taken in nutmeg size doses to help with stomach ailments and to preserve the eyes. Fennel seeds were eaten plain to die out the “windiness o fate belly.” The seeds were also made into comfits that were chewed slowly to dispel heartburn and freshen the breath.”If fennel seed and sage are boiled in milk and sweetened with sugar, and drunk in the morning before breakfast, this is an excellent remedy for coughing and sore throat.” (Sauer, 2001)
(Pungent/bitter, warming and drying) In the early spring the young leaves were used to make a pancake, which was considered a healthy dish for both men and women who possessed a cold nature and were plagued by colic.
[Sauer, 2001, p. 115] Today feverfew is used to prevent or reduce the severity of migraine headaches.[Winston, 2013, p.124]
Hawthorn Tree (Crataegus spp.), starting to grow into a tall tree
(Sour, warming) Helps maintain a healthy heart. [Tilgner, 2009]
(Bitter, cooling and drying) Hops was and is used as a preservative in making beer. The young hops shoots were eaten in a salad, which cleansed the blood. [Sauer, 2001, p. 170] Hops is used today as a sleeping aid and a mild pain killer. [Winston, 2013]
(Bitter, warming & drying)”It loosens tough phlegm in the chest, stills coughs, promotes expectoration.” (coughs) Horehound was combined with sugar in a mortar & pestle and pounded until the herb & sugar were combined well. The mixture was kept in an earthenware container and kept for a year. [Sauer, 2001, p. 171]
(Pungent, hot and dry “very powerfully”) “It is customary to shave or grate the root very small, and to eat this with salt and vinegar with meat or fish… it excites the appetite and promotes digestion.”[Sauer, 2001, p. 172]
(Pungent, warm, dry nature) "Possesses the faculty to thin, to open, to purify, to dissolve, and to strengthen the head, chest,, and stomach.” Brandy was poured over the hyssop, steeped for a week, strained and sweetened with sugar and used for coughs & asthma. [Sauer, 2001, p. 175] It was called a “grateful drink, well adapted to improve tone of a feeble stomach.” [Grieves, 1971, p. 426]
(Aromatic/pungent, warming & drying) “Lavender was used to scent linens and as a moth repellent.” [Mary Ober] Lavender flowers were put in a good quality vinegar and steeped in the sun or over a warm stove. The vinegar was then used for swabbing the face for a fainting spell or headache. [Sauer, 2001, p. 187]
(Aromatic/sour, warming & drying) The leaves were used for a pleasant, lemony tonic tea, which helped with colds and fever. Balm “comforts the heart and driveth away melancholy and sadness.” [Grieves, 1971, p. 76]
(Aromatic, warming, drying) Popular cooking herb used for its pleasant taste. Found helpful for newborn babies when their nose is stopped up. [Sauer, 2001, p. 204]
(Sweet taste, cool and moist) "Mucilaginous, thick, imperceptibly volatile nitrous sap" The French made a confection called Påte de Guimauve, which was used to treat coughs and sooth sore throats."It cools, drys, emolliates, helps with swellings, stills pain and purifies the kidneys and chest.” Poultices were prepared from marshmallow roots, leaves and chamomile flowers, which were boiled in milk to soften hard wounds and swellings. [Sauer, 2001, p. 206]
(Pungent, warm and dry in nature but cools as well) “An early arrival in the colonies, it was prescribed for stomach complaints. It also seasoned food and flavored beverages.” [Mary Ober] “Stops colic, open blockages, and warms the stomach.” [Sauer, 2001, p. 213]
(Sour, cooling and drying) Cools the throat and glands and prevents inflammation. Water distilled from unripe berries was used as an gargle for a swollen throat. [Sauer, 2001, p. 220]
(Sour/salty, cooling and drying) “The leaves were boiled in milk and laid as a warm poultice over the wound,” which softens and stops the pain. [Sauer, 2001, p. 159] Greek doctor in the Roman Army (60 AD) used the leaves for candle wicks, the flowers to dye the hair yellow; and the infused leaves to make a tea for old coughs. [Dioscorides, 1968]
(Pungent, warming & drying) “In the 18th Century as well as today it was used as an insect repellent, particularly against fleas.” [Mary Ober] “When someone must drink impure water, put pennyroyal into it. It can then be drunk without harm.” [Sauer, 2001, p. 243]
(Salty, cool & moist) All Plantains are good wound-herbs, for wounds and sores, internal and external.—[Culpeper, 2007, p. 145] Plantain is found in the grass and grows like a weed. “If the leaves of plantain are picked fresh and rubbed a little until they are bruised, then laid as a poultice over the place inflamed by burning nettle, this will stop the burning immediately.” [Sauer, 2001, p. 247] Also good for bee stings and insect bites.
(Aromatic, warming, drying) “One of the first herbs brought to the colonies, it was a favorite medicinal and culinary herb.” [Mary Ober] “During times of contagion and pestilence, dried rosemary leaves and flowers may be used as a fumigant.” It was thought to promote memory, because it opened blockages of the brain. [Sauer, 2001, p. 263] Present studies have proven this to be so. [Winston, 2013
(Bitter, warming, drying) “Its strong odor made it useful as an insect repellent.” [Mary Ober] “It possesses the virtue of withstanding all poison, of protecting against pestilence and all malignant illnesses.” Dried rue was burned to fumigate animal stalls when a dead sheep was found in the stalls. [Sauer, 2001, p. 265] Rue is not used very much today medicinally.
(Pungent, warming & drying) Sage “has the capacity to resist all corruptions, to cleanse, to gently draw together, and to quicken the vital spirits.” [Sauer, 2001, p. 271] Sage is used today as a powerful antioxidant and antibacterial agent. [Winston, 2013]
(Salty, rich in minerals, cools and dissolves), “Not surpassed as a vulnerary, for it heals gently and eases all manner of injury. Removes inflammations as well as to cleanse and heal.” Called the "sore throat" herb. [Sauer, 2001, p. 263]
Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)
(Bitter, Warming and drying) Bouncing Bet, Latherwort, Fuller’s Herb and Bruisewort. [Grieves, 1971, p. 748] Culpeper states that "Bruised and agitated with water, it raises a lather like soap, which washes greasy spots out of clothes.” The root boiled gently helps itchy skin. [Culpeper, 2007, p. 175] Soapwort contains a large amount of saponins, which probably is why its name is “Saponaria.” In Latin “sapo” means soap, which acts as an emulsifier, allowing oil to mix with water. Its roots were used as a country soap substitute. [Mills, 1991, p. 305] Plants that contain saponins protect the plant from insects, fungal infestations and predators. [Ganora, 2009, p. 142] Medicinally soapwort was also used for coughs and if more was taken could cause people to throw-up. [Wood, 2008, p. 462]
(Bitter, warming, drying) The odor is very similar to cedar. Southernwood was grown near the house to keep copperhead snakes from coming near the house. Medicinally southernwood was used for poisonous bites from spiders and scorpions. The root was pounded in a mortar and added to white wine to kill worms in the stomach. Dried leaves were slowly burned over coals, and the smoke cleared a blocked nose. Branches of southern wood was strewn around the grain stored in the attic to keep the vermin away.
(Pungent, warming & drying) The taste was described as a “domineering relish” when used in a salad or in type of omelet with “spinach, green corn, violet, and Primrose Leaves” as a dish for spring. Tansy was also drunk in wine to kill worms and expel them.[Sauer, 2001, p. 319]
(Pungent, warm and dry in nature) “If a handful of thyme is boiled in a quart of white wine and drunk in the morning before breakfast, this will benefit those who suffer from difficult breathing and who have a large quantity of phlegm upon the chest, giving rise to constant wheezing and coughing.” [Sauer, 2001, p. 324]
(Acrid smell and burning taste) Used as a wash (insect repellent or effective against plant diseases). Tobacco was soaked in water to make an effective insecticide spray. It was also made into a dust to put on vegetables to control harmful insects. Medicinally it was used as a poultice on wounds.[Hatch, 2012]
(Salty, cool & moist) Essential to any well appointed kitchen garden. "Virtues of cooling, mollifying, gently, purging, loosening, and opening.” People gathered the flowers and leaves in the early spring morning before the dew dried in the sun. They made Syrup of Violets, infused tea and ointments for topical wounds. [Sauer, 2001, p 317]
(Pungent, warm and dry in nature) “It was used to aid digestion and to stimulate the appetite.” (Mary Ober) It was the spice of the poor. [Sauer, 2001, p. 276]
(Bitter, warming & drying) “An infusion was used to expel worms and to reduce fevers.” (Mary Ober) Wormwood was used to fumigate the stables when the cattle were sick and dying. Used to promote an appetite and prevent fevers. [Sauer, 2001, p. 360]
(Bitter, pungent, cooling and drying) Commonly found in fields. Its use goes back to ancient times. Stops all manner of bleeding, and cleanses and heals both external and internal injuries. “Yarrow is one of the foremost vulnerary herbs, for which it is used an an inexpensive wound potion.” [Sauer, 2001, p. 361]
As I encounter interesting plants and learn about their properties, I wonder what herbs the root doctors and herbal healers would have used. These folks would have been in the lower class with little money to spend at the apothecary. George Mason’s enslaved Nelle would qualify as one of those folks. As a midwife she knew the medicinal properties of many plants that may have grown in her garden, in the fields as well as the woods—the pathways where she walked and foraged. The following are some of the plants she may have used to help her people.
Solomon Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) Polygonatum biflorum)
Solomon Seal refers to the flat round scars on the rootstock when the stem dies off from the root stem each fall. The plant is in the lily family and is related and looks similar to the Lily of the Valley. Both contain the glycoside convallarin, which is similar to Digitalis. While Lily of the Valley contain a high content, Solomon Seal only contains a trace of the glycoside. (Wood 1997)
Solomon Seal is woodland’s plant grown all over the world. The species, Polygonatum biflorum is native to North America, where the American Indians used the roots as food due to its high content in starch. They also used the roots for muscular and skeletal problems. (Wood 1997) It was known in the ancient world, found in Dioscorides Herbal, a Greek doctor in the Roman Army. He wrote, "But it hath a white root soft, long, with many joints, thick, strong scented, having ye thickness of a finger, being good when it is laid on for wounds..." (1968)
1600’s herbalist, Gerard suggests… The roots of Solomon’s Seal, stamped while it is fresh and greene and applied, taketh away in one night or two at the most, any bruise, blacke or blew spots gotten by fals or women's wilfulness in stumbling upin their hastie husband's fists, or such like.(Grieve 1971)
18th Century Sauer’s herbal suggests using the root with mustard for painful limbs. (Sauer 2001) In Every Man his own Doctor, it is suggested to apply fresh cow dung as a poultice on a rupture. Later a poultice made from the roots of Swamp-Lillies and Sumac Berries boiled and “beat well together” were laid upon the wound. Are swamp lilies the same as Solomon Seal?(1734)
Solomon Seal has become a good friend of mine. I grind up the dried roots or rhizomes in a blender, add four times its weight in olive oil, pour into a glass jar, and heat the whole mixture in a large container of water. The water is heated to a constant temperature of 135º with my portable Sous Vide, which attaches to the container of water. The process takes around 5-8 hours. Once complete the mixture is strained and placed in a glass jar. Modern herbalists are fond of Solomon Seal, because it helps with the adjustment of tension on ligaments and tendons. It can also be used as an anti-inflammatory internally as well as externally. It also heals and repairs connective tissue.(Horne 2016) For me it’s a great remedy for stiff fingers.
Nelle would have dug up a part of the rhizome, making sure there was enough left to keep the plant growing. After drying the root, it would be grounded into a powder using a mortar with a pestle. Some melted animal fat would be added to the powder and put into a glass or heatproof container and placed over some coals or in the hot sun for 8-14 days. (Sauer 2001) Later Nelle would press and strain the fat through a cloth and store the precious healing fat into a well-sealed glass or vessel, ready to heal her community.
(1734). Every Man his own Doctor, or The Poor planter's Physician, a facsimile. Printing and Post Office of Colonial Williamsburg. C. Williamsburg. Williamsburg, VA, Colonial Williamsburg.
(1968). The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. London and New York, Hafner Publishing Company.
Grieve, M. (1971). A Modern Herbal, Volume II. New York, Dover Publications, Inc.
Horne, T. E. a. S. (2016). "The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, A Medicine Making Guide." 362.
Sauer, C. (2001). Sauer's Herbal Cures, America's First Book of Botanic Healing 1762-1778. New York, Routledge.
Wood, M. (1997). The Book of Herbal Wisdom. Berkeley, California, North Atlantic Books.