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Keeping history alive with a colonial herb garden

A colonial gardens were not just for food, but also served as spice rack and medicine cabinet. (Photo Credit: sleepyneko via Flickr)

A colonial gardens were not just for food, but also served as spice rack and medicine cabinet. (Photo Credit: sleepyneko via Flickr)

When colonists settled the New World, they brought with them a knowledge of plants, a passion for gardening, and some of their favourite flora – all in the hopes of making a better life.

For early North Americans gardening was not a pastime, it was a question of survival. Gardens provided fresh food during the growing season as well as bounty to put away for winter. But they were so much more.

“Herbs were important as a food flavouring and, of course, for their medicinal value,” says Miles MacDonald, Plant and Animal expert at the Fortress of Louisburg in Cape Breton. “Chives, sage, parsley – all of which are tough to kill – were common for culinary use. On the medicine side, you had lady’s mantle, meadowsweet, elecampane, tansy and comfrey.”

Three hundred years ago, when Île Royale (today’s Cape Breton) was founded, along with a fortress at its capital of Louisbourg, France was a global leader in gardening techniques and design. Naturally, those who settled Louisbourg were accomplished in their growing skills, using processes common in today’s urban gardens, such as composting organic materials, growing in greenhouses and hotbeds, and rotating crops.

Formal French gardens emphasized order and symmetry, which did not always translate well to the New World. (Photo Credit: Christophe Finot via Wikimedia)

Formal French gardens emphasized order and symmetry, which did not translate well to the New World. (Photo Credit: Christophe.Finot via Wikimedia)

But the move to the New World necessitated certain adaptations. In France, for example, four main principles governed garden design: logic, order, discipline and beauty. These were often expressed with geometrical and symmetrical layouts of garden beds, separated by walking paths. Within the beds, attention was paid to the heights and textures of the plants, as well as the contrasting colours of flowers and foliage.

Half a world away, conditions at Louisburg (no doubt to the dismay of settlers) were less than ideal. The growing season was short and wet. Soils were thin and acidic. Land plots were small. Still, they persevered.

Inhabitants of Louisbourg were largely dependent on food imported from France, Quebec, Acadia and New England. However, the need for food production encouraged versatile kitchen gardens, otherwise known as the ‘potager’. Food grown locally was welcomed, particularly during lean winter months. Herbs helped to stave off illness and disease.

In fact, many of the herbs grown three centuries ago for culinary and medicinal purposes, are still in use by herbalists today, largely because they have been shown to be medicinal powerhouses.

Want to be a potager protégé? Keep history alive and plan to include some or all of these plants in your next garden.

Spirea, or meadowsweet, contains salicylic acid and has been used to treat fevers and pain.

Spirea, or meadowsweet, contains salicylic acid and has been used to treat fevers and pain.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is high in Vitamin K, Vitamin C and Vitamin A. It promotes healthy digestion and can also be helpful in reducing inflammation. While it is most commonly used as a garnish to a meal, it can (and should) be eaten in larger quantities, such as in salads or even pestos.

Sage (Salvia) is instantly recognized in many modern savoury dishes, but has many medicinal uses as well. According to the 17th century gardener and diarist, John Evelyn, “Tis a plant, indeed with so many and wonderful properties as that the assiduous use of it is said to render men immortal.” We know now that immortality is, perhaps, a tall order, but sage is commonly used to treat fevers, as a mouthwash, and to reduce a mother’s milk supply at the time of weaning her child. It can also be helpful for sore throats, fevers or excessive sweating, in addition to its delicious smell and taste!

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) not only makes one of the tastiest teas around, but is also helpful for cramps, fevers, anxiety, insomnia, and depression and can work as a mild sedative. In colonial times it was also used in perfumes, thanks to its bright, fresh fragrance.

Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) is high in tannins, contains salicylic acid and has been used to treat fevers, rheumatic pain, and heartburn.

Tansy (Tanacetum L.), which is commonly found growing wild across Cape Breton, would have been very useful as an insect repellent. It is also a vermifuge, which means it kills internal parasites and worms, and also regulates menstrual flow and works as an anti-spasmodic.

Other herbs inspired by colonial gardens include:

  • Thyme (used as a stimulant, anti-spasmodic, respiratory antibiotic, and for culinary purposes)
  • Fennel (used for cooking and for anti-spasmodic action, to treat colic and indigestion, and to stimulate milk flow in breastfeeding mothers)
  • Basil (in addition to its culinary uses, also used to treat nausea, gas pains and reduce fever)
  • Anise (used in perfumes, for flavoring breads and cookies, as a breath freshener and as a digestive aid)
  • Bayberry (the waxy berries, otherwise known as Candleberries, were used to make and scent candles; the leaves were used for culinary purposes)
  • Borage (used to flavour wine and to treat sore throats)
  • Calendula (not only did it have its place in the kitchen, but it nourishes mucous membranes and was used in healing salves)
  • Valerian (used as a sedative and pain reliever)

Additional notes:

Any of these plants can be cultivated in modern gardens.

Several of the plants brought here by the colonists are now found growing wild throughout Cape Breton, including: chives, chicory, elecampane, angelica, and caraway.

A lifelong lover of plants, Amber Tapley is currently studying to become a Certified Herbalist. She aims to open a practice in Cape Breton and is currently available for consultations through Blackbird Healing.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Diane says:

    Very interesting write up Amber, the old home where I grew up has some of these old plants growing wild around it, tansy grew along the front all my childhood..

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