George Washington Estate Herbal Pursuits

The History Behind the Prolific Mt. Vernon Gardens

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Illustration by Gayle Ford

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As I work in my garden in Alexandria, Virginia, I can see sunlight dancing off the waters of Little Hunting Creek and beyond them a few acres of woods that separate me from one of America’s preeminent historic sites: George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.

The Washingtons were people of the land. Washington’s great-grandfather acquired the property, then called Little Hunting Creek Plantation, in 1674—8,000 acres stretching about 10 miles along the Potomac River. When Lawrence, George’s elder half-brother, inherited the plantation, he renamed it Mount Vernon in honor of a British Admiral Vernon, whom he had served under in the 1740s in the Caribbean. George inherited the land when his brother and sister-in-law died.

The land on which my house stands was once part of the Mount Vernon estate, and I sometimes feel that I’m under Washington’s influence, even his instruction. My spade occasionally unearths a hint of history—a piece of handmade iron harness, a shard of pottery with mottled blue and green stripes. I like to imagine that they date from Washington’s time.

Some of the oak trees in my ­wooded neighborhood are nearly 200 years old. A slave graveyard once lay across the street where the land slopes down to a spur of Little Hunting Creek, one of several graveyards on the five working farms into which Washington divided Mount Vernon for easier management. The human remains have been removed to a memorial site on the estate, which comprises about 200 acres today.

George Washington was at heart a farmer. His passion was agriculture, and Mount Vernon was his laboratory and his lifelong love, as many of his writings attest. At Washington’s insistence, his remains and those of his wife, Martha, were interred in the soil of their beloved Mount Vernon.

Washington the Farmer

George Washington kept copious records. His files include planting experiments, a botanical test garden, as well as correspondence with friends and acquaintances in America, France, and England arranging for shipments of non-native species that might thrive in Virginia’s moderate climate. He even noted day-to-day events in the garden, writing in his diary on May 25, 1785: “Had Peas for the (first) time in the season at Dinner.”

Martha is thought to have managed the crops (primarily flowers) in the Upper Garden and the herbs, fruits, and vegetables grown for family use in the Lower Garden. The herbs also furnished medicines to treat the illnesses of the family, slaves, children, and other workers on the estate.

These gardens, as well as prodigious harvests of fish from the Potomac and game from the surrounding forests, provided the bounty for the legendary hospitality at Mount Vernon. Because of the difficulties of travel in those days, guests usually stayed overnight or longer.

The delight George and Martha took in their prolific gardens is reflected in a letter she wrote in 1786 to her niece, who was managing the property during George’s first term as president: “Impress it on the gardener to have everything in his garden that will be necessary in a house keeping way—as vegetables is the best part of our living in the country.” Washington wrote of his joy at returning to Mount Vernon to be greeted by “an Abundance of Everything,” and to his gardener, he wrote in 1793: “Mrs. Washington desires you will direct old Doll (a kitchen servant) to distill a good deal of Rose and Mint Water.”

As Missy Hogan, manager of special events at Mount Vernon, explains: “This wasn’t just a beautiful garden, but a life force.”

Historical research at Mount Vernon has focused on Washington’s profound agricultural commitment. Among his innovations were a handsome stone grist mill and a sixteen-sided treading barn, in which the hooves of horses walking a circuit on the second floor threshed wheat, which fell through slits in the floor for collection below. The restorations are overseen by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which has owned and managed the estate since 1858.

“He was known as the ‘First Farmer of America’,” says Mabel Bishop, vice regent of the Mount Vernon association, “and was consulted by farmers both here and abroad. He was convinced that American farmers must move away from practices that destroyed the land and, in turn, apply only the most progressive techniques.” He wanted Mount Vernon to serve as the model that others might emulate. At Mount Vernon’s annual Garden Days, to be held this year from April 18 to May 3, thousands of visitors buy pots of herbs, flowers, and trees of the type grown by Washington, including cuttings from plants descended from those he planted.

Gardens for Food and ­Pleasure

The two-tiered Lower Garden slopes to the south, permitting maximum exposure to the sun and faster maturing of the many vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Washington enclosed this kitchen garden with brick walls in the early 1760s not only to protect it from deer and other animals, but also, by providing a windbreak and reflected heat, to extend the growing season. English boxwoods planted in 1786 now crowd the entry path to the garden, which Washington filled with herbs and vegetables. Cherry, apple, pear, fig, and other fruit trees are espaliered along the walls and cordoned onto chest-high fences. In Washington’s time, an indentured servant trained in Europe tended this garden and was required to submit weekly written reports.

Originally planted with utilitarian fruit and nut trees, the Upper Garden was transformed by Washington in the mid-1780s into a colorful pleasure garden. The roses and many other flowers also provided flavoring, fragrance, and medicine, as well as visual appeal.

On his return home following the American Revolution, Washington built a greenhouse, or “hot house,” at the northern edge of the Upper Garden. Another of his innovations, it housed nine orange trees, nine lemon trees, oleanders, and a sago palm sent by an admirer from the West Indies. In winter, heat from wood fires rose through flues in the slate floor to keep the air warm for the exotic plants.

The Herbal Record

Few of Washington’s writings deal with the many herbs grown on the estate, but then few records of herb growing exist from that period in American history. Herbs would have grown easily in the mild climate, needing little attention, and their value would have been minuscule compared to that of the large crops that sustained the plantation’s economy.

Mary Thompson, a curator at Mount Vernon, says that another reason for the lack of a written record on herbs was the ambiguity about what was considered an herb and what was a vegetable. One of Martha Washington’s manuscript cookbooks called lettuce and spinach “sweet herbs,” and even green beans, onions, and currants had medicinal as well as culinary uses. Few women kept diaries or other records that might have given clues to the herbs that they raised for cooking or medicine. Because they were often obtained as gifts or trades with family or friends, the receipt of herb plants or seeds would not ordinarily have left a paper trail.

We know from a detailed account of Washington’s last hours before dying, at age sixty-seven, of complications following a cold, that he was given a gargle of vinegar and sage tea. Herbs commonly used by families and routinely prescribed by physicians are described in other records of the time.

Mount Vernon’s research library contains a set of leather-bound books owned by Washington called The Botanical Magazine or, Flower-Garden Displayed: A Work Intended for the Use of such Ladies, Gentlemen, and Gardeners, as wish to become scientifically acquainted with the plants they cultivate, the first volume published in 1793. It is illustrated with hand-colored engravings of herbs and other plants. Washington so valued the books that he gave a set to his foster daughter, Nelly Custis Lewis, on her marriage. The Washingtons also gave the couple Woodlawn Plantation, originally part of Mount Vernon, and sent over some of the slaves who worked in Mount Vernon’s gardens to staff it. The Woodlawn estate has been superbly restored and is operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Nelly’s housekeeping manuscripts from a few years after George Washington’s death suggest which herbs and vegetables might have been grown at Mount Vernon as well as on her own plantation.

The Family Medicine Chest

Here is a sampling of some of the herbs that George and Martha Washington probably grew at Mount Vernon.

Calendula, or pot marigold, was one of the most useful of herbal remedies. The flowers of this annual herb were taken internally in a tea to relieve muscle spasms, stimulate menstruation, and treat vaginal infections. Tea-soaked compresses were applied to wounds, leg ulcers, and hemorrhoids, and the tea was gargled to alleviate mouth ulcers.

English ivy leaves were dried to make a tincture or infusion used to treat chronic colds, cystitis, tinnitus, mild diarrhea, hemorrhoids, and gastritis. Several varieties of this perennial vine grow in the Upper Garden and elsewhere throughout the estate.

Thyme, which contains the antiseptic compound thymol, was used to treat lung infections, stomach complaints, and flatulence. This perennial herb was grown in the Lower Garden.

Garlic, though uncommon in En­glish cooking, is mentioned in a number of Martha Washington’s recipes, including those for porridge, roast mutton, and a large meat pie called Pasty Royall. Martha also used garlic to treat intestinal parasites, which were common among children in this per­iod. Garlic was a universal remedy, used to provoke urination and menstruation as well as to treat flatulence, bites of snakes and spiders, earaches, sores, and lethargy.

Horseradish root was used in making pickles at Mount Vernon and had medical applications as well. Drinking its juice was believed to cure scurvy and kill parasites. The bruised roots served as a counterirritant to ease the pain of sciatica and aching joints. Water distilled from the leaves and root and mixed with sugar might be taken instead to relieve any of these ailments.

Lavender was commonly used in the 1700s for “griefs and pains of the head and brain” such as apoplexy, dropsy, sluggishness, palsies, and fainting. It was also thought to benefit the stomach, liver, and spleen and to help bring on menstruation.

Mint was used to aid digestion and to fight cholera. Martha Washington used distilled mint water to treat colic. A spoonful or two of “spirit of mint” cordial was thought to stop vomiting and expel wind. Mint leaves were used in the kitchen to flavor green peas porridge and after-dinner mint cakes.

Nasturtium leaves were used in salads, and the seeds were used like capers on the Washington family dinner table. A tincture made from the whole plant was used for respiratory and urinary tract infections and applied as an antiseptic to wounds.

Roses were used for decoration, cooking, and medicine at Mount Vernon. Rose water, distilled from the petals, was much used as a flavoring but was also considered effective against diarrhea and gonorrhea and for strengthening the digestive and nervous systems. A decoction of red roses and wine was used to treat headaches and pain in the eyes, ears, throat, and gums, as well as for bathing.

Rhubarb root was dried for use as a remedy for worms and as an ingredient in a cure for cholera. Martha Washington had a recipe for a “medicinal syrup” made from rhubarb and roses. Apparently, rhubarb was not much appreciated for its culinary value until the nineteenth century.

Thomas Brandt is a health-policy consultant and freelance writer who lives and gardens in Alexandria, Virginia.