12 Herbs for the Colonial Garden

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Salvia viridis, commonly known as wild clary, blooms at the Lewis House Garden in Colonial Williamsburg.

Photo courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; http://www.history.org/

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• Visual Plant Guide: Grow These Herbs In Your Colonial Garden

The Colonial garden served as the apothecary, perfumery and spice rack for the average household. Gardens graced both the farmyard and the city home. The first Colonial herb gardens were primarily kitchen gardens planted with herbs, fruits, flowers and vegetables. Later, as the colonists’ wealth increased, separate gardens were sometimes added to grow only flowers for pleasure, such as Thomas Jefferson’s flower walk at Monticello or the formal beds at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home.

Herbs for Health and Wealth

Herbs served many purposes. In an age when meat was the primary fare, herbs enlivened meals and provided added nutrition. The plants also brightened wardrobes. According to Laura Viancour, Colonial Williamsburg’s manager of garden programs, tansy, parsley, madder, walnut and bayberry were just a few of the many plants used to create dyes that would change last year’s frock into this year’s fashion for the frugal Colonial woman.

Meet the Colonial Garden

In their book Dooryard Garden: Colonial Herbs, New England Herb Society of America members Jane O’Sullivan and Rhonda Haavisto write that most New England colonial gardeners situated their gardens on a southern exposure to take advantage of the warmth and full sunlight, both essential to raising healthy herbs. Fences encircled gardens to keep livestock and animals away from precious plants. What would you find growing in the Colonial herb garden? According to Viancour, the following five herbs were found in the average Colonial garden. These multitasking herbs will work just as hard in your home as they did in the Colonial home, making them useful and beautiful additions to your garden.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) garnishes many a restaurant plate today, but in Colonial times, cooks seasoned food with parsley and prized the herb as a health tonic. Viancour also believes parsley was used as a dye, producing a green color. A little parsley goes a long way, so for most modern home gardens, one plant provides sufficient fresh parsley to enjoy in culinary dishes as well as for drying and storing.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) enhances the flavor of game meats and stews, two staples of the era.  Sage was also used historically as a medicinal herb. “Sage has known antimicrobial properties and it is anti-inflammatory,” says Keri Marshall, N.D., medical director at Gaia Herbs. Marshall says a controlled clinical study using a placebo, double-blind methodology indicated a commercial throat spray made with sage was effective in treating acute viral pharyngitis, thus giving an intriguing glimpse into research that backs up Colonial belief.

Today, sage is grown more for its culinary and ornamental use. It is not recommended that home gardeners harvest and use sage for medicinal purposes. To grow sage for ornamental or culinary use, you’ll need bright, full light and well-drained soil. Harvest leaves sparingly the first year for a bumper crop the second.

(Click here to view a picture of sage in the Colonial Williamsburg gardens.) 

(Click here to view a picture of wild clary in the Colonial Williamsburg gardens.) 

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) provided a tasty accent to lamb, game, and stew dishes and was grown as a culinary herb. As the herb of remembrance, rosemary was added to wedding cakes or puddings. Rosemary needs full sun and warm temperatures. It prefers well-drained, alkaline soil. In northern climates, remove rosemary plants from the garden, replant in pots, and keep indoors until all danger of frost is past to keep snow and ice from killing rosemary plants in the wintertime.

(Click here to view a picture of rosemary in the Colonial Williamsburg gardens.) 

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), as well as lemon thyme, adorned the Colonial garden. Thyme flavored foods and added another herb to the Colonial family’s medicine chest.

Thyme requires sandy, dry soil and can be tucked among rocks and in spots in the garden in which few other plants flourish. Give it full sun and tend it carefully, and soon thyme will cover the area.

(Click here to view a picture of lemon thyme in the Colonial Williamsburg gardens.) 

Lavender. In an age when strong and unpleasant odors were common, sweetly scented herbs were prized. Lavender (Lavandula spp.) was often used to scent clothing. Dried lavender would be tucked among stored clothes to refresh them by infusing the garments with their scent. To grow lavender in the home garden today, start plants from seeds or cuttings, or purchase plants at your local nursery or garden center. Lavender needs full sun and well-drained soil. It’s easy to dry and the dried herb may be used in sachets or potpourri.

(Click here to view a picture of Spanish lavender in the Colonial Williamsburg gardens.) 

Other Useful Herbs

Bee balm (Monarda didyma) also played an important part in Colonial history, serving as a tea substitute after the Boston Tea Party, when black tea imported from England was difficult or impossible to obtain. Bee balm is medicinal, too, since an active ingredient, thymol, also found in thyme, offers antibacterial and antimicrobial benefits and is added to many modern commercial mouthwash preparations.

Other herbs served dual purposes in the Colonial household, too. Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) was grown for its pleasing scent and yellow hue for dying.

(Click here to view a picture of tansy in the Colonial Williamsburg gardens.) 

Mint (Mentha ×piperita) was grown for its refreshing scent and culinary purposes; mint tea remains a popular herbal beverage today. The humble woodland violet (Viola odorata) not only graced the garden with cheerful flowers, it added a sweet scent to water used for washing. Kathleen Halloran, one of The Herb Companion’s contributing editors, outlines how to create your own Colonial garden. Halloran adds wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) to the list of Colonial favorites. Wormwood is a perennial herb that is perfect for the garden—it can produce a mass of silvery-gray aromatic foliage, which makes a great background against which to show off other flowers in the garden. Feverfew, the seeds of which would have been brought over on the boat from the Old World, has knee-high, cheerful perennial flowers that are the source of a potent traditional headache remedy. Flowering yarrow found its way into Colonial gardens for its usefulness in treating wounds. 

Using Herbs Today

Check out our coverage of Colonial Williamsburg on Page 52 and our plans for your own Colonial garden on Page 48 for inspiration and ideas. You can also visit Mount Vernon or re-created gardens throughout New England. As far as using Colonial herbs, keep in mind that medicinal herbs must be used with care and preferably under the guidance of a naturopathic doctor or herbalist. It’s best to use a standardized product from a reputable company rather than harvesting your own backyard herbs, which may vary in quality and strength and cause potential harm. Be sure to tell your doctor if you use any herbal extracts, since some may interact with prescription medications or cause potential side effects. The herbs found in the gardens of Colonial America would be equally at home in your backyard today.

Jeanne Grunert is the author of Get Your Hands Dirty: A Beginner’s Guide to Gardening (Lulu Enterprises, 2010).