Mother Earth Living

Featured Garden: Colonial Williamsburg

By Letitia L. Star
December/January 2011

The Colonial Garden and Nursery features herbs and rare heirloom vegetables, roses and fruits.
Photo courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


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

There’s much to delight the herb lover visiting the historic gardens of Colonial Williamsburg, located in Williamsburg, Virginia, just 150 miles south of Washington, D.C. A former capital of the English Colonies, Colonial Williamsburg was key in our nation’s early history. In the historic area, you’ll be intrigued by the authentic Colonial gardens and herbs planted alongside restored 18th-century homes and businesses. Herbs brought from England and other European countries were used in cooking, cleaning, medicines, dyes, cosmetics and insecticides. Step into the John Blair House garden (see an image on Page 46) and you’ll discover the colors and fragrances of thriving historic herbs and flowers of Colonial America. Indeed a great lover of gardening, John Blair, Sr. resided here in the 1700s. The John Blair House garden is one of 100 historic gardens covering 90 acres in Colonial Williamsburg. The largest living history museum in the United States, the area comes alive with costumed interpreters.

“The herbs in this garden were grown mostly for their fragrances—both cosmetic and insecticidal,” says Laura Viancour, Colonial Williamsburg’s manager of garden programs. Lavender-scented dusting powder was used for fashionable wigs, for example.

You’ll also discover Colonial herb treasures thriving in:

The Governor’s Palace: The sumptuous complex of gardens, which resembled an English country estate, included a kitchen garden. Herbs played an important culinary role at the 18th- century table. Viancour observes that horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) was cultivated as a digestive aid for consuming meat. Vibrant dried yellow calendula (Calendula officinalis) petals were used to color butter and cheese, and to thicken stews.

Wetherburn’s Tavern: The kitchen garden included tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), which was rubbed on furniture to keep it clean and repel insects.

More historic herb gardening: The Colonial Garden and Nursery, the Benjamin Powell House, the James Geddy House, the George Reid House and the George Wythe House. Also visit the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary to learn about 18th-century herbal medicine.

Geometric Gardens

“The four-square garden that was used in Early America was aesthetically pleasing but also functional,” Viancour says. “The biggest lesson from these historic gardens is how to take big spaces and break them up into smaller gardens. Herb cultivation doesn’t require a big space.”

To bring Colonial America into your own herb garden, consider these unusual herbs grown in Colonial Williamsburg.

Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita): “This is among my favorite herbs because the willow-shaped leaves are so fragrant,” Viancour says. In the 18th century, costmary flavored ale and was believed to repel insects.

Clary sage (Salvia sclarea): “This biennial has big fuzzy leaves the first year and pretty flower spike blooms in the second,” Viancour says. “They made clary fritters by dipping the leaves in batter and frying them.”

Bedstraw (Galium verum): “This makes an excellent ground cover,” she says. Colonists added bedstraw to mattress stuffing.

Colonial Herbal Scents

“The Colonists valued herbs for the aromatic properties and used them to scent perfumes, pomades, water, vinegar and ammonia,” Viancour says.

Colonial sweet bath. This 18th-century bathing ritual featured herbal extracts of lavender, rosemary, marjoram, jasmine, juniper and more. Also included were flowers and lemon essence.

Colonial sweet bags and potpourri. “Recipes included roses, sweet marjoram, lavender, rosemary, pinks, mint, myrtle, angelica root and orris root,” Viancour says.

Colonial perfume. “Orris root also was an ingredient in a 1758 recipe for burning perfume,” she says. “Steeped in rosewater, sliced orris root was beaten, mixed with several ingredients and then dried.”

Colonial “indoor air fresheners.” Lavender, southernwood and wormwood were strewn about on the floor, so when stepped on their scents and insect-repelling properties would be released. 

African Herbal Tradition

Approximately half the population in 18th-century Colonial Williamsburg was comprised of African-descent slaves, who tended wealthier Virginians’ gardens, as well as their own kitchen gardens in the slave quarters. Herbs were part of African healing traditions to inspire health, wealth, luck and happiness. These wellness ablutions also included other plants, roots, trees, minerals and natural waters.

At the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, the 19th-Century Root and Herbal Spa Experience re-creates the African wellness traditions with a strengthening full-body massage using lemongrass and gingerroot massage oil. Also included is a unique body exfoliation with maize and various herbal powders such as carrot, honey, rose hip powder, rosemary, lavender and ginger. The same herbal blend is added to a comforting bath. The spa’s signature service incorporates another African healing tradition—shea butter, otherwise known as “African Gold.”

These African-inspired treatments were carefully researched by Sylvia Sepielli, a spa visionary, in coordination with documents found in Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library and information provided by Colonial Williamsburg’s team of researchers and historians.

More Colonial Herbs

You can cultivate American history right in your own herb bed. For beginner gardeners, Laura Viancour, Colonial Williamsburg’s manager of garden programs, recommends nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and chives (Allium schoenoprasum).

“In the 18th century, people ate the flowers and leaves in salads,” she says.

“Advanced gardeners should consider flax (Linum usitatissimum), which has pretty blue flowers and is not seen in many places,” Viancour says. “Colonists used flax for paper, clothing, oil and bookbinding.”


Letitia L. Star is a freelance journalist who writes about gardening, travel and healthy cooking. 


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