Garden Profile: North Carolina's Historic Bethabara Park

America’s Oldest Physic Garden

| February/March 1996

  • This is based on Dr. Schubert’s medicinal garden plan, patterned after European physic gardens. His original design has guided modern restoration efforts. The plant list, keyed to the beds in the illustration, is at right.
  • Comfrey thrives in Historic Bethabara Park in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, just as it did 235 years ago when it was first planted by Moravian settlers.
    Photography by Lee Anne White
  • An eighteenth-century community kitchen garden re-created at Bethabara demonstrates how culinary herbs such as sweet basil were interspersed among the vegetables.
  • Rosemary, basil, and lavender are among the vigorous plants in this family garden in historic Old Salem Village.
  • A white picket fence seems the perfect backdrop for a flourishing rosemary bush in Old Salem.

Quietly cradled among the rolling hills of the Carolina piedmont is the earliest documented colonial medicinal garden in America. Established in 1761 to serve the medicinal needs of Bethabara, the first Moravian settlement in North Carolina, this physic garden and a kitchen garden from the same time period have been reconstructed at Historic Betha­bara Park in the city of Winston-Salem.

Today, Moravia is part of the Czech Republic. The Moravians were among the first Protestant groups to become established in Europe during the fifteenth century. For more than 300 years, they suffered religious

Persecution, which caused them to uproot their community and resettle, or periodically go into hiding; by the early 1700s, they had fled to Germany, where they built the town of Herrnhut. From Germany, they sent missionaries to many areas in the world, including America, where they established a strong foothold in Pennsylvania. In an effort to carry their religion to other parts of the country, Moravians in 1753 purchased a 100,000-acre tract in the backcountry of North Carolina. Missionaries established Bethabara—Hebrew for “house of passage”—as a temporary settlement on the new frontier while they laid plans for a more permanent central town, which would become known as Salem.

In Bethabara, the Moravians built homes, opened shops, and planted community gardens. They laid out the gardens according to the medieval patterns that they had known in Europe: rectangular beds or plots bordered by sod, divided by paths of grass, fine gravel, or tanbark, and fenced for protection from wild animals. Because the gardens were meant for sustenance, they contained mostly vegetables and herbs. Seeds and plants came from Moravians in Germany, Moravian settlements in Pennsylvania, towns along the North Carolina coast, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, and other nearby growers.

Christian Gottlieb Reuter, a royal surveyor in Europe before he came to America, maintained a land register of the Moravians’ new property. Although he was not a botanist, he knew European plants well and kept detailed records of Bethabara’s gardens. It is from his records that volunteers at Historic Bethabara Park have been able to reconstruct the medicinal garden—known at that time as Hortus Medicus —and the accompanying communal kitchen garden.

Hortus Medicus

Garden Plans: Hortus Medicus 

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