America’s Oldest Physic Garden
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.
Garden Plans: Hortus Medicus
Dr. August Schubert, Bethabara’s physician, for whom the garden was planted, treated not only Bethabara’s townspeople but also travelers and other frontier settlers who lived many miles away. With its geometric beds, narrow work paths, and plantings of medicinal herbs, his Hortus Medicus resembled the physic gardens of Europe. In its center stood a summerhouse—a small, open-sided wooden structure that provided shade from the hot summer sun. The original garden contained more than seventy different herbs, including such familiar ones as tansy, angelica, fennel, chamomile, lavender, basil, borage, sage, nasturtium, sorrel, thistle, yarrow, comfrey, and wormwood. Among those less familiar to us as medicinal plants were common centaury, rhubarb, scabiosa, viper’s grass (Scorzonera hispanica), plantain, muskmelons, and Pyrenean dead nettle (Horminum pyrenaicum). Most of the plants identified as grown in the original garden have been included in the reconstructed garden.
The Moravians brought with them from Germany many plants and seeds, as well as knowledge of their medicinal uses. Each herb had a role in maintaining the health of the early settlers in the New World. Angelica roots were considered an excellent general tonic and antispasmodic; larkspur seeds were used for dispelling body lice and intestinal worms; and mugwort roots and leaves, for relieving the itch of poison ivy. Borage leaves and flowers were taken internally for reducing fever, while caraway seed oil was a remedy for colic and digestive disorders. Centaury leaves were used in a poultice for treating wounds and gout. Lungwort, with its spotted leaves that looked like diseased lungs, was prescribed for respiratory disorders—an example of the “doctrine of signatures”, which dictated that plants be used to treat the organs that they most resembled. Sage, considered a cure-all by the Moravians and others throughout colonial America, was used to stop perspiration, dry up mothers’ milk during weaning, and ensure longevity, as well as to treat everything else from coughs, colds, and headaches to nervousness and snakebite. Scurvy grass (Cochlearia officinalis), eaten to prevent scurvy, is now known to contain high levels of vitamin C. The ashes of southernwood were reputed to promote beard growth among young men, while fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) was considered a remedy for melancholy.
Scattered among the beans, peas, okra, squash, pumpkins, and watermelons in the adjacent kitchen garden were rosemary, basil, oregano, parsley, dill, fennel, coriander, and other culinary herbs. Next to a summerhouse like the one in the medicinal garden was an arbor covered with muscadine vines (Vitis rotundifolia). Nearby grew small orchards and a hop garden.
Hops were raised for making beer and as a bread starter. Dried hop strobiles (flower heads) were tied in a cheesecloth bag and cooked in water with potatoes. When the potatoes were done, the bag of hops was discarded, and the potatoes were mashed and added to dry yeast cakes that had been moistened with water. Flour was added, and the starter was allowed to rise in a warm place until it doubled in bulk, after which it was stirred down and used to leaven bread.
By 1772, the Moravians had constructed the major buildings in Salem. Skilled craftsmen had begun producing fine wares in their shops, the church had been organized, a tavern had been opened, and a girls’ school had been established. Most of the early settlers of Bethabara moved to Salem. Bethabara was never intended as a permanent community, and although it continued as a small farming community for years, eventually it died out.
In contrast to the agrarian way of life in Bethabara, Salem was established as a trade and craft center, where the church, the home, and professions were the focus of daily life. Most of its residents were potters, joiners, gunsmiths, coopers, tinsmiths, and other skilled craftsmen. Like anyone else, however, these craftsmen had to eat and feed their families using the food from their gardens. Instead of sharing in the harvest of a community garden, as the Moravians had done at Bethabara, each family in Salem grew its own vegetables, herbs, and flowers.
Each family’s swept yard contained a bake oven and a woodpile. The garden, located behind the yard, in many cases on a terraced hillside, provided most of the household’s food. As in the medicinal garden at Bethabara, beds were laid out in squares or rectangles with pathways between them. Herbs, fruits, vegetables, and a few flowers were grown together in short rows. Hops and brambles grew on fences or posts, and small orchards were planted at the rear of the family’s lot.
Most of the Moravians’ everyday methods of cooking and housekeeping were passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth and daily practice. The few “receipts” and diary entries that survive are mainly recipes for baked goods written in German, the language that Moravians spoke and wrote in their communities.
The German heritage of Moravian cooking can be seen in names such as Lebkuchen (Christmas cookies), Strietz (a sweet, spicy loaf bread studded with nuts and fruits), and Streusel (a thin cake with a crumb topping). The German Mustercake, or trainer’s gingerbread, was made for soldiers in training during the American Revolution and packed in their knapsacks when they were called to duty.
Most cooking in colonial America was done in an open fireplace, with a spit for meat and a crane to swing pots over the fire. Many Salem kitchens had fireboxes that served for both cooking and heating. Dutch ovens—large black pots with lids that were set directly into the hot coals—were used for baking.
A 1796 news clipping by Amelia Simmons offered this recipe for preparing and roasting a bird over an open fire:
One pound soft wheat bread, three eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet marjoram, pepper and salt and a gill of wine. Fill the bird therewith and sew up, hand down to a steady solid fire, basting frequently with salt and water, and roast until steam emits from the breast.
During the eighteenth century, herbs embraced just about anything green that could be used for culinary, medicinal, or household purposes. Most herbs had multiple uses. For instance, dill was both a seasoning and a treatment for gastrointestinal problems; angelica roots were taken to treat the plague and eaten as a candy; and sage could be used in a gargle for sore throats or to season foods that called for “sweet herbs”. (Other sweet herbs included parsley, thyme, chives, rosemary, savory, and marjoram.)
Many greens were cooked as potherbs or eaten raw in salads. Lamb’s-quarters, sorrel, dandelion, cabbage, endive, cress, purslane, and plantain were among the potherbs commonly grown or gathered in the Carolina piedmont.
The Moravians imported spices such as anise, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, mace, and ginger for use in cooking and often combined them with herbs in ways that seem unusual to us today. Traditional Moravian dishes include fried almond balls flavored with rose water and cinnamon, and crawfish soup with sorrel, mace, nutmeg, and clove. A ragout of veal or beef calls for nutmeg and bay, stuffed pigeons the same, along with garlic and parsley.
The Moravians also used herbs around the house. Hyssop and tansy were scattered on the floor to repel insects. Southernwood repelled ants, fleas, and moths while it freshened the air. The hollow stems of lovage were used as straws when settlers drank water or milk. Rosemary was an ingredient of a cleansing hair lotion. Safflower and madder root were used as dyes.
By the 1850s, the area surrounding Salem had been settled by many groups and had become quite populated. Nearby Winston was also growing rapidly. In 1913, the two towns merged to become Winston-Salem.
Salem’s Moravian church remained active through the years, and the girl’s school became Salem Academy and College, but most of the original Moravian buildings fell into disrepair. In 1947, when a supermarket developer threatened to build in the heart of the historic town, concerned citizens joined forces and established Old Salem, Inc., to restore and preserve the property.
Today, most of the German-style buildings have been faithfully restored, costumed staff lead tours and demonstrate crafts year round, and the family gardens are being returned to their original condition.
Lee Anne White is a writer and photographer who lives in Gainesville, Georgia. A Master Gardener, she frequently speaks to community groups about herb gardening.
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