A Glimpse Into the Garden: August 2013

A monthly gardening update by OSV staff horticulturist Roberta McQuaid

This behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Village gardens will explore a range of topics including what’s growing in our gardens and the culture and history of specific heirloom plants. We hope that you will find this monthly online feature informative and perhaps it will enrich your next visit to the museum - maybe even adding to your own gardening adventures at home.

The Origins of the Herb Garden

The Herb Garden at Old Sturbridge Village contains an amazing collection of plants. If you’ve ever meandered down its paths you will agree that the garden is unique both in the number of herbs it houses - nearly 400 - and in the enormity of how they are displayed - in three terraces comprising a total of 9,000 square feet! Just the other day I thought about the space, and wondered how it came to be. Although I’ve worked at the Village for over two decades I honestly didn’t know more than a few trite facts about its conception. The best person to ask was Paul Rogers, our beloved Horticultural Consultant, after whom the garden was dedicated in the spring of 2002. 

Paul indicated that the original herb garden was located by the side of the Fenno Barn where the sheep pasture now stands. The site was small and on a steep slope.  The soil there was unimproved and the beds and paths were too narrow for that of a display garden. There was only a limited area left for future expansion.

Perhaps more important than the physical restrictions of the landscape was that the concept of this type of garden growing so close to a household gave visitors the wrong idea - that a single family of the Village period would develop a garden comprised of just herbs. It was decided that the garden should be moved to the formal exhibit or “collection” area of the Museum.

In the early and mid-1970s the present site of the Herb Garden was selected and the three distinct levels were built. A year or so later logs were installed to form beds, but little more than that transpired. Paul Rogers was brought in at this juncture to move the project forward. Working with a team of advisors he decided first and foremost to define the area as a garden by choosing boulders from Village property to form its sides and base. A fence was constructed at the top to enclose the garden.

The idea for pathways spawned some discussion - should there be a direct route from top to bottom to allow visitors quick access to the exit or should paths be set in a manner that would allow (or force!) them to admire the garden in detail? The later was the obvious choice. Rotting logs were replaced with native stone from Village property - a natural and very complimentary choice - to form the retaining walls and patterned raised bed areas.  Paul gave credit to two elderly members of the Facilities & Grounds crew who laid an astounding one-third of a mile of stone walls within the confines of the garden! He himself built the walls around the sitting area and assisted the backhoe operator in the selection and placement of stones for the floor of the patio.

Besides the fence and stonework, other “bones” of the garden included the placement of three young apple trees within beds in each level. They, with the already mature hickory tree, would offer varying degrees of sun to shade for the plants growing within the beds nearby. Paul was inspirational in not only designing a garden to be enjoyed throughout the growing season but one that would provide tremendous interest during the winter months as well!

Many of you are already aware that each of the three terraces of the garden is devoted to a specific category of plants that were utilized in the early 19th century. The lowermost level is comprised of those used for medicinal purposes. Here you will find such likes as the tomato (tomato pills anyone?), horehound and rue. Culinary plants are grown in the midsection. Did you know there are numerous types of basil, mint and sages? The uppermost terrace contains plants that were best suited for household or personal use. The heirloom rose border in June is as stunning as it is fragrant, and the collection of scented geraniums great to sniff all summer!

Of course, many plants overlap in their designation - a symbol clarifying usage is noted on the metal label accompanying each plant, along with the plant’s scientific or Latin name. Paul noted that the herbs selected for the garden had to be authenticated by two primary sources - a period book or diary - before being included and that many from the original site were not found to be suitable. Research Historian Christie Higginbottom and former Interpretation Assistant Lynne Pledger among others are to thank for this research.

I queried Paul about whether there was a “Grand Opening” of the Herb Garden - he said that there was no such celebration because in fact, unlike a new exhibit or building refurbishment, it was never entirely “finished:” “It grew through the dedicated efforts and interests of many people. As with any garden it has changed and matured over the years.” Now, let’s take a look at one of Paul’s favorite herbs- no doubt his choice will surprise you!

Mugwort, Common Wormwood - Artemesia vulgaris

Surely my eyes were deceiving me as I read Paul’s note.  One of his favorite herbs is mugwort? Indeed its durable - I can’t get it out of the motel office bed for the life of me, but in my opinion is a weed in the true sense of the terminology. Perhaps Paul finds other merit in this plant.

Here is what he had to say: “Mugwort earns a place in the Herb Garden as it was widely used as a traditional medicine. 'Mugwort’ is a corruption of the name ‘Mother’s Plant’ [wort is an old name for plant]. Likely introduced early to this country and was used to treat menstrual, menopausal, and gastrointestinal problems often associated with child birth. It increases the flow of urine and stimulates the appetite. For culinary purposes, young mugwort leaves were used in European and Asian cuisines to flavor a variety of traditional dishes. It was also used to flavor beer before hops became commonly available.

Today, the herb is employed ecologically for phytoremediation in degraded landscapes as it absorbs the heavy metals – zinc, copper, lead, and cadmium – and binds them to organic matter. It is also used as an erosion control plant on slopes.”

“Mugwort is a Eurasia introduction. It propagates from seeds that retain viability for many years in the soil and also spreads by vigorous rhizomes. It grows to 6’ tall and thrives in wasteland. Pollen is a potent allergen and can be a major cause of hay fever [for which Goldenrod gets the blame!]. It is a pestiferous weed throughout the northeast and on the Pacific Coast.”

Paul asks, “SO – how do we label it??? As a weed, herb, food, medicine, or a culturally significant plant?” All of the above - lesson learned.

Paul Rogers is a WTAG radio personality, Worcester Telegram and Gazette Garden Columnist and owner and operator of Stonehedge Gardens. He has been a Horticultural Consultant at Old Sturbridge Village for more than forty years and also serves on our Board of Trustees.