In honor of Earth Day, today’s post is going to be all about the medicinal plants that could be found in the Carolinas in the 1700s and 1800s.
Typical European settlers often had to rely on the land for everything from food to shelter and even medical treatments. An everyday person could not just get up and go to the doctor. If they lived far enough away, the trek to a settlement or town with a doctor could take days. To help protect themselves or get remedies quickly, many colonists planted a garden filled with plants and herbs thought to have curative properties.
The Alexander family was no different from other colonists. As an educated woman, Mary Alexander, Hezekiah's wife, bought an herbal, a book containing names, descriptions, and uses of herbs and other plants. This knowledge was also generational, passed down by women to their children. Bett, an enslaved woman who worked in the kitchen, probably helped decide what herbs would be grown in the garden next to the kitchen and was partly responsible for tending it. On the Alexander Homesite and at most plantations and homesteads in the colonies, the garden was established close by the home and kitchen so any spices could be gathered without having to leave the kitchen unattended.
The herb garden at the Alexander Homesite, located at the Museum. Today, the garden is filled with herbs and plants that would be familiar to those who lived there in the 18th century. In the foreground is soapwort. Soapwort, as its name suggests, could be used as a mild soap. Other plants include thyme, rosemary, comfrey, and even irises. The large plant in the top right is a bay tree, where bay leaves come from. Not only were bay leaves used to season food, just like we use them today, they could also be used to make a poultice for wounds. Whether or not it worked as a healing agent is up for debate.
All herbs within the garden had multiple uses, usually medicinal. Most of the medicinal plants eased intestinal distress (maybe that was more common because of the lack of refrigeration?). Some of these herbs include bay leaves, veronica, comfrey, rosemary, and costmary. Sometimes what folks thought they knew about the plants was wrong. For instance, comfrey is actually a mild poison that does not help with intestinal distress, but it is a good companion plant that makes for a good fertilizer. Thankfully, we can now do a quick google search and be sure the information about these plants is true!
To learn more about native colonial plants and their medicinal uses visit the website for the New England Unit of the Herb Society of America.
To see the Charlotte Museum of History’s kitchen garden in person, buy tickets in person or online at charlottemuseum.org/visit. A huge thank you to the Charlotte Herb Guild for planting and caring for our herb garden!
Have a great weekend!
The Charlotte Museum of History
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin