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Herbs in the United States

( Originally Published 1933 )



As the settlers coming to the newly discovered land in North America sailed up the Hudson and the James rivers, how beautiful the shores must have looked to them after three months of cramped confinement in their tiny boats. Great trees, like the elms and oaks at home and yet slightly different, towered above them, while thick shrubs hung over the banks and dipped their branches in the water. When they went ashore they found familiar grasses and ferns carpeting the ground while strange flowers dotted the meadows and grew shyly under the trees. The roses, artemisias, strawberries, and garlic were so similar to the plants they had grown in their own forsaken gardens that they attributed the same qualities to these American herbs that had characterized their European relatives.

Many of the colonists had left their old homes because of an unwillingness or inability to accept the prevailing conditions, yet once they arrived in the new country they shaped their lives after the pattern of the ones they had led before. They sent to England for domestic animals and seeds, and along with the wheat, barley and clovers, and the straw beddings of the horses and pigs, came the seeds of daisies, dandelions, and buttercups which multiplied so quickly that they soon added a gold and white note to every landscape.

In the South, as early as 1495, Hernân Cortéz wrote to the King of Spain asking him to give orders at the Casa de Contracion at Seville that every ship leaving for "The Indies" was to bring seeds and plants in its cargo. These were distributed over the Spanish colonies in Mexico and our own Southwest.

Fortunately for the settlers, when their supply of pro-visions dwindled the Indians helped them out with food and gave them seeds to enable them to raise crops of their own. They taught the white men how to grow corn, Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosa, lima beans, kidney beans, squashes, and ground nuts, Apios tuberosa.

As was to be expected of so primitive a civilization, the Indians used few flavorings in preparing their food. They ate wild onions and the roots of wild caraway, Carvum Kellogii, and cooked tubers of Asclepias tuberosa with buffalo meat, skunkweed with deer, and tubers of Asclepias syriaca and Monarda menthaefolia with other meats. It is said that the leaves of Mentha canadensis were placed in the parflèches to flavor dried meat, but one wonders whether this was a pre-Columbian or post-Mayflower custom. Roots of wild ginger, Asarum canadense, were gathered to season hominy grits and also to disguise the taste of mudfish and of animals long dead, for it was thought they eliminated the danger of poisoning.

Mrs. Earle tells us that in New England, until very late, many of the herb gatherers were squaws who brought various roots and barks to market to serve as flavorings for the colonial beers.

The newcomers could not depend on native plants for flavoring and soon imported seeds and slips of the aromatic herbs. Besides these, the Reverend Francis Higginson says that amongst the New Englanders watercress was a garnish, potherb, and salad plant, and that Sedum telephium, potato tops, pepper grass, and smart weed, Polygonum persicari, were used with other potherbs to give them a better flavor. Adrian van der Donck in de-scribing the plants he grew in his garden in Yonkers in 1653 mentioned herbs such as, "angelica, calamus aromaticus, malva origaenum, geranium, altheae, viola, iris, indigo silvestris, coriander, leeks, wild leeks—." According to John Josselyn of Kent, who wrote letters in 1673 and 1674 describing two visits to his brother who had settled in Maine, a great many herbs were being grown. Even though the mistakes have been corrected and the whole edited by Edward Tuckerman, these letters, I fear, are tinted with the rosy hue of imagination.

In South Carolina, where great plantations were owned by cultivated people, Mrs. Logan compiled a "Gardener's Chronicle" which appeared in 1756 and was the pioneer of feminine garden books in America. She tells when to plant the vegetables and flowers and groups all the herbs together under "Aromatick herbs" except parsley, red pepper, onions, and water and garden cresses, which she mentions separately.

Thomas Jefferson, besides his many talents and accomplishments, was a great farmer, and in his "Notes on Virginia" classified his plants as Medicinal, Esculent, Ornamental, and Useful for Fabrication. The only herbs he mentions are Malva rotundifolia, 4ngelica sylves tris (a native), and the strawberries, but elsewhere in a letter he speaks of savory.

To find out what herbs were grown in the colonies I looked through the files of old newspapers but gleaned comparatively little. In the South Carolina Gazette in 1735 was the following:

Just imported from London to be sold by John Watson .. . mustard seed, and in the same paper, December 28, 1738 :

Just imported from London to be sold by Doctor Jacob Moon .. anis seeds, carraway seeds, sweet fennel seeds.

In the Virginia Gazette, published at Williamsburg, Virginia, on September 9, 1675, was the item:

To be sold at Mr. Miles Taylor's in the Town of Richmond, the following seeds, lately imported from Italy, viz. Sweet Basil, citron ditto, Chervil, Poppy, Sweet Fennil.

The catalogues of the Bartram nurseries in Philadelphia, published in 1807 and 1814, offered many herbs for sale, as did the catalogues of Prince's nursery at Flushing, Long Island, which first appeared in 1771. In 1801, at the threshold of the nineteenth century, Stearns wrote "The American Herbal," which told of the herbs used for medicine.

All this time, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, the colonial housewives had to supervise or do their own growing and harvesting of herbs. Living in a wilderness separated from any near-by source of supply, they were forced to provide as liberally as they could for food and medicine during the coming year. All through the growing season, as the fruits and vegetables ripened, everything that could be of any possible use was dried or preserved. Liquid extracts of herbs were done up for medicine or flavor, bunches of them were tied to the rafters to dry, while the dried leaves and flowers were mixed into potpourris or infused in vinegars.

We envy the colonial women their homy activities in their pleasant, pine-paneled kitchens opening onto gardens fragrant with thymes, sages, and mints. We picture the mistress in her crisp fichu and frilly cap, her sleeves rolled up and a big white apron protecting her flowered dress, busily at work with her sisters and perhaps the children to help and run last-minute errands. Perhaps, after the day's work was over, the mistress would sit in front of a wood fire and by candlelight write out the recipes in a book. There was no need to seek abroad for a career as an outlet for her creative instincts, for while she cooked and brewed she was inventing and creating at home.

In these manuscript cook books the herbs and other ingredients for making jams and jellies are mentioned as well as recipes for every variety of dish which was served to the colonial family. Sassafras flavored New Orleans gumbo ; rose water exalted a wedding cake ; the chicken dressing of Sally Washington had thyme in it. We can almost smell the fragrance which rises from "smothered veal" as the cover is lifted off the dish, for into this went parsley, thyme, carrots, turnips, roast chest-nuts, potatoes, onions, and celery root. In Louisiana, the French flavored their foods with saffron, bay leaves, thyme, cloves, garlic, cayenne pepper, mustard, tomato, and parsley. Out West in countries settled by the Spaniards, marjoram gave a special note to chili peppers, and when a brown soup stock was made it had thyme, marjoram, and parsley chopped up and dropped into it. Other Spanish herb flavorings were coriander, saffron, cumin, anise, and sesame.

During the nineteenth century, cook books of American origin were published and the titles of some indicate the thrift and efficiency which was to become characteristic. Among these were Dalgairns, "Practice of Cookery Adapted to the Business of Everyday Life," Boston, 1830; Mrs. Mary Randolph, "The Virginia House-wife," Baltimore, 1823 ; Mrs. Eliza Leslie, "Directions for Cookery," Philadelphia, 1830; and Mrs. Child, "The American Frugal Housewife," the first edition of many, appearing in Boston in 1829. In these books, nasturtium, a South American plant, and peppers from New Mexico, were the new herbs mentioned.

With the introduction of steam transportation, spices like mace, cloves, and allspice could be bought cheaply at the grocer's and these, with tomatoes from the garden, gradually replaced the old-time herbs, which had been so popular during the preceding centuries. There was no longer the same leisurely savoring of food, nor were whole days spent in the preparation of a festive dinner. The decline in taste which showed itself in furniture, architecture, and gardens was also evident in cooking.

The Negroes and the newest arrivals to our shores still use the fragrant herbs and up to last year the Negro women brought their bunches of thyme and sage to sell in the market in Washington. In Italian districts one can buy fennel at the greengrocer's, and often a pot of basil stands on the window ledge of their homes to furnish the flavoring for their favorite bean soup. The Greeks grow sage for their cheeses and other dishes, and the Negroes use sesame seeds. The French and Swiss like chives as was once conspicuously demonstrated by a new gardener who, when he brought the crates and boxes of his household possessions, had a flat full of growing chives perched on top of them as the chief god of all.

From time to time herbs have been raised commercially in the United States. The Shakers are said to have been the first to grow medicinal plants for profit. Early in the nineteenth century this became an important industry with them, and by the fifties there were nearly two hundred acres under cultivation in the Shaker communities at Harvard, Massachusetts, and at Mount Lebanon, New York. The principal herb crops were Hyoscyamus, Bella-donna, Taraxacum, aconite, poppy, lettuce, sage, summer savory, marjoram, dock, burdock, valerian, and horehound. Besides these, fifty others were grown as minor crops amongst which were rue, borage, plumeless thistle, Carduus, hyssop, marshmallow, feverfew, and pennyroyal.

Peppermint and spearmint have long been grown commercially in Michigan and New York to flavor the national vice, the graceless chewing gum. Since it is becoming increasingly difficult to collect plants of ginseng and golden seal which are used medicinally they are now grown under cultivation.

There have been attempts to grow perfume plants such as rose geranium in California and Florida in 1914-1917, so far unsuccessfully, but surely there must be some bit of littoral, or protected valley where clary, sage, rosemary, marjoram, or lavender could be raised satisfactorily in spite of our sharp changes in temperature, which are not as favorable to the storage of essential oil as is the more equable climate of Europe. However, growing herbs has not been profitable as yet in the United States, because too much high-priced hand labor is required in harvesting and curing them to compete with the much cheaper labor in Europe. Every now and then some one has the inspiration which he thinks is entirely original with him of growing or collecting herbs for profit, and forthwith shares this with the United States Government. To satisfy these people, the Department of Agriculture has grown many of the herbs and published bulletins about them.

There are drug gardens in the United States connected with colleges of pharmacy, or State universities, and one is on the grounds of a hospital. These show the students what the plants are like, and remind one of the numerous small botanical gardens connected with hospitals and universities in Europe which began as sources of supply for medicines.

Recently there has been a renaissance of interest in herbs for flavor and fragrance, and it is to be hoped that the patch given over to them will grow in dimensions and in the variety of plants, so that once again, this time in the most modern kitchens where electric appliances and aluminum pots stand side by side with peasant pottery, the housewife, trim and neat, will go back to preparing dishes redolent of the aromatic fragrances which characterized the food of her ancestors who first came to these shores.



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