Heirloom plants are open-pollinated plants that were grown in earlier periods of time. Americans have chosen to preserve these seeds and have passed them down from generation to generation. The medicinal and cultural uses of heirloom plants have transcended national boundaries, and have been preserved here at the Smithsonian Heirloom Garden as a way to celebrate America's colorful and diverse past. These plants have not changed since then, still smelling and looking like the plants our grandparents and their grandparents' grandparents used long ago.
Listen to an audio tour of the Smithsonian Heirloom Garden and discover how some of its plants played a vital role in America’s immigrant traditions, early consumer practices, and medicinal folk traditions.
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What is it about lavender that makes people fall in love? For thousands of years, this fragrant flower has been working its magic, inspiring love, romance, and passion. In the early 1900s, consumers were eager to buy lavender products. As Americans moved away from the countryside and into the bustling cities to work in factories, they found that it was no longer acceptable to have a weekly or monthly bath. People began to understand that germs could spread quickly within these close quarters, and advertisements from the time insisted that people bathe.
An ad for Crown Bath Salts from 1909 reminds readers that "The intelligent person of to-day knows that the daily bath is essential to civilization and to happiness...Sift a little of [our feathery, flaky powder] [into your bath,] and presto, the water is soft, sweet, a skin tonic, and you are marvelously refreshed" Therefore, when Americans bought Crown Bath Salts, they chose lavender with the hope of getting more than just a clean bath. They were also purchasing the charm embodied by the lavender, and could immerse themselves in the alluring possibilities of this lovely plant.
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Between 1880 and 1921, 23.5 million people arrived in this country to make their homes here. They viewed America as a land overflowing with opportunity, and yet when they arrived, were surprised or disappointed with what they found. As one immigrant joked, "I knew that America's streets were not paved with gold, but little did I suspect that I would be asked to pave them." These newcomers found that most of their time was taken up with grueling hard work. Dead-broke and penniless, these families forged strong bonds that were built on dependency and shared memories of home. Poor sanitation in the work place plagued these families, and their low wages did not allow for frequent doctor visits or prescriptions. Herbal medicine became an affordable alternative to the more expensive pharmaceutical prescriptions.
A plant called feverfew was a staple in many immigrant gardens. When prepared as a tea or tonic, its pungent leaves had the power to relieve fevers and headaches. Immigrants had the choice to pick feverfew from their garden, or travel to an established physician and get a prescription. The difference between these choices shows how some immigrants made their lives in America: clinging to their ethnic practices in herbal cures, or abandoning them by embracing the American way in modern medicine.
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If you've ever rubbed the fragrant sprigs of a rosemary shrub, you may not have realized you were dallying in the realm of elves and fairies, myths and legends. Also known as Elf Leaf, Rosemary became a common part of many Native and Early American immigrant folk customs. Believed to boost memory, students would wear wreaths of rosemary, and drink tea made from its leaves to help them with exams. Used for annointing and blessing, Rosemary could bring love, peace, protection, and purification. Hung in houses keeping thieves and witches out, believers trusted Elf Leaf to prevent fairies from stealing infants and drive evil spirits and illnesses away. Sprinkled for luck, worn on the body to strengthen heart and mind, or placed beneath your pillow to prevent nightmares, Rosemary found its place in the lives of early Americans as a charm and protector.
Another legend states that rosemary will never grow taller than a person, nor exceed Christ's age at death. Integral to Biblical and medieval gardens, this "holy" herb is also the emblem of fidelity and remembrance. Rosemary was often entwined into a wreath worn by brides at the altar after being dipped in scented water. The wreath symbolized fidelity, love, abiding friendship and signified that she carried into new home loving memories of the old. While the magical world of Elf Leaf may not be as popular today, the pleasing presence of Rosemary is still strong in scented oils, sachets, and as a popular cooking spice. The legend lives on.
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Nothing beats the smell of Thanksgiving turkey with woody tones of sage gracing the kitchen air. Many dishes and food creations use Common Sage as a garnish or to give extra flavor, but you may not know about the numerous ways that this plant was once used. Common sage was once more than another flavor in your Grandmother's turkey. Immigrants in the late 1800s, anointed the plant with the name "Sage the Savior", swearing by its healing properties to treat all sorts of illness, from fevers, to headaches and pains. When modern medicine was still unaffordable by many of the immigrants, Common Sage was a popular choice to fall back to when nothing else was available. But soon advances in professional medicine lured people from using plants to treat illness, and herbal treatments fell into obscurity. Yet people found ways to continue growing Common Sage in the gardens, developing new ways for the plant to help them in their lives.
Common sage's uses were wide and different beyond medicine, ranging from cosmetic to hygiene products. And once the novelty of using sage in products wore off, the plant found a new use in adding flavor to culinary dishes: a practice that continues today. The versatility of sage allows it to adapt to changes in American culture, continuing to hold a place in many gardens today. Unlike many of the plants that lost relevance during the medical revolution, Common Sage remains a "savior" to people today, not by saving people from illness, but through flavor and food. So when you look at this plant today, sage has indeed come a long way from "savior" to flavor.
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Imagine living with your parents in a two-bedroom apartment. Now imagine your two aunts, two uncles, and four cousins are living with you too. This cramped living situation was familiar to many immigrant families that came to America in the early 1900s. But what a relief flowers could provide. As one magazine describes, "Beautiful single [hollyhocks]…stretched out a little way along the garden fence, and their tall spikes gratified us as we saw them waving welcome to the morning, or ranked in stately order against the evening sky" Harper's Bazaar, June 11, 1903
During a time where immigrants from all over the world were meeting and mixing for the first time in America, these people found comfort in keeping their medicinal and herbal traditions from home. Hollyhocks, for one, could provide a relief from the stresses suffered by immigrants. During the few hours left in the day after work, Americans could prepare hollyhocks with different traditional methods. Hollyhock tinctures and teas were made to alleviate headaches, increase, regulate menstrual cycles, and ease depression.
The resilience of the Hollyhock made it easy to grow in New York, Chicago, and in other harsh climates. The hollyhock's durability and beauty were pleasant reminders of strength and dignity, and could offer a brief respite from the difficult times that many immigrants faced. The fashionable and elegant hollyhock was not only valued for its medicinal purposes; throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century women were eager to capture the stylish essence of the hollyhock in their gardens and garments.
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Have you ever had the rather unpleasant experience of taking castor oil? Despite its disagreeable taste, its established reputation as a laxative outlived the introduction of modern medicine in America. As the medical field became professionalized in the early 1900s, American immigrants were faced with the decision of whether to continue using their tried-and-true folk remedies they had brought from home, or to trust professional doctors.
Although these doctors could often provide helpful remedies, in 1920, social reformer Michael Davis admitted that "medical quacks [had] turned their attention to the fertile field of our immigrant population…to be sure, quackery and the love of being quacked are in human nature as weeds are in our own fields." The distrust of doctors in the medical field and the questionable background of other practitioners, led many immigrants to continue using their own herbal remedies. By growing the castor bean in their gardens, immigrants demonstrated their decisions in caring for their body and family's health, weighing their opinions against the recommendations of professional doctors.