Sunday, November 29, 2009

Let's go a'simpling

Larry Griffith, Curator of Plants for Colonial Williamsburg, gave a interesting talk for the Virginia Native Plant Society at the Hilton Village Main Street Library, in Newport News. Griffith is co-author of the recently published book, Flowers and Herbs of Early America. Griffith grew the plants pictured in the book and wrote the text. Co-author Barbara Temple Lombardi took all the beautiful pictures.

For the talk, Griffith discussed his hypothesis that the plants grown in colonial America are directly related to the 500 or so plants contained in Greco-Roman herbals, dating way back to the time of Theophrastus and Dioscorides. By the time Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon was in business in the early 1800's (the stopping point of Griffith's book), the colonial American herbal had grown to about 3,000 plants.

From 2001 until 2008, Griffith maintained a test garden in Colonial Williamsburg behind the Lewis house on Francis Street. For the test garden, Griffith did extensive research of historical records and compiled a list of plants known to have been grown by early American colonists. The project was funded by a grant from the Mars candy company, so it was gratifying to learn that I had been contributing large sums of money to the project without even knowing it! One of the stipulations of the grant was that all the plants had to be grown from seed, and Griffith put in a lot of time and care into raising those tender seedlings.

Below are some photos from the garden. When I took these several years ago, I didn't know anything about Griffith's project. I only knew it was a beautiful garden.
Griffith intended the Lewis Garden to be a specimen garden, not a show garden, and he took a rigorous approach to laying out the beds. However, over time the plants tended to move around, resulting in more of a cottage style garden.
I learned a couple new concepts during the talk:
  • Simpling - Medicinal plants were also known as simples. Going simpling means to go out in search of medicinal plants.
  • Coronary Garden - Not a garden with plants grown for heart ailments, rather it contains plants used to make victory crowns.
For some more information on the book, check out this interview with Griffith and Lombardi.


tina said...

It's funny how most gardens wind up as 'cottage gardens'. Very neat to learn about simpling. I bet it was an excellent talk.

Janet said...

Looks like you have piqued my interest to go look at another Williamsburg garden. Amazing to know what is in 'our own backyard'!

How It Grows said...

Janet, unfortunately the garden grant ran out and the garden is gone. I wish they had made it permanent.

Daniel Mount said...

It's amazing how many of our road side weeds and backyard ones too arrived in this country as part of the apothecary. I definitely want to learn more.. Thanks for whetting the appetite.