dooryard weed

Category : Plants
Date : May 27, 2014

“dooryard weed, great plantain, Englishman’s foot, devil’s shoestring, hen plant, birdseed, waybread & rabbit plantain“ are a few of the names given to the ubiquitous Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major).

Our ‘lawn’ is a combo-platter, and yesterday, as I looked around, the plantain was everywhere. In the back of my mind, I recalled reading about the many benefits of this so-called weed, and turned to the herbal books on the shelf. Indeed, the omnipresent dooryard weed seems to be a miracle worker, for its leaves staunch bleeding skin, relieve the itch of stings from mosquitoes and bees, and soothe certain bronchial and intestinal conditions. One can also enjoy the young leaves in a salad or sautéed, and know that these contain calcium and vitamins A, C & K.

By all accounts, plantain was not native to the English Colonies, but brought here, and quickly became known as Englishman’s food by the Native Americans. Midwife Martha Ballard (1735-1812) knew the worthy uses of plantain and other herbs:

“Herbs, wild as well as cultivated, were the true foundation of her practice. She wilted fresh burdock leaves in alcohol to apply to sore muscles, crushed comfrey for a poultice, added melilot (a kind of sweet clover) to hog’s grease for an ointment, boiled agrimony, plantain, and Solomon’s-seal into a syrup, perhaps following an old method that called for reducing the liquid by half, straining this decoction through a woolen cloth, then adding sugar to simmer to the thickness of new honey.”


By dusk, I gathered a jar full of plantain and filled it with apple cider vinegar, and in three weeks time, the liquid will be a perfect antidote to the mighty mosquito.

Isn’t it time we rejoiced in what is in our backyards, used the ‘weeds’ for their advantageous aspects for humans and insects, and stopped putting tons of chemicals on the grass?

Note:  Laurel Thatcher Ulrich will give the Keynote Address at the upcoming MassHumanities 2014 Conference, ‘Never Done:  Interpreting the History of Women and Work in Massachusetts’ on Monday, June 2, 2014.  For information, go to Registration closes on May 30th  at high noon.


Firefox 2, Eliot Wigginton, editor, (Anchor Books, 1973), pg. 85.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich , A Midwife’s Tale The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, (Vintage Books, 1990), 52, 354.

For more history and uses of plantain, consult:

a plea for dandelions from the honeybee

Category : Plants
Date : May 2, 2014

On a bright spring day, we can see our bees out foraging for needed food. And one wonders what they can find now, for the fruit trees have not yet budded out and most flowering plants do not show their beauty until summer. The humble dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is the Spring flower of choice for honey bees, bumble bees and carpenter bees.

Dandelions provide one of the first sources of pollen (protein) and nectar (future honey) for honeybees in early Spring. We adore seeing the brilliant yellow dots on the greening-up lawn. But we are in the minority, for most homeowners want their lawn to be not only a flat plane of green, but also demand that it be weed free, and the dandelion stands at the top of their hit list.


We ask you to please refrain from pulling up (or worse, using herbicides on) the dandelions, and instead offer them up to foraging honeybees. And by the way, once the yellow dandelion flowers start to wither away, there remain delectable and nutritious dandelion greens that make for a great salad.

PS—If you need more evidence, browse the world wide web in a search for bees + dandelions, and be prepared for a good long read.

herbals & florals

Category : Plants
Date : June 21, 2013

Gardening by the book–Celebrating 100 years of The Garden Club of America is currently on view at The Grolier Club in NYC.  The exhibition cases are filled to the brim with incredibly beautiful and meticulously detailed botanical illustrations.

Hidden amongst the books one can find two copies of Elizabeth Blackwell‘s A Curious Herbal.  Elizabeth (1707-1758) received drawing and painting courses as a young girl prior to her marriage to physician-turned-printer Alexander Blackwell.

Research describes Alexander as a ‘shady’ character and his avoidance of fines landed him in debtor’s prison. The necessity of paying her husband’s fines caused Elizabeth to embark on her book project, listing and illustrating 500 medicinal plants. She sought the approval of the Society of Apothecaries and once received, took up residence very near the Chelsea Physic Garden to be in close proximity to her primary sources–the plants residing in this teaching garden. She draw, engraved and hand colored all of the illustrations, a task normally done by three people (draftsperson, engraver and painter). From her meticulous drawings, Alexander provided the proper names for each plant, resulting in her engraving of all of the text. The illustrations were released weekly in groups of four for 125 weeks between 1737 and 1739.

Elizabeth Blackwell's beautiful figs

Elizabeth Blackwell’s beautiful figs

I would love to have a copy of Ms. Blackwell’s work in my library, for the moment I am enjoying the selected pages in the online gallery from the British Museum.

weeds, seeds & volunteers

Category : Plants
Date : June 16, 2013

Last week our gardens were deluged with yet more rain, so this morning I turned my attention to the bounty of weeds rising amongst the plants.  This morning’s read of One Colonial Woman’s World The Life and Writings of Mehetabel Chandler Coit showed me that colonial women shared some of the same concerns.  Weeds seem to be the talk of the town for centuries.

Mehetabel’s  letter to her daughter Martha (dated July 4, 1726) chronicles her trip to Woodstock during the month of May.  Her entry for Wednesday, May 31:

‘we got home about 10 o’clock, not very weary, found all well except the gardin, and that was overRun with weeds……’

morning glories--2012 crop

morning glories–2012 crop

While I was out weeding, I noticed a fine crop of ‘volunteers’ from last year’s bountiful morning glories, and with these I am extra careful to protect and nurture.  The blue flowers provided an incredible source for dyeing paper and cloth last summer.  I am very much hoping that I can count on using them again this year.  However, one must really never rely on what will arrive in the garden.  We patiently await the sprouting of the seeds—vegetables and herbs, as well as a new batch of plants to dye with:  dyer’s broom, dyer’s coreopsis and purple orach—-planted before the six plus inches of rain last week.  The talk of the town this week is the rotting of seeds planted just weeks ago.  Time will tell.

Michelle Marchetti Coughlin, One Colonial Woman’s World The Life and Writings of MehetabelChandler Coit (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), p. 133

Asparagus officinalis / Rheum rhabarbarum

Category : Plants
Date : May 23, 2013

Springing up in the garden over the past week are two early favorites—rhubarb and asparagus.

In his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons recounts his foraging at the age of 12:

During the next week we ate fresh asparagus every day.  We had boiled and buttered asparagus, creamed asparagus, asparagus on toast and asparagus soup.  I doubt that young people today can realize how good the first green vegetables of spring tasted in those days before quick freezing and fast transportation began furnishing us with fresh green vegetables all winter.

Gibbons references the process of quick freezing invented by Clarence Birdseye and the associated 18-item product line –“meats, spinach & peas, fruits & berries” launched in 1930 in Springfield, MA.  Women set aside as much food as possible to get through the cold winters, and must have been on the lookout for the first shoots of green and red in the garden. While the women of this colonial home would not have used Gibbon’s book as a guide to foraging, they might have referenced the 1829 The American Frugal Housewife for recipes and household advice.  Here, the author Child discusses:

Rhubarb Stalks, or Persian Apple

Rhubarb stalks, or the Persian apple, is the earliest in gradient for pies, which the spring offers.  The skin should be carefully stripped, and the stalks cut into small bits, and stewed very tender. These are dear pies, for they take an enormous quantity of sugar. Seasoned like apple pies Gooseberries, currants &c.,are stewed, sweetened and seasoned like apple pies, in proportions suited to the sweetness of the fruit; there is no way to judge but your own taste.  Always remember it is more easy to add seasoning than to diminish it.

Sugar did not come in plentiful, affordable 5lb bags, but rather on a cone, and it cost a pretty penny and was thus used with care.

“Conical molded cakes of granulated sugar, wrapped in blue paper & tied, as customary for maybe centuries in Europe, & in US in 18th – early 19th C. This one is from Belgium, but form is the same. About 10″H x 4 3/4″ diam…The blue paper wrapped around sugar loafs was re-used to dye small linens a medium indigo blue…Sugar nippers were necessary because sugar came in hard molded cones, with a heavy string or cord up through the long axis like a wick, but there so that the sugar should be conveniently hung up, always wrapped in blue paper…Conical sugar molds of pottery or wood were used by pouring hot sugar syrup into them and cooling them until solid. They range from about 8′ high to 16” high. These molds are very rare, especially those with some intaglio decoration inside to make a pattern on the cone…Loaf or broken sugar-A bill of sale form Daniel E. Baily, a grocer of Lynchberg, VA, dated 1839, lists two types of sugar sold to John G. Merme (?). “Loaf sugar” and “Broken sugar,” the latter cost half as much…Loaf was 20 cents a pound, and broken it was only eleven cents a pound. For cooking, the broken would have been more convenient by far.”

Child also discusses using the blue paper as a dye in her book*.  Nothing was wasted, forgotten or taken for granted in the frontier kitchens.

*The purple paper, which comes on loaf sugar, boiled in cider, or vinegar, with a small bit of alum, makes a fine purple slate color. Done in iron.

[Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus (David McKay Company, 1962) p.28-31] [Lydia Maria Francis Child, The American Frugal Housewife (A Public Domain Book, Project Gutenberg)] [Linda Campbell Franklin300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles, 5th edition (Krause Publications, Wisconsin 2003), p. 100-101]

kitchen garden

Category : Plants
Date : April 22, 2013

In last’s week mail, our order of potatoes and leeks arrived from Fedco Seeds, as well as onions from Dixondale Farms.  We are very lucky to have others grow, harvest and store the seeds and starts needed for our garden. The women of this farm needed to be more resourceful, for they either had to gather from the land and woods and/or store from the previous year’s crops.

In her book, Good Wives, the esteemed historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich outlines the chores of Magdalen Wear, of York, Maine:

Long before her small garden began to produce, she would have searched out a wild “sallett” in the nearby woods, in summer turning to streams and barrens for other delicacies congenial to English taste—eels, salmon, berries and plums.

Michael Tortorello went in search of older plants that were commonly used by colonial women, but are now rare or out of favor, but not flavour.  Some of the plants are grown at Plimoth Plantation and tended by the Colonial Foodways Culinarian Kathleen Wall. She recounts:

It doesn’t help matters that many Colonial-era “herbs,” like dandelions or patience dock (Rumex patientia), would now be tarred as weeds. Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis), one of Ms. Wall’s favorites, can be found growing by the side of the road. The plant has a tireless quality. The flowers, typically maroon, will bloom all summer if you keep picking them, she said. And the little leaves of salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) can be harvested almost all year.

Dandelions are starting to crop up, not only in the passages I am reading about older gardens, but also in our yard. More on those tomorrow.

[Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Goodwives, (Vintage Books, 1982), pgs 31-31] [Michael Tortorello, Ye Olde Kitchen Garden, New York Times, July 7, 2011]

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