Historic Herbal Theme Gardens

"As a middle school science and social studies teacher, I had always been interested in helping students appreciate the impact of food on history," reports Nashville, TN, teacher Sue Luchs.

"When I had a chance to oversee a new school herb garden project, it made sense to use that same lens, so we created five thematic herb gardens reflecting different continents and general historic periods: Ancient and Medieval Europe, Middle East and Africa, Renaissance and Age of Discovery, and the Western Hemisphere." The gardens help bring history lessons to life, reports Sue, and also offer more than 250 students who are non-native speakers a chance to share their knowledge about plants from their own cultures.

To manage garden planting and maintenance, Sue initially trains four students who, in turn, become the "experts" for a larger group of peers. Once those four are comfortable caretakers, they train another few, and so on, until there is a cadre of mentors who can help other students carry out gardening tasks.

Every spring, with help from master gardeners and members of a local herb society, the school holds a plant and herbal product sale, using the historical gardens as a backdrop. Community members are invited to purchase herb seedlings and plants grown in classroom GrowLabs or dug from the garden. Other herbal fare includes student-created herb seed packets; herbal foods, such as lavender cookies; herbal drinks, such as sumac tea; and herbal crafts, such as potpourri.

"The day two fifth-grade boys broke into a fight over an herb plant, I was dumbfounded," says principal June Centimole. "When one boy sobbed, 'He broke my tansy!' I had to laugh. In all my years teaching I had never before seen boys fighting over herbs. I knew we were onto something!" Sue concurs that the project has boosted the students' self-confidence in their ability to do adult tasks and make decisions, and it has given them a genuine identification with a long chain of people throughout history.

Living History Highlights

Here are some highlights from the school's historical gardens.

Ancient and Medieval Europe. In this garden, students come to appreciate the importance of herbs during the Middle Ages for masking odors and flavors associated with such factors as food spoilage, tooth decay, and limited hygiene. Mints and pest repellents such as pennyroyal, tansy, and wormwood are garden staples. Other featured herbs include chamomile, lavender, and rosemary, which were traditionally strewn on floors to cover odors and repel pests. Students used plants from this garden to create potpourri and cook medieval feasts, and learned from a visiting pharmacist how to distill plants to produce "medicines," flavorings, scented waters, and beverages.

Middle East and Africa. This garden features early Egyptian dye plants, such as dyer's broom and henna, and fiber plants such as flax, that were grown and used in ancient Egypt to make clothing.

Students use mint from this garden to create a salve to use on burns and cuts. (You can try this remedy by frying a large handful of any mint in four tablespoons of lard, until the lard is green. Strain this mixture and add two tablespoons of melted beeswax, then beat until cold.)

Renaissance and Age of Discovery. These gardens are connected, since these periods shared the same centuries in history. They represent a mixture of Old and New Worlds and their herbal traditions. Plants include borage, oregano, yarrow, lemon balm, and thyme.

Western Hemisphere. This garden includes plants native to North and South America as well as those introduced by European settlers. Students explore how herbs have been used by Native Americans, colonists, and soldiers in the Civil War. They've made "bandages," for instance, from mullein leaves dipped into hot water, then into a bowl of cool vinegar. Another highlight was steeping homegrown Oswego Tea (bee balm) after discovering that the Oswego Indians gave this to the colonists to replace their English tea discarded during the Boston Tea party.

Eastern Asia and Pacific. This garden includes plants such as fennel, lemongrass, chives, and nutmeg.

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