Healing gardens: The North Fork’s first pharmacies

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Master gardener Nancy Smith describes the healing qualities of various plantings in the Native American Healing Herb Garden on the Mattituck Historical Society's grounds.

Before there was your family pharmacist, and long before chain drug stores popped up all over, aches and ills were addressed by potions and poultices made from North Fork plants.

Nancy Smith of Mattituck, a master gardener for 30 years, has long been fascinated by the role native plants played in the medicine of the Native Americans whose village once stood on the land that’s now home to the Mattituck-Laurel Historical Society.

Five years ago, the historical society was considering planting a Victorian herb garden, but when members of its board sought Ms. Smith’s advice, she instead suggested a garden that focused on Native Americans’ healing plants.

“Indians didn’t just sit around with a toothache or a bleeding wound and wait for the drugstore to open,” she said on a recent afternoon while looking over the society’s healing garden she created on the society’s grounds.

“Most pharmaceuticals are based on plants from South America, but we don’t realize what was here,” Ms. Smith said. There were few doctors among the colonists, because they couldn’t make money in the New World, so settlers turned to Native American medicine men for advice on how to cure their ailments.

Ms. Smith, who was a science teacher for 33 years, scoured rare seed catalogues and local roadsides looking for the perennial plants that make up the garden.

Some, like the purple coneflower, whose root contains immune system-boosting echinacea, have been selectively bred to produce a larger, more formidable flower than the true genetic original. Ms. Smith had looked for the plant as it grew in the wild.

She found seeds for the wild plant in a catalogue from North Carolina. After two years, though, the plant she grew from that seed has yet to flower.

Native strawberries, high in vitamin C, were also much smaller and harder to find than their modern counterparts. After years of encouragement, they’re beginning now to spread through the garden.

While planning the garden, there were many moments when Ms. Smith asked her husband to pull the car over to the side of the road, having spotted a plant she’d been looking for. That was the case with mullein, a large roadside plant with leathery leaves and a tall stem full of yellow seeds.

Mullein is full of essential oil, and its leaves are so hefty and textured that Native Americans used them to line their moccasins.
The plant was also known as “Quaker Rouge,” because Quaker women, whose beliefs included a prohibition on makeup, would rub the leaves on their cheeks for a ruddy, healthy look.

Native Americans also smoked mullein to ease asthma.

Another common roadside plant in the garden is the Jerusalem artichoke, a member of the sunflower family. It has large edible tubers that contain inulin, a highly digestible carbohydrate.

Meadow sage, more native than culinary sage, is another genetic original used as an antibacterial and antiviral and a cure for worms.

“Every culture in every country uses sage,” said Ms. Smith. “There’s a Greek saying that if a man has sage in his garden he will live for a long time.”

Other common plants Ms. Smith included in the healing garden protect against summer ailments. Sweet fern, for example, contains an insect repellent and the gooey, aloe-like inside of the jewelweed plant is used to get rid of poison ivy.

“This should be planted in every garden,” she said of jewelweed, whose little orange and yellow flowers also make a visually attractive addition.

Ms. Smith also noted that another native flower, the evening primrose, is being studied as a potential cancer cure.

Wintergreen contains the aspirin-like compound methyl salicylate, and aster tea soaked in a cloth was stuffed into wounds.

Native Americans used bayberry bush for toothaches and Bloodroot, which contains a pain killer, was spread on the soles of the feet so people didn’t feel pain when walking on coals during rituals.

Gay feather, a pretty purple-spiked flower, contains a cardiac stimulant given to horses to make them run fast. Blue lobelia extract was often given as a gift to lovers when they were fighting, although Ms. Smith isn’t sure why.

“It makes them throw up,” she said. “Maybe after they throw up, they comfort each other?”

Given all the garden’s many potential cures, it might seem logical to think Ms. Smith would sample some of the native medicines herself. But some of the plants are so powerful, she said, that she’s not about to play doctor with them.

“They knew whether these things worked by trial and error. If someone died from it, they’d cross it off their list,” she said.

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