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The Colors of a Summer Garden

June 20, 2012

hollyhockWe are a little ways out from the juicy red tomatoes, striped green cucumbers, bright white onions, or sunny orange pumpkins, but we can still celebrate a bit of early color in our gardens this week! The perennial flower and herb gardens have bloomed at the 1900 farm. The early irises and peonies have come and gone, but some of my favorites are starting to bloom: hollyhocks! These hollyhocks are important to me because I raised them from a seed for a new flower bed next to the outhouse. This projects has been 2 years in the making and finally we are seeing some color. These hollyhocks did not bloom last year because they are biennials, meaning that it takes them 2 years to complete their life cycle. I think they were worth the wait. This particular variety is called a Jet Black or Nigra hollyhock and according to Seed Savers records, this variety was once planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Based on folklore or old farmer’s stories from several sources, hollyhocks were planted near outhouses so ladies wouldn’t have to broach the unmentionable subject of outhouses in a Victorian household, they could simply look for the hollyhocks. At nearly 6 feet tall these dark purple flowers pop out next to the white walls. So remember if you are at the 1900 farm and need to find a restroom, just look for the hollyhocks!

In the herb garden along the white picket fence the lavender is in full bloom. Lavender can be used as both a medicinal and culinary herb. Most of the uses we find in the 1900 books are related to the household. For example, the following excerpts are from Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’s Cookbook, copyright 1908 by S.L. Morse.

On page 69:

Books – To Prevent Mold. – Spray the books and shelves, by means of an atomizer having a fine spray, with oil of lavender, pennyroyal, or any of the perfumed essential oils….

On page 481:

Lavender Water. – A favorite article for the toilet is the oil of lavender diluted with rectified alcohol, to which various other perfumes may be added according to taste. To prepare lavender water, it is only necessary to first mix the oil of lavender and other essential oils (if any) with a little of the alcohol; then add the remaining alcohol in a thin stream, stirring constantly. Finally stir in the other ingredients. The whole should be placed in a glass fruit jar with rubber rings, or other closely stoppered vessel, and allowed to stand for several months before using. It should be shaken frequently. The longer it can be allowed to stand before being opened the better the quality will be. The English oil of lavender is the best….

These are just a couple of uses, lavender had several, mostly in sachet or essential oil form, though teas could also be made. One thing is for sure, the lavender smells awesome, no wonder it was used for “toilet water” in the 19th century. (Side note: toilet water, or eau de toilette, was a contemporary way to refer to perfume or cologne in this time.)

Finally, there is a standard perennial that grows every year in our flower garden. A native prairie plant to Iowa, the Purple Coneflower brings a lovely pink tint to the garden each summer. More commonly known as Echinacea today, this plant’s medicinal uses trace back to the American Indians. The root can be chewed as a numbing agent for dentistry and the plant is said to have been used as a cure for snakebites and stings. It was also used in tea or steam form to treat colds and fevers among other ailments. Today, Echinacea is valued as an herb to help improve the immune system and in the treatment of common diseases like arthritis and ear infections. Such a useful plant that brings a very nice color to the summer garden.

We are anxiously awaiting the richly colored vegetables to come to the table. In the meantime, I think a bouquet of lavender will make a nice centerpiece.

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