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Garden offers lesson in early medicine

The immigrant garden at the New Richmond Heritage Center provides visitors an opportunity to learn about historical uses of plants by settlers.

Kimb Denny, a grower for Baker Creek Heirloom seeds and volunteer at the Heritage Center, planned and planted the garden as a way to teach how immigrants would have used plants.

"There's so many crops that were grown that people don't even have any association with anymore," Denny said.

Heritage Center employee Rachél Starbuck said the immigrant garden helps show visitors what life was like more than 100 years ago.

"The immigrant garden is an excellent example to show visitors, adults and children alike, what the immigrants grew," a Heritage Center employee said. "It shows our visitors what life was like 130 years ago and how hard they worked to make a better life for not only themselves but for future generations."

According to Denny, there are eight to 10 different varieties of herbs in the immigrant garden. Many of the herbs have medicinal uses which were critical to immigrants when good health care was not available.

"Herbal medicine developed through interaction with other cultures and trial and error," Denny said.

Among some of the plants garden are:

• Valerian is a perennial herb that has been used since the time of ancient Greece and Rome. It was traditionally used to help with sleep disorders, relieve hysteria and nervous tension and to treat epilepsy.

• Motherwart is a relative of the mint plant and has been used to help with female reproductive system issues. It was also used by midwives during difficult or prolonged labors.

• White willow bark and the meadowsweet plant provided salicylic acid, a precursor to aspirin.

• The opium poppy provided morphine, codeine and a treatment for diarrhea called paregoric.

• Echinacea, which comes from the coneflower, was also widely prescribed. Modern research has shown that the plant helps boost the immune system.

Denny said she also planted a "toothache plant," an annual that can be used as an anesthetic in the mouth.

"You can pick a leaf and stick it in your mouth next to something that hurts and it numbs it," Denny said.

The garden also contains 12 to 14 different varieties of vegetables that immigrants would have used, according to Denny.

Amy Fiege, the third grade teacher at Paperjack Elementary School, said her class took a trip to the Heritage Center and learned a lot about the garden.

"They learned that immigrants didn't just go to the grocery store and pick out the best looking fruits and vegetables," Fiege said. "Immigrants had to grow so much of their own foods. They had to care for their garden carefully because what and how much they had to eat depended on it."

Fiege said that her students enjoyed making connections between the immigrant garden and their own gardens at home.

"I think the kids most liked that the garden was very familiar to them," Fiege said. "When exploring a world that seems distant and foreign, it's nice for them to see that similarity to their own lives now. At the same time, they can see how gardening was also different than it is today in the tools they may have used. They thought it was cool that they might grow the same things in their own gardens at home."

According to Denny, many of the seeds were valuable so immigrants sometimes smuggled them into the country to keep them from being taken.

"We have several varieties that grow here now because people sewed them into their hems on their clothing," Denny said.

According to Denny, her biggest challenge right now is figuring a way to keep deer from eating the plants.

"I would like to figure out a way to historically accurately deer proof the site so that I can plant some of the bean crops and things like that because right now we're having a really difficult time keeping the deer out of it," Denny said.

Once the deer are controlled, Denny said she wants to continue expanding the garden by adding fodder crop, which immigrants would have used to feed their animals.