Our Ever Evolving Relationship with Plants

Plants have played a critical role in human survival through the ages.  Although most people in the modern world do not rely on plants they gather themselves, we are surrounded by useful flora that Native Americans and later European colonists relied upon.  Today, some are labeled as ‘weeds’ while the more attractive ones are propagated as ornamentals, but little thought is given to their potential usefulness.  Some are native while many are introductions or ‘invasives’ brought over from Europe, Asia, or Africa.  Here are just a few plants you’ve likely encountered that played active roles in the lives of our colonial and Native American ancestors:

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus):

Not to be confused with Foxglove or Lamb’s ear, this delightfully fuzzy-leafed plant was an early introduction by Europeans.  It was considered a potent medicinal herb, the leaves of which were prized for treating a number of ailments including respiratory disorders and skin conditions, it having both anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties.  To alleviate coughs, the leaves were steeped in a tea or dried and smoked.  Painful or itchy skin maladies could be relieved with a poultice of leaves applied directly to the affected area.  It was also ingested as a diuretic.  In addition to being useful as a medicine, mullein’s long woody stalk could be dried and dipped in tallow or wax to create a candle or torch that would burn slowly.  Native Americans were quick to adopt mullein as a useful plant both as a medicine and as an expedient way to catch fish.  Turns out mullein seeds contain saponins, a compound that is poisonous to fish but safe for human consumption so a liberal amount added to a body of water resulted in stunned fish that would float to the surface to be easily collected.

‘Wild’ Garlic (Allium vineale)

Most gardeners have dealt with this plant, called wild garlic or wild onion by some.  Stinky and hard to pull from the ground, wild garlic has all the makings of a grade A weed.  You can thank Europeans again for this invasive plant, however.  Colonists brought it over as a flavoring for food and used it in much the same way as we use cultivated garlic today.  In addition to being useful in cooking, wild garlic contains all the heart-healthy benefits of domesticated garlic.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Staghorn Sumac

Courtesy of Katya/Wikipedia

Sumac has gotten a bad reputation due to mistaken identity.  It is often confused with poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), which is actually only a distant relative that grows exclusively in extremely wet conditions (like bogs). The staghorn sumac is an upland plant that will grow pretty much anywhere poison sumac doesn’t grow.  Essentially every part of this plant was used in some way by Native Americans in what is now the eastern United States.  The roots and the bark were used in dying cloth, the leaves could be dried and mixed with tobacco for smoking, and the berries could be eaten in a number of different ways.  Whether soaked in cold water to make a lemonade or ‘sumac tea’, dried and added to cooked dishes, or eaten directly off the plant, sumac berries imparted a pleasant citrus flavor to foods and is rich in vitamin C in addition to other nutrients.  The tender young shoots of sumac trees were also cut, peeled of their bar, and eaten in the spring – that is if the deer didn’t find them first!  Although colonists did not always readily adopt plants that had been used for thousands of years by Native Americans (I’m looking at you, tomato!), the sumac was too good to ignore and was quickly incorporated into colonial life and diet.

Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana)

Eastern Red Cedar

Courtesy of Famartin/Wikipedia

The words ‘cedar’ and ‘juniper’ are often used interchangeably around here (And by around here, I mean Virginia, of course!).  But the tree most people in our area think of when they hear those words is the Eastern Red Cedar, which is actually in the Juniper family – confused yet?  Regardless of what you call it, the Eastern Red Cedar is a very handy local tree.  Colonists had equivalents in Europe and immediately recognized the utility of the tree.  Both Native Americans and colonials flavored food with the ‘berries’, which are actually cones, and the young shoots.  High in vitamin C, the berries were also used by Europeans to flavor gin and brewed into a medicinal tea by various indigenous tribes.  In addition, the bug-repellant properties of the cedar were well known and the wood itself excellent at resisting rot. It was fashioned into anything from fence posts to clothing chests.

Gradually our reliance on plants and trees immediately around us has waned and not many people nowadays realize the utility of the local flora.  Truthfully, there aren’t many plants in existence that don’t have some useful properties. Our colonial and Native American ancestors were aware of them and incorporated a multitude of ‘weeds’ into their everyday lives.

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist

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Photos: Our Urban Nature at Historic Kenmore

Nature shaped the lives of English colonists and enslaved Africans living and working at Kenmore Plantation 200 years ago.  Over centuries, humans changed Kenmore’s natural world from a plantation setting into an urban green space. Yet, nature remains just outside the door.

This past Saturday at Historic Kenmore, visitors had a chance to explore humans’ dynamic relationship with nature through the years during Our Urban Nature.  They discovered — in some cases, held — the wildlife living right in town with Fredericksburg Parks & Recreation. They explored the meaning behind the color of the river’s water with Friends of the Rappahannock. Visitors learned about worm composting with the Rappahannock Regional Solid Waste Management Board. They dug into the importance of dirt with the Tri-County/City Soil and Water Conservation District. Visitors also enjoyed a native plant and urban geology walk through the neighborhood and learned how to build terrariums from found objects and plants. Kids created a food web mobile, fairy houses, and built their own river.

Our Urban Nature: It’s Just Outside the Door

Humans are an inescapable part of nature.  It shapes us and we shape it.  Most of us can see this dynamic relationship when looking back 200 years.  It is easier to appreciate the centrality of nature in the lives of 18th century planters, farmers, and enslaved people whose livelihoods and bellies depended on good weather for growing crops.  Time was governed by the sun and the seasons.  Commerce depended on domesticated animals to pull wagons and on wind to drive sailing ships.

At its most basic, history is the study of change over time.  As we study, we tend to focus on the changes within the very human realms of politics, society, and culture.  We relate more to the lives and stories of fellow human beings like George Washington, Betty Washington Lewis, or Fielding Lewis.  These humans, however, sparked other more subtle changes far outside human realms.  Human history has drastically altered the natural world while nature itself has actively shaped human history.

When Fielding Lewis finished building the mansion that would become Kenmore in 1775, it stood at the heart of a large plantation, an actively managed world of agricultural fields and livestock mixed with natural flora and fauna.  Over two centuries, humans slowly changed Kenmore from a plantation into an urban green space now nestled in the midst of a dense residential neighborhood. Hundreds of houses rest where slaves once toiled, crops once grew, and cows once pastured.

Spring time in the gardens at Kenmore Plantation

Yet, nature hasn’t disappeared.  It remains right outside all of our doors.  We can find it in our beautiful flower gardens and backyard birdhouses, in the squirrel nests atop the oak tree across the street, and in the weeds pushing up through sidewalk cracks and overtaking the front lawn.

The term weed itself is an excellent example of the dynamic relationship between humans and nature.  Today, weeds are plants we loath as undesirable nuisances.  Yet, these weeds exist because at one time, we viewed them as useful and even desirable.  Weeds and humans have fascinating interrelated histories.

Urban Nature Native Plants (1)

Dandelion is native to the Americas.  Early Americans steeped teas from the dry root and desperate Civil War soldiers used roasted dandelion root as a coffee substitute.  Even though it took a lot of time to gather them, people throughout history have used the flowers to make dandelion wine.

Urban Nature Native Plants (2)

European colonists introduced Clover because it served as an excellent pasture crop for consumption by livestock.

Urban Nature Native Plants (5)

Wild Garlic was introduced as a spice, which Native Americans quickly adopted.

Urban Nature Native Plants (4)

Purple Deadnettle was found across Eurasia but it is not clear who exactly introduced it into the Americas.  Colonial Americans valued deadnettle, in part, for its medicinal purposes as it could stop bleeding.  Its flowers contain a lot of sweet nectar as well and, thus, people in the past often used them to make sweet teas.

If you want to learn more about native plants and other aspects of Our Urban Nature, join us from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 16 at Historic Kenmore.  Discover what wildlife are living right in town with Fredericksburg Parks & Recreation. Explore the meaning behind the color of the river’s water with Friends of the Rappahannock.  Learn about worm composting with the Rappahannock Regional Solid Waste Management Board.  Dig into the importance of dirt with the Tri-County/City Soil and Water Conservation District.  Visitors can enjoy a native plant and urban geology walk and learn how to build a terrarium from found objects and plants.  Kids can create a food web mobile, fairy houses, and build their own river.

Additionally, George Washington’s Ferry Farm will host native plant walks later this summer on June 6 and then again on September 18.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist/Ceramics and Glass Specialist
Zac Cunningham, Manager of Educational Programs