House Garden News
Winter had its charms for passersby on Bowne Street
during the Winter of snow.
The historic Parsons era maple tree, Acer palmatum,
was a spectacular sight, with its graceful branches
covered in a powdery snow. The tree has been a feature
at the Bowne House, whose gardens contain a number
of species grown in the nearby Parsons Nursery, founded
by Samuel Parsons in Flushing in 1838. Bowne House,
ca. 1661, was occupied by the family until it became
a museum in 1945; the last occupants of the house were
the Parsons sisters.
During the late 18th and well into the 19th centuries,
Flushing was a site of several famous nurseries. These
nurseries included the Prince and Bloodgood nurseries
as well as the nursery founded by Samuel Parsons. Parsons
traveled the world in search of unusual plant material
to provide stock for his Flushing nursery. Some of
his best known and most celebrated species, besides
the maple, include the Weeping Beech, the rhododendron,
and the Valencia orange. Many of these horticultural
treasures, which are now common in American gardens,
originated in Asian countries. Parsons passports and
materials relating to his travels are in the archives
of the Bowne House Historical Society.
This year, the Bowne House Historical Society is planning
a program and exhibit on the Parsons Nursery’s contributions to horticulture.
THE BOXWOOD GARDEN AT THE BOWNE HOUSE
An interesting and historic feature at the Bowne House,
the boxwood garden, located to the east of the kitchen
and laundry area of the house, has its roots in English
garden design. Boxwood (buxus) was introduced to America
in the mid-1600's, about the same time that John Bowne,
along with his father and sister, arrived in Boston.
The first known boxwood garden was at the 17th century
Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, NY. Interestingly,
John Bowne was a frequent visitor to the Manor and
kept some horses there. The Sylvesters were members
of the Society of Friends (Quakers) as was Bowne.
Designs incorporating boxwood became popular in medieval
times. They were traditionally used in kitchen gardens,
such as the one at the Bowne House. When used as hedging
material, they provided separation between different
varieties of herbals and medicinal as well as providing
a formal, decorative effect. Often gravel pathways
were a feature; this is the case with the Bowne House
Boxwood reached a height of popularity in the early
19th century, at the period of the Parsons family occupancy.
Our boxwood garden probably dates to that time and
most likely came from the Parsons Nursery; there are
references in our archives to its existence in the
mid 1800's. In any event, it has been with the house
a long time and is an important feature and part of
the interpretation of the museum.
Boxwood comes in many species - over 90- and has almost
400 cultivars, according to the American Boxwood Society.
Unfortunately, the recent arrival of a boxwood blight
has presented a threat to American gardens. This is
cause to be cautious in introducing new boxwood plants
into the garden. Fortunately, the Bowne House boxwood
has been with us a long time and is in robust good
health, a tribute to its Parsons heritage.
Herbs in the Bowne House Garden
Since earliest times herbs have been used for medicines,
tonics and all sorts of cures; to enhance the flavor
of food and drink; to cover up unpleasant odors, or
because they smelled nice in themselves; to repel insects
and even as charms with magical powers. They were an
essential part of daily living.
It was only natural that the earliest settlers brought
with them seeds, cuttings, and plants from their gardens
to start gardens in the new land, and that they added
to them those native plants used by the people already
The Bowne House herb garden is close to the kitchen
door where it could be easily reached at any time.
Now patterned after the Quaker Cross, a legendary piece
of jewelry and Bowne family heirloom, it is still informal
in feeling as it would have been in the days when the
Bowne ladies tilled it. Planted in it are many of the
herbs that they would have used, and although reference
is made herein to medicinal uses, no medicinal remedies
are intended. For easy reference, plants are keyed
by number to their general locations in the garden
- Angelica (Angelica archangelica) Herb of the Angels;
symbol of inspiration. Once considered a sovereign
remedy against witchcraft and the powers of darkness.
Seeds anf roots used in medicines for rheumatism,
colds, urinary complaints, colic, toothache. Stem
candied, and seeds used as a substitute for juniper
berries in gin.
- Balm, or lemon-balm (Melissa officinalis) Melissa
from the Greek, meaning “bee”. Bees love
it. Hives are rubbed with balm to keep the bees returning.
Entire plant used: leaves as a wound dressing and
to reduce fevers; as a salt for gout; as a strewing
herb to make the house more festive for one’s
guests; as a flavoring agent for Benedictine; bunches
of leaves rubbed on furniture were the original lemon
- Basil (Ocinum basilicum) Native to India and sacred
to the Hindus. In Italy, token of love and sign of
courtship. Used medicinally for tension headaches
and nausea, for wasp or hornet stings and bites of
venomous beasts. Culinary uses were for flavoring
meat, fish, vegetables, soups and vinegar.
- Beebalm or Oswego Tea (Monarda didyma) Probably
acquired name from Oswego Indians inhabiting area
where found. Scarlet red flowers attract bees and
hummingbirds. Leaves and flowers used for upset stomach,
nausea, vomiting, colds, sore throats; also to flavor
jelly salads. Leaves used as tea substitute after
the Boston Tea Party limited imports of tea.
- Bloodroot (Sanguinaria Canadensis) Native American
plant. Red dye made from stem and rhizome. Powder
from dried rhizome and roots was a stimulant, expectorant,
emetic, tonic, and alterative for pneumonia, whooping
cough, croup, bronchitis; used externally for ringworms.
- Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) Leaves cathartic,
sudorific and alterative. Excellent for purging the
bowels. Bark contains chlorophyll, wax, resin, sulphates
- Borage (Borago officinalis) Symbol of courage.
Given be the Queen of Egypt to Helen of Troy, and
brought to Europe by Crusaders. Used as tonic herb
with exhilarating effect on the mind, to ease fevers
or kidney complaints. Blue, star-shaped flowers used
as a garnish and in potpourris. Leaves have cucumber
flavor, are rich in potassium, calcium, and salt,
were used in salads.
- Burnet or salad burnet (Pimpinella saxifrage) Favorite
herb of the Tudor, used to cure gout and rheumatism.
Symbol of a merry heart. Three sprigs steeped in
a cup of wine, preferably claret, thought to “quicken
the spirits, refresh and clear the heart and drive
away melancholy.” Fresh leaves gave cucumber
taste to salads, vinegars, drinks and garnish. Pulverized
root used to stop internal and external bleeding.
- Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) Symbol of usefulness.
Known for 5,000 years as a culinary nicety. Clumps
were suspended to drive away disease and evil. Hollow
stem said to indicate plants would cure diseases
of the windpipe.
- Comfrey or knit bone (Symphytum officinale) The
healing herb. Used for nasal congestion and catarrh;
infusion of root for diarrhea, poultices made from
leaves for sprains and bruises. (Name comes from
Greek, “to bind” Used as pot herb. A
favorite remedy for many ailments.
- Costmary, Alecost or Bible leaf (Tanacetum balsameta)
Leaves used as bookmarks in Bibles and often chewed
during long boring sermons. Also used to scent linen,
to flavor ale, tea and sausage, or to strew on floors.
As astringent and antiseptic “taken away in
worketh more effectively.” Seeds given to children
- Dill (Anethum graveolens) Comes from the Norse “dilla,” to
lull. All parts used: leaves in salads, potato dishes,
fish, vinegar: seeds to flavor pickles. In white
wine “a gallant expeller of wind and provoker
of terms.” Used to ease swelling and
pains, as a charm against witchcraft, to cure insomnia
and, for digestive value, added to babies’ water.
- Egyptian onion (Allium cepa) The multiplying onion.
All parts used, bulblets were a special treat for
slaves building the Pyramids. Medicinally used as
diuretic, antiseptic, and to eliminate warts.
- Feverfew (Pyrethrum parthenium) Used as tea to
bring down fever and remedy dizziness, Decoction
of sugar and honey used for coughs and wheezing.
Flower head carried to repel bees and also as a repellent
rum and applied hot it relieves toothache.
- Foxglove (Digitalis pupurea) Leaves first used
as infusion for fevers and internal inflammations.
Discovered in the late 1700’s. digitalin, extracted
from 2nd year leaves, was pressed into pills and
used as heart regulative.
- Garlic chives or Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum)
Has flat leaves, and starry white flowers in the
fall. (Bulb, leaf, even flowers are used in Chinese
- Germander (Teucrium Lucidum) An evergreen, good
clipped as an edging. Decoction a remedy for out
and a diuretic.
- Horehound (Marrubium Vulgare) Symbol of health.
Called an herb of Mercury and used for everything,
from curing colds to counteracting poison. Used for
tea, as an anti spasmodic, for clearing the lings,
for purges and yellow jaundice.
- Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) The holy herb. Used
for tea for chest diseases, coughs, colds, hoarseness.
Helpful for rheumatism, bruises, and as a stimulant.
Laid on wounds was thought useless until discovery
that penicillin thrives on hyssop leaves.
- Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphylum) Called
Indian Turnip, root used when partially dried as
nutritive, when fresh used only on skin.
- Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans) Abscess
root. Used for fevers, inflammation, pleurisy, coughs,
colds, bronchial and lung complaints.
- Jhonny-jump-up (Viola tricolor) Called heart’s-ease,
flowers used as ingredients of love potions and thought
good for diseases of the heart.
- Lady’s Mantle (Alchemelia vulgare) Name comes
from Arabic for alchemy. Fresh root used as astringent
and styptic. Leaves said to resemble Kary’s
- Lamb’s ears (Stachys Byzantina) The colonial
band aid. Wooly leaves laid in cut or wound would
absorb blood, adhere, and keep it clean. Leaves also
used in salads, despite fuzziness.
- Lamium (Lamium maculatum) Deadnettle, a member
of the Mint family. Decoction of leaves used to stop
- Lavender (Lavandula officinalis) Symbol of luck.
Name comes from “lavare” to wash, and
leaves and blossoms were much used in the bath, Infusion
from flowers soothing for nerve disorders and for
sore throat and hoarseness.
- Lavender cotton (Santolena chamaecyparissus) Both
the grey and the green varirities (viridis) used
in Knot Gardens. Fresh or dried sprigs used as moth
repellent and to freshen linens. Also used as a vermifuge
- Lungwort (Pulmonaria saccharata) An infusion made
with the leaves was used for lung troubles.
- Lovage (Levisticum officinale) Introduced to Great
Britain by the Romans. Used as a cure-all for most
illnesses; added to baths as a deodorant. Hollow
stems used as snipping straws for sore mouth and
- Marjoram (Origanum majorama) Sweet marjoram, the
annual. Symbol of youth, beauty and happiness. Leaves
and stems in infusion, used as gargle and for sore
throats; as hot poultice for rheumatic pain. Dried
and powdered leaves sniffed for headache.
- May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum) Native American
mandrake. Root used as cathartic, emetic and alterative.
- Mints –
a. Spearmint (Menthe Spicata)
b. Apple Mint (Menthe rotundifolia)
c. Curly Mint (Menthe crispa)
Mint infusions were used as carminatives, antispasmodics,
stimulants and diuretics; also to flavor jelly and
sauce, and for tea. As strewing herbs they were used
to freshen the air.
- Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) Flowers and leaves
(rich in vitamin C) used as remedy against scurvy.
Seeds pickled for Capers.
- Oregano or wild Marjoram (Origanum Vulgarum) The
pizza herb, formerly used as infusion for nervous
headache; the oil for toothache.
- Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) Symbol of mirth,
festivity and joy. Chewed to sweeten breath. Used
to color wines and sage cheese. To prevent baldness
the head must be powdered with parsley three nights
- Peony (Paeonia officinalis) Root used to treat
nervous disorders, headaches, convulsions. A necklace
of the root eased the baby’s teething pains.
- Rhubarb (Pheum palmatum) Stalks, the first fresh
fruit of spring, Used with soda as a spring tonic.
- Roman Wormwood (Artemesia pontica) Used for vermouth – less
bitter than wormwood. Taken internally to dispel
worms, used externally as insect repellent.
- Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) Symbol of remembrance.
Used as a tea to quiet the nerves and restore the
memory; leaves smoked for asthma. Used as a strewing
herb, and thought to have disinfectant qualities.
A sprig on the hot coals of the bed warmer delicately
scented the sheets.
- Rue (Ruta graveolens) Herb of Grave or Herb of
Pardon because English judges carried bunches of
rue to protect them from diseases and lice from prisoners.
Very pungent strewing herb also thought to be antitoxic
- Sage (Balvia officinalis) Symbol of immortality
and domestic virtue. Used as hair rinse and to whiten
and polish teeth. The New England Herb, symbolizing
longevity. “He who would live for aye (ever)
Must eat Sage in the month of May.” Used as
tea until tea was imported from China. Used by Iroquois
Indians for stiff joints, cold and colic.
- Silver Mound (Artemesia schmidtiana) Much-divided,
silver-gray foliage very decorative; used as edging
- Solomon’s Seal (Convallaria multiflora) Root
used for tonic; also was mucilaginous, astringent,
emetic. Once used externally for bruises.
- Southernwood (Artemesia abrotanum) Has strong camphor
smell and was used as moth preventive or burned in
the fireplace to take away cooking odors. Was sniffed
to revive sleepiness during long sermons. Called
Lad’s Love, young men rubbed ointment on race
to induce growth of beard. Also thought to keep out
- Summer Savory (Satureia Hortensis) Rubbed on bee
stings for quick relief. Leaves used as aid to digestion.
Tea used for colds, fever, stomach upset.
- Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) Has fern-like foliage
and anise-like fragrance. Seeds used to sweeten Chartreuse
and as vegetable flavoring. Medicinally, used as
an aromatic, stomachic, carminative, and expectorant.
Used in wax to scent oak furniture and floors.
- Skirret (Sium sisarum) Used as a winter root vegetable.
Dainty white flowers used in bouquets.
- Sweet Woodruff (Asperula odorata) When dry smells
like new mown hay, so used as strewing herb and in
sachets. Used in Church of England as Whitsunday
herb, and fresh sprigs still an essential ingredient
of May wine. Infusion of leaves used as stimulant
and fresh leaves, crushed, laid on bruises and minor
- Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) And Curly Tansy (T. vulgare
crispum) symbol of Immortality. Planted around kitchen
doorways said to repel ants. Tansy cakes, made with
young leaves and eggs were eaten at Easter. Tea infusion
used as tonic and stimulant for the children with
worms. Indians drank tansy tea for backache, Before
refrigeration, leaves rubbed over raw meat preserved
and kept flies away. Root, preserved in honey and
sugar, used for gout.
- Tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus) Symbol of sharing.
One of the herbs grown at Mt. Vernon, and liksted
as a “must” in American Farmer,
Vol.2, April 7, 1820 under Kitchen Gardens for April.
- Teasel (Dipsacus sylvestris) Dried heads used by
fullers to raise the nap of cloth.
- Thyme (Thymus Vulgaris) and Golden thyme (T. serphyllum
aureus) Name comes from the Greek, “to fumigate.” Symbol
of courage, energy and activity. Worn by a young
girl was sure to bring a sweetheart. Used as disinfectant.
Tea used for headache, giddiness, nightmares. Oil
(thymol) used in cough medicines. Among the most
highly favored of herbs, having 60 species of great
beauty and more than usual usefulness to man.
- Violets – Both blue and white flowers
and leaves used as anti-septic. Flowers candied and
used as confection.
- Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) Member of the
mint family. Leaves used as nervine and stomachic.
- Wild Geranium or Cranesbill (Geranium Raculatum)
Native American plant. Root used medicinally.
- Woad (Isatis tinctoria) Good source of blue dye.
Leaves must ferment before they will give up color,
and hue is not evident until cloth is exposed to
- Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) Leafy tops used
to cut grease on roast goose. Ingredient of absinthe
and vermouth. Infusion mixed with ink so insects
would not eat pages. Used for ague, dropsy and worms.
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Because it was abundant
was thought to have broad healing attributes. Tea
made from dried foliage used as cold remedy, tonic,
diuretic, and for “women’s problems.” It
was taken as snuff and for toothache remedy, and
used to flavor liqueur.