Historic Arkansas Museum's Mary Fletcher Worthen Medicinal Herb Garden: A History

Historic Arkansas Museum's Mary Fletcher Worthen Medicinal Herb Garden: A History
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Historic Arkansas Museum
Thursday, April 20th 2023
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In the spring of 1972, Ann Leighton, author of Early American Gardens, came to Little Rock to lecture a the Arkansas Art Center's "Antiques Forum." While here, she met with the Arkansas Unit of The Herb Society of America at the Arkansas Territorial Restoration to advise them about starting an herb garden there. (Note: In 2001 the Arkansas Territorial Restoration changed its name to Historic Arkansas Museum.) She suggested a medicinal garden, rather than a culinary one, as she thought medicinal lore would be more interesting. Plus, she pointed out that many medicinal herbs can also be used in cooking.

One source that was a great help was The Dispensatory of the United States of America, 1845. Another book, found at the Medical Center and handwritten by Dr. A. W. Webb, had an herbal reference to bloodroot. (This was before the Dr. Robert Watson rare books room was opened.)

Averell Tate shared some remedies handed down from her great grandfather, William E. Woodruff, founder of the Arkansas Gazette. Advertising in that newspaper listed “Shaker seeds” from Enfield, Connecticut, confirming the presence of specific plants in Arkansas at that time. 

By the following spring (1973) there was enough information to make a list of territorial plants to start the garden. Virginia Alexander, along with very strong helpers from her plantation at Scott and a load of well-rotten manure, dug up the sod and prepared the soil north of the existing diagonal brick walkway between the Woodruff buildings. The walk was an old one—not to be removed—so it determined the size and shape of the garden.

Orange Brady, a well-known bricklayer, was hired to put in narrow walks to make the beds accessible.

The initial plants were thyme, fennel, orris, monarda, peppermint, parsley, basil, plantain, comfrey, mugwort, tansy, rosemary, sage, onions and garlic—which came from members’ gardens.

Soon after that, several members went to Pelsor, Arkansas, with Celia Bankhead as the guide to find wild herbs to add to the garden—skullcap, Seneca snakeroot and American pennyroyal. Another field trip with Freeman Thomas added other native medicinal plants. Peggy Ackerman and Averell Tate contributed others.

A 2½-foot wide bed was added on the south side of the diagonal walk as well as narrow strips by the Woodruff house and kitchen.

In 1983 the Arkansas Unit published a handbook of plants that would be found in a medicinal herb garden, Frontier Pharmacy, listing each plant with botanical name and country of origin and telling how it was used. Mary Worthen, Mary Donovan, Freeman Thomas and Bill Worthen were invaluable co-editors. Blanche Lenon created the illustrations. It was stressed that the book and garden were for historical interest only, as it is not wise, and also illegal, for anyone other than a medical physician to prescribe a medical cure.

Plants continued to be added, and in 1989 the sunny rectangle south of the print shop was taken over by the unit to be used for “row crops.” These included onions, garlic, cayenne peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, mustard, carrots and cabbages—as all of these plants have been used medicinally. A row of basil was planted to make pesto for Herbfest. Vegetables and herbs from the garden were also shared with the staff for the Pioneer Day Camp each summer.

At groundskeeper David Etchieson’s suggestion, the metal post for the Rosa gallica was replaced with a wooden one with a finial like those used elsewhere on the grounds. A sprinkler system, donated by David Matchet of Evergreen Lawn Service Sprinklers, was installed for the entire garden.

As in any garden some plants thrived and others didn’t. Rue was never robust,  monarda and pennyroyal tended to take over, fennel wandered from place to place, mullein appeared wherever it chose to, and boneset came up everywhere competing with self-heal for lack of restraint. Guides reported that the most interesting plant for visitors seemed to be the poke sallet that was a gift of Dr. Fred Henker, which grew by the print shop wall.

During the first 20 years of the garden’s existence, almost every member of the Arkansas Unit worked in the garden. The mainstays through those years were Mary Worthen, Dorothy Veirs, Louisa Barker, Blanche Lenon, Nonnie May, Mary Donovan, Nancy McDonough, Maureen Dickson, Louise Terzia, Ann Cline and Lynn Parker. (The above information was from a brief history of the garden written by Mary Worthen.)

Highlights of Later Years

In April of 2009 members of the Arkansas Unit met at the garden to move it to a larger location. It was moved to the east section of the grounds between the Woodruff exhibit building and Brownlee house. The plot backed up to the fence that runs along Cumberland Street and included a large cedar tree, a mulberry tree, and two large crepe myrtles with a row of yaupon holly shrubs growing along the fence.

During the celebration of the Territorial Fair at the Historic Arkansas Museum (HAM) on May 12, 2012, a plaque was dedicated at the herb garden. The plaque reads:  Mary Fletcher Worthen, Medicinal Herb Garden, Established in 1979, redesigned by Beverly Shaner Fennell in 2009, A garden of the Arkansas Unit of The Herb Society of America. Many of Mary Worthen’s family attended and all of Beverly Fennell’s local family came.

During the spring of 2017 members pulled a lot of the invasive ground ivy, dewberry vines and mugwort and laid mulch over those areas so that individual herbs could be more readily identified. They also added several native plants that are listed in Frontier Pharmacy. The HAM staff installed a sprinkler system for the garden, trimmed the holly bushes, and planned to help order labels for the herbs.

By: Barbara Paddack, 2017

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