18th century in bloom

At the William Paca House, a horticulture expert will take listeners back to gardens of an earlier time.

August 19, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A late 18th-century garden was not just a beautiful thing. In those times, the flora around a house was as useful as it was attractive - perhaps more so.

At the William Paca House and Garden in Annapolis, a free public talk slated for tomorrow morning will show how heavily a Colonial household relied on its garden - not only for gooseberries, apples and other fruits and vegetables, but for herbs and medicinal remedies.

Sassafras and echinacea were big back then as remedies on both sides of the Atlantic, as a stroll through a replanted period garden behind the Paca House shows.

"There was a huge interest in New World plants for European ailments," said Mollie Ridout, director of horticulture for the Historic Annapolis Foundation and tomorrow's speaker.

Pointing to a bunch of violet coneflowers, Ridout said, "These contain echinacea, which was an old [Colonial] cold remedy. And digitalis, found in foxgloves, was known to help heart disease in the 18th century."

Holding a hand-shaped leaf from a sassafras branch, Ridout said, "This was considered a panacea, [the substance] from the roots and bark. It tastes to us of root beer flavor, but it was shipped back to Europe as medicine."

Nearby, a pretty bell-shaped blue flower, she noted, had a not-so-pretty name: "lobelia syphilitica." Syphilis was a major killer two centuries ago. In the absence of antibiotics, that flower was seen as generally effective for treating syphilis.

With Jefferson, the black garden cat, shadowing her as she moved through the geometric beds containing early specimens of zinnias and cannas, Ridout remarked, "Good plants stay in fashion."

But the sensibility of planting flowers was different 230 years ago, when Paca, a Maryland signer of the Declaration of Independence, lived in the house. The emphasis then was more on displaying unusual specimens, often with palliative properties, rather than elaborate splashes of color - which is an early 20th-century trend in gardening.

Household culinary herbs such as rosemary, good for seasoning and freshening days-old meat, are found throughout the garden. But sage, now a trendy garnish, was a popular treatment for eye ailments, Ridout said.

Apple trees were pruned in such a way as to stunt them and save space. Apples were a staple in the late 18th-century diet, and hard apple cider was an everyday table drink for children and adults. On the other hand, she said, citrus fruits were prized and a sign of a rich man's garden.

It is a matter of "heartache" to Ridout that books and records describing the precise layout of Paca's garden were burned and lost. Ridout, whose ancestors arrived in Annapolis in 1753 - a dozen years before Paca built the mansion - said her history and roots are deep in the Annapolis soil.

"We just don't go anywhere much," Ridout said.

With her solid grounding in the late 18th century, Ridout evokes the reasons for the more "naturalistic" landscape of the lower part of the Paca garden, another opportunity for time travel on the job.

She said the look echoes the era's elegant English country gardens and estates. The white summer house across a footbridge, for example, is an English-inspired feature, complete with curving lines and symmetry meant to please the eye.

The blooming Franklinia tree, named after Benjamin Franklin by a Philadelphia naturalist, is a rare specimen believed to be extinct in the wild, Ridout said.

The slender summer house, a modern reconstruction of the original based on a painting, has two stories capped by a bell-shaped copper roof. In Paca's day, it would have been close to the water's edge; today, it backs onto the U.S. Naval Academy campus.

In that summer house, the Paca family and their friends would have a perfect place to enjoy their garden.

"In those days, they went above to catch breezes and see ships, play cards and drink tea," Ridout said.

Tomorrow's 10 a.m. lecture will be held outdoors in the garden behind the William Paca House and Garden, 186 Prince George St., rain or shine.

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