What’s in your Martha’s Vineyard garden?

Rosemary

Rosemary

Bethia Mayfield was awed by how much Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk knew about things that grow on Martha’s Vineyard and their use for sustenance and healing.

Ms. Mayfield is the heroine of “Caleb’s Crossing,” Geraldine Brooks’ new historical novel of Island culture clash in the 17th century. Caleb, an Island Wampanoag, is her new best friend. Caleb is a real historical figure and was the tribe’s first graduate of Harvard College. The characters are the focal points of “Caleb’s Crossing,” (mvtimes.com, May 3, 2011).

“For him, it seemed every plant had some use, as food or medicine, as dye or weaving matter. He would snap the heads off sumac and douse them in water to make a refreshing drink, or reach up into trees to gather rich nutmeats — white and creamy,” Bethia says in the book.

All this talk about native herbs and flowers that we can use in everyday life made me curious to know more. Now, Caleb was obviously a smart guy and his folks had 10,000 years to learn this stuff. I had a rich personal tradition of concrete sidewalks. I’m clueless about green things, and I had a deadline.

Fortunately, there is a trove of great information available from Island nursery and garden centers. Mariko Kawaguchi, horticulturist at Donaroma’s Garden Center in Edgartown, was a great find.

“I love the folklore of plants. Man has always seemed to seek better ways and we’ve found decorative, culinary, and medicinal uses for our plants,” she said.

“But be careful. Some of the beliefs are simply folklore. Uses of some plants require approval for use. We get some serious medicine from digitalis, and monkshood is used in health foods, but both are also toxic plants. Check with a herbalist — the Chinese herbalist tradition is the oldest and best — or a specialist at a health food and medicine store,” she said.

Ms. Kawaguchi uses a lot of native plants in her everyday life. “The definition of the word ‘herb’ is ‘a plant that is useful to man.’ For example, comfrey is my band-aid in the garden. If I cut myself, I go grab some comfrey and put it right on the cut. Comfrey is great for regenerating new skin growth.

“Rosemary can be used as a cleaning agent. It was the preferred method for cleaning used in medieval Europe during the plagues,” she said.

Chicory is found everywhere on the Island. “It’s a soft, cornflower-looking plant we see in open fields, even at the dump. People grind and roast it as a coffee-stretcher, for example. Jerusalem artichoke looks like a tuber. It is a bright yellow daisy-like flower. Roast it like a potato, a sweet, nutty taste. I remember a huge patch growing by the side of the road near Chase Road in Edgartown. Great veggie. Diabetics have found it useful to level out blood sugars.

“Lemon verbena is also popular. Every garden center has it. It’s fast-growing, a handsome plant. You can use fresh leaves, or dry, put them in boiling water for a very pleasant tea, like chamomile,” she said.

Lemon verbena is one of many perennial plants with both nourishing and medicinal benefit. “It’s used as an eyewash and it’s also called ‘Eyebright’ for that reason,” she said.

Sphagnum moss, which grows all over the Island, proved a serendipitous lifesaver during the Civil War, Ms. Kawaguchi recounts. “There was a shortage of bandages and the medical corps found the moss stanched bleeding. Then they saw that wounds treated with sphagnum moss had fewer associated infections. Turns out it had nothing to do with the moss but that sphagnum served as a host plant to natural penicillin spores,” she said.

“Stevia (aka: sweetleaf) is a rage with natural and herbal fans. It is a natural sweetener that is supposed to be better than sugar. It’s a narrow-leaved annual and it’s available. We’ve had it, and I saw it at Vineyard Gardens recently.”

Off to Vineyard Gardens where Danga Gabis, the empress of herbs, has designed an ingenious herbal garden. “I designed this [approximately 20 feet by 20 feet] to display herbs by their use,” she said. Ms. Gabis, a Lithuanian native and formerly a German teacher at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, has arranged the garden with a center statuary and two paths to create quarters.

The front quarters are dedicated to annual and perennial herbs and the back quarters are devoted to medicinal and home-use herbs, creating a show-and-tell tutorial that is enormously helpful to the leafy-challenged.

The garden itself has caught on. “A lot of people are making smaller versions on their own grounds. We install them as well,” she said, gently cupping plants and twisting a leaf off here and there for me to taste.

“That’s Lovage,” she said, smiling as my eyebrows went up at the surprisingly varied and delicately smoky taste of a narrow, green leaf. “It’s like a blend of anise and celery,” she said.

In the home and medicine section, Ms. Gabis pointed to several varieties of Achillea (yarrow). “Thousands of years old. The Egyptians used it. And this Achillea was used by Achilles to treat his soldiers’ wounds in the Trojan Wars,” she said.

The Achilles legend has it that the warrior’s mother bathed him in a magical bath that made him impervious to injury. Except for one place on his heel where a leaf had stuck to his foot during the bath.

The name of that leaf? You guessed it.