January 26, 2020

Shaker Herbs a Harvest of History and Wisdom

Borage - Borago officinalis

Borage - Borago officinalis | Wikimedia Commons - Author: AnemoneProjectors/CCA-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

• By Diana George Chapin •

For millennia, humans have used herbal plant material for a myriad of everyday purposes.

The Shakers, a Christian religious community, were masters of herbal use, lore and propagation.  The use of popular Shaker herbs is still relevant today, as plant properties of open-pollinated plants remain useful for treatment of various health concerns and practical household needs.

In communities throughout the Eastern United States, the Shaker’s societies enjoyed their golden days in the decades between 1820 and 1860. Drawing upon the herbal wisdom of Native Americans, much of their work was in propagating, harvesting, preserving and selling herbs and herbal mixtures.  In the height of their business dealings, the communities enjoyed what today would be a multimillion-dollar trade in practical plants and seeds.

Shakers cultivated their herbs in gardens or harvested them from the wild.  Once harvested, herbs were dried and preserved indoors, suspended from attic rafters or dried in the lofts of the barns on their farms.  Whether dried in kilns heated by wood fires, distilled in kettles or preserved by a number of other means, the Shakers mastered the use of herbs out of necessity for care of their community but soon spread their knowledge well beyond those bounds.

One can imagine the range of household tasks, personal hygiene, medical treatments and practical needs plants served in the time the Shaker communities were thriving in the U.S.  Plants were used for fiber for fabric for clothing, wicks in lamps, fragrances to expel unwanted odors, insecticides to keep pests off crops and out of stored clothes, and so much more.

Many of the herbs utilized by the Shakers are still favored today.  Wild indigo, Baptisia tinctoria, was a sought-after dying herb but also had uses as a purgative and tonic.  The roots were used as a stimulant.

Hyssop - Hyssopus officinalis

Hyssop - Hyssopus officinalis | Wikimedia Commons - Original book source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany | PD-US – published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.

Hyssop, Hyssopus officinalis, was used as an aromatic and expectorant.  Valued in treating asthma and chest diseases, the leaves were also applied to bruises to remove pain and discoloration of soft tissues.

Parsley, Petroselinum crispum, was used as a diuretic.  The root was used to treat dropsy and sexually transmitted disease. One Shaker reference notes that “seeds were used to destroy vermin in the hair.”

Borage, Borago officinalis, was used for curing skin diseases and rheumatism.  An edible, it was made into a cordial and was thought to have laxative qualities.

Rosemary, Rosmarinis officinalis, was used as a tea or warm infusion for the relief and cure of colds, colic and nervous conditions.

When researching Shaker herbs, it is most remarkable to note the diversity of plants used and offered to the public through the Shaker catalogs and bulletins.  In addition to the biological diversity, the range of plant parts used for various purposes is impressive.  Leaves, barks, roots, stems, powders, teas, concoctions.  The materials and formulations represented a rather exhaustive amassing of intellectual resources.

Since the beginning of time people have depended on plants.  The Shakers represent a treasure in the gardening archives of American history.  Their widespread knowledge, their fervor for horticulture — the art and science of growing things — their detailed record keeping, and their work ethic and the body of herbal wisdom they developed and possessed are an inspiring and enduring legacy.

An excellent reference to consider is “Shaker Medicinal Herbs” by Amy Bess Miller, one of the most well-documented and often-cited resources on the topic.

Always positively identify plants before using them medicinally or ingesting them.

Diana George Chapin lives and works on her family’s 90-acre farm in Montville, Maine. Diana learned to garden alongside her mother, grandmother and great-grandfather and she developed an appreciation of old-fashioned flowers and working, historic landscapes early in life.  When she is not tending her collection of heirloom plants, she spends time teaching others about gardening through hands-on projects, writing and public speaking. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Landscape Horticulture and Design, and a Master of Science Degree in Plant, Soil and Environmental Science from the University of Maine.