Historic Fisher-Martin Herb Garden
The garden is an authentic 1700’s Colonial herb garden. It is planted with herbs that were used by Colonial housewives for culinary, medicinal and other uses, such as dyeing fabric and repelling bugs and offensive odors. There are also plants and herbs that were used by the Native Americans of the Cape Henlopen region. The plants were researched with materials provided by Colonial Williamsburg and the Nanticoke Museum. The willow fence and arbors represent the type of fencing used in Colonial times. The garden was originally planted in 1984 by a group of Lewes residents and was maintained by the Sussex Master Gardeners. It is currently maintained by Lewes in Bloom. – City of Lewes
Public Garden next to the Lewes Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center
By Diana O’Hagan, Herb Garden patron and member Lewes in Bloom
Passing under one of the arches into the Fisher-Martin Herb Garden in Zwaanendael Park, the visitor steps into a microcosm of an eighteenth century Lewestowne housewife’s kitchen garden that showcases not only traditional colonial–but also Native American herbaceous and perennial necessities. With more than 80 species represented during growing season, the sections within the garden are organized by dyeing, medicinal, bug repellant, culinary and Native American plantings. In reality, however, many of the herbs and plants cross lines with multiple uses in the colonial era home.
The Fisher-Martin Herb Garden was originally established in 1984 by a group of Lewes residents to complement the recently relocated Fisher-Martin House, c.1730. Members of Sussex Master Gardeners took over stewardship and maintained the colonial atmosphere of the garden for a number of years. While under the Master Gardener’s care, the garden received the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Urban Greening Award in 2003. Lewes in Bloom, an award winning, all volunteer, nonprofit that serves to beautify the City of Lewes assumed care of the garden in 2004.
After extensive research including consultation with Williamsburg and Nanticoke experts and with help from the Lewes Parks and Recreation Commission and the City of Lewes, the current garden redesign was built starting in the fall of 2006. The willow arbors and waddle fencing as used in colonial times to protect the garden from farm animals and other intruders were added in 2008. An inventory of the plantings in 2012 was used to procure new plant ID tags and to refresh the garden. Continuing this dedication to authenticity, each year, emphasis is placed on ensuring the accuracy of herb and plant varieties to the time period represented.
Today, the Fisher-Martin Herb Garden is lovingly attended to by many Lewes in Bloom volunteers. Each spring these eager helpers reevaluate the garden for its content and growing conditions procuring plants and making adjustments as needed. From early spring to the hard frost of early winter, Lewes in Bloom members weed, plant, prune and nurture this space so that all can see, sniff and sample a brief moment in 1700’s Sussex County, Delaware.
Fisher-Martin Herb Garden – Landscape Design
Text and photos by Diana O’Hagan.
The story of the Fisher-Martin Herb Garden landscape design is closely linked to moving and restoring the c.1730 home from Coolspring to Lewes beginning in 1980 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the first European settlement on Delaware soil at Lewes. By 1984, the first garden was planted in its current location to complement the historic home. Friends of Fisher-Martin House, a group of Sussex County residents, with help from and initial garden design by Bittersweet Hill Nursery in Davidsonville, Maryland, planted medicinal, culinary, and various other herbs on the 40 x 30-foot plot. The rectangle was divided into four sections with intersecting pathways.
Eventually the Sussex Master Gardeners assumed responsibility and, with the help from the Lewes Parks and Recreation Commission and the City of Lewes, added a brick border and walkways to enhance the colonial atmosphere. In tribute to the planters and continuing stewards of the garden, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Urban Greening Award was presented to the Fisher-Martin Herb Garden in 2003.
Beginning in 2004, the stewardship of the garden transitioned from the Sussex Master Gardeners to Lewes in Bloom. By the fall of 2006, after visits to Colonial Williamsburg obtain advice from Lawrence Griffith, Curator of Plants, and to the Nanticoke Indian Museum, LIB members were ready to redesign the garden. In Lewes tradition, LIB sponsored a “plant give-away” to anyone who wanted to dig plants for “free” (a tradition continued with the yearly Tulip Dig). Reports are it was a cold, rainy afternoon.
The winter is spent choosing herbs and planning for planting authentic old species (still in practice today) the following spring. The housewife statuary* that adorns the garden was obtained from Elegant Fountains of Morton Electric and her garments were fashioned
and made by Faust Sheet Metal. Additionally, the FMHG committee dreamed of adding wattle fencing and arches to the garden as colonial enrichments. Again, with help from the Lewes Parks and Recreation Commission and the City of Lewes, these were custom ordered from The Willow Farm, Pescadero, California and installed in 2008.
The diagram* depicts the individual gardens as they have been planted since 2006. The four outer gardens contain a Native American, a medicinal, and two culinary areas. The four inner triangles consist of medicinal, culinary, bug repellent, and dyeing herbs and plants used by a typical Colonial housewife. Though many herbs were used for multiple purposes, the location of a plant is most often chosen based on its primary use in the eighteenth century.
*Design of the Garden and statuary picture from Herb Garden Fisher-Martin House: ”A Guide to a 1700’s Colonial Garden” (brochure).
The wattle fences and arbors were upgraded in April 2019. See more picture on our HOT OFF THE PRESS PAGE.
Herb Fun Facts
Text by Diana O’Hagan
At a recent workday, a new patron to FMHG asked what pennyroyal is/was used for. My immediate memory cue was it’s location in the Housewife Bug Repellent section. So after spouting that and adding it’s a nice ground cover, we decided I would tell more with the next workday email. In Flowers and Herbs of Early America“, Lawrence Griffith writes that Pennyroyal (memtha pulegium) was used as a fumigant against fleas as well as a digestive tonic and a uterine stimulant (abortifacient). It was also used to treat pleurisy in a chest “plaster” (think mustard plasters, or are you too young) and as a decoction (that’s like a very strong tea) to raise a sweat. Remember old fashion treatments involving “bleeding”, sweating was also used to correct the body’s humors. Today, it is grown for it’s insect repellent properties, fragrance, lavender flowers, bee attraction, ability to grow between stones and as a “carpeting” herb even in shady areas. In FMHG it likes hot, sunny, dry conditions.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), a small, hardy, shrub-like plant with silvery gray leaves and whorls of fragrant blue flowers on long stems blooming in early summer, grows best in full sun and somewhat dry, well-draining soils. Dried flowers are used in many culinary recipes as well as herbal tea mixtures. Tea brewed with fresh or dried flowers is appreciated for its calming effects.
Mostly known as a culinary seasoning, Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), also a hardy shrub-like plant with green tightly arranged narrow leaves along its branches, enjoys the same growing conditions as lavender. Rosemary ‘arp’ has pale blue-violet flowers that bloom early in the Lewes garden. Fresh or dried leaves are infused for tea.
Let’s not forget Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) “beneficial in…depression of spirits.” Commonly used in tea as well as other drinks today as it was in the eighteenth century, it can be used fresh or dried. Peppermint is a perennial that vigorously spreads by runners and grows well in sun to part shade. It’s wandering habit can be controlled by growing in a container or in a pot buried in the soil. Just lift the pot each spring pulling its runners with it, trim both the runners and roots, repot with fresh soil and rebury.
Sage (Salvia officinalis), the herb of wisdom and immortality, is a perennial with green, velvety leaves that grows in full sun and evenly moist, well-drained soil. Best flavor occurs before flowering. Dried leaves used as seasoning were also brewed as “stimulating and strengthening” tea.
Where are the most weeds in FMHG? ANSWER: in the Costmary. Chrysanthemum balsamita, also known as bible-leaf, is grown in full sun in the front culinary and the housewife culinary sections of the garden. You ask, “why bible-leaf?” The balsam-like fragrant, dried leaf used as a bookmark also repelled silverfish and book lice. Additionally, because of its insect repellent properties it was used as a household strewing herb. Flavoring ales, wines and teas and seasoning other foods were other uses. Medicinally, one use was treating “women’s aliments”. Today it can be dried for potpourri, infused as scented rinse water or grown as a garden insect repellent.
Rose of Atar and Lovage among other herbs have been used to flavor mead and other cordials. These started as medicinal tonics but are now still available for social drinking.
Lemon Bee Balm
Attar of Rose
Gray Lavender Cotton
Green Lavender Cotton
Eastern Prickly Pear