The Shakers were well known for creating natural medicine. The herbs in a Shaker garden were grown for this purpose, as well as for culinary use. Surprisingly, the culinary plants weren’t for them – but for others!
For the purposes of this post, the herbs listed are for teas and culinary usage primarily. Although I do list the herbs the Shakers used for medicinal purposes, it is advisable not to grow them for use without having a deep knowledge and understanding on how they can be used.
Using herbs for medicinal purposes without that knowledge and understanding can be harmful, and possibly fatal.
With that in mind, the herbs listed in this post are a sampling of the herbs in a Shaker garden, and are common and safe to use for culinary purposes.
Just so you know: This post contains affiliate links; if you click on a link and make a purchase I might make a small commission, but it does not affect the price you pay!
History of Herbs in a Shaker Garden
Herbs in the Shaker garden were primarily used in their patented medicines and to sell for culinary uses. The Shakers themselves didn’t use a lot of seasonings in their food, preferring to stick with the basic salt, pepper for main meals, and a few spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg and others for sweets.
Instead, the herbs in the Shaker garden were dried or distilled into extracts and oils and added to their patented medicines. From 1820 and on into the 19th Century, this became one of their largest sources of income – even larger than the sale of their seeds.
In order to use the herbs as medicine, the Shakers studied and learned everything they could on how to grow harvest and use them. To get the quantity and quality of herbs in a Shaker garden needed for this endeavor required long hours and the help of all the members – from growing and harvesting to preparation, packaging and shipping.
Herbs in a Shaker Garden
Although we primarily think of herbs within the categories of culinary, medicinal, crafting and teas, many herbs are versatile and can fit in any one. Lavender, for example, is a delicious culinary herb, but also has medicinal qualities, is delicious in teas and can be dried and used in Potpourri.
The lists here were common herbs in a Shaker garden, and offers information for specific usage, along with some growing information.
Basil – This happy green herb loves the warmth and does best with 6 to 8 hours of sun a day, in moist, well-drained soil. Plant 12” to 18” apart. It grows bushy, and if left to go to seed, can be invasive. Pinch the seed heads off to help prevent this. Basil is often used in Italian dishes, pesto, soups and salads, and is added within the last five to 10 minutes if it is used in a cooked dish. The medicinal properties for Basil is said to help as an anti-inflammatory.
Dill -Dill is a tall, feathery annual mainly used in pickles, added to salads and making Dill Bread. This is also one of the few herbs in a Shaker garden that was for their use – and they used it primarillyto make pickles. Even though it is an annual, it will reseed itself for a new crop each year. With this in mind, if you don’t want dill all over your garden, you may want to pinch back the seed heads and choose where they will be grown. Dill likes a rich, well-drained soil situated in full sun. It is best to grow from seed, as it does not do well when transplanted, due to its taproot. Once planted and your plants are approximately 4” high, thin them from 12” to 18” apart.
Dill has been found useful in relieving depression, and is often used for relief from insomnia, hiccups, and is being looked at to help provide relief from cancer and respiratory issues. It is believed to also have anti-inflammatory properties.
Oregano (Sweet Marjoram) – Oregano is a perfect herb to plant in pots. It will spill out, and each time you brush against it, the plant will release its wonderful aroma. Oregano is a perennial, and will come back each year with proper care. It loves sunshine, but if it gets too hot can benefit from afternoon shade. If planting in the ground, space Oregano 10” apart in fertile, well-drained soil. Water only when the soil has become dry. Oregano is used in a multitude of dishes, from Italian and Mexican, to American and Mediterranean. It has anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, and shows effective against coughs and colds.
Rosemary – Rosemary does best when it is propagated by cuttings. Rosemary seeds are temperamental and can be difficult to germinate. It is an evergreen shrub, and can be grown in pots or in the ground. If growing in a pot, it can become root bound, and will need to be transplanted to a larger pot each year. Even though it is considered an evergreen, it will need protection from extreme cold. Rosemary loves full sun and sandy, well-drained soil. Rosemary is primarily a culinary herb, and is delicious paired with fish and seafood, as well as used in soups and sauces. Studies are being made with Rosemary in relation to memory issues. If used to rinse your hair after shampooing, it is said to help with dandruff and a dry scalp.
Sage – When you think of the herb Sage, your mind probably wanders to that Thanksgiving stuffing Grandma made, or to sausage. This delicious herb is well known for both. It is a strong grower, and depending on care and climate can be harvested well into the fall. It likes a sunny location and well-drained sandy soil, which makes it ideal for a container garden. Plant sage at least 24” apart, as it can become a rather bushy plant. And remember – sage has a strong flavor, so a little goes a long way! Sage, when made as tea, is used as an astringent and is said to help with sore throats, post-nasal drips and colds.
Thyme – This delicate plant is another perfect addition to a container garden. Most frequently used in Herbs de Provence and a Bouquet Garni, it is a favorite with roasted meats, soups and added to a salad. It is best to purchase thyme plants, as it can be difficult to start from seed. Thyme does best in sunshine, and likes a touch of compost occasionally. It is drought tolerant, and needs a deep watering once a week. As it is a ‘friendly’ plant, grow it near your tomatoes and Rosemary as a companion. Use thyme as a hair rinse, or make Thyme tea to help with anxiety, and ease a cough. Some believe it is also beneficial for respiratory infections and reducing blood pressure.
Medicinal Herbs in a Shaker Garden
Many of the herbs in a Shaker garden can be dangerous to use without a deep knowledge of the plant. Foxglove was used to treat heart issues, but it has since been discovered that ingesting it can be fatal.
This list of herbs in a Shaker garden is only for reference, and includes plant that aren’t necessarily harmful to grow, but are not recommended to use for medicinal purposes without consulting a physician or knowledgeable expert first!
If you are interested in working with herbs for medicinal purposes, a good place to start is with the post Shawna @ Homegrown Self Reliance shares on How To Build Your Working Home Apothecary.
Boneset – Leaves and Flowers. Used for dropsy, boneset fever (flu-like symptom that cause extreme pain in the bones) and rheumatism.
Blue Flag (Iris) – Leaves and Flowers. Used for skin issues, liver problems and nausea (although too much can also induce vomiting)
Catmint – Leaves (made into a tea) – used to help with insomnia, fever, headaches, and cold and flu symptoms.
Bee Balm – Leaves – You may not want to plant Bee Balm for medicinal uses, but it is an attractive plant that is excellent for pollinators. It was used medicinally by the Shakers as an anti-flatulence and to reduce/relieve nausea.
Vervain – Leaves and Flowers. Used for anxiety. Vervain is one of the common Verbena, so is safe to grow. But using it for medicinal purposes requires extreme knowledge of how to do so. It is said to be very bitter in flavor.
More on Shaker Gardens
If you are interested in knowing more about herbs in a Shaker garden, their practical approach or the history of the Shakers, these are some great books to read. I have them all, and frequently find myself curled up with at least one of them!
The Shaker Herb and Garden Book – by Rita Buchanan
Wisdom from a Shaker Garden – by Kathleen Mahoney
The Earth Shall Blossom – by Galen Beale & Mary Rose Boswell
The Shaker Garden – by Stephanie Donaldson
Don’t Miss the Rest!
There are more great posts on Shaker Gardens. You can find them here!