Our Country: Our Patriotic Herbs
Every country has its own way of celebrating and honoring their patriots, their independence, the bravery of their soldiers, and the remembrance of the sacrifices made for the good of all. What more beautiful way to remember than using herbs and flowers with their symbolic meanings to enhance these celebrations? Although the United States is a young country in comparison to many, we have evolved our own ways of celebrating and honoring. For instance, at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 the peony was used to symbolize the American Spirit, ambition and determination to adapt and thrive.
Our neighbors, the Canadians, celebrate the Maple as their national emblem especially on July 1st, Canada Day. The emblem itself, although not an exact representation of any one species, is a composite leaf of two of the most common maples in Canada: the sugar maple and the red maple. The maple also symbolizes reserve and familial love in the language of herbs. Canadians sing this patriotic anthem to honor their country and the queen.
The maple leaf our emblem dear
The maple leaf forever,
God save our Queen, and heaven bless
The maple leaf forever.
In the United States we can celebrate the 4th of July by using thyme, which symbolizes the courage and bravery of our fight for Independence. With nasturtiums we celebrate our patriotism and white carnations our democracy. The California laurel(Umbellularia californica) symbolizes perseverance and glory in the language of herbs.
We place rosemary on the graves of soldiers’ honoring their brave deeds with remembrance, fidelity, and devotion. Every year on Memorial Day we wear red poppies or place wreaths of them on soldiers’ graves remembering and honoring their ultimate sacrifice made for our country. The symbol of red poppies came from the First World War and the red red fields of poppies that covered Flanders Fields in Belgium where many of our soldiers lost their lives. The red also symbolizes the blood they shed. The poet, John McCrae, immortalized the red poppies symbolism in his 1915 poem, In Flanders Fields.
Part of our rich history and folklore surrounds the story of, John Chapman, born in 1774, a true patriot known as ‘Johnny Appleseed.’ He was a very eccentric nurseryman, whose life avocation was to raise, plant and distribute apple trees. They say that he gave the trees away, but he actually charged a “flip penny bit” (six cents) for a sapling or sold them for uncollected promissory notes or accepted used clothing as payment. When poor farmers couldn’t pay, he gave away his trees.
“Johnny Appleseed” collected the seeds for his trees from cider presses in Pennsylvania and transported them westward by carrying them on his back, horseback and canoe. He is attributed to planting over 35 orchards alone in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Although “Johnny Appleseed” had an uncouth appearance and wore odd clothes, he was a gregarious and generous man who was friendly with the Native Americans and knowledgeable of herbal medicine. After years of wandering and spreading his wealth, his beloved apple trees, he finally died of exposure in Indiana in 1845. The words on his gravestone say it all, “He lived for others.”
The Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) was a potent tree and herb used by both Native Americans and early American colonists not only for fashioning strong, light, bark canoes, but as a treatment for many maladies and conditions. One of its most important uses was its effective treatment for skin problems, including eruptions, scurvy, and burns. Decoctions of the leaves healed raw, sore throats, calmed irritations of the stomach and intestines, and reduced fevers. It was also used for kidney and bladder problems. This tree was so valuable to those who explored and settled this great country that it must be named a patriotic herb. The birch is also a singularly beautiful tree and has been designated as the National Memorial Tree for Mothers, and one located in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia has been named the National Mothers’ Tree.
New Jersey Tea (Ceanotbus americanus) didn’t become famous until after the Boston Tea Party, which occurred on the night of December 16, 1773. Also in December of that year, an English ship named the Greyhound sailed into Greenwich, New Jersey, and offloaded tea, which was stored in a sympathetic Tory, Sam Bowen’s basement. Somehow the secret leaked out and the patriots responded on the night of December 22, 1773 when forty young American revolutionaries disguised as Indians stormed Bowen’s cellar and burned the tea. The revolutionaries were placed on trial but no one would convict them because patriotic fervor was so high. So it was after the Boston and New Jersey Tea Parties that English tea was patriotically boycotted.
The settlers followed the example of the Native Americans and started brewing tea with the dried leaves of a local scrub, called ‘pong-pong’ by the Indians and New Jersey Tea by the settlers. Although many herbs were brewed as a substitute for English tea, New Jersey tea became the best-known tea alternative of all Native American plants.
Most of our American Elm (Ulmus americana) died, decimated by the fatal Dutch-elm disease, but at one time this stately tree filled our Northeastern countryside. Early settlers in New England, after a long winter, found the leaves of the elm a quick source of nourishment, relieving hunger. What more appropriate than the tree under which George Washington officially took command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775, was an elm.
The strong White Oak (Quercus alba) became renowned in American legend and history for its timber, which was used for constructing barrels, barns, bridges, buildings, and the decks and keels of ships. In Hartford, Connecticut, The Charter Oak became famous when in 1687 King James II of England tried to unit all the New England colonies under one government. Connecticut’s Governor Andros tried to coerce dissidents to turn over their charter and nearly succeeded, but for a patriotic thief, who stole the charter from under their eyes and hid it in the oak. The Mercer Oak in Princeton, New Jersey, is the tree from which General Mercer, though mortally wounded, bravely directed his troops during the Revolutionary War and then died.
During the Revolutionary War feeding our soldiers was a challenge and many foods seasoned with herbs and spices were created or became popular because of it. Our origins showed themselves in a rich diversity of foods that have become symbols of our patriotic fight for freedom.
The Pennsylvania Dutch, renowned for their colonial cooking, invented Pepper Pot Soup to feed the Continental Army. New Jersey had become famous for a sauce made with wild cranberries, created for the whalers to prevent scurvy, helped save the Continental Army. Gingerbread was hard and would keep for years and became a staple for American soldiers. At the onslaught of the Revolutionary War, the British Army exported our entire rice crop to England, leaving no seeds for future crops. Thomas Jefferson smuggled rice seed from Italy to allow South Carolina to produce the rice they loved so much.
Andrew Jackson, during the war of 1812, led Tennessee backwoodsmen and frontiersmen. They were so impressed with his stamina and courage that they dubbed him ‘Old Hickory’, after the strong hickory tree, which symbolizes glory in the language of herbs. Voters would show support for ‘Old Hickory’, during his 1828 election campaign, by erecting hickory posts on their property.
President Reagan signed a proclamation on November 20, 1986 making the Rose our National Floral Emblem. It’s not surprising, considering our heritage, that England’s national floral emblem is also the rose. Four states adopted the rose as their floral emblem: New York, Georgia, Iowa and North Dakota. The wild rose was engraved on the “silver service” presented to the battleship USS Iowa. Roses symbolize success, which embodies our country like no other in the world.
An so, we in this country have hewn our own history, legends and folklore using herbs to honor our patriots, our independence, the bravery of our soldiers, and the remembrance of the sacrifices made making this great country what it is today. With nasturtiums we celebrate our patriotism and white carnations our democracy.