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Janice Peterson: The 'poisonous' fruit embraced by Thomas Jefferson

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Janice Peterson
August 27, 2014

Earlier this year, I blogged about visiting Monticello, the site of Thomas Jefferson's home and (more importantly!) his gardens. He grew hundreds of different vegetables and herbs from all over the world in his “kitchen garden”. Jefferson experimented with vegetables that weren't commonly grown at the time such as tomatoes, okra, eggplant and lima beans, and helped them become staples in the American diet. Jefferson was truly a revolutionary gardener!

This year Rotary Botanical Gardens has created a living tribute to Jefferson's horticultural genius with the Thomas Jefferson Collection. This unique garden includes 105 varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers that were grown by Jefferson. Although Jefferson would have only grown vegetables and herbs in his kitchen garden, his flowers are also included in this collection to create a beautiful and education display.

The Thomas Jefferson Collection is situated in 13 rectangular beds (the same number as the 13 original colonies!) and each vegetable, herb and flower has a sign describing its history and medicinal or culinary use. I'm happy to say this has been a very popular display at the Gardens this year (and if you haven't seen it yet come check it out!).

It's been great fun for me to take care of this special garden this year. It's been a crash course in growing different vegetables (I now know how to grow rutabaga, sesame and salsify!). Here are a few of my favorites from this garden:

1. Mandan corn. This corn was collected by the 1804-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition. It was used by the Mandan tribe for food and animal fodder, and it helped the Expedition survive the harsh winter. Jefferson tried growing this corn at Monticello.

2. Marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis). Jefferson called this plant “marshmellow”. The plant was used to reduce inflammation and also as a gargle to ease coughs and sore throats. The roots were boiled into a starchy mass and sweetened, a precursor to our modern marshmallows.

3. 'Costuloto Genevese' tomato. Myths abounded about the “love apple” being poisonous. Jefferson was one of the earliest growers of “tomatas”, as he called them. This heirloom's deeply lobed and convoluted shape is typical of 19th century tomatoes. Tomatoes were not eaten fresh but rather used in sauces and ketchups.

4. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascene). This hardy annual has lacy fennel-like foliage and pink, blue or white flowers. The unusual seed capsules contain edible seeds that taste like nutmeg, and have been used to flavor wine and snuff. Jefferson grew a similar species, N. sativa, in an oval flower bed at Monticello in 1810.

5. Yard Long Asparagus bean. Jefferson obtained seeds of this pole bean from General Thomas Sumpter of Georgia. The pods can grow up to two feet long and are eaten whole. They are often prepared like asparagus or added to soup.

6. Italian dandelion. Although it may look like a weed, the Italian dandelion is often used as a salad green, where it imparts a tangy bitter flavor. This is one of the more unusual greens Jefferson grew for his salads.



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