Health1Vermilionville’s Healer’s Garden set out to preserve the way Creoles alleviated illness long ago, and now a group of researchers hopes to determine whether its plants really do have medicinal benefits. By Lisa Hanchey

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Along the winding paths of The Vermilionville Living History Museum & Folklife Park is a lush, fragrant garden filled with plants full of special healing properties. Located at La Maison Acadienne, a replica of a traiteur’s 19th century home, The Healer’s Garden is a collection of the types of trees, plants, flowers and weeds used for medicinal purposes by the Creole people and their predecessors.

A joint project of the Vermilionville Living History Museum Foundation Board and the Lafayette Parish Master Gardeners Association, The Healer’s Garden project officially began in 2010, but its evolution started centuries ago. Back then, Native Americans gathered plants and weeds along Bayou Teche to create natural remedies. As settlers arrived to this area from Europe, the tribes shared their knowledge about these healing plants. With the immigrants came African natives, who introduced their own medicinal herbs to the Bayou state. Over time, these home remedies were passed along to what became Louisiana’s Creole community.

In 1933, Charles Bienvenu, an LSU linguistics student, obtained 570 samples of the fading Creole language from St. Martinville residents for his master’s thesis, “The Negro French Dialect of St. Martin Parish.” To obtain these snippets, Bienvenu conducted interviews with Creole-speaking residents living along Bayou Teche and collected formulas for their folk curatives. He transcribed these interviews phonetically in French, describing the indigenous and imported plants mentioned by the Creoles.

More than seven decades later, UL Lafayette anthropology professor Dr. Ray Brassieur discovered Bienvenu’s thesis, using it as the starting point for The Healer’s Garden. For years, Brassieur had been interested in ethnomedicine, the study of the medical beliefs and practices of different cultures. “Health and well-being is a part of human culture,” he explains. “A lot of effort is spent by any group in the world to maintain their health. It has to do with nutrition, eating, activities and it also has to deal with beliefs. And, it even has to do with religion and sacred and spiritual beliefs.”

Brassieur and some of his anthropology students began the tedious process of translating Bienvenu’s research, written in Creole dialect, into English. Next, they had to identify the plants based on the vague descriptions given by the informants. “To me, it was wonderful; it was the raw materials right down to the root stuff,” he says. “It’s not like a Wikipedia article where someone is telling you what things mean. This is the real stuff — you decide what it means.”

Master Gardener Jan Wyatt chairs Vermilionville's The Healer's Garden. Photo by Robin May

In August 2010 Brassieur gave a lecture to the Lafayette Parish Master Gardeners about medicinal plants and asked for volunteers to create a healing garden at Vermilionville. The Master Gardeners jumped at the opportunity, with new graduate Jan Wyatt assuming the role as chairman. Other experts joined the project, including Larry Allain, a botanist at the National Wetlands Research Center, and Dr. Charles Allen, a renowned botanist and founder of the Louisiana Native Plant Society.

The Master Gardeners started with a list of 43 plants from Bienvenu’s thesis. “A lot of them were weeds, a lot of them were things the Master Gardeners had never heard of,” Wyatt recalls. “Our first task was researching them, and then, once we figured out what they were, finding out where we could locate these plants to put in the garden. It wasn’t like running to Lowe’s or All Seasons and saying, ‘These are the 33 plants we need.’ It was nothing like that.”

In April 2011, the Master Gardeners broke ground on The Healer’s Garden, hiring workers to install a hand-hewn sinker cypress fence, edging and flower beds. Currently, this living exhibit contains 50 plants, which will change and grow with the seasons.

When purchasing a ticket to Vermilionville, visitors will receive a free brochure on The Healer’s Garden identifying the plants by picture and number. Numbered signs on the plants correspond to photos in the book, making them easy to identify. The brochure also contains descriptions of the plants’ medicinal properties in English and French. More detailed descriptions are given for the “Cameos,” the first 10 plants collected by the Master Gardeners, with direct quotes originally collected by Bienvenu from the Bayou Teche traiteurs under each one.

Directly inside the front gate are familiar plants, including a variety of fragrant mints — spearmint (for fever, digestion and headaches), peppermint (toothache, cold, flu) and horse mint (cold, fever, colic). Meandering along we spot honey-suckle (inflammation, sores), ground cherry (burns, stomachache), lemon balm (fever, headaches, cold), Lizard’s Tail (colic, cutting teeth), wormseed (you guessed it — worms) and groundsel bush (Manglier). “It made the most horrible tasting tea when you brewed the leaves, but people tell me it cured everything,” Wyatt says. Flanking the front porch is a wetland designed by naturalist/writer Bill Fontenot, who also put in the beds for the Master Gardeners.  

One of the spinoffs of the garden project is a recent agreement among UL, the Wetlands Center, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center and Rutgers University to determine whether these plants have actual medicinal benefits. “We will send them the plants, and they will screen them for various compounds and see if we can learn what the plants really can do,” Brassieur says. “Later on, if any of this material turns out to be effective for human use, then so much the better.”

The next part of the project involves an educational component. “The plan is to make the medicine — grind up the mint leaves, make a tea, things like that,” Wyatt explains.

UL is incorporating The Healing Garden into its summer Discovery Camps for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders beginning the week of July 16. For more information, call (337) 482-6386 or visit the website at and type “Discovery Camps” into the search bar.

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