“David Austin Buckingham and two others went to Van Schaick’s Island for pennyroyal but did not get much.” (Church Family Journal, August 17, 1842)
Shakers have long been associated with herbal products and developed a thriving business over the 19thcentury. They shipped herbs to customers throughout the United States and Europe. Known fo for their excellent medical care, the Shakers made and sold many herb-based pharmaceutical products, such as elixirs, balms, and tinctures, to apothecaries and physicians. They were also responsible for the creation of the paper seed packet, which led to a very successful seed industry; they sold hundreds of boxes of seed packets. Seen as purveyors of quality products, the Shaker goods were highly respected and quickly purchased at reasonable prices. Although they separated themselves physically from the outside world, they were economically connected with their neighbors and nearby communities through trade.
Shaker communities devoted acres of land to the growing of herbs. The self-imposed rules for harvesting herbs came from the Shaker belief in striving for perfection in all things, which also ensured the high quality of their products. Only one herb was harvested at a time to avoid contamination. Large linen sheets were carried into the fields and the plants were picked and laid on the sheets. The sheets were then gently gathered up and carted back to the herb processing workshop. There was even a specific time for harvesting, which was “before the sun had hit it, but after the dew had evaporated.” The Shakers also gathered herbs that grew wild in the area and would sometimes travel miles to find plants that grew only under certain conditions. In the journal entry quoted above, the group of Watervliet Shakers traveled about eleven miles to Van Schaick Island, located between Cohoes and Troy, for pennyroyal. Pennyroyal is a traditional culinary herb, used by the Romans and Greeks, as well as a folk remedy. The fresh or dried leaves were used for treating colds, flu, abdominal cramps, as well as diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis, and to induce sweating. It also works as an insect repellant. Pennyroyal essential oil is used in aromatherapy but is extremely toxic if ingested. The early Shakers that arrived from England learned about local plants, like pennyroyal, and their medicinal uses from Native Americans (who influenced their crafts and basket making as well).
Today, the Shaker Heritage Society has an herb garden containing plants used by the Shakers in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century. We are planning several programs featuring herbs for 2012, including another herb sale at Faddegon’s Nursery in June, which was very popular and a great success, as well as a Shaker medicinal herbs workshop, presented by Barbara Neznek. The SHS herb garden is supported entirely by volunteer labor. For more information about becoming a garden volunteer or upcoming programs, please visit our website at shakerheritage.org or contact the Education Coordinator at (518) 420-9591 x23 or firstname.lastname@example.org.