The Pennsylvania German Herb Garden: Food and Medicine

By Diane Hollister.

Title image: Drying lavender from the author’s garden.

It’s early Autumn, and it’s time to collect and store the goodies from our garden. I’ve picked my lavender and hung it to dry. I’ve brought in basil, oregano, and other herbs to dry and store as well. I’m craving one more batch of fresh mint tea before the frost kills it. But, unlike my Pennsylvania German ancestors, I’m not literally depending on my garden for survival.

In today’s world, we can easily run out to the grocery store or health food store, or peruse Amazon when we need something. We can buy hardened perennials and plant them in our flowerbeds. Years ago, however, the family garden was your resource not just for meals but also for medicines, clothing dye, insect repellants, and more. For example, you would have grown soapwort to clean your clothes; you’d use lavender, mint, rosemary, etc. to give your washwater a pleasant fragrance. You’d grow flax to make clothing — fields of it — as you would need about two acres of flax per person to have enough fiber to spin linen yarn for a year’s worth of clothing. And you’d use a variety of plants to make dyes; the pesky goldenrod that makes many of us sneeze also provided a beautiful yellow shade for dying clothes.

Saving seeds

When I did genealogy research, I found it interesting to read what little immigrants brought to their great unknown future. Often, the shipping list would contain something like a cloak, cooking pot, chest, and bags of seeds. Seeds were critical; families saved seeds from year to year. Small cloth bags or even specialized wooden chests might be used to keep the seeds dry and separated. Seeds could be ordered from professional botanists such as John Bartram. In 1802, nurseryman Bernard McMahon (1775-1816) of Philadelphia published one of the first seed catalogue in the United States, which listed over 700 varieties of seeds. He acted as nurseryman for Thomas Jefferson; you can read more here.


The pandemic is still going, and we’re reminded flu season is coming; many natural health articles are touting things for your immune system like vitamins C and D…and elderberry. You’ve probably seen an article or ad recently for elderberry syrup and cough lozenges. Less than a hundred years ago, plants such as elderberry were crucial to everyday life. A leafy bush with white flowers and purple fruit, the elderberry has long been esteemed for its culinary and medicinal value as the fruit is high in vitamin C and antioxidants. (Note: the bark and leaves are considered poisonous.) Pennsylvania Germans use the fruit for wine, jam and delicious pies.

Elderberry fruit

Early spring greens

Other plants such as dandelion, garlic mustard, ground ivy and cleavers were brought from Europe and now survive on their own, most commonly regarded as weeds. Once welcomed as early spring edibles, both dandelion and garlic mustard have a bitter taste that activates the salivary glands, which in turn stimulate the gall bladder and liver to produce bile. This certainly might help digestion after a winter diet of meat, potatoes, other root vegetables, and sauerkraut. These greens provided much-needed nutrition — and variety.

One I wasn’t as familiar with was ground ivy, which was considered a “lung herb.” Stinging nettles were used by some, soaked and cooked to provide much needed vitamins. (Interestingly, the phrase “sich in die Nesseln setzen,” or to sit in nettles, means to get into trouble. One would imagine that would be quite a bit of trouble!)

Culinary herbs

What else might your herb garden contain? Basil is a common culinary herb that was also used as a garnish for many foods and drinks. If you grow some, you’ll recognize that it was primarily used in the summer, as the leaves are extremely frost sensitive. Basil was also used to help with unpleasant odors. Goschenhoppen historian Alan Keyser interviewed Sadie Kriebel (1906-1998) who recalled that Schwenkfelder women carried a few basil leaves in a handkerchief going to meeting. That way if the room aroma became too strong it was a way to overcome that flavor. One Pennsylvania Dutch name for the plant was Versammling graut (meeting herb) because of this use.

Your garden would also have bay leaves (a tender perennial), which when dried added flavor to soups and stews. You’d grow bee balm, to use as an antiseptic and to help improve digestion. It also attracted butterflies and bees, so you’d be helping out those who harvested honey.

You might have borage; its leaves taste like cucumber and are used in salads, soups, and drinks; the blue flowers attract pollinators and may be candied or eaten as is. Historically borage was used to treat fevers and cramps. Chamomile would almost certainly be included; it has been used as medicine for thousands of years. Its flowers make a soothing tea to calm frayed nerves and treat mild stomach problems. The German variety is taller and stronger in flavor than the English or Roman chamomile varieties.

Many people are familiar with chives. I grew them in my flowerbed this year, as the flowers provided some color when other things weren’t blooming. You can eat those flowers as well as the leaves. The leaves are often chopped and sprinkled on top of everything from mashed potatoes to soups.

Chives in the Antes Plantation kitchen garden. Goschenhoppen Historians.

Our Pennsylvania German relatives would also grow dill for flavoring. I’m a pickle lover; if you are as well, you are probably familiar with this herb. Fresh or dried, dill leaves add a distinctive flavor to salads, fish, vegetable casseroles and soups. Used whole or ground, dill seeds add a unique zest to breads, cheeses, and salad dressings. The seeds are the best way to use dill in dishes that require cooking over a long time. Of course, dill is best known as a pickling herb. You’d also have fennel for tummy aches, and feverfew for fevers.

Most likely, your garden would contain hops as well, which of course makes the modern reader think of beer. However, historically the flowers were used to make poultices, bolster the appetite, promote sleep, and more. Some Pennsylvania German families sewed dried hops into cloth bags that were heated and applied to aching body parts. Hops vines were traditionally grown up a tall post, often made from a dead cedar tree. The flowers were supposed to be gathered before the September winds blew on them. I’m wondering if that was before frost would hit and possibly affect the nutritional value and composition of the plants.

Did you ever have horehound drops? Horehound was used for coughs. Maybe some spicy horseradish mustard was added to a poultice, or you might be encouraged to eat it to “clear your sinuses.” We grew horseradish when I was growing up, and when we’d grind it, the air on the enclosed porch would burn your nostrils when you went out. But oh boy, it was delicious to eat.

Medicinal herbs

Several herbs like lady’s mantle and lamb’s ear, as well as comfrey, were used for wounds. In addition to your lavender, you’d also grow lemon balm which might be used to treat some skin rashes or boils and other aches and pains. Other herbs like parsley (viewed as a tonic, and possibly used for green dyes) and oregano were known to be good for digestion, and rosemary was used in colonial America to freshen breath, strengthen memory, and as an antiseptic.

You probably would see sage, often used for headaches and bites, as well as spearmint also used for similar reasons. Mint as we know it was not just for a refreshing meadow tea, but also to soothe and calm the tummy. Wormwood and similar herbs were used as tonics, and yarrow was used by colonists to help with bleeding, inflammation, and fevers. It was drought tolerant and grew well, even in poor soils. The Pennsylvania German name for it, Schofrippe or “sheep ribs,” may be a reference to a belief that sheep liked to eat the plant. Yarrow was also fed to horses to eliminate intestinal worms.

Comfrey in the Antes Plantation garden. Goschenhoppen Historians.


Now that we’ve toured a bit of the old time herb garden, what about powwow and healing? You may have heard of this but not been sure of what it was.

Until the mid-1900s, Pennsylvania German communities commonly had faith healers known as “brauchers,” men or women steeped in a tradition called “Braucherei.” (The German verb “brauchen” has various shades of meanings, including to use, to need, or to be receiving medical treatment.) The practice is a loose conglomeration of Christian prayer, ritual, beliefs and herbal remedies that Pennsylvania Germans once considered routine. Sometimes brauchers were called “powwow” doctors, after the Algonquian name for their Native American equivalent.

You can read more about powwowing here: Powwowing in Pennsylvania by Patrick Donmoyer

Additional info: Folk Medicine of Pennsylvania Germans by W. J. Hoffman

Hops starter

One way hops was used was as a starter for bread, somewhat akin in my mind to a “beer bread.”

Take a small handful of hops and cook in two cups water about ten minutes. Strain water over two medium potatoes and cook until tender. Drain, reserve liquid. Mash potatoes and add to reserved liquid along with one teaspoon salt, ¼ cup sugar and additional water to make two cups. When lukewarm add ½ cake of commercial yeast, or 1¼ teaspoons dry yeast dissolved in ¼ cup warm water. Let stand at room temperature overnight. Then add one quart water, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ cup sugar. Let stand until bubbly and it is ready to use. Will keep for several days or a week if refrigerated. Allow to warm up to room temperature before using.

Hops flower

Dark Rye Bread

1½ cup liquid yeast starter
1½ cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup molasses
2½ tablespoons fat
4¾ cups dark rye flour
3 cups white flour

(Recipe for the equivalent of one nine-inch diameter loaf. Twelve inches after it is baked.)

Combine all ingredients except for about half of the flour. Let stand one hour or until very bubbly. Add remaining flour to make a stiff dough. Knead well (white flour is best to use on the table for kneading; the rye tends to be very sticky). Let raise until doubled. Punch down and knead again gradually shaping the mass of dough into a loaf. Place in a greased 9 inch pan, unless you happen to be using a “bake oven” then bake it directly on the hearth, and let rise until doubled. Bake at 375 degrees to 400 degrees for about one hour. Remove from pan as soon as taken from the oven and brush with butter. Cool before cutting, if you have the will power to do so. Serve with Lattwarrick (applebutter).

The Goschenhoppen Region (December, 1964. Vol. 14, No. 2)

Dark rye bread. Goschenhoppen Historians.

Horehound Candy

One cup strong horehound tea
1 cups sugar
one-third cup vinegar
butter size of egg

Boil until it cracks when dropped into cold water. Pour into buttered pans.

Willing Workers’ Cook Book, Willing Workers Society of Frieden’s Union Church
Sumneytown, Pa., Sixth Edition 1924

Elderberry Pie

2 ½ cups elderberries
¾ cup sugar
2 Tablespoons flour
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
Pastry for 2 (9 inch) crusts

Line a pie pan with pastry. Stem and wash elderberries and fill pie shell. Mix sugar, salt and flour and sprinkle over berries and then sprinkle lemon juice on top. Cover with top crust and fasten edges. Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake 30 minutes longer. Makes one 9 inch pie.

Diane (Burkhardt) Hollister, of Topsham Maine, is a Berks County native.

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