History and healing growing in a medicinal garden plot.
Such is the story of Vermilionville’s Medicinal Garden, or Jardin des Traiteurs in Cajun French.
In August 2010, Dr. Ray Brassieur presented a program to the Lafayette’s Master Gardener Association inspired, somewhat surprisingly, by Charles Bienvenu’s 1933 master’s thesis in linguistics from LSU.
For his research, Bienvenu went to St. Martin Parish, interviewed traditional healers and recorded the recipes they gave him. After Brassieur’s presentation, a group of master gardeners tasked themselves with building a garden inspired by what Bienvenu learned.
“From that, the garden grew,” Jan Wyatt, the group’s chair said. “We have fifty-seven plants right now, but that number is constantly changing depending on the season.”
In 2012, the group published a book of seventy-six plants and their purported cures.
“Some day, there may be closer to seventy-six plants in the garden,” said Wyatt. “It’s always changing what’s happening in the garden. Yesterday, we gathered seeds.”
Wyatt and Brassieur are amazed at the way the project is developing in so many ways, including educating Lafayette Parish third and eight graders (as well as tourists) and working with biomedical companies and universities from across the country doing extensive research on the plants and their properties.
“It has what we call legs,” said Brassieur. “For example, yesterday I accompanied some scientists from the USGS Wetlands Center and Pennington Biomedical Center. We have an agreement to do research on medicinal plants. This medicinal garden has been the catalyst for that project.”
Brassieur says it’s the “local knowledge” that scientists are interested in building on. “Local knowledge — which is what folk knowledge is — could be the clue as to which plants to put through to the clinical trials. We use that local information that’s been passed from generation to generation to put through to scientific inquiries to help the general public with medical issues.” Brassieur says it’s too early to know any results of potential medical breakthroughs at the moment.
“But the fact that this kind of display could encourage the kind of project that draws the attention of influential scientists around the country is remarkable,” he said. “We’ve built a cooperative with the Wetlands Center, Pennington Biomedical Center and Rutgers University—and our little garden at Vermilionville has been the catalyst.”
Additionally, Wyatt believes the garden is already making a difference on a local level.
“Showing students the plants and helping them make connections between what people did here in Lafayette in the 1850s and products they use today has been extraordinary,” she said. “For example—mint is our first teaching lesson. We talk about the curative powers of mint tea, and then we connect it to mint flavoring today in toothpaste and mouthwash.”
Other plants in the garden help with everything from fevers to bruises to headaches. Specifically, a tea made from the bark of arrow wood was used to help with fevers. Basil is believed to help with digestion and aids relaxation, and a tea of smartweed helped with joint pain. And, appropriately enough, a pack made from the leaves and bark of the toothache tree is believed to help with a toothache.
Mary Perrin, this year’s Medicinal Garden co-chair, is looking forward to plans to extend the plot and install a kitchen garden, which will contain vegetables and the culinary herbs. Perrin also believes the garden’s cultural significance “is important to who we are today and to our sense of place— whether our family has been here for generations or if it has been assimilated from other places, that we keep this heritage alive for ourselves, for visitors, and for future generations. MaryAnn Armbruster, Perrin’s co-chair, agrees. “The Healer’s Garden provides a living, meaningful connection to our heritage,” she said.
Perrin calls the garden “a bit of living history” that provides a direct link to nineteenth-century Native Americans, black Creoles and diverse Caucasian population—the majority of which were of Acadian descent to the people of Acadiana today.
“There is a great probability that the knowledge of the plants indigenous to our area, and the medicines made from those plants, came from those Native Americans who were kind enough to share it with the great waves of other groups who came to settle in this area,” Perrin said.
Details Details Details
The Medicinal Garden guide is online with QR codes for plants in the garden. “We’re connecting modern technology with old-timey things,” said Jan Wyatt.
www.bayouvermiliondistrict.org. Look for “Healer’s Garden” under the Vermilionville tab at the top of the page.