Curioisities in Pennsbury Manor’s Garden

We have many vegetables and herbs growing in the Kitchen Garden that we still grow and use today, but what about the ones we don’t? 

For the adventurous visitor who loves to poke around and explore, there are some wonderfully unusual plants you can find tucked away in corners and along the side paths of the Kitchen Garden.  I love taking a tour with our gardener, he can point out all sorts of curiosities and the creative ways they discovered for using them in the 17th Century!

One of my favorite plants is definitely the marsh mallow… yes, you read that correctly!  The roots of this plant, when crushed up and beaten with sugar and egg whites, produces a gooey, white, mixture very similar to our modern marshmallows.  If you visit the garden, be sure to touch the leaves, which are amazing – they feel like a thick, luxurious velvet!

Along the right wall of the garden, you’ll find a very special plant  – jewelweed, also called lady’s purse. The juice in the stem can combat poison ivy and poison oak. Modern hikers and campers should definitely learn to recognize this plant, which is most distinctive when it starts to bloom in August.  The blossoms are bright orange, and can often be found near where the poison ivy is growing. The juice of this plant is often used to combat other problems, including bee stings and mosquito bites.

Be sure to stop by Pennsbury’s Kitchen Garden and check out what’s growing this season!

By Hannah Howard, Volunteer & Special Project Coordinator

Pennsbury Manor’s Summer Harvest

It’s been a great summer for our garden here at Pennsbury Manor! 

Because of all the rain, our summer harvest is growing quickly and will need to be harvested in the next few weeks.  This would have been fantastic news in the 17th Century.  By harvesting the summer crops quickly, they have more time to turn over the beds and replant the next crop. They wouldn’t want to waste a single day of warm weather, since what they can cultivate during the spring, summer, and fall will determine how much food they have to last the winter.

For those of us whose summer BBQ’s wouldn’t be the same without some tangy horseradish, check out the amazing crop growing near the garden cistern! Horseradish is one of those plants that can be continually harvested as needed, so it needs some good protection from the bunnies who like to tour our Kitchen Garden!  The fencing shown here is called “wattle fencing” and uses the flexible branches trimmed off of the apple trees in the spring. It’s a wonderful way to use the resources of the garden while also created a sturdy protection for your crops. 

Most of our field crops – barley, buckwheat, oats, wheat, and rye – were just harvested. Grains were an essential part of the colonists’ diet and could be dried and stored away to use throughout the winter.  The last one we’ll harvest will be the flax, which gets pulled up by the root and used as a fiber in making linen.  Most farms wouldn’t make their own linen, but they could grow it and sell it to the nearby cottage industries, who would then break the reeds, comb out the fibers, and weave on a loom. 

Our white pattypan squash has taken over one of the garden beds, it’s gorgeous!  Pattypan is an early squash, you can see they are starting to blossom and will hopefully have a large harvest.  Next up will be another planting of beans, radishes, beets, and yellow crookneck squash which wil be harvest this fall.

 Chives are a great plant to grow in the Kitchen Garden, since you can chop off the stalks and it will keep growing back all season.  Mustard Greens are another constant resource that can be picked anytime, and they are self-sewn and easy to grow. But some plants take a longer time to mature. Our asparagus is still in its first year of growth, so we’re not ready to harvest this year. Leaving the asparagus shoots alone for 2-3 years before harvesting means you will have a much bigger yield with larger stalks. But of course when living in the new colony, if the garden had a bad season and you were desperate for the food, you would have to harvest what you could to survive. 

 Stay tuned this fall for more updates on our Kitchen Garden’s progress!


Peaches and peppers and squash… oh my!

“The gardiner is brisk at work. The Peach-Trees are much broken down with the weight of Fruit this Year.”

The patched fence provides protection for Pennsbury's crops and a sunny spot to grow.

William Penn’s steward James Harrison reported this good news in October of 1686, but the same could be said of the fall harvest in 2012!  Indian blood peaches, radishes, red and yellow cayenne peppers, squash, gourds, and culinary and medicinal herbs have all thrived this year in Penn’s kitchen garden.

According to Pennsbury’s gardener Mike Johnson, this is due in part to the recent restructuring of the garden’s fences. While Penn’s original garden covered about two acres of his estate, the smaller area has allowed the garden staff to protect the plants from pests and to interpret seventeenth and eighteenth-century garden activities more effectively for visitors.

One of the several varieties of gourds currently growing in Pennsbury Manor's 17th-century kitchen garden.

You may be asking yourself, “What happens to all those fruits and vegetables?” Just as in Penn’s time, nothing goes to waste!  Harvested crops will be used in cooking demonstrations, educational programs, and seed-saving for future planting.

Let’s follow the path of the dipping gourd, which has yielded a particularly plentiful harvest this year. From the garden, the dipping gourds will make their way into storage to dry until next summer. At that time, our summer campers will remove the seeds and return them to the gardener so they can be planted. Once the seeds are removed, each gourd will be fashioned into a ladle-like tool used for watering plants. In a time when metal watering cans were expensive, being able to grow one’s own irrigation tools was certainly a favorable alternative. 

Dried gourds make excellent dippers for the cistern. Gourds and thumb-pots are favorite 17th-century tools kids can use as they water the garden’s many plants.


2012 was also a “hot” year for red and yellow cayenne peppers. Growing cayenne peppers has given the garden staff an opportunity to interpret contradicting horticultural ideas, as not everyone on the estate would have eaten them.  African slaves living at Pennsbury had their own culinary culture and probably would have cultivated cayenne peppers as a food source. However, the Penn family and Pennsylvania’s other English residents would have considered them to be primarily ornamental plants with some medicinal and culinary value. For example, cayenne pepper and other spices would have been added to hot chocolate for an exotic burst of spicy flavor.

The fall harvest is well under way and will continue for the next few weeks. On your next visit to Pennsbury, take a walk through the garden and reflect on the efforts of our gardeners, past and present. They cultivated food for the table, medicine for those who were sick, and even tools for future growing seasons. Autumn is the perfect time to celebrate their achievements!

By Danielle Lehr, Volunteer and Intern

The Country Life: Beating the Winter Cold

Although the Penn family did not reside at Pennsbury in the dead of winter, the estate was certainly not dead; the staff worked to ensure the smooth running of Penn’s summer home in all seasons. Colonial gardeners were no exception, cultivating techniques to battle the cold and prepare for spring. As colonials tired of pickled and salted foods during the winter months, they longed for fresh produce. The hot bed, an important part of the colonial kitchen garden, allowed colonists to begin growing vegetables before spring thawed the ground.


16th-century engraving of a gardener working on his raised garden beds (“The Gardener’s Labyrinth,” Thomas Hill).  Raised bed allowed gardeners to adjust the composition of the soil, adding or lessening acidity depending on the plant being cultivated.  Hot beds were a variation on the standard raised bed frame.


In Pennsbury’s garden, the hotbed is located opposite the riverside next to the cold frames. A brick and wood structure, the hotbed protects seedlings from the bitter cold and provides the perfect environment for out-of-season growth. Colonial gardeners would have layered soil over fresh manure from the barn to create the heat source. Once the manure cooled to about seventy degrees Fahrenheit, the bed was ready for seeds. Straw placed on top provided additional protection from the elements. If prepared properly, the hotbed could retain its heat for several weeks.

Although its main purpose was to jumpstart vegetables in the cold weather, colonial gardeners would have used the hotbed year round to grow a variety of plants. We still use the hotbed for this purpose at Pennsbury (see below). For example, last summer, the gardeners used the hotbed to provide a space for growing flax. The hotbed gave us the perfect place to monitor the young flax plants and ensure they would be mature enough for the fall harvest.


A hotbed at Pennsbury Manor, 2011


Colonists were not able to simply walk into the supermarket and pick up fruits and vegetables during the winter like we can, but they were not completely helpless. They wasted no resources, and that includes time. While they could not beat Mother Nature’s icy grip on their gardens, they could manipulate the temperature of their own growing environment, the hotbed.


**Come to Pennsbury Manor’s Gardening Sunday on May 27 and see what’s starting to sprout in the Kitchen Garden!**


Written by Danielle Lehr, 2011 Intern

Edited by Hannah Howard

Living the Life of a 17th-Century Farmer

Last weekend, during our annual spring Interpreter training, I shared an amazing  BBC mini-series on 17th-century farm life, and I wanted to make sure everyone else got to hear about it too! 

(I’ve actually already shared it a couple of times on this blog, including a recent article about stuffing straw mattresses.  But this is a tv series any history buff should not miss, so I couldn’t resist re-posting a link!!)

The series, called Tales From the Green Valley, follows 5 historians and archaeologists as they live on a real 17th-century Welsh farm and perform the daily activities required to survive. Unfortunately the series is not available on DVD in US-format, but luckily all 12 episodes are available onDaily Motion:*


These 12 episodes, one for every month of the year, offers a marvelous inside look at the daily lives of Stuart-era English farmers.  They follow the agricultural year and show how much life was influenced by the seasons, in ways that modern society hardly notices anymore. 

Throughout the year, we’ll be sharing more posts on seasonal activities, so stay tuned!

Hannah Howard, Volunteer Coordinator


*No copyright infringement intended, used for purely educational purposes

A Country Life: Take a Whiff of THAT! (Part 4)

Continuing our series The Country Life, we feature a lovely and lesser-known herb in the Kitchen Garden.  ‘Tis the season for apple cider, apple pie, apple butter… and Apple Mint!  

Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens): Like other mints, apple mint was prized for its sweet scent and taste. Besides being a nice addition to any number of baked recipes and salads, it was used to flavor tea, which had a pleasing taste and also helped digestion.


By Danielle Lehr, 2011 Summer Intern

“It’s made of WHAT?”: Making 17th-Century Soap

Back in August, recently retired volunteer Penny held a workshop to talk about her favorite hobby: making soap!  Penny has been a volunteer at Pennsbury Manor since 1982 – wow!  She retired after almost 30 years of soap-making demonstrations, but graciously agreed to provide a soap-making workshop for her fellow volunteers and teach us about her techniques. 

To provide a little background information, soap was a necessary all-purpose supply to keep in any 17th-century home.  You used the same basic lye soap to wash yourself, your dishes, and your laundry.  Alum could be mixed to make a specialty soap for removing laundry stains.  Herbs like lavender and lemon balm could also be added for scent.  Early Pennsylvanians could have purchased soap at the markets in Philadelphia (or Burlington, NJ which was just down the river from Pennsbury!).  But if you had the time, making your own soap would be a good way to save some money. 

It was made of two basic ingredients: tallow and lye.  Both ingredients were easy to come by – tallow, or rendered animal fat, was regularly available from the kitchen.  Penny taught us a modified version of the original Lye Soap process, which I’m happy to share with you now! **Click on images to enlarge**

Penny’s Castile Soap

1.  Prepare the Suet

Tallow is made by rendering (melting) animal fat, otherwise known as “suet.” Penny recommends beef suet from around the kidneys, but other animal fats can also work. This would have been easy enough to acquire in the 17th Century, but in the modern world the best place to find suet is your local meat shop. This includes grocery store meat departments.  To melt the suet, cut it into small pieces and place in cast-iron pot.  I recommend you start with rendering about 1 lb. of suet, as you need 28 oz. of tallow for Penny’s recipe. 

2. Render the Suet
Add 2-4 inches of water and 2 Tbsp. salt to the suet and place pot  on stove-top (or fire if you’re doing this at a historic site). Slowly bring to a boil – you don’t want to heat the pot too fast, or the suet will burn.  Allow the tallow to melt off, then remove from the heat.

Place a larger clean pot on the ground and drape cheesecloth or piece of linen across the top.  We learned that this works best if the cloth is strapped to the sides with some twine or rope.  If working inside, cover the floor with washable cloth or newspapers to prevent any mess or damage. 

Then take the pot of melted suet and pour onto cheesecloth. Allow to drain for several minutes, shifting mixture and even squeezing the cloth so all usable fat seeps through. Then remove the cheesecloth and toss the sifted mixture.  Congratulations, you now have tallow!  Now leave it to cool to 95°-100° F. 

3.  Making Lye: A Shortcut
Penny strongly recommends a shortcut for making lye water, as the 17th-century method is time-consuming and messy. However, if you’re a stickler for authenticity (which we applaud!) and want to go through the original process, you will need to find/create a Leeching Barrel, like the ones you see here (engraving from unknown source).  

The leeching barrel would be prepared with layers of straw and ash from the fireplace.  By pouring boiling water into the barrel, the lye chemical would be stripped from the ashes and combine with the water, which would drip down into the pot at the bottom. But if you’d prefer to skip this process, Penny picked up some Lye Crystals at her local grocery store.  The directions should be provided for specific measurements of hot water and crystals.  But first make sure you have the right equipment: rubber gloves, wooden spoon, pitcher that can withstand 200° F, and large pot/bowl/container.  Follow the instructions, allowing the crystals to dissolve fully and then leaving the mixture to cool to 100°. 

 4.  Mixing the Soap

Heat 20 oz. olive oil and 16 oz. coconut oil to 95° F.  Measure out 28 oz. of the tallow, which should now be the same temperature (if you are short, then repeat steps 1-2 until you have rendered enough tallow). 

Combine oils in large pot, then SLOWLY pour lye water into the fats, stirring constantly but gently.  The mixture will slowly become the consistency of applesauce.  Depending on the tallow used, this could take anywhere from 15 minutes up to an hour. 

 5. Molding the Soap
Gently pour or ladle mixture into mold(s).  

You can use any size square or rectangular mold you want.  To make an easy mold, find a wooden box (or shoe boxes work great) and line with linen or wax paper to prevent leaks.  Depending on the weather and where the molds sit, soap could take a couple days or a week to harden.  Warm weather will keep it slightly soft. 

 6. Milled Soap (optional)
To make a more refined soap, you could mill (shave) the hardened soap and remelt and mold.  Modern soap-makers often mill their specialty soaps and add in additional scented oils, herbs, and coloring. 

**Caution, use fresh soap rather than old, hardened pieces – it won’t melt or dye properly and you could have a crazy time trying to make it behave!!** 

Thanks again to Penny for her outstanding dedication to Pennsbury’s visitor programs and volunteer education!!

By Hannah Howard, Volunteer Coordinator


A Country Life: Take a Whiff of THAT! (Part 3)

In the third post for our new series The Country Life, we continue our look into the Kitchen Garden’s herb collection (check out our posts on Lemon Balm and Rosemary).  Here is one of my favorites… 

Lavender (Lavandula): Visitors will often recognize this herb’s soft, purple flowers and many will welcome the chance to smell it. Colonists also enjoyed lavender’s scent and used it as a perfume for clothing. They also recognized the value of aromatherapy. Lavender’s aroma was used to ease headaches and “giddiness.” The plant’s flowers, leaves, and seeds were also consumed to ward off fainting and joint pain.


By Danielle Lehr, 2011 Summer Intern

A Country Life: Take a Whiff of THAT! (Part 2)

In the second post for our new series The Country Life, we continue our look into the Kitchen Garden’s herb collections (check out our post on Lemon Balm).  Here is one you’ll probably recognize… 

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Recognizable by its needle-like leaves, rosemary had many uses in the 17th century. In the kitchen, cooks could use rosemary to flavor meats (like we do today). Medicinally, its savory aroma was used to ease a headache and to improve one’s memory. Additionally, vapors resulting from steaming the herb could be used to cure an earache and the leaves could be smoked to ease a cough.


By Danielle Lehr, 2011 Summer Intern

A Country Life: Take a Whiff of THAT!

William Penn wrote that “a country life and estate I like best for my children,” and we agree!  So our new featurette The Country Life will highlight the outside gardens and grounds of Pennsbury Manor and the surrounding area.  Enjoy!

Sights, Sounds, and Smells of the Kitchen Garden

Every spring and summer, visitors to Pennsbury stop by the Kitchen Garden to take in the sights and sounds of the 17th Century. They see a multitude of plants of all colors and textures. They hear the birds chirping and the bees buzzing. However, the garden also offers visitors the chance to experience smells of the 17th Century (and I’m not talking about the kind of smells they experience in the stable). The garden boasts a number of fragrant herbs that William Penn may have grown in his own garden. In Penn’s time, the fragrant herbs were not only pleasing, but also useful. Penn’s contemporaries often had several uses for one herb, including culinary and medicinal uses.

Now that school tour season is over, our fragrant herbs will have a change to recover from the rubbing, pulling, and picking. However, kids are not the only ones who are drawn to the sweet and savory smells of the Kitchen Garden. Children and adults alike enjoy the hands-on (and nose-on!) element the Kitchen Garden offers. Here at Pennsbury, we encourage all visitors to engage their senses as they stroll through the garden, including this one: 

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis): A favorite of mine, lemon balm really does smell like lemon! Although it is related to other mints, lemon balm offers a citrus surprise that visitors often do not expect. In Penn’s time it was used to flavor cakes, teas, wine, and other beverages. In fact, our Summer Camp kids discovered lemon balm tea today and loved it!   Medicinally, lemon balm was also used to treat a number of ailments from stomachaches to epilepsy.   

So take a stroll into the lower kitchen garden and look for lemon balm, it’s near the path intersection by the cistern.  Over the next few weeks, we will be sharing more of our most popular and fragrant garden herbs for you to explore.  Stay tuned!


By Danielle Lehr, Summer Intern

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