Two garden beds at Longue Vue House & Gardens are rooted in the global diaspora of people from Africa, featuring herbs and vegetables with deep connections to the past.
The culinary and medicinal beds, located in the Discovery Garden and on the East Lawn of the museum grounds, include plants that have been essential to the food and medicinal traditions of African Americans for centuries.
Longue Vue’s inaugural gardener-in-residence, Jakilah Mason, created the beds as part of the museum’s new creative residency program.
“They are all plants that are ingredients you would commonly find in dishes, medicinal teas, spiritual remedies, etc., utilized by people of African descent,” Mason said. “A few are unique varieties that are commonly eaten in Africa.”
Chicory, artichokes, rosemary, black-eyed peas, cayenne pepper, fennel, mint and chives are among the plants currently growing in the diaspora project. In the winter, greens flourished, including collards and mustard.
Black-eyed peas are native to Africa and a staple on the continent, Mason said. Akara, or black-eyed pea fritters, are common in West Africa, the Caribbean and in Brazil.
“Okra is said to have been brought here by Africans along the transatlantic slave route,” said Mason. “Mint tea is commonly used as a digestive aid and as a cough suppressant.”
Rosemary is anti-viral and anti-bacterial and used as a common household cleaning ingredient. It also has spiritual associations with clarity, especially intellectual clarity.
And chicory? That’s been a digestive aid for centuries.
Some plants in the beds are native to other places, but all were used in Africa long before Western colonization.
Mason was inspired by studying herbal remedies and African diasporic philosophies and religions. Both played a role in the design of the gardens and in the topics Mason chose to contribute to the museum’s cultural and educational programs.
“I really just wanted to grow some of the plants my ancestors have grown,” Mason said. “To learn from and about them and have them around for other people to enjoy.”
Longue Vue House & Gardens, the former estate of philanthropists Edgar Stern and his wife, Edith, was created with an eye toward public education long before becoming a museum. The 100-year-old gardens were designed by famous landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman. The Sterns’ house was built by architects William and Geoffrey Platt and is still filled with the couple’s furnishings and art.
“Education was really the strongest part of the legacy that they wanted to leave to future generations,” said Amy Graham, director of gardens at Longue Vue. “That was their purpose in initially creating the gardens.”
The Discovery Garden, or children’s garden, where some of the residency plots are located, is new in Longue Vue terms. It was built in 1998 and is the only garden on the museum grounds that’s not historic.
“We can make changes here, feel free to try and create new things here, like this garden,” said Graham. She said she is excited about the growing residency program and its connection to innovation and education.
“The creative residencies are open to artists of any discipline, dancers and musicians,” said Graham. “We recently had a culinary artist in residence.”
A love of gardening and cooking was passed down in Mason’s family. Continuing that tradition is a way to stay connected.
“My mother is a self-taught gardener and cook, my paternal grandfather started a community garden, my paternal grandmother loved to cook,” Mason said. “I also remember my grandmother was fond of flowers.”
Mason recently led an educational garden walk titled “Chamomile, Callaloo, & the Crossroads” and a food workshop at Longue Vue. The walk focused on the ways Africa’s people and cultures influenced Western medicinal and culinary traditions. In the food workshop, children and adults learned to prepare pikliz — a spicy Haitian pickled relish made from carrots, cabbage, and peppers — with vegetables harvested from the diaspora culinary beds.
“Most of the produce was from here,” said Graham. “We used our vegetable gardens, including the Victory Garden planted by the Sterns during World War II.”
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