The Old Capitol Herb Garden: An Outdoor Sanctuary

The streets of downtown Corydon, like the streets of cities and towns across the world, were strangely quiet and empty during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The usual hum of public life tapered off to essential business and some outdoor activities. 

Among those who could safely perform their jobs in the open air of downtown were the gardeners who volunteer to maintain the Old Capitol Herb Garden. Working alone or in pairs, they planted, pruned and weeded, cultivating the garden as a symbol of the resilience of life and a sign of hope.

Working alone or in pairs, they planted, pruned and weeded, cultivating the garden as a symbol of the resilience of life and a sign of hope.

“It was a very different experience this year,” said Ken Tingler, the president of Harrison County Master Gardeners. “Usually, during April and May, the garden is hopping with energetic kids. Between 4,000 and 5,000 fourth-graders from across Indiana stop by the garden as part of their tour of the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site. I always enjoy their delightful questions. Other tourists drop by as well, and often engage with the gardeners in stimulating discussions.”

In 2018, at the request of the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site, the Master Gardeners and the Kentuckiana Herb Society formed a partnership to maintain this historic garden. 

“Normally, when the two groups work together, there is a lot of lively conversation,” Tingler said. “This year was different; folks often worked alone.”

Tucked away behind the historic Governor Hendricks’ Headquarters, this walled garden sanctuary is filled with fragrant herbs, vibrant foliage and flowers. 

Visitors can enter through a picket gate on Walnut Street between the Hendricks House and Carriage House. The herbs are labeled with slate signs designed by artist Cynthia Johnson. A brick walkway allows access to view every plant.

In 2019, the Harrison County Master Gardeners and Kentuckiana Herb Society received a beautification award from Main Street Corydon for their rejuvenation of the garden, which had been left untended for many years. But the garden is not only a beautiful place to elevate one’s spirits, it is also an educational resource where visitors can learn some history — specifically, how herbs have been important in America’s and Indiana’s past.

The garden is divided into four quadrants, each one labeled according to the historical use of the herbs planted there: medicinal, kitchen, fragrance and tisane (or tea). 

“When Gov. Hendricks lived in the house (1822-1825), herbs were widely used as medicines; everyday people grew them to treat a variety of ailments,” said Joan Burton, the chair of the Kentuckiana Herb Society. Burton, who has done extensive research on the herbs in the garden, is a treasure-trove of information. 

“Early Americans used horehound as an expectorant,” she said, “and the herb continues to find a place in cough drops. Monarda or bee balm leaves were used to make a tisane (or tea) to help calm stomach maladies. Lamb’s ear, with its soft fuzzy leaves shaped like a lamb’s ear, was used as a bandage. This soft, fragrant herb was also used as toilet paper.” Burton laughed and added that “today, with empty grocery shelves, and people wondering what to use instead, they might try asking a gardener.”

The pandemic has brought some form of pain to almost everyone, the herb gardeners included, but both Tingler and Burton found a silver lining — in the form of moments of unexpected joy and insight — while gardening alone. “With no one to talk to,” Tingler said, “I spent the time thinking and imagining life at the Hendricks House in the 19th century. Most of the herbs planted here were necessities for them. For example, they could not run to Wal-Mart to buy air freshener, but they had lavender right outside their kitchen door.”     

Burton also talked about the herbs. “Chamomile is a plant that seeds very well and tends to spread around the garden. I found lots of it growing like weeds in the cracks between the bricks of the walkway. Since I had extra time, I carefully pulled it and transplanted it to the garden. Miraculously, it lived!” Burton also had some unexpected company. “There were two little salamander creatures playing between the rocks at the back of the wall,” she said. “They were not wearing masks, so I kept my 6-foot distance.”   

Story by Judy Cato

Photo: Old Capitol Herb Garden in Corydon, Indiana // Photo by Lorraine Hughes

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