In rural Nichols, a South Carolina town with no doctor, Samantha Weaver's grandmother was affectionately called "granny woman." It was a Southern nickname for a wise woman.
When you needed medical help, you turned to granny woman because she was an herbalist who knew how to use nature's healing powers.
During those days, there were no Band-Aids, so granny woman applied cobwebs to stop bleeding. When her husband fell and split open his leg, she filled the wound with cooked lamb's ear, a plant that swells and retains its delicate fuzziness when it's boiled. The plant prevented infection from setting in, and helped the skin knit back together.
"I followed her around while she collected herbs and heard her stories, and those stories stayed with me," says Weaver.
Today, more than 35 years later, Weaver uses those tales in her interpretation work with the Chrysler
Museum of Art in Norfolk.
During May, her stage is the restored 18th-century garden at the Willoughby-Baylor House. The garden is called Norfolk's Secret Garden because it's a flowering, tree-filled haven tucked among busy streets and businesses. Located at the corner of East Freemason and Cumberland streets, the 112-by-84-foot garden thrives in the shadow of the multi-story garage for shoppers at MacArthur Center mall. The Willoughby-Baylor home and nearby Moses Myers house are historic properties - called the Historic Houses of the Chrysler Museum of Art - owned by the city of Norfolk and administered by the art museum.
Weaver spends 30 to 40 minutes taking visitors through the gardens, stopping often to talk about specific plants. An $8 boxed lunch is served on tables set up adjacent to a vine-covered arbor, and then there's a complimentary tour of the 1794-built house. Music and iced tea create a garden-party ambiance, and you can buy small herbs and perennials to take home to your own garden. The final scheduled tour is Wednesday, but the garden is available for special programs and weddings.
"People are hungry for the spiritual connection to plants," she says. "Each plant has a specific spirit, a personality, and to ignore that is sad."
The garden historian also dresses the part of a gracious Southern gardener. She wears an ankle-length dress in a small-flower print and a straw bonnet to shield her fair skin from the sun.
As she talks about each plant, she touches it with reverence. Her stories are peppered with lessons on how plants affect life.
"No hair conditioner will make your hair as shiny as rosemary," she tells a group on a recent Wednesday tour. Boil some stems in water, strain out the plant parts and use the rosemary oil-filled water on your just-washed hair, she instructs them.
The small, purple-flowering tree called Vitex - nicknamed chaste tree - was planted at all ancient monasteries, she says. Its berries, which were called monk's pepper, were sprinkled on the monks' breakfast food to diminish their sexual desires.
Rosemary, which represents "remembrance" in the language of plants, is used to boost memory power, says the garden historian. In fact, she adds, judges in Europe traditionally wear a sprig on their lapels to remind them to be honest.
Taste some chives and you'll get a quick energy booster, says Weaver. She stoops slightly to let her hand brush across the round purple blooms atop the grasslike plants that grow among the collection of herbs in the Secret Garden.
During the days when slaves worked day and night to build the Egyptian pyramids, they each wore a bundle of chives on their belts, she says. When tired, they ate some chives to renew their stamina. Even Gen. Ulysses Grant knew about and used the benefits of chives to keep his Civil War soldiers primed for war. He once wrote, "I will not move my troops until the chives arrive," she says.
Other plants in the garden protect us from pests.
Lady's bedstraw, botanically called Galium verum, repels any insect, including mosquitoes and flies, says Weaver.
"I keep a crock of it on my picnic table and I never have to worry about pests when guests sit outdoors," she tells the group.
Black cohosh, a plant midwives once used to start contractions in problem-pregnancy women, keeps fleas away, she adds.
The leaves on spiderwort draw out the poison left by bites from the brown recluse or black widow spider.
If you ever wondered how white roses originated, Weaver can tell you.
Elizabeth of Hungary used to take bread to the hungry, but her husband Louis worried she would encounter harm during her charitable work. When he went hunting, Elizabeth ignored his request that she stop taking bread to the needy. She filled the folds of her long skirt with bits of bread and headed toward the village, but Louis came home early and caught her. He asked her where was she going and what was she doing. Not wanting to lie to her husband, she unfolded her skirt to let the bread drop to the ground. Instead, white rose petals drifted to the ground. Angels watching over Elizabeth had transformed the bread, so her husband would not be upset with her.
To glean more and more tidbits about plants, Weaver reads hundreds of books, her favorite being "Magic Medicine in Plants." She's filled 700 index cards with notes she may want to use in stories some day.
"I've done the scientific thing and know the plants, but the stories behind the plants is what I love to share," she says.
"I want to help people see what a plant represents and why it's in the world."
Kathy Van Mullekom can be reached 247-4781 or by e-mail at kvanmullekom@daily press.com.
Norfolk's Secret Garden
Plants have history and lore, just like old house
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