Friday, June 22, 2012

Strawbery Banke Ethnobotany Course

I signed up for this class at Garden in the Woods without a clear idea of where Strawbery Banke was located or what it was. I thought it was some kind of museum, but that's all I knew. I also only had a foggy notion about Ethnobotany, but it sounded like a combination of Anthropology and plants, and that turned out to be correct.

Strawbery Banke turned out to be an outdoor museum in Portsmouth New Hampshire. Located on 10 acres in downtown Portsmouth, it includes a houses and gardens that were saved from urban renewal back in the 1960's. Unlike Williamsburg the houses don't represent a single time period. Rather they are from different periods of time, dating all the way back to the 1600's when the earliest settlers arrived in this area, right up to the 1940's.

The class took us on a tour of the different gardens that the museum has restored along with the houses. The earliest garden we saw was from the early colonial period and included plants that someone from that time might have grown. One of the fascinating things about this was that this meant that some plants that they grew for cultivation escaped their gardens and are actually known to us as common weeds. The varieties that they grew were more palatable than the escaped plants. Things like Queen Anne's Lace, which is a kind of wild carrot, has a woody root now, but the ancestors of this plant had roots that were more edible. The colonial garden was grown for nutrition not beauty, but I still thought it was pretty.

We visited a garden from the early 1800's that had a grape arbor and a quiet glade with giant hemlock trees that had been planted there over 100 years ago.

We visited a kitchen garden from the early 1900's and a Victory Garden from World War II.

The final garden we saw was a Victorian garden filled with exotic flowers and plants, even tropical plants growing in a greenhouse. It was quite a contrast from the utilitarian gardens that had been created to provide food. All of the gardens had a certain beauty, but the Victorian garden was really the only one created to nurture the eyes and heart, not just the stomach.

We didn't go inside the buildings and see the exhibits there, since that wasn't the focus of our tour. I'd like to go back there sometime and see the indoor exhibits and watch the various artisans and actors at their various tasks.

Strawbery Banke has a relaxed and whimsical quality. A lot of it appears to be a work in progress as further research is done and additional buildings and gardens are restored. On the day we were there lots of school kids were running around enjoying the nice weather and exploring the hands on nature of the museum. Along with the blue skies and mild weather, it was a beautiful June New England day, perfect for enjoying this very interesting place.

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