When I was a senior in college, I had an internship with Strawberry Banke, the historic village in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. My task was to research the introduction dates for the various medicinal herbs that were planted in the doctor’s garden, to make sure the plantings were accurate. (They were not.) I was also researching how each plant was used in around 1790. I spent hours digging through old newspapers for ports up and down the coast, reading herbals that were common at the time, and charting it all on a huge piece of cardstock. I was fascinated.
There were gaps in my knowledge, so, during Spring Break, I went to Boston for three days. I wandered between the Public Library, with its huge and old reading room, where you waited for your books to be brought out and the Massachusetts Horticultural Library, a nineteenth century double decker in South Boston, full of old gardening books. The streets between the two were lined with brick rowhouses close to the street. Each house had a ten by twelve garden in front, surrounded by an iron fence. The tiny spaces were all planted for Spring. One would hold a blooming cherry, the next a row of bright yellow daffodils tossing in the breeze. Others had early red tulips or late purple crocus. Spots of color between dark walls and fences. Blue sky high above. Cold wind. I carried my backpack full of notecards, lunch, and some Earl Grey tea, doing research. There was nothing else I wanted to be doing.
It has been a very long time since I conducted original research on the plants, houses, and lives of New Englanders in either the 18th or early 20th century. It was a good life, but I have moved on. I still have the chart. I still know how all of those plants were used in early New England. And I still watch for the spring blooms, the bright daffodils, that dance by the side of the road as I walk to and from work on these March days.