continued Herbs were sold in markets within the Shaker community and also shipped down the Erie Canal and along bumpy wagon routes to be distributed nationwide and even in Europe.
“They had a huge herb agency,” said D’Angelo. “Our garden is to help interpret the history of the Shakers and various industries that they engaged in.”
The practical, aromatic plants were more than just a source of cash for the Shakers. As with many other simple tasks in the communal religious society, agriculture held a spiritual meaning.
“The Shakers really believed their work was a form of worship so doing the labor in the fields and in their gardens was important to them spiritually as well as in their temporal lives,” said D’Angelo.
They were a celibate community, meaning men and women weren’t supposed to come into physical contact with one another save for strict, controlled times. That meant that men grew the herbs and packaged them while women played the role of collecting herbs from the field.
At the Shaker Heritage Society, volunteers tend to the rows of herbs. There are popular plants, like parsley and basil, but also obscure varieties like sarsaparilla that were commonplace years ago.
“We have a lot of things that we grow that people may not be familiar with right now,” said D’Angelo. “We have many varieties of mint that surprise people, like chocolate mint and regular mint and … mint with different flavors.”
The garden also has vibrant rose bushes. Today, the colorful, thorny flowers are grown for aesthetic purposes but in the Shakers’ day, nothing was grown to simply be admired. The community tended acres of rose bushes to manufacture rose water, popular in baking and for making ice cream.
“That’s something people are pretty curious about. They don’t realize that something a rose actually had a purpose,” said D’Angelo.