During the mid 1800’s we saw the first permanent settlements of predominantly European peoples in North Texas. Most of these folks were buffalo hunters, cattle ranchers, or shopkeepers. All were gardeners. Survival was the name of the game. If you were going to raise a family you were going to raise crops and tend animals to feed them. Any excess could be sold or traded for other goods and services but survival of the family unit came first.
THE YARD: If there was a grass lawn to be seen in North Texas, it would be surrounding the courthouse or possibly the local church. Pioneers did not have lawns, they had yards. The terms front yard and backyard are still common today. Most yards were kept by goats and/or chickens, guineas, ducks, or other fowl (hence the name, yard bird). Fences were built using pickets, wire, or dense vegetation (some used prickly pear) to keep these animals in and wild predators out.
Most of our early settlers farmed and ranched from sunup until sundown. The very last thing they needed in their routine was something else to add to the list of chores. Water had to be carried in buckets from the nearest source. Some homesteads had wells or cisterns but many settlers simply relied on creeks, rivers, and natural springs. The idea of watering a lawn would seem ridiculous to these folks.
One of the more interesting customs in yard culture was called the swept yard. Children old enough to walk were taught to gather broomweed and use it to sweep the ground clear of vegetation. Soon the ground would become so compacted that few seeds could germinate. This compacted soil would also shed water rather than absorb it so it would dry quickly after rain. This practice of sweeping yards lasted well into the 1930’s.
Persistent vegetation was kept at bay using the axe, scythe, or double edged tool called a yo-yo (I’ve also heard it called “idiot stick”).
THE GARDEN: Pioneers grew many of the same varieties of vegetables that we do today. Corn, beans, squash, okra, and black-eyed peas were summer staples with collard greens, turnip, onions, cabbage, and potatoes during the cool season. Oddly enough we find our much loved tomato missing from the pioneer garden. This tasty fruit did not become popular among vegetable gardeners until after the turn of the 20th century. Believe it or not, the fruit of the tomato was at one time believed to be poisonous by our European ancestors even though it had been eaten by Native Americans in South America for thousands of years.
The pioneer garden not only contained vegetables but also included many herbs for spices and medicine. One could not simply go to a druggist or grocer and purchase spices or medicine. Seed saving was extremely important. It was common practice to save the finest ears of corn, the largest melons, squash, and etc. for next year’s garden. Seeds, bulbs, and roots of favored herbs were coveted by early settlers. These were passed down through generations and shared with neighbors.
These are just a few examples of some of the vegetables, spices, and medicinal plants used by early settlers that are rarely seen in modern vegetable gardens.
Dandelion (taraxacum officianale) Brought by European settlers. Considered one of the most nutritious plants in the world. Wine was brewed from the flowers. All parts of the plant are edible.
Amaranth (amaranthus tricolor), (amaranthus cruentus) Eaten raw or cooked. Amaranth tea was used against dysentery. Seeds ground and used as flour.
Parsnip (pastinaca sativa) Root crop. Member of the carrot family.
Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) Treats high fever and nervousness. Insect repellant.
Horehound (marrubium vulgare) Popular candy of those days. Flavoring.
Mexican mint marigold (tagetes lucida) This is the yellow marigold your grandma told you would repel insects. The modern day bedding plant called marigold actually attracts insects (spider mites in particular). Mexican mint marigold produces licorice flavoring.
Flax (linum perenne) Stems produced fiber for linens. Seed is the source of lindseed oil.
Mullien (verbascum thaspus) Dye, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, astringent, candle wicks, padding, toilet paper, relief from coughs and lung ailments. A very useful plant.
These and many other useful native and imported plants have all but been forgotten by modern gardeners. However they all can still be found in the wild, especially near old homesteads. Our European ancestors did utilize quite a few native plants. Pecans, grapes and wild plums are among the more obvious. Apparently the more refined palette caused our European settlers to reject many of the wild foods that were abundant and on which the Native Americans had subsisted for thousands of years. In short, nearly every plant found in the Rolling Plains and Cross Timbers has been used as food, fuel, fiber, or medicine. Here are just a few that were used by Indian and white folks as well.
Agarita (berberis trifoliata) Called “false holly” by pioneers. This evergreen shrub produces sweet red berries that were used in jams or jellies (often referred to as “agarita butter”).
Western Soapberry (sapindus drummondii) erroneously called “Chinaberry” or “China tree,” by both modern day locals and early settlers. Western soapberry was used in making soap. The seed were popular as buttons. The berries were also used to stun fish.
Rusty Blackhaw (viburnum rufidulum) Large shrub or small tree produces sweet berries that change color from pink, to purple, to black at respective stages of ripeness. The word “haw” meant berry in days gone by.
Wax Myrtle (myrica cerifera) Found mainly in Eastern and Southern Texas, the blue berries of this shrub were a source of wax. The leaves as well as berries were known to repel insects. ”Myrtle” is another archaic term that referred to a large shrub or bush.
Elderberry (sambucus nigra) Elderberries were highly prized by early settlers for wine, jelly, and eating fresh. Lately we have seen elderberry juice making a comeback as a health tonic. Oddly enough, the entire plant is poisonous as are the unripe berries. Dried leaves were used to repel insects.
ORNAMENTALS: Life was not all hard work and drudgery for our early settlers. In fact much was written about the natural beauty of the native landscape in various diaries and history books, beginning with 15th century Spanish explorers. God certainly favored Texas when he was passing out the color. Since our pioneers were expert gardeners it was an easy task to collect seed or dig some roots to brighten up the homestead.
We also find that as more and more Europeans moved into North Texas there were more of their favorite plants brought from the old country and “back East.” Some of these survived well and still can be seen marking the spot where a cabin or sod house once stood. Roses, bearded iris, gladiolus, wisteria, forsythia, and flowering quince are a few of the popular varieties that have withstood the test of time and Texas weather.