La Maison Acadienne (The Acadian House), an original 1850 Acadian cottage served as a school house on the Mouton Plantation and is still being
used for educational purposes. This lovely cottage was rededicated last year as La Maison du Traiteur (the Home of the Healer) because it is
now surrounded by Le Jardin du Traiteur (The Healer’s Garden), sponsored by the Lafayette Parish Master Gardeners Association (LPMGA). In the
Healer’s Garden, visitors can see, smell, and touch a collection of plants used for medicinal purposes for 250 years or more by Cajun, Creole,
African-American, and Native American people in this area of South Louisiana known as Acadiana. Acadiana is an area rich in French heritage.
The French first settled New Orleans and spread through the area. Then came the arrival of the French-speaking Acadians of Nova Scotia (1760s),
and the area continued to receive infusions of French-speakers at multiple points in its history. French is still spoken in Louisiana's Cajun,
Creole and Native American communities today, in addition to others. The Healer’s Garden project reflects this influence by including plant
signs in French, in addition to English (Common Name), and Latin (Scientific Name).
The story of the Healer’s Garden began in August of 2010 when Dr. C. Ray Brassieur, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL) and President of the Vermilionville Living History Museum Foundation Board, spoke to the LPMGA membership about his vision to build a medicinal garden at Vermilionville. Members saw his vision, volunteers formed a committee, and they took advantage of his help to work with students at ULL, learning how to perform research, and how to validate the historic use of these plants. Beginning with a master’s thesis presented in 1933 by Charles Joseph Bienvenu to the faculty of Louisiana State University, the Healer’s Garden committee members collected and consolidated once-scattered information on the use of curative plants in early Louisiana. This information was then compiled into ‘The Healer’s Garden Guide’, which became the foundation document for the selection of plants in the Healer’s Garden. To view the complete garden guide for the Healer's Garden click here.
Encouraged by Dr. Ray, and supported by the Executive Board of the LPMGA and the Vermilionville Board, the members of the Healer’s Garden Committee (HGC) of the Lafayette Parish Master Gardeners have created a place where local residents, school children, university students, researchers, and tourists can connect with the unique cultural history and the local natural resources found in the Healer’s Garden. The layout of the garden was designed by local botanist and landscape designer Bill Fontenot. Interpreted as a garden appropriate to the 1850s, with plants that are either native or that were Imported prior to 1900, ‘La Maison du Traiteur’ represents a time in Acadiana when physicians were scarce, pharmacies non-existent and traiteurs commonplace. Traditionally, traiteurs used a combination of native plant remedies and prayer in their healing practices.
Directly inside the front gate are generally familiar plants, including a variety of fragrant mints, such as, spearmint [Menthe Verte]Mentha spicata (used for fever, digestion and headaches); peppermint [pimpermint] Diospyros virginiana (toothache, cold, flu); and horse mint [Baume] Monarda punctata (cold, fever, colic). Meandering along we spot elderberry, [Sureau] Sambucus canadensis, (coughs, sore throat, respiratory problems); ground cherry [Poc Poc] Physalis sp. (burns, stomachache); and lemon balm [Citronelle]Melissa officinalis (fever, headaches, cold). Less common plants are lizard’s tail [Herbe à Malo] Saururus cernuus (colic, cutting teeth); wormseed [Herbe à Vers] Chenopodium ambrosioides (you guessed it – worms); and groundsel bush [Manglier] Baccharis halimifolia (a horrible tasting tea reputed to cure almost everything).
The first chair of the HGC was Jan B. Wyatt, a Master Gardener with 25 years experience as a museum professional and educator. Jan’s background easily connected to the standards required by both Vermilionville as a museum, and by the Louisiana Common Core State Standards. Under Jan’s guidance, the HGC was formed with the blessings of the Executive Board. Soon they committed to build a garden and to reach out to the community to find partners to assist, among them ULL for the necessary cultural background research, and LSU AgCenter for accurate plant information. The members of the HGC were also assisted when the Louisiana Native Plant Society, the National Wetlands Center of the USGS, the Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology, AmeriCorps, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Department, the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, and many individuals entered into partnerships with the Master Gardeners and Vermilionville to make the Healer’s Garden an on-going reality. The LPMGA Executive Board continues to support the Healer’s Garden, which has been deemed a Demonstration Garden for the organization.
It is not only historians who are interested in these plants; currently, twenty five plants in the Healer’s Garden show promise as having true medicinal properties. These plants are currently being studied in a joint project of ULL, USGS, the National Wetlands Center, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center (LA), and Rutgers University (NJ), headed by Dr. Wm. Cefalu of Pennington. Already one of these plants has been shown to have true hypoglycemic properties that may lead to a viable medication to treat diabetes. As Dr. Brassieur notes, “What has been lost is not the plants, but the knowledge of how to use them”.
The purpose of the garden is to inform and educate. Information is shared not only with visitors to the Healer’s Garden, but in presentations by members of the LPMGA Speakers Bureau, and in scientific research testing the healing properties of the plants. The Healer’s Garden Committee has expanded the activities around the garden by joining with Vermilionville and the ULL Department of Education to help educate our young people. At various times during the year, the committee members give tours to third and eighth graders, connecting their classroom experiences to their history and to the real world. The committee members also assist in tours on the various Culture Days and at summer camps held at Vermilionville. The current co-chairs of the HGC, Mary Perrin and MaryAnn Armbruster, are continuing the previous work and expanding on it. They recently received a grant from the Vermilionville Foundation to initiate a quarterly lecture series, “Healing Traditions in Acadiana”.
The vision of Dr. Ray Brassieur was to design a historically accurate Healer’s Garden inspired by the 1933 LSU master’s thesis of Charles Joseph Bienvenu. He transferred that vision to the LPMGA members and they, with the assistance of the Foundation and partnerships in the community, made that vision real.