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Garden depicts life before Slater Mill

May 7, 2013

Marcia Pena, an interpretive tour guide at the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, shows a false indigo plant that was used to create dye for coloring cloth. Photo/Joseph B. Nadeau

PAWTUCKET – The Slater Mill Museum historic site on the Blackstone River can teach visitors plenty about how cotton is spun into thread and eventually clothing.
But the museum also tells the story of life in the Blackstone Valley before Samuel Slater opened his mill, sparking the American Industrial Revolution; the details can be found in the heritage plants and flowers growing in the garden.
Marcia Pena, an interpretive tour guide for the museum, had that role in mind this week as she mapped out this year’s plantings in the garden located next the 1758 Sulvanus Brown House at the historic site.
The brick-enclosed plots contain specialty plants, flowers, and vegetables residents of the Blackstone Valley raised both before and after the mill’s construction here in 1793.
“What we try to show is what life was like just before the mill and after all this came along,” she explained.
Some of the plants are perennials and have already started to bloom during the recent sunny days of late April and early May. There will also be annual varieties and vegetables added as the season progresses.
“It will have food plants, herbs for medicine and flavoring, and special plants used to make dye for the mill,” she explained.
“Most of the plants we grow were brought here from England by the people who came to live here.
The only native plants we grow are the corn, squash, and beans — the three sisters — that Native Americans showed European settlers how to cultivate altogether on mounds when they arrived.
Some of the plants to be found in the Sulvanus Brown House garden include the teasel plant, a brush-like pod that can be used to create a fuzz on fabric, and worm wood and south wood, plants annoying to insects and used as a natural pesticide in the dirt floor homes of New England’s early days.
The garden also has lovage for soups and onions and rhubarb, and a patch of false indigo that is already growing thickly in one of the garden’s plots. Pena said false indigo was used to make a weaker blue dye than the harder to obtain Asian version of the indigo plant.
“It is a pale blue dye that is very washed out,” she said. The real indigo plant makes a rich and lasting blue dye that is similar to the coloring used in denim clothing, she noted.
Pina, a native of Pawtucket and former resident of Lincoln now living in Warwick, knows it won’t be long before the Museum’s garden is in full bloom.
After having completed her survey of the plants already growing and laying out the plots for the new plantings, Pina said, the Museum’s staff would be scheduling a planting day to get everything started for the new season.
“Spring is already moving along pretty fast, just as it always does,” she said.


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