Archive for September, 2012

Summer Bounty in the Gillette Family Garden

If you’ve been keeping up with the Gillette Family Garden, you can read the latest post here.  To get an overview of the outdoor exhibit’s groundbreaking and spring planting, please reference our first blog post.

In January 2012 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, opened the exhibition Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.  The exhibition is on view in the NMAAHC gallery at the National Museum of American History, Behring Center (NMAH) through Oct. 14, 2012.

To celebrate the exhibition, Smithsonian Gardens, in collaboration with NMAAHC and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, has created a garden to spotlight the Gillette family, one of the six families featured in the exhibition. The garden is a scaled-down recreation of the plot cultivated by the Gillette family to grow vegetables for their personal use and to sell to the Jefferson family. 

Spring Crop Harvest

On June 8, 2012, Smithsonian Gardens staff harvested beets, cabbage and turnips to be displayed as part of The Jefferson Table and Gillette Family Garden public program presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the USDA Farmer’s Market. The program featured culinary historian Dr. Leni Sorensen, Ph.D., who captivated audiences with a cooking demonstration. The harvest was replaced with summer plants started in the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouse and seeds from Monticello.

Planting Summer Crops

In the summer planting of the Gillette Family Garden, the okra itself served as the initial support for the beans; after which a tripod support made with cut branches was added. Hops twined around the wattle fence under the exhibit banner. The resulting summer growth has created an exuberant garden featuring the following varieties:

Maturing Sesame: Bene, Sesamum indicum


  • Okra: Cow’s Horn Okra, Hibiscus esculentus
  • Sesame: Bene, Sesamum indicum
  • Strawberry: Alpine strawberry, Fragaria vesca            
  • Chile pepper: Fish PepperCapsicum annuum ‘Fish’
  • Tomato: Lycopersicon var. Lycopersicon
  • Hops: Humulus lupulus ‘Cascade’

    Fish Pepper, Capsicum annuum ‘Fish’


  • Squash: Cymling or Pattypan squash, Cucurbita pepo variety                                     
  • Gherkin: West Indian Gherkin, Cucumis anguria
  • Legumes: Whippoorwill Cowpea or Crowder Pea, Vigna unguiculata ‘Whippoorwill’
  • Potato Pumpkin: Tennessee Sweet Potato Pumpkin, Cucurbita moschata

Discovering, Growing and Tasting History

The histories behind the various summer crops are significant.  In the account book of Jefferson’s granddaughter, young Anne Cary Randolph, cymlings, or “simelines” were recorded as one of the top vegetable purchases from the enslaved community, along with cabbages, cucumbers and melons.

Sweet potato pumpkins were popular among African American families and were adopted in local cuisine.  A cookbook of the era, Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, suggests pureeing them or baking them whole with meat stuffing.  Okra and sesame are crops that come from the African tradition while the West Indian gherkin was used for pickling. The tomatoes, peppers and hops are varieties developed more recently, but approximate what may have been available when the Gillettes planted their garden.

Whippoorwill Cowpea or Crowder Pea, Vigna unguiculata ‘Whippoorwill’

Smithsonian Gardens provided a display of summer produce, including peppers, crowder peas and okra, for the second iteration of The Jefferson Table and Gillette Family Garden program at the USDA Farmer’s Market on September 21.  In this program, Dr. Sorensen returned to teach audiences how to make a vegetable stew. The crowder peas mentioned in her recipe were harvested as dry beans; they can easily be saved for future plantings.  One of the most impressive crops to display was the sesame, which produced dozens of pods of tightly arranged seeds per stem. The event successfully connected audiences with the families of Monticello and the food they grew.

We encourage visitors to come and see the Gillette Family Garden at the southwest corner of the Heirloom Garden terrace at the National Museum of American History through October 14, 2012. While you’re there, be sure to view the ongoing progress on the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We have enjoyed a bountiful season and invite visitors to grow these heirloom plants and share the stories behind them.

Joe Brunetti and Erin Clark
Smithsonian Gardens


A Vegetable Stew from the Late Summer Bounty

Recipe by Leni Sorensen, PhD              

The ingredients for this stew are based on what is known about the bounty of the gardens of the slave community at Monticello.  All across the south thousands of ‘the small plots allowed them,’ as one 18th century observer called the slave gardens he saw, would have been tucked in beside cabins or hidden in woodland openings.  Each region would have had its particular varieties of potatoes, squashes, and leafy crops.

However the 19th century cook would have always used rendered fat and cracklins from salt pork to begin the stew.  Salt pork was the ubiquitous meat and fat source available to enslaved communities and throughout the south.  It added rich flavor and salt and a modest bit of protein.  If you want you could brown up and crumble some nice bacon instead.  

I’m going to assume you have access to fresh vegetables grown without pesticides so I don’t call for peeling the potatoes.  Notice that I don’t give quantities; this style of cookery does not come from a book instead it relied on the eye of the cook to judge how many mouths she needed to feed and how much her harvest basket held on any given day.  You can’t go far wrong.

Vegetable oil
Onion – chopped medium fine
Garlic – chopped
Crowder or pigeon peas (often called field peas) soaked overnight and simmered till tender
White potato (wash well and leave the skins on when you cut them up)
Sweet potato squash (peeled and cubed – save the seeds for someone’s backyard hens)
Tomato (you could blanch and peel but it is not necessary.  Just cut in thick slices and cut the slices in chunks with their juices)
Greens (collards or kale, washed well and after cutting out the thick stems, cut the leaves in ribbons)
Water, vegetable broth, or chicken stock

In a cast iron or other heavy bottomed pot with a lid; sauté the onion and garlic in the oil till soft, add all the remaining ingredients except the patty pan squash.  Just barely cover with water (or the broth or stock); cover and simmer on medium for 30 min or so. Add the Patty Pan squash (cymlin), sliced and cubed, when the potatoes are tender. Continue to simmer for another 15 min or so.  Check for salt, add pepper if you like. Serve with fresh cornbread.

September 28, 2012 at 9:12 am Leave a comment

The Tomatillo (tohm-ah-TEE-oh)

*Note: This blog post from Smithsonian Gardens’ Horticulturist Joe Brunetti originally appeared as part of the National Museum of American History’s “O Say Can You See?” Blog as part of NMAH’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

“What is a tomatillo?” “What sort of recipes use tomatillos?” “What do they taste like?” These are just a few of the questions I get asked when I show visitors the tomatillos growing in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.  Simply put, tomatillos are small fruits ensconced in a papery husk.  These beauties belong to the nightshade family – yes, the same nightshade family that contains the usual scene-stealers – tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, tobacco and even petunias. The tomatillo is like the distant cousin that doesn’t make it to the family get-togethers, and it’s high time you two got to know each other.

Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) are a summer annual originating from Mesoamerica and therefore grow best under similar conditions as a tomato plant. In the spring, when the danger of frost is no longer at hand, plant tomatillos in full sun and in rich organic soil. Provide a supporting structure like a tomato cage as it grows.  A ripe tomatillo looks and feels much like an un-ripened tomato – typically firm, with a green and/or yellow hue. They vary in size from one inch in diameter to plum-sized.  You want to harvest your tomatillos when the husk has not browned and the fruit is still firm to the touch.

Speaking of the husk (which most people associate with corn), it is botanically known as the calyx. Think of it as a paper-like shield protecting your produce from ravenous varmints. Thank you calyx! When this shell is peeled off of the tomatillo a sticky resin is left on the skin, but it washes off easily.

The taste of a tomatillo combines the heartiness of a tomato with the citrus zing of a lime.  It is sure to get your taste buds dancing. The texture is like an under-ripe, spongy tomato.  Trust me, it’s cool. 

Tomatillos have been cultivated for millennia and were a staple food in ancient Mayan and Aztec communities. In fact, the Aztecs are credited with domesticating the tomatillo. To this day, this peculiar fruit is a constant component of Mexican and Guatemalan diets. Traditionally, tomatillos are combined with chili peppers to make sauces, with the coolness of the tomatillo balancing out the hot flavor of the pepper. Have you eaten salsa verde (green sauce)? Well then, you’ve probably eaten tomatillos since they are typically the main ingredient in salsa verde. Other uses for the tomatillo include chopping them and adding them to salads and salsas, or pureeing them into gazpacho and guacamole. Less commonly, but still worth mentioning, tomatillos are used to flavor rice and tenderize red meats. 

Right now in the Smithsonian’s Victory Garden grows a tomatillo that demands attention. Instead of the familiar green, this variety’s fruit and husks are tinted midnight purple. Come by sometime and have a look!

Tomatillo Tortilla Soup with Ground Bison
Makes 4 – 6 servings.  Prep time: 15 minutes.  Cook time: 20 minutes)

Olive oil

1 lb. ground bison (or any other ground meat or meat substitute)

1 red onion, diced

A dozen tomatillos, de-husked, rinsed, and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 cups chicken broth

1 15-oz can diced tomatoes

1 15-oz can black beans, rinsed

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp chili powder

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp dried oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

Sour cream or Greek yogurt with a splash of lime juice (that’s what I always use!)

Cheddar or Mexican blend cheese, for garnish (plus some on the bottom of your bowl, of course)

Tortilla chips, broken

In a soup pot, heat about 1 Tbsp of olive oil over medium high heat.  Add the ground bison, reducing the heat to medium after about two minutes of browning.  Cook through.

Meanwhile, put the tomatillos and about 1 cup of the chicken broth in a blender.  Blend thoroughly, until all of the tomatillos are pureed.

Add the tomatillo mixture to the browned bison.  Add the diced tomatoes, black beans, remaining, chicken broth, and spices.  Season with salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to medium low.  Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding either more broth or water as necessary, so it keeps the consistency you want.  Taste it a couple times during the cooking process so you can adjust the seasonings if you want.

To serve, sprinkle a little cheese in the bottom of the bowls, then add the soup, then top with more cheese, tortilla chips, and sour cream/Greek yogurt-lime juice mixture.  Enjoy!

Recipe: from

September 21, 2012 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

A Prickly Subject

A Prickly Subject

Smithsonian Garden Succulent Exhibit located in S. Dillon Ripley Center

Did you know…All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.

The adaptability of succulents makes them a popular choice as a house plant.  The fact that they do so well with so little care or resources enables even those without a lot of plant growing experience to be successful in keeping them alive. Succulents are a very interesting and diverse group of plants!

Succulents are plants that store water in their leaves and stems, and generally live in dry or arid conditions.   They can be found in assorted sizes, shapes, textures and colors.

  • Cacti are a specific type of succulent, with fleshy stems that store water for the plant to use during a drought.  Cacti grow best in sandy soils with bright light. 
  • Since they do not have leaves, cacti use their stems to perform photosynthesis (or convert light energy into chemical energy).
  • Some cacti and other succulents are epiphytic, meaning their roots do not have to be planted in the ground.  They have adopted the ability to live in trees and other above-ground locations.
  • It is well known that the thorns of many types of succulents and spines of cacti are used as protection from predators; but these structures are also used to collect water as dew drops that slowly drop water to the shallow-growing roots of these plants.
  • Cacti and other succulents can be found in grasslands, lowlands, and deserts as well as rainforests.
  • The stems of cacti have the ability to expand as they collect water and contract as they use up some of that water.
  • Some types of cacti are edible.  The prickly pear cactus, for example, has edible pads and fruit.

Post written by Alex Thompson, Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens’ Greenhouse

September 13, 2012 at 11:58 am Leave a comment

YES! Experience with D.C. High Schools

This summer Smithsonian Gardens (SG) joined the National Museum of Natural History and the National Zoo in an outreach program designed for high school students. Youth Engagement through Science (YES!) connected students to Smithsonian collections, experts, and training in an effort to provide them with practical experience, inspiration and encouragement to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. The program also equipped the students with resources to help them in their next step of attending college to pursue their career interests.


Students who participated in YES! worked side by side with SG horticulturists and educators in the Smithsonian Gardens’ Greenhouse, Victory Garden and Heirloom Garden. The mentors, Tom Mirenda, Joe Brunetti and Erin Clark, worked with three students, Damani Eubanks, Kumar Madhav and Dion Anderson, from various high schools in the D.C. metropolitan area. Each mentor designed a project highlighting subjects in their area of expertise. The students worked with the mentors to complete the projects, keep a field journal and produce a poster for a special open-session presentation at National Museum of Natural History.

A special tour of the SG Greenhouse gave SG YES! students, Kumar and Damani, a chance to share their project with all 25 YES! students. Kumar and Damani demonstrated their newly gained knowledge when they explained how they measured and recorded various parts of blooming orchids.


Dion Anderson’s poster outlining his experience in the Heirloom and Victory Garden. Dion helped Joe and Erin identify hostas in the gardens surrounding the National Museum of American History.

 This fall, when the students return to school, they are required to take a leadership role among their peers and promote the YES! program in a community outreach project. The students will be ombudsmen for Smithsonian Gardens!

YES! was a positive experience for both the mentors and the students. Smithsonian Gardens is looking forward to participating in next year’s programs with the new projects for new students.

Youth Engagement Through Science site

September 10, 2012 at 9:35 am 1 comment

Celebrate National Grandparents Day with Heirloom Blooms

Sunday, September 9th is National Grandparents Day! President Jimmy Carter created this official day of observance through a Presidential Proclamation in 1978. The next year, Congress requested he make the day an annual event. President Carter obliged by designating the first Sunday following Labor Day each year as National Grandparents Day, a day to celebrate and honor the contributions of grandparents, surrogate grandparents, and senior community members for their contributions to American society and national heritage.

There are many ways to celebrate National Grandparents day, but here at Smithsonian Gardens we think the perfect way is to plan a trip with your grandparent or senior mentor to the Heirloom Garden outside the National Museum of American History (NMAH).

The Rose Queen spider-flower (Cleome hassleriana ‘Rose Queen’) blooms each autumn in the Heirloom Garden.

The Heirloom Garden highlights varieties of plants, bulbs, shrubs, and trees that predate the 1950s. In many cases, the varieties have been passed down from generation to generation of American gardeners, much like the wisdom and traditions passed down by grandparents in our communities. The heirloom plantings that line the terraces around NMAH provide a great variety of species including Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor), Rose Queen spider-flower (Cleome hassleriana ‘Rose Queen’), Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida ‘Queen Charlotte’), Coleus hybrids (Solenostemon hybrida), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Scented geraniums (Pelargonium sp. and hybrids), and last but certainly not least, true forget-me-nots (Myosotis scorpioides).

The true forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides) is the official flower of National Grandparents Day.

The forget-me-not, with its delicate blue blooms, is the official flower of National Grandparents Day. The true forget-me-not blooming in the Heirloom Garden traces its origins to Europe and Asia. Although beautiful, it is classified as an invasive in many areas of the United States.

Before you head over to the garden this weekend, check our website to take a look at some of the other plants  blooming in the Heirloom Garden.

If you can’t make it out on Sunday for a stroll in the garden, you can still enjoy some of the history behind its many plants through our online audio tour of the Heirloom Garden. Take some time to listen with your grandparent or friend and discover something new together.

September 6, 2012 at 9:38 am Leave a comment

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 322 other followers

Visit our Website!

Recent Posts

September 2012

%d bloggers like this: