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The Wylie House Garden: Curating A Living History

Upon first glance, the Wylie House looks like any other antebellum house museum. But it's the museum's heirloom garden that draws seekers of living history.

Just blocks away from Seminary Square, the original location of the Indiana University campus, is the Wylie House museum. The house was built in 1835 by IU’s first president Andrew Wylie. Visitors can come to the house and explore what life was like for the Wylies in 19th century Bloomington, but it’s the museum’s heirloom garden that draws seekers of living history.

Upon first glance, the Wylie House looks like any other antebellum house museum.  In a way it is – you can go into the house and see the Wylie’s old piano-forte in the salon. You can check for the chamber-pots underneath the large straw-mattress beds.

Jo Burgess, the museum’s director, and her staff have found a way to REALLY bring history to life.

“We grown varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs that are all non-hybrid, cross-pollinated – the kinds of things that were grown in the 19th century,” Burgess says.

A Living History

Sherry Wise is the Outdoor Interpreter at the Wylie House museum – she could be called the garden curator.  She’s in charge of maintaining the heirloom garden.

But this is not your ordinary backyard garden, Wise has to use only the horticultural methods that would have been available to the Wylies when they were gardening here.

“It’s a lot more difficult,” Wise says, referring to how she deals with garden pests. “We use companion planting. Where I might plant, for instance, the marigolds, old varieties of marigolds have a strong fragrance to them. And that sort of if you plant them around a plant, around, say, a cabbage, they will distract the pest and they won’t come find your cabbage.”

Wise also puts some of the plants up on trellesses for pest control – they look like overgrown teepees skeletons scattered around the garden.

“It would have been essential to keep the rabbits out of the garden. So this is to help,” she says.

Preserving A Heritage

On the East side of the garden, Wise has planted what is called butterfly bush, which attract the hummingbirds and butterflies essential to natural cross-pollination of these old non-hybrid plant varieties. But the importance of preserving these old varieties isn’t immediately obvious.

“When hybrid plants — when you replant them — you get something totally different than what you started with,” Wise explains. “It may relate to one of the parents or be something in between.”

Hybrids have a very narrow genetic base, but open-pollinated non-hybrid plants have a broad genetic base. The wealth of genetic information non-hybrids provides, Wise says, is vital to creatingnew hybrid plants.

S does she out-maneuver botanical modernity? Wise saves seeds like they were going out of style.

“The Wylies would have been seed savers too. Back in the 1840’s and 50’s there weren’t many established seed companies yet.”

Beautiful Veggies, But No Smorgasbord

You would think that one of the perks of this job would be bringing home loads of scrumptious heirloom edibles. Well, no one gets to eat these herbs and vegetables; part of saving seeds involves letting a plant ripen well-past its prime. But Wise does get to take a little taste of what she grows.

“Only just enough to sample them to make sure that they’re good enough that someone would want to grow them and eat them,” Wise says. “One year I grew a variety and they were almost like cardboard. They lacked flavor and the texture was bad. So I didn’t collect any seeds from them.”

That is the only reason she would ever taste the produce.

Not Your Grandma’s Cactus

One of the star players of the Wylie museum’s collection of living history is their Christmas cactus in the foyer. It’s over 100-years-old. And, yes, it’s still alive.

“It lived here when it was a babe!” Wise says. “We have a photograph of Rebecca Wylie, who was the second owner of the house, sitting in the dining room in her rocking chair by the stove and in the background, there’s this small Christmas cactus flowering.”

The story of this cactus reads a bit like an excerpt from Genesis: Rebecca – who had her picture taken with the cactus – begat Louisa, who took the plant to Arlington, Massachusetts. Louisa begat Marie who begat Louise and Bob, who willed his estate to IU – including, Jo Burgess says, the Christmas cactus.

“Anytime we would go visit them they would say, ‘Do come into the dining room and say hello to the 100- year old Christmas cactus.’ And we would go see the plant and admire it and so forth. They were very proud of it and very proud that they had kept it alive all those years.”

When Bob passed away, Burgess went personally to bring the cactus home.

“I drove to Boston and brought this back, Burgess says. “And it filled up the back of the van and rode along very happily. And it blooms every Christmas, you can see, it’s already starting to set buds for this year.”

Wise cares for the Christmas cactus, and she says it’s still a strong, healthy plant.

“I tell people when they come to the museum if you have a Christmas cactus, you should remember to put it in your will. It is 100 years old now and going strong, so I can see it living easily for another 50 or 100 years.”

Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer is an online and radio producer for WFIU's Arts Bureau and local food program Earth Eats. Megan grew up in South Dakota and later lived in France for 3 years. She was an intern for NPR's Science Desk in the spring of 2009, and joined WFIU in June 2009.

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