WASHINGTON – The rainbow of chili peppers that adorn the National Herb Garden's collection of Hispanic herbs stands out from the vines that connect them like a string of lights on a Christmas tree.
They're red,yellow,orange,green and purple – long,short,fat and thin.
Although visitors to the herb garden’s collection of herbs used in Hispanic culture aren't allowed to taste the chilies,they can get an idea for how hot they are by observing,smelling and touching. Posters in the garden explain the origin of each type of chili and tell which ones are the hottest.
The collection of Hispanic herbs first was introduced to the National Herb Garden at the National Arboretum,which is operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,in 1996. Chris Partain,33,then an intern,came up with the idea to create a collection that correlated with Hispanic Heritage Month,Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.
“One of the reasons I wanted to showcase that is because there's such a rich use of different herbs,spices and seasonings in Latino cultures,” said Partain,now a horticulturalist at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton,Md. “And it's something I think a lot of Americans can relate to because we have so many Latinos in the U.S. and in the D.C. area especially.”
A self-guided tour of the garden's herbs used in Hispanic culture highlights their uses in cooking,medicine and perfumes. For example,the Mayans of Guatemala used chilies to settle their stomachs and rubbed a pepper mixture on their gums to ease toothaches.
In addition to chilies,the garden includes lemon verbena,used to flavor tea; culantro — similar to cilantro — used in beans,stews and rice; and pineapple sage,used as a tea to calm upset stomachs.
“Whenever there's some kind of cultural awareness month … the USDA does do programs to go along with it,” said Jim Adams,curator of the National Herb Garden. “So I think this was a way we can use our collections and our resources to help with that mission,to help educate people about some of these cultures.”
After doing some research on Hispanic herbs and their uses,Partain chose about 20 herbs that would hold up well in the garden. She also created a pamphlet to educate visitors about the importance that herbs have played in Hispanic culture.
“I think it's important to show people the economic reasons to use herbs and plants,” she said. “In my work,I've noticed that people get the biggest kick out of seeing herbs they use. They already have a relationship with that plant and when they've seen it grown it gives them a way to see how dependent we are on plants.”