The Cherokee Garden preserves plant traditions for future generations

As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, born and raised in Oklahoma, Tony Harris grew up absorbing Cherokee traditions from his family.

Many of those traditions, like the traditional medicinal remedies his mother used, are tied to plants.

When Harris, now a resident of Marietta, Ga., retired, he and his wife, Carra, became certified Master Gardeners. Before long, an idea was born.

Toadshade Trillium

Harris first dreamt of creating the garden in 2013, and found a willing partner in the Cobb County parks department, whose leaders asked him to develop the garden on the grounds of Green Meadows Preserve, a 112-acre passive park located on land whose roots trace back to the Cherokee.

His biggest motivator was his understanding that the knowledge he grew up with was at risk of disappearing.

“I know that this information is only a generation away from being lost,” Harris said. “I’m not willing to let that history die.”

The Cherokee Garden at Green Meadows Preserve is a living document of the native plants that the Cherokee people have used for centuries for medicine, food, shelter, tools, weapons, ceremonial purposes and more.

Partnerships play a role

Tony and Carra Harris were helped in their efforts to start the garden by groups they’ve been involved with for years.

Both are members of the Cobb County Master Gardeners, the Georgia Native Plant Society, and Tony is vice president of the Georgia Trail of Tears Association.

Those ties have helped the garden, both through providing labor and notoriety. Grants from groups like the Walmart Foundation and SC Johnson Philanthropy have also helped.

Every Thursday, a dozen or more Master Gardeners come out to help maintain and expand the garden. This has been going on for three and a half years, pumping more than 4,000 volunteer hours into the project.

Volunteers recently worked to clear invasive plants from a wooded area next to the garden, opening an additional 5,000 square feet for garden expansion.

Harris has identified more than 500 plants and trees that were used by the Cherokee for various purposes. He plans to use this new space for an arboretum.

In May of 2015, the garden was designated as an interpretive site on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail by the National Park Service.

Rescuing plants

As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Harris has access to the Cherokee Nation Seed Bank in Oklahoma, where he has procured seeds for some of the vegetables that grow in the garden’s raised beds.

“These are heirloom seeds that Cherokees raised in their gardens prior to the Trail of Tears,” he said.

Other plants have taken more work to find.

Horse Balm

As members of the Georgia Native Plant Society, the Harrises have a good relationship with many area developers, and have gone on to sites to rescue native plants before land is cleared. Carra Harris estimates that more than 75 percent of the plants in the garden were found that way.

Friends the couple have made through the Native Plant Society and the Master Gardeners have asked them what they’re looking for, and have helped track them down. Some have even dug plants out of their home gardens so they could be placed in the Cherokee Garden.

As he has built the garden, Harris has learned that many plants that Cherokee used widely in Georgia before the Trail of Tears are not now readily available in Oklahoma, where the Cherokee Nation is located today.

He is now working with Cherokee Nation leaders to establish a similar garden in Oklahoma, and plans to transport plants from his garden 815 miles west to create a similar learning experience on the other end of the trail.

Plants tell the story

Carra Harris notes that plants are a particularly apt subject for helping people understand Cherokee history.

“There’s no way you can talk about Cherokee history without talking about plants,” she said. “They lived so close to the earth, and their lives were so intertwined with the native plants.”

Toothwort

This close relationship with the land, and with the plants that grow in a particular area, makes the garden an especially poignant way of teaching visitors about the Trail of Tears, the name given to the journey several Native American nations were forced by the U.S government to take from their ancestral homes in the Southeastern U.S. to areas west of the Mississippi River during the 1830s.

The journey caused thousands to perish from disease, starvation and exposure. For those who made it to federally designated lands out west, the loss of a land they had been so connected to was devastating.

“When you relied on these plants for medicine and food and shelter and tools—when that was taken away and you were sent to a place that might as well have been the surface of the moon—that’s traumatic, because this is what they relied on for hundreds of years,” Tony Harris said.

Making the story accessible to all

With so much knowledge among the plants in the Cherokee Garden, Tony Harris was eager to find a way to allow visitors to engage with the plants at their own pace.

Plants Map interactive plant signs and tags have been installed in the garden, and the Harrises plan to order more to label their growing collection.

“Now that we’ve got the tags, a teacher can bring a class out here and become an instant expert,” Harris said.

The park in which the garden is located is open from dawn to dusk along a well-traveled highway. Having labels with QR codes that allow any visitor with a smartphone to instantly access that plant’s Plants Map page will help pass this knowledge of Cherokee plant traditions on to a much wider audience.

And ultimately, that’s the goal that got Harris started on this endeavor in the first place. “It’s really a labor of love,” he said. “And it’s one that I’m very passionate about.”

To learn more, follow the Cherokee Garden at Green Meadows Preserve on Plants Map.