Walk through most any herb garden and you’re likely to come across several dozen plant specimens. However, The Thyme Garden in Alsea, Oregon, isn’t like your usual encounter. With more than 700 different varieties of organically grown herbs, just being there is a sensory experience unlike any other. Co-owners Janet and Rolfe Hagen have created an herbal haven of color, texture, form and fragrance in more than an acre of fabulous display gardens for people to enjoy.
Sheltered within Oregon’s coastal mountain range, the gardens entice visitors with a profusion of fragrance in one of the largest herb collections in the country. The gardens emerge as you cross the threshold of a hop-covered entrance, unveiling a colossal tapestry of colorful herbs. At the heart of it all lies an artistically arranged composition of 70 varieties of thyme that captures your curiosity and draws you within. “It’s an herbal oasis surrounded by a natural forest,” Rolfe says.
Growing a passion
You might say that the Hagens’ ever-expanding interest in herbs began during their eight years of owning and operating a country-style restaurant. No strangers to using herbs in their cooking, they started growing a patch of fresh herbs to enliven their gourmet meals. As interest grew, the surrounding scrub brush was replaced by additional herbs to accommodate their burgeoning business and customer enjoyment. “The garden not only provided our kitchen with herbs and pleasure for our customers, the herbs also produced seeds which we began to collect and sell,” Rolfe recalls.
In 1989, when the couple’s fascination with herbs outgrew their interest in the restaurant, they sold their business and invested in an 80-acre farm where they could really cultivate their passion. Their budding enterprise soon grew into a mail-order seed business and retail nursery with a hop-covered cedar lathe house to display and protect plants for sale. And, while they both have their area of expertise — Janet oversees the mail-order seed business and Rolfe is in charge of the nursery and plant propagation — they both have their hands and hearts in the garden, tending to herbs from the common to the exotic.
Skillfully arranged in a series of raised beds, the gardens echo an old-English design where the herbs are grouped according to their uses: dye, medicinal, insectary, moon-reflecting, butterfly and culinary (which is the largest of the group). Though each grouping has its own designated area, the gardens flow effortlessly from one region to the next into an all-embracing landscape of flowering and fragrant herbs. Instead of looking at tiny plants or mere photographs, visitors can reap inspiration and garner ideas by observing the herbs at their various stages of maturity.
In the dye garden you might happen upon woad (Isatis tinctoria) or the daisy-like flowers of golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria) in company with madder (Rubia tinctorium), which produces a brilliant red color for the Persian rug trade. You might also see the elusive true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), a sought-after blue dye that has been used for 4,000 years.
Herbs that produce natural insecticides — such as pennyroyal, pyrethrum and tephrosia — are featured in the insectary garden. “Pennyroyal is a good insect repellent,” Rolfe notes. “We rub the leaf on our skin to repel the mosquitoes and gnats that come out at night.” When the night sky unfolds and the moon comes into view, silver and gray herbs — cardoon, artemisia, wooly lavender, clary sage and gray santolina, among others — mirror its glowing light. The medicinal garden contains herbs from the familiar to the unknown, such as the deliciously vanilla-scented common valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and yellow-flowering St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) as well as six different species of echinacea, including the endangered E. tennesseensis.
However, one can easily lose count while exploring the culinary garden, which contains nearly 30 varieties of basil, more than 50 varieties of sage, about 45 varieties of lavender and a vast array of culinary delights from fennel, rosemary and mint to the more unusual Vietnamese coriander (Polygonum odoratum). Radiating outward like spokes of a giant wheel is, of course, the massive ensemble of alluring thymes. And when they’re in bloom, the wheel explodes into nature’s rendition of picturesque hues.
Steps leading down from the culinary garden reveal a sunken treasure of shade-loving ferns and native plants as well as herbs such as goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) and black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa). From the gardens, you can explore the greenhouse conservatory, an intoxicating experience of the aromatic kind with a variety of scented geraniums, salvias and other tender herbs. While the sounds of a running stream will soothe you, the conservatory’s captivating centerpiece is an impressively stunning brugmansia, which can house more than 200 sizeable trumpet-shaped flowers at one time. That’s one powerfully potent dose of aromatherapy.
Plant haven, bird heaven
As the gardens and herbs have developed, so has the place’s appeal. Today the gardens are attracting more than just visitors of the human kind. In fact, The Thyme Garden has evolved into an all-encompassing year-round herbal nature sanctuary for a variety of birds, butterflies and a host of beneficial insects. In exchange for the healthy environment that the Hagens work to maintain, the birds and butterflies bring an added dimension of excitement to the gardens. In spring, the hummingbirds hone in on a large Eucalyptus cineraria, harvesting nectar as the seasons progress by dining on favorites such as bee balm (Monarda spp.), rosemary, sage and lion’s ear (Leonotis leonurus). You can also enjoy the melodious sounds of birds everywhere and see butterflies, such as swallowtails and monarchs, fluttering from flower to flower.
The gardens are surrounded by natural forests of stately firs and old-growth maples that resonate the sound of two year-round streams. Even Coho salmon are enjoying the sanctuary, with a half-mile of new spawning grounds that were developed in 2001 due to a designed change in the course of one of the streams.
Naturally, the Hagens tend to their customers’ needs as well, with a three-hour garden tour and herbal luncheon experience set in the ambience of their scenic grounds. Their luncheons are a masterpiece of visually appealing and appetizing foods prepared in simple ways. A typical luncheon might start off with a salad of mixed organic greens garnished with colorful herbal flowers, followed by an entree such as salmon fillets served on a bed of sorrel with dill sauce and capers, or chicken tarragon with homemade herbal pasta. The meal is complemented with tasty herbal teas — rose petal with lemon verbena or lavender lemonade, for example — homemade herbal breads with herb butters and of course, delectable desserts enhanced by herbs.
The Thyme Garden is much more than a mecca for gardeners looking for herbs. It’s an herbal haven of experiences that leaves an impression on every sense. Certainly it’s a destination that will continue to attract and fascinate passersby for many years to come.
Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. She lives in the hills of western Oregon with her husband, photographer Rick Wetherbee.