May Day at Buffalo Springs Herb Farm


Pat Crocker

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For many of the 6,000 annual visitors to Buffalo Springs Herb Farm near Raphine, Virginia, May Day is the most memorable event. It’s a huge event for the whole community held annually on the first Saturday in May. Don Haynie, co-owner of Buffalo Springs Herb Farm, says May Day is a celebration of the re-awakening of life in the garden.

“It’s a party that has its roots in the charm, wonder and magic of ancient spring traditions,” he says.

May Day originated with the spring fertility festivals of ancient Egypt and India and became popular in England during the Roman occupation (about a.d. 42). Haynie says, “the ties to antiquity that are evident in May Day celebrations still give depth and richness to people’s lives today.”

May Day, with its Celtic overtones of Beltaine (pronounced Bee-YAWL-tinnuh), which translates literally to “Bel’s fire,” is one of two fire festivals in the Celtic year. To the Celts, it marked the beginning of summer (the light half of the Celtic calendar) and is a celebration of the return of life and fertility to the world. The “otherworldly,” mystic feeling often attributed to Beltaine is due in part because it is an in-between period, a time when the sun appears to stand still and humans prepare for planting and harvesting.

Buffalo Springs is the place to be if you are ready and anxious to step into the garden. Haynie devotes time to answering garden questions and focuses his seminars on new herbs and new ideas for herb gardens as his contribution to the growing season ahead.

For the day-long May Day festival at the herb farm, Haynie draws on the centuries-old, almost-universal symbol of May festivities throughout Europe— the May Pole. A brightly decorated May Pole is erected close to the 1890 valley bank barn and used as the focal point for the day’s celebrations. As it has for eons, the May Pole connects earth and sky, triggering the renewal of the growing season and spawning fertility dances. The farm bell summons visitors and participants to gather at noon for the crowning of the May Queen, the featured entertainment and the dance around the May Pole at Buffalo Springs.

Author of The Season of Advent: Herbal Symbolism, Projects, Garden Designs and Recipes (Buffalo Springs, 2000), Haynie gives vent to his natural curiosity and love of herbs, history and tradition in all the projects he undertakes at the herb farm. May Day is no exception. One year a local ballet company performed the rites of spring on the lawn. Hands-on craft classes, an integral part of all seasonal activities at the farm, have featured English trough workshops and fairy house and furniture workshops on May Day. Everything is coordinated with the theme and meticulously planned, right down to the food.

In ancient Celtic times, “bringing in the May” was a ritual of gathering herbs, flowers and branches to represent the healing and fertile energies of the earth and distributing them at each house. Especially important was the hawthorn tree, the tree of hope, pleasure and protection. Only on May Eve would the strict taboo of breaking the hawthorn branches be waived for houses to be decorated to invoke protection and ensure good fortune for the growing season. Garlands were constructed of long poles, wrapped with greenery, to which a triangle frame was attached. Silver objects such as spoons, broaches, watches or other trinkets were sewn to the frame and both pole and frame were hoisted high and borne proudly around the parish by the garland bearer.

With a nod to both of these May Day traditions, Haynie, a former floral designer, festoons doors and garden gates around the herb farm with freshly arranged herbs in May baskets.

Haynie’s interest in history is seen everywhere at Buffalo Springs. Haynie and his partner, Tom Hamlin, offer workshops, seminars, luncheons and other seasonal activities in lovingly restored agricultural buildings that date to the 1790s. But it is the stunning gardens that truly reflect Haynie’s extensive expertise and understanding of herbs, design and garden history.

Buffalo Springs’ enchanting display gardens—13 in all—are skillfully designed to flow from one “room” into the next. Once inside, the visitor is instantly reminded of great herb gardens throughout time. The arbor walk leads directly to the Biblical Garden where lady’s mantle and sage adorn the central urn and Madonna lily, bedstraw and thyme can be seen in the surrounding beds.

From the Biblical Garden you can climb the path to the stone walls of an overgrown abbey ruin. Here, Gregorian chants and medieval herbs like lavender, agrimony, vervain, monkshood, St. John’s wort, rue and chamomile combine their fragrant scents with that of the thyme underfoot, to convince the senses that you have entered one of the great monasteries of the Middle Ages.

In the Celestial Garden, created in the round to represent the universe, herbs of the zodiac are grouped by color. Yellow and gold herbs (golden thyme and yarrow, among others) imitate the sun; lunar colors—silver and blue of lamb’s-ears, southernwood, lavender and sage—reflect the moon; and the bold, bright purples of alliums (curly chives, elephant garlic and alliums gigantium) indicate the planets.

Haynie is at his best when explaining, teaching in a quiet, gentle way, about herbs and the gardens at Buffalo Springs. Here in his favorite place, the Medieval Garden, his life’s work culminates and his goal of “adding quality to peoples’ lives through the use of herbs” shines through with the clarity of one who truly loves what he does.

“I love the Medieval Garden because it is a place to meditate and to feel close to the saints and herbs of years past,” he says. Seeing Haynie’s plans, thoughts, dreams and hopes for his gardens realized is a thrill for visitors.

I can’t think of a better place to reflect on the significance of renewal and rebirth that May Day represents than in the exceptional atmosphere in this rural paradise on the western fringe of Virginia’s Blue Mountains.

Pat Crocker, home economist and culinary herbalist, photographs, lectures and writes about food and herbs. Her latest book, The Smoothies Bible (Robert Rose, 2003), has just been released. Pat recently traveled to Virginia to photograph Buffalo Springs Herb Farm for an upcoming book project.