The Robison York State Herb Garden


Robison York State Herb Garden was constructed from an old school playground.

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Diane Miske has been tending the Robison York State Herb Garden for the past seventeen years.

The scenic Finger Lakes region of upstate New York is home to Cornell Plantations, the botanical garden, arboretum, and natural area preserves of Cornell University. There you will find a peaceful haven for herb lovers nestled in a quiet hollow where a noisy playground once fronted the old, ivy-covered school building that now houses the Plantations’ education staff. Follow a flagstone path through the cool, vine-shaded pergola running along the front of the old schoolhouse, then turn out into the bright sunshine for the array of colors and textures, and warming fragrances of the Robison York State Herb Garden.

This garden, like many gardens, blossomed from a dream. Its seeds of inspiration were sown many years ago during the rural New York childhood of Audrey Harkness O’Connor, the moving force behind the garden’s creation. Roaming the rolling countryside as a young girl and helping tend her family’s garden fostered a deep love of nature that has continued throughout her long and fruitful life. Audrey’s youthful interest in plants flowered fully when she came to Cornell University as a student in the 1930s. She was particularly inspired by botany professor Walter C. Muenscher, a noted authority on herbs, and by his wife, Minnie, a writer of herbal cookbooks. A lasting delight and fascination took hold for herbs and the stories they revealed of people throughout the ages and across different cultures. It was during these student years that Audrey first dreamed of an herb garden at Cornell, and she planned one for a class assignment. It was an idea that would take years to germinate.

Audrey went on to graduate with concentrations in both horticulture and journalism, and she worked for many years as an illustrator for the College of Agriculture. In 1958 she took over as editor of Cornell Plantations Magazine, a role that combined her love of plants and her enthusiasm for spreading seeds of knowledge to others. In 1963 she was one of the founding members of the Auraca Herbarists. This local herb study group gathered at the feet of “Grandma” Minnie Muenscher in the early days and flourished for many years under Audrey’s guidance. The study group is still going strong today.

Cornell Plantations moved offices to the old Forest Home School in 1965. From the second-floor windows Audrey gazed out over the empty, one-acre, former play yard, and her long-dormant vision for a Cornell herb garden at last began to sprout. One day over lunch, Richard M. Lewis, then director of Cornell Plantations, sketched out their ideas on a paper towel, and a basic concept for the herb garden took form. To raise money to build and endow the garden, they used donated funds to buy a pair of wrought iron gates from 1800 and featured them in a 1966 exhibit titled “Come, Open the Garden Gate.” They attracted the interest of Ellis H. Robison, a Cornell graduate from the class of 1918, and he eventually funded the project as a tribute to his wife, Doris Burgess Robison. It took several more years of hard work to bring the dream to life. Finally in 1974, overflowing with plants raised lovingly by Audrey in her home garden, the gate to the Robison York State Herb Garden at Cornell Plantations swung wide open for visitors.

Dream expanded

The vision of Audrey O’Connor continues today, although she passed away in December of 1999. Today, as you approach the garden from the old schoolhouse, you are greeted by a rather recent addition. Two borders of ornamental herbs flank the garden’s entrance and run along the outside edge for its entire length. Visitors enjoy a tapestry of aromatic foliage, including such favorites as silver filigreed ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia, pebbled gray-green- and purple-leafed sages, and crisp, emerald-green, curled parsley. This leafy display is punctuated by colorful exclamations of herbal flowers. The scene here varies from year to year. You may discover soft clouds of white and lavender blooms, dramatic sweeps of bold foliage and flowers in dark purples and reds, or perhaps a sunny show with golden variegated leaves and yellow blossoms.

Inside the herb garden, architectural features lend an upstate New York flavor to the place. Six raised beds, the north and south enclosing walls, flagstone paving, and a central sundial are all constructed of native stone quarried locally. Some was retrieved from demolished local buildings, including the farmhouse of Ezra Cornell, the university’s founder. At the sundial’s base, thyme surrounds an old millstone that was uncovered along the banks of nearby Fall Creek, a remnant of a once-thriving mill community. The dry-laid south wall, with its stone stile for climbing, is reminiscent of early New York State farm construction, as are the split-rail fences that define the east and west boundaries. Be sure to stop and admire the antique iron gates around which the garden was built. Other features of the garden’s design fulfill its educational mission. The central court with stone benches is the perfect spot to gather for an herbal talk or demonstration, the wide grass pathways readily accommodate tour groups and photographers, and the raised beds allow easy access to some of the smaller herbs.

Herbs for all reasons

The hundreds of different herbs at home in the garden are grouped by use or association into a variety of theme beds. These make it easy for visitors to find herbs of special interest. Within the beds, each plant is labeled with its common and scientific names, its family, and a brief

explanation of its significance or use. “Herbs of the Ancients” is the first group of plants to explore just inside the garden’s entrance. Here, for example, long-fibered flax (Linum usitatissimum) weaves its history as linen cloth for sails of Phoenician ships and wrappings of Egyptian mummies, and blue-flowered borage (Borago officinalis) tells of the Greek poet Homer’s potion to expel sorrow.

“Herbs in Literature” celebrates plants whose significance in human culture has been chronicled in prose, poetry, drama, myth, and folklore. You will find Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium) as the emblem of Scotland, the rampion (Campanula rapunculus) of Grimm’s fairy tale Rapunzel, and Shakespeare’s cuckoo-buds (Primula veris) from Love’s Labours Lost. The bed of “Bee Herbs” features plants rich in nectar and pollen, such as thymes (Thymus spp.), used for flavorful honey. Herbs containing oils that calm bees or soothe their stings are also included. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) does both.

Herbs whose leaves or stems are added fresh to salads or cooked as greens are grown together as “Salads and Potherbs.” These include Japanese mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica), which can be tossed in salads, and iron-rich Good-King-Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), which can be sautéed like spinach. The plants in the “Edible Flowers” section make elegant garnishes and colorful splashes in salads and drinks. Crystallized with sugar, they are beautiful cake decorations. The bright red blossoms of bee balm (Monarda didyma) carry a sweet citrus flavor, while orange and yellow nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are peppery.

Exotic flavors abound in the “Culinary Herbs” section, including Vietnamese coriander (Polygonum odoratum) with its pungent cilantro-like taste, sweet marigold (Tagetes lucida) with an anise aroma, and spicy Indian curry leaf (Murraya koenigii). You’ll also find classics such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), bay (Laurus nobilis), and Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum). “Savory Seed Herbs” include caraway (Carum carvi) and black cumin (Nigella sativa), which season baked goods, and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), whose seeds add a distinctive flavor to Italian sausages. Leaves, flowers, roots, or seeds of the “Tea Herbs” are brewed into tasty hot or cold beverages. You’ll find lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), which can be steeped for a refreshing, zesty drink, and chamomile (Matricaria recutita), whose apple-scented flowers can be brewed for stomach-soothing, calming effects.

To learn of other herbal remedies, go to the “Medicinal Herbs” area. There you’ll find herbs with long traditions of folk use, as well as plants used in the manufacture of modern prescription medications. Look for St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), which is used as a treatment for depression; Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), whose extracted alkaloids make chemotherapeutic drugs to treat childhood leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease; and horehound (Marrubium vulgare), a traditional remedy taken in tea form or as lozenges for sore throats. Look also for a scattering of plants used in traditional Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine.

“Herbs of the Native Americans” acknowledges the enduring plant wisdom of these natives and features plants used for medicinal, nutritional, and ceremonial purposes. Corn (Zea mays) has not only been an important food crop, but has long been deemed sacred as well; Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) was named after a legendary Indian healer who treated typhus with this plant’s root extracts; and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was used medicinally for cramps and as a body and fiber dye.

For more pigment-yielding plants, check out the “Dye Herbs.” Madder roots (Rubia tinctoria) gave the British soldiers their “redcoats” during the Revolutionary war, while Indian madder (Rubia cordifolia) supplies Buddhist monks with their traditional maroon robes. “Economic Herbs” provide commercially useful products such as oils, fibers, perfume, and flavorings. Peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita) is included here as a ubiquitous flavor of candy, chewing gum, and toothpaste. Ramie (Boehmeria nivea) has a place for its stem fibers employed in the manufacture of clothing.

All of the herbs found in the “Fragrant Herbs” section are enjoyed for their scents in the garden and as ingredients in perfumes, soaps, cosmetics, sachets, and potpourris. English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and the damask rose (Rosa damascena) are standards here. Dozens of varieties of scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp), tender plants from South Africa, have aromas ranging from lemon and lime to peppermint, rose, and ginger. They are especially beautiful for their assortment of leaf textures highlighted with dainty flowers and are useful both for flavoring and in aromatic preparations such as perfumes and potpourris.

Next search the raised beds for a small section called “Tussie-mussies and Nosegays.” These flowers of traditional hand-held bouquets convey sentiments in the Victorian “Language of Flowers.” Because it retains a bright purple color when dried, the globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa) denotes immortality or unfading love; red carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) say “Alas! for my poor heart”; and violets (Viola odorata), blooming low to the ground with bowed faces, signify modesty and faithfulness.

Finally, pause to reflect on the “Sacred Herbs.” These herbs associated with sacred rituals or embodying religious symbolism are testaments to the fact that plants not only excite our senses, but nurture our spirits as well. The early Christians often prefixed the name of the Virgin Mary to flowers thought especially beautiful, and so the gold-blossomed pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) received its name. It became the floral emblem of Lady Day, when the church celebrated the feast of the Annunciation. In India, tulasi or sacred basil (Ocimum sanctum) is consecrated to the god Vishnu. It is grown near Hindu temples and homes for worship and protection.

Words to remember

Before wandering off to explore other parts of the Cornell Plantations, linger to contemplate the herb garden’s motto, an inscription by the seventeenth-century

Hermetic philosopher and poet-mystic Henry Vaughan, carved on stone benches in the inner court: The herb becomes the teacher. Men stray after false goals when the herb he treads knows much, much more.