Round Robin: Herbal Gift Exchange

Notes from regional herb gardeners

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ORANGEDALE, Nova Scotia—The first time I exchanged herb plants was in 1972 when the late garden writer Adele Dawson, author of Health, Happiness and the Pursuit of Herbs (1980), stopped by our place in northern Vermont to beg a piece of my husband’s elecampane, and in return she gave me comfrey, lamb’s-ears and English daisies. I had no idea then of the consequences of this simple transaction, nor did I realize that I was participating in a long-established custom. Thus, Robert Child writes from Gravesend in 1644 to thank John Winthrop, Jr., for the seeds from America which he had delivered to “the Gardiner of Yorke garden and to Mr. Tredescham, who are very thankefull to you for them and have returned diverse sorts which you shall receive by the hands of Mr. Willoughby.” Etiquette among plant fanciers demands an exchange of material.

I did not become a full-fledged member of the group, though, until I had established my own garden, shortly after we moved to Cape Breton Island. Here, the long maritime winters are characterized by driving gale-force winds and precipitation in every form, with alternate freezing and thawing. Spring is nonexistent, and the soil is poorly drained heavy clay, leached of nutrients from glacial activity—altogether tough growing conditions. Nevertheless, the plants I have received and those I’ve given are surprisingly numerous and varied.

I made my first garden on the site of an old rock and wood pile. Here, as opposed to the hardpan elsewhere on the farm, the soil was friable, moist, rich, and deep from decades of decomposing organic matter, and it provided a good home for my recent acquisitions. These included not only Mrs. Dawson’s gifts, but my husband’s herbs, for which he now had little time. Super-hardy Old World perennials on the wild side, tenacious in their hold on life, they were the very best types to begin with because they not only survived my ignorance and occasional neglect, but they thrived and soon had to be divided. Now, with an excess of plant material, I could give as well as receive. Visitors to my garden henceforth were gratified by my clumps of comfrey, for in early summer there is no more pleasing sight than a single bush, resplendent in powder blue trumpets from head to toe.

I soon acquired and gave away roots and divisions from chives, sedum, mints of various types, violets, bugle, mallow, lady’s-mantle, Jacob’s-ladder and bleeding-heart, among others. Some of my favorites of these hardy types are the heirlooms, whose roots (literally) can be traced back many generations.

I inherited lungwort with the farm. It had been planted from a neighbor’s stock more than 70 years ago to form a ring around a now-thickened bunch of orange daylilies on a knoll in front of the farmhouse. How many times in early spring have I appreciated the artistry of the gardener’s untrained eye (she, I learned, was an aunt of the former owner) and expressed gratitude for her gift, which I have faithfully tended. In the spring, the lungwort carpets the ground between two treelike lilacs, the clusters of nodding little bells—bright pink, lavender, sky blue, and white—enticing hummingbirds and honeybees in search of early nectar. My visitors admire these pretty flowers, and over the course of the past 20 years I must have given away enough of them to cover a football field. Not for nothing are they also called “hundreds and thousands” after their creeping, rhizomatous roots.

Other favorite heirloom plants include a southernwood I grew from a single 6-inch piece of branch. The original plant, traced back 90 years to a Boston garden, had been passed on from great-grandmother to grandmother to mother to daughter. My 120-year-old lovely lemon yellow daylily (Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus) came from Memorial University Botanical Garden in St. John’s, Newfoundland, via its curator, Bernard S. Jackson, to whom I had the pleasure of introducing the relatively unknown white mugwort (Artemisia lactiflora), a present to me from the herb authority Gertrude Foster. The double-flowered soapwort, or bouncing Bet, from whose shiny leaves the early settlers made an effective detergent, was a gift from a local retired postmistress who had inherited it when she moved into a house landscaped by a Captain MacDonald. In the early 1900s, MacDonald took his ship up and down the waterways hereabouts, buying up whatever the people had to sell, even ashes from the stove. In midsummer, bouncing Bet, often naturalized in roadside ditches, makes an impressive show of light pink shaggy blooms whose delicate clove scent is especially noticeable in the early evening.

Some memorable plants have come to me in the form of seeds. I call my hollyhock mallow (Malva alcea ‘Fastigiata’) “Joan’s mallow” after the person in whose tiny garden I first saw it: a mass of delicate, shimmering, rose-pink flowers on sturdy upright stems, resistant to the strong wind blowing in from the North Atlantic only a stone’s throw away. “Rhodena’s hollyhock” is the herby Alcea rosea ‘Nigra’, which produces purple-black blossoms whose single giant petals are rolled back like flowers from a fairytale (they make a lovely, smooth-tasting, claret-colored tea). Just as the plants that are most often exchanged are hardy, easily grown types, seed exchanges favor large, easily harvested seeds such as those of the mallow family. Seeds of “Rhodena’s hollyhock” had been passed from hand to hand by local gardeners for generations, and a good thing, too, as the original planting from the early 1900s has long since vanished.

I met Brother Gilbert when he was a judge for a local flower garden contest, and he awarded me a ribbon. It should have been the other way round, for his garden, created from scratch on a barren, wooded hillside, looks like a picture from a nursery catalog. Whenever I visit to see what’s new, he follows my gaze, shovel in hand, ever ready to plunge it down next to some gorgeous flower. If I protest, he retorts, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?” Of course, it’s impossible to refuse such generosity, but it’s always a challenge to repay the debt. Because he grows mainly ornamental flowers and I concentrate on herbs, I bring him lemon balm, horehound and lovage, and I take away moss phlox, primroses and pinks. It was from Brother Gilbert that I learned to take cuttings or slips from the bright red geraniums he gave me one October day, and by the following spring, I had a dozen plants to give to friends and neighbors.

Relations, connections, chance encounters have grown over the years, bringing me a far wider world of herbs and flowers than I might have discovered on my own, and through my efforts to grow them I have acquired a rough-and-ready knowledge of botany and horticulture. This is not to suggest there haven’t been failures. Calamint, costmary, lavender, thrift, valerian—all desirable, requiring excellent drainage—have come and gone in my garden, but hope springs eternal in the gardener’s heart, and I shall try them again.

In recalling all these gifts, I cannot help but remember the people who gave them to me, and the memories are not always pleasant ones. Contrary to the widely held notion that people who like herbs and flowers are somehow better, more saintly than others, I’ve found that we gardeners possess all the vices of the general population. But there is no denying our unbounded generosity. One result of spreading our seeds and plants far and wide is that many of our gifts will live on, for better or for worse, in other people’s lives, just as my husband’s elecampane still lives, I am sure, in Adele Dawson’s last garden, just as her comfrey, Captain MacDonald’s bouncing Bet, and the indomitable lungwort will persist on our farm long after I have departed from this world.

Jo Ann Gardner of Orangedale, Nova Scotia, is an herb gardener and author of The Heirloom Garden (Storey Communications 1993), on growing old-fashioned ornamentals.