Walking a Venerable Path

Herbs add scent and sensuality to the ancient practice of labyrinth walking.


The classical three-circuit labyrinth

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The World is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! —William Wordsworth

If, as the poet says, the world has weighed you down lately and you feel that your heart is no longer quite your own, you may find the ease and quiet reflection you need in the roundabout of a labyrinth. In a labyrinth, you’ll find no dead-ends, no decisions as to the right way to go. One path leads from entrance to center. As in life, hairpin turns and doubling back may mark your way, but the route leads inexorably to your destination.

In materials as well as design, a labyrinth is limited only by your imagination, and can be as grand or as humble as you please “I’ve made them out of kitty litter on the floor that can be swept up afterwards,” says Virginia Burt, landscape architect and principal of Visionscapes, an Ontario, Canada company specializing in gardens designed to foster spiritual awareness. Rocks, bricks and paint on concrete or canvas are other materials that can comfortably outline a labyrinth.

Although herbal labyrinths aren’t common, the long association of herbs with knot gardens and parterres make them a natural fit for use in labyrinths. If labyrinth lovers — and there’s a network of them worldwide — need another good reason for using herbs in a labyrinth, it would be the strong spiritual benefits attributed to labyrinth-walking. Tracing its twisted spiral path (see Page 45) is said to quiet the mind, ease grief, inspire creativity and provide insights into life issues and problems. What better addition to this journey than the scent of herbs?


“Labyrinths are a sacred space,” Burt says. “I describe the experience as the Three I’s: initiation, at the entrance; illumination, during the inward journey and at the center; and integration, on the outward journey. It’s a walking meditation.”

The heady scent of herbs adds another dimension to the spiritual and emotional impact of a labyrinth. And if all this discussion of the spiritual seems a little far-out to the practical-minded herb gardener, planting a labyrinth can be counted as one more novel way to enjoy gardening with our favorite plants.

Ancient cultures all over the world have used some version of the labyrinth, as have medieval cathedrals like the one at Chartres, France. These serpentine gardens went out of fashion in the ultra-rational 18th century. But today, many people are considering labyrinths as they seek the spiritual in their lives.

In San Francisco, Grace Cathedral has opened its labyrinth for Peace Walks every Friday from noon to 1:30 p.m. This midday opportunity is intended as a time to reflect, pray and “meditate on the peace within yourself, your family and the global family.” Upon completion of the labyrinth walk, paper is provided should walkers desire to write down thoughts or feelings resulting from the time of reflection.


These days, labyrinths are turning up in hospitals, psychiatric centers, prisons, schools, churches and other institutions. In Toronto a mown-grass labyrinth sits smack in the middle of the city, tucked between office buildings, a downtown shopping mall and a church. Laid out in the summer of 2000, the labyrinth was a millennium project of the Toronto Labyrinth Community Network and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“The labyrinth is a tool, a vehicle. People who wouldn’t go to church will do this,” says Anne Tanner, a doctor of ministry and labyrinth facilitator in Toronto.

“We were thrilled to be a part of it because it is a unique opportunity for a park and we think it provides a hybrid of passive/active recreational opportunities,” says Claire Tucker-Reid, general manager, Parks and Recreation. “It’s very heavily used,” she adds. “Any time you go by in the summer there are at least three people in the labyrinth, especially at lunchtime because it’s a bit of a break from the workplace. And we’ve had weddings there, too. So it’s well-utilized — beyond our expectations.”

No one’s sure just what gives labyrinths their special appeal. Some people claim the alternating right and left sections help balance the two sides of our brains. Some say the combination of mental focus and repetitive body motion promotes a meditative state. Whatever the reason, more and more people are becoming devoted labyrinth walkers, and more institutions and even individuals are adding labyrinths to their grounds.


“You can make it with a lawnmower or a pointy stick or whatever you want.” —Virginia Burt

In 2001, Virginia Burt planted a labyrinth for Homewood Health Centre, a psychiatric facility near Guelph, Ontario.

Burt chose an 11-circuit, Chartres-based pattern, 54 feet across, planted in mother of thyme (Thymus vulgaris). “That’s the type that stands up, not the creeping one, which would obscure the path,” she says. The thyme keeps a low profile as it defines the boundary of the labyrinth.

Every program at Homewood – whether for geriatric patients, substance abuse, anxiety/depression, eating disorders, trauma — uses the structure to some extent. “We’ve found when other things don’t work, like group therapy or psychotherapy, this seems to really help motivate the patient,” says Mary Goy, a Homewood nurse.

Patients can walk the labyrinth on their own time, and staff have access to the garden, too. “You can go on your lunchtime if you’re feeling a little stressed and walk through and just leave everything in the center, then go back out to work,” Goy says. “It’s like a big weight has been lifted.”


In the Quebec City suburb of Sillery, a new herbal labyrinth opened in the summer of 2003. It’s the pet project of Mia Anderson, rector of the Anglican Church of St. Michael and St. Matthew. Although the garden is on church property, at the corner of a busy neighborhood thoroughfare, Anderson sees it as a multipurpose site.

“I’m really interested in contemplative prayer, wordless prayer and walking meditation,” she says. “I also was interested in planting an attractive space that the church can offer to the neighborhood. And it was as if all those things came together. The idea is this is a community resource.”

Anderson had herbs in mind from the very start, but the design presented a challenge. The labyrinth is modeled on a little-known example at Reims Cathedral in France, but, she says, “I wanted a shortcut to the center, which is absolutely not classical at all. Because it’s a garden and has the potential for garden parties, I really wanted to be able to set the samovar in the center and have a tea party.”

Jacques Hebert, who designed the labyrinth, eventually found a way to incorporate the shortcut into an adaptation of the classical pattern. The result is a labyrinth 50 feet across with just five lanes, each lane bordered in herbs on one side and shrubs on the other.

For the shrub sections, Anderson chose dwarf forsythia mixed with alpine currant. For the herbs, she and two helpers planted several varieties of thyme, sage, rue, lovage, fennel, parsley, basil, marjoram, chives, and winter and summer savory.


Animals pay frequent visits to the herbal labyrinth behind the Foxglove Shop and Gallery in tiny Freeville, New York, near Ithaca. “We have a lot of deer that really enjoy walking it,” co-owner Suzanne Hoback says. “I see hoof prints all the time, but the animals don’t eat anything, I guess they don’t like the taste. One time I also came upon two baby woodchucks playing on the path.”

The Foxglove labyrinth is affiliated with the nearby bed and breakfast Suzanne and her husband, Chris, run. “Our notion when we started it was that it would be a place different from the Holiday Inn or even other B and B’s,” Chris recalls. “We wanted it to be somewhere you could come and there would be no TV, but lots of books, where people would read, interact with the other guests and find opportunities to stop the noise and be creative.”

The labyrinth is part of that idyllic picture. “It depends on the individuals,” Chris says. “We’ve had some guests come specifically to be here and meditate in the labyrinth. We’ve had church groups come to spend the afternoon walking the labyrinth. And we have people who are just interested in the herbs and the garden.”

The Hobacks built their labyrinth themselves, based on instructions Chris found on the Internet. Inspiration came from an article Suzanne read on labyrinths and stress relief. She thought it would be good for guests because many of them come for special events, such as weddings and nearby college graduations, and “they’re really nervous,” she says. “I personally enjoy walking it — and I enjoy taking care of it. I think of that part as maintenance meditation.”

A 600-foot gravel pathway lined with herbs runs through the classic seven-circuit labyrinth. “It’s all useful stuff,” Suzanne says. The garden contains coneflower (Echinacea), prostrate rosemary, French thyme, sage, hyssop, lady’s mantle, chives, lavender and lungwort. An arbor at the entrance is draped in golden hops. Flowers such as candytuft, gooseneck loosestrife, sundrops and phlox are scattered throughout the circuit.

Care isn’t a problem, she says. “If you prune them early enough in summer — mid-June — the herbs will come back and be bushy, but won’t be so tall as to take over. The only really bad one is apple mint — that guy won’t stay in its little trench at all,” she says with a laugh.


Home gardeners also can build a labyrinth. That’s what Jim Caddell did at his modest home in Richardson, Texas, on the outskirts of Dallas.

“I first ran across the idea on a website somewhere and it was love at first sight. It was a beautiful pattern,” he says. “So I drew one on the ground and tried walking it, and oh, wow, it’s a great feeling. You suddenly felt a little bit of peace.” So Caddell got a load of leftover bricks from a friend who’d just finished a house, and put in his first labyrinth, a little three-circuit one. Herbs seemed a natural accompaniment. But Caddell got too much of a good thing — his paths were soon overrun by rampant herbs.

He had planted ornamental kale, different kinds of mint, comfrey, thyme (“good because it was low but it likes to flop over the edge”), oregano (“that tended to take over and colonize everything”), yarrow (“it would burrow right through the holes in the bricks and come up on the other side”), tarragon (“terribly invasive, but pretty well roped off now”) and sage. The solution: Move the herbs to the outside border and use the extra space to construct a seven-circuit labyrinth 16 feet in diameter.

Caddell doesn’t attach much mysticism to his labyrinth — he treats it pretty much like a lawn or patio. “I walk across it rather than walking it. It gives me a calm feeling just to look at it — I think they’re pretty.” The new labyrinth has pockets dotted throughout for low plants like yellow sedum and ice plant. And his herb garden has expanded to include lamb’s ears, hellebore, sweet Annie, Mexican marigold mint, cilantro, basil, rue, germander, purple coneflowers and butterfly weed.

“Anybody can make a labyrinth,” he says. “You can make it with a lawnmower or a pointy stick or whatever you want. I just happened to have a bunch of leftover bricks and a blank spot in the yard.”

As Virginia Burt says, “If you’re intrigued by labyrinths, build one. Building a labyrinth is just as much a journey as walking one.”

Mary Fran McQuade, a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion, writes and gardens from her home near Toronto. Her city garden includes herbs, flowers and flowering shrubs.