Mother Earth Living

History of Heirloom Herbs

By Doree Pitkin
December/January 1998


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When Queen Victoria ruled and all the world looked to England for elegance and fashion, violets were an integral part of ­Victorian life. They were pressed between the leaves of heavy books, their images hand-painted on delicate china brooches, and their blooms sugared to garnish tea cakes. Florists prepared cut violets in nosegays and tussie-mussies, and when fashionable ladies traded garden plants in the spring and fall, prized violet varieties were often included. To the Victorians, violets symbolized tender friendship and loyalty. Their sweet fragrance, long valued by perfumers, scented many a Victorian parlor.

To meet this craze for violets, American plant growers of the late 1800s, like their French and English counterparts, responded quickly. Rhinebeck, New York, became the center of violet cultivation in the United States, and nearly every block sported a backyard greenhouse dedicated to supplying cut violets to East Coast florists.

Although North America boasts dozens of native violet species, the American growers imported the cultivars of Viola odorata and other European species that were so popular abroad. English and French collectors and growers had developed exciting flower colors ranging from white through lavender, purples, blues, pinks, and reds. Double and semi-double blooms were much admired, and cultivars also varied greatly in stem length, disease resistance, and durability of blossoms. In the 1920s, the American violet trade peaked and began a slow decline that ended in 1984, when the last of Rhinebeck’s greenhouses to cultivate violets abandoned the practice, turning to more profitable plants.

Where are those Victorian violet cultivars now? Some Victorian violets­—and other herbs, too—are no longer cultivated in the United Kingdom or the United States, and apparently are unknown elsewhere. With the decline of the violet market, numerous V. odorata cultivars, particularly the doubles and semi-doubles, took the short slide from abundance to obscurity and joined white-variegated rosemary, the double-flowered dame’s-rocket, and other plants on the lost list. Frustrated gardeners were confined to reading about such plants in old seed catalogs and tomes of bygone eras.

Yet some lost herbs may not be extinct but rather living unnoticed along a roadside, in a neglected corner of an old greenhouse, or in someone’s garden—maybe yours. These plants simply await discovery. Others may be stored in the genetic code of a seed, waiting until chance allows a new plant to emerge.

Finding a Violet

It takes a particular kind of sleuth to find and identify lost plants—one with a keen eye, a good hand at propagation, and some necessary diplomacy. Patience is essential. A bolt of good luck at the right time helps, too. One such sleuth is John Whittlesey of Canyon Creek Nursery in Oroville, California, a violet specialist with a passion for semi-double V. odorata. He sought five Victorian semi-doubles that had disappeared by the early 1970s and were ­believed to be extinct.

At the top of Whittlesey’s list were "Mrs. David Lloyd George," with medium violet-blue outer petals and a central rosette of white and lavender, and "Countess of Shaftesbury," with large blue-purple petals surrounding a rosette brushed with blue and rose. Both were highly scented. So desirable were these lost ­varieties that one noted English violet enthusiast named as his two life goals finding the old family Bible and finding "Countess of Shaftesbury."

Whittlesey had a slight edge over ­others in his search. While working in the early 1980s at a now-defunct Oregon nursery, he had noted a customer who had been ordering violets for more than thirty years. A few years later, he had a chance to visit her in California Gold Country. She was an elderly woman in whose delightful country garden he found a plant that fit the description of "Mrs. David Lloyd George." The gardener was happy to send a bit of it home with Whittlesey.

For five months, Whittlesey eagerly awaited the bloom that would prove the plant’s identity. But spring revealed not the “Mrs.”; the plant was "Countess of Shaftesbury." Ecstatic, Whittlesey realized that the mystery had deepened: “Countess” had never been offered in commercial trade in the United States. Where had the California gardener obtained the plant? Alas, the gardener had no recollection. It may have been a gift, or a trade, or perhaps was received under an incorrect name. We’ll never know.

The Rarest Rosemary

Christine Wolters wasn’t particularly looking for a rare rosemary when she noticed an odd-colored shoot on one of the upright rosemaries at her Mayfields Nursery in Surrey, England, in the early 1990s. This unusual shoot’s pale green leaves were edged with white. Wolters first thought it might have been a damaged shoot or one with a virus infection, but she took a cutting.

She was familiar with variegation among rosemaries—and its rarity. In the mid-1600s, an herbalist enthusiastically described rosemaries variegated in both gold and silver. By the early 1990s, gold-edged rosemaries could be found by those determined to seek them out, but the silver variegation had vanished. Wolters, a long-time commercial grower of rosemaries, speculated that perhaps the silver rosemary was less hardy than other rosemaries and had succumbed to cold winters.

Luckily, Wolters’s variegated rosemary shoot rooted readily. The following year, she took ten cuttings from the original and planted all in the nursery’s open fields. For five years, shoulder to shoulder with the regular rosemaries, this upright plant proved its vigor and hardiness and produced a strong, aromatic scent as well. Wolters carefully monitored the plant’s growth and progress and at last presented it to the plant registrar of the Royal Horticultural Society. The plant has been named Silver Spires (Rosmarinus officinalis.)

Did Wolters find the long-lost silvered rosemary of Elizabethan En­gland? Probably not. "Silver Spires" is a sport of a plain, upright rosemary, but we haven’t a clue to the origin of the earlier silver cultivar. Evidently, the two have genetic quirks that produce variegated leaves. If it proves itself and continues to be propagated, ‘Silver Spires’ may delight gardeners for centuries to come.

Rise and Fall of a Dame’s-Rocket

Most gardeners think of dame’s-rocket (Hesperis matronalis) as an old-fashioned plant. Four hundred years ago, gardeners held the same opinion. They, and their ancestors before them, were familiar with the single, fragrant, four-petaled white, purple or striped blossoms that the plant produced in early summer. During the following century, however, some plants of each color began to sport double blooms; of these, the white form was the hardiest and most fragrant.

By the Victorian era, double white dame’s-rockets grew throughout the United Kingdom. Parks featured great drifts of them—hundreds of thousands of plants that perfumed the summer air as visitors strolled the paths. They were favored in gardens and the cut-flower trade. Yet they vanished rapidly, just as the double-blooming purple and striped sorts had before them. Gertrude Jekyll, writing in the early 1900s, lamented the absence of the double white dame’s-rocket.

The sudden demise of this flower points to a cataclysmic event, probably a fast-moving virus. Supporting this theory was the discovery some years back of a weak, virus-ridden double white dame’s-rocket in an old Irish garden. Tissue-culturing the plant eliminated the virus and produced healthy plants that are now being marketed in the British Isles.

Andy Van Hevelingen is propagating descendents of the cloned double white dame’s-rocket at his herb nursery in Newberg, Oregon. He received an En­glish plant from some globe-trotting friends and let it grow to bloom; the fragrance, he says, is exquisite. The plant produces no seeds, so from the original he propagated a number of cuttings. The plants are healthy, and Van Hevelingen expects to offer them for sale eventually.

Does the virus that infected the Irish plant and possibly wiped out the Victorian plants threaten today’s double white dame’s-rocket? Quite possibly. And because vegetative propagation, including tissue culture and rooting from cuttings, produces genetically identical plants, such an attacker could quickly destroy an entire population. With expert breeding and propagation, however, the double dame’s-rocket may once again become a garden standard.

The Journey of Lost Plants

How did these plants disappear? Some, like Victorian sleeping caps and snuffboxes, fell victim to fickle fashion. When lovely bunches of cut violets could be sold readily on the street and in florists’ shops, they remained in cultivation. Even after the flower’s popularity had fallen, cultivation continued as local tradition and nostalgia supported the trade, but eventually the market dried up—and so did the commercial cultivation of violets.

Gardens styles change, too, notes Jim Becker of Goodwin Creek Gardens in Williams, Oregon. Victorian gardens were influenced by the formal parterres and other elaborate plantings of the previous generation, and imported, ­exotic varieties were particularly popular. Gertrude Jekyll’s later call for ­simpler, less labor-intensive gardens changed garden fashion promptly. Her “wild” style of gardening and emphasis on sturdy natives contrasted with the Victorian love of fussy exotic plants.

Social and economic upheavals affect plant availability, too. The Great Depression of the 1930s dealt a hard blow to the Rhinebeck violet greenhouses: people didn’t have money to spend on such frivolities as cut violets. During World War II, all arable land in England was turned to food production. Gardeners and plantsmen transplanted their prized herbs and ornamentals into the hedgerows, hoping to retrieve them when the war was over, but not every plant survived.

Plants that have been bred for their bloom, scent, or other isolated characteristics may also be less hardy than their parents. Spontaneous mutations, such as that producing the double dame’s-rocket, may render the new plant more vulnerable than the species to disease, pests, cold, or drought.

Even today, plants get lost through neglect. According to Andy Van Hevelingen, seed and plant companies cast aside plants that don’t sell well to make room for new varieties. He estimates that 10 to 20 percent of plants are replaced in the larger catalogs every year. Some are certainly worthy plants that have simply not achieved enough popularity to remain in the catalog.

The Return Trip

Plant propagation proceeds slowly to stabilize the desired characteristics of a new or newly rediscovered plant. As stocks are built up, the plant will be offered for sale. Out of the sheltered nursery environment, however, it may face viruses and other hazards and prove less hardy than first thought.

The biggest question, however, is this: Will enough gardeners buy it? If they do, the plant’s future looks good. If they don’t, the plant may return to obscurity, found only in the gardens of those who appreciate it enough to grow it and remember it.

Doree Pitkin is a former assistant editor of The Herb Companion and an herb book editor for Interweave Press in Loveland, Colorado.


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