WOLFTOWN, Virginia—At the local nursery each spring, I see friends picking up their usual half-dozen flats of geraniums, petunias and red salvia. Their gardens look the same year after year. I’d rather experiment with plants, especially medicinal ones. I want to know how they grow and what conditions make them happy. I want to see if they reseed themselves. If they do, do they stay close to mama, or do the babies pop up at unexplainable distances? Are they bothered by insects? How do they react to the seasons, temperature extremes, moisture levels, shade or sun? If they have medicinal properties, what part is used, when is it gathered, how is it used?
A year ago, I brought back from New Zealand seeds of marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), a perennial herb that has fascinated me ever since I read about an archaeological dig for 60,000-year-old Neanderthal bones in a cave in Kurdish Iraq. One set of bones lay atop decomposed plant material as though the body had been given a ritual burial. When analyzed, this material yielded up pollen from the flowers of seven flowering plants, all still used medicinally by the Kurds today. One was marsh mallow, the original source of the puffy confections that are now achieved synthetically. The plant, especially the roots, is rich in mucilage and can be made into a soothing concoction for irritated membranes such as sore throats. The botanical name Althaea is derived from the Greek word meaning “to heal”. My plants grew well, though they like more moisture than they received this year.
I’ve also added the small, drought-tolerant chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) to my garden. The chaste tree was supposedly used to cool the ardor of Crusaders’s wives whose husbands had gone off to their holy wars. Another common name, monk’s pepper, refers to the alleged use by monks of the ground seeds as pepper to ensure their chastity. Medicinal or not, the tree’s fragrant spires of pale lilac flowers are lovely in dried arrangements.
After several failures, I finally got two pawpaws (Asimina triloba) to grow for me. This tropical-looking tree bears an aromatic fruit that tastes like a combination of bananas and pears. Twigs and branches have been tested as a cancer drug, and a preparation made from the bark has also been patented as a biodegradable insecticide effective against a wide range of pests.
I bought the potted pawpaws from a nearby nursery specializing in wild edible plants. Serendipitously, one pot contained a chance seedling of passionflower (Passiflora sp.). I’d long wanted to try this intriguing vine, so I planted it beside a fence in the vegetable garden. It quickly twined its way to the top and scampered on. It flowered abundantly and even produced another plant a few feet away, but it didn’t set fruit this year. In the sixteenth century, Spaniards attached the word “passion” to this South American vine, not for any ability to arouse ardor, but because they thought that its lovely flower symbolized Christ’s death. Passiflora is widely used as a sedative. Two sources say that the leaves, dried, are the parts to use, but when I dried them to try, the smell caused me to look suspiciously at the bottom of my shoes to see what I’d brought in by mistake.
Stories about plants give them special meaning for me. They add a connecting link to the past and a mystical romance to the garden that I cherish.
Portia Meares of Wolftown, Virginia, a long-time herbalist and author, is founder and former editor of the bimonthly magazine The Business of Herbs.