Sisters of the Soil

Back in thyme

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Although you won’t see the beauty of dyer’s woad’s (Isatis tinctoria) flower stalks on a cold day in winter, the evergreen leaves are a welcome reminder of life.

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I first noticed the woad in our dye garden. Passing it each morning on the way to the barn, I felt we shared a fate. No matter the weather, the woad and I were there. I took to admiring its neat tuft of evergreen leaves, which reminded me of a lady’s hoop skirt. I thought to myself, “If she can look that good without even so much as a warm bed to sleep in, I can do chores without complaint.”

Then, I noticed the dame’s rocket by the windmill. Its skirt looked nice too, just a little bit frayed. And finally, I noticed the Madonna lilies — more elegant than the others in leaf line and with far fewer leaves, but on duty like the rest of us. In contrast, garden ruffians like the comfrey and the tawny day lilies had all ducked underground for an easy winter’s rest.

I like the presence of these winter sisters in our garden, and I’m pondering how to better showcase their off-season efforts. The lily’s dark-green leaves blush a deeper shade of purple — what fashion mavens call aubergine — after each visit from Jack Frost. The rosettes I admire are formed each fall, giving us a clue as to the proper planting depth for these bulbs. They should only be covered by about an inch of soil; other lilies, which disappear in winter, should have their bulbs planted two to three times as deep as their diameters.

Once the Madonna settles in, she will be with you forever. Her fragrant, pure white flowers bloom in mid-June in my garden atop 3- to 4-foot spikes that arise from the rosettes. Lilium candidum is her Latin name, and she is thought to be the oldest garden plant, dating to Biblical times, and blooming at Plymouth Plantation, too.

Madonna lilies are members of Liliaceae; cousins include alliums, daylilies and yuccas — quite a disparate clan. But woad and rocket hail from cabbage land, the Cruciferae or mustard family, which explains their tolerance for cold.

Dyer’s woad (Isatis tinctoria) and dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) are biennials, but if you leave a few flower stalks on after they bloom, both plants easily (some say very easily) self-seed.

Woad’s leaves, arranged primly in multiple layers like the petals of a pompom bloom, remain perfectly deep green — untouched by Jack Frost — all winter long. In spring, the plant sends up multiple flower stalks that set yellow blooms by June, followed by distinctive black seeds. It grows to about 3 feet tall and likes full sun. An ancient plant, woad’s leaves were used to make a blue dye before indigo. Celts stained their skin with woad to do battle with Roman soldiers.

The dame’s rocket echoes woad in winter, except that her leaves are of slightly lesser substance, which is what makes them more vulnerable to being pinched by old Jack, and disheveled by the winter wind. A Bohemian kind of gal, the dame gamely hangs in there, keeping her fragrant spring flowers tucked safely inside that tousled tuft. Occasionally, she’ll skip around the garden in a gypsy sort of way, perhaps to confuse her pursuers.

In Old Time Gardens, published in 1901, Alice Morse Earle praises dame’s rocket for her spring night transformations and in the process explains the source of her Latin name, Hesperis, which is also the name of the evening star.

Earle writes, “A single plant, 30 feet from an open window, will waft its perfume into the room. . . Hesperis! The name shows its habit. Dame’s Rocket is our title for this cheerful old favorite of May, which shines in such showy beauty at night and throws forth such a compelling fragrance.”

Louise Beebe Wilder in The Fragrant Path (1931), claims the dame as her favorite night-scented plant as well: “Once it was very popular in gardens and known as the favorite of Marie Antoinette, that tragic queen who appears to have loved the simplest flowers. . . Nowadays the Sweet Rocket must look after itself in holes and corners on the edge of respectability. . . But it is worthy of serious consideration in the garden, both the white and the violet kinds, for few flowers so well offset the stodginess of peonies, whether in the borders or for cutting, and it creates a most welcome lightness among the heavy-headed June iris and Oriental poppies.” In winter, too, I might add, the dame pays her way.


Nancy Smith, senior editor of Mother Earth News magazine, writes and gardens from her home in Leavenworth County, Kansas.