A TRUE HORTIHOLIC
Andrew Van Hevelingen
I went out to the compost pile and rescued three, ratty
looking ‘Ruben’ blueberry plants, repotting them into one-gallon
containers hoping they’d revive.
NEWBERG, Oregon — I knew I had attended one too many plant sales
this summer when a friend pinned a large badge on my chest with the
word hortiholic written on it! I had suspected as much, but after
this public display, I knew I needed help. My name is Andrew, and I
have a plant problem. I can’t help it. I am weak-kneed in the
presence of a well-turned leaf or a pretty flower. Though it
doesn’t really matter if the plant is an herb or not, I secretly
believe any plant I choose must be used as an herb somewhere in the
world to justify my having it. Luckily, a vast array of plants
qualify under this definition.
Well, this summer, my plant addiction finally spiraled out of
control. My wife confronted me with the choice of her cleaning up
the nursery (I think she really meant “out,” not “up”) or cleaning
my cluttered garage. Since the latter is a security thing, I let
her attack the nursery. But I couldn’t watch. As I worked in
another part of the nursery, I secretly spied her merrily cart
wheelbarrow loads of lost treasures to the compost pile. When she
had finished, there were clean tables with only empty flats and
scattered piles of plant tags. The nursery looked better, and we
could start to put out new plants from the greenhouse that needed
to be hardened off.
We barely had started filling the space with Thymus praecox
articus ‘Magic Carpet,’ a new introduction of a very flat creeping
lemon-scented thyme with rich carmine-pink flowers in mid-summer,
when I had a relapse. There I was, admiring the mat of color, the
stunning blooms, the orderliness. I just couldn’t take it. I went
out to the compost pile and rescued three, ratty looking ‘Ruben’
blueberry plants, repotting them into one-gallon containers hoping
they’d revive. I feel completely justified because this particular
cultivar is purported to have even greater antioxidant properties
than other blueberry cultivars. These plants were strictly
The next day, I was found out and soundly chastised. I now have
promised to be a responsible plant collector. If I buy a plant, I
will plant it in the garden in a reasonable amount of time. I will
not let it sit in a forgotten corner for more than two years
getting weedy, declining in health and losing its identity to a
slowly fading tag. And I am improving: When I came home recently
with 10 plants, I promptly planted two. The new Jacob’s ladder,
Polemonium yezoense ‘Purple Rain’ is beautiful with its dark
brownish-black ferny foliage and very large, fragrant blue flowers.
I planted it next to the chartreuse foliaged Agastache ‘Golden
Jubilee’ for color contrast. The other plant, a Chinese mayapple
(Podophyllum ¥veitchii), with showy purple-red markings on a
hexagonal leaf was situated near Podophyllum ‘Kaleidoscope’. With
luck, a romantic interest may develop between the two mayapples and
I may be blessed with even more splendid prodigy, which I will care
One of the plants I picked up as part of my plant addiction but
have not yet planted — but will, I promise — was a new
chartreuse-foliaged Germander called Teucrium ‘Summer Sunshine’. A
slow spreading groundcover hardy to Zone 3, it gets about 6 to 8
inches high and has spikes of pink flowers in mid-late summer. I
may plant it near my three Echinacea ‘Doppelganger’ plants, which
were supposed to show a secondary blossom above the cone. Instead,
all three plants had different flower heads. Some had reflexed
petals in their flowers, while others had two rows of petals
instead of one. They were pretty, but I was disappointed that they
hadn’t tiered like they were supposed to. Maybe next year.
Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) has reached hip-height,
and the ends of each fragrant branch are flaming with brilliant
scarlet tubular flowers — hummingbird magnets.
ATLANTA, Georgia—Autumn in the Southeast is a wonderful season.
Fall color on hardwoods doesn’t peak until the second weekend in
November, and often the first frost is delayed until the second
week of December. The Southern Nursery Association’s slogan is
“Fall is for planting,” and in this area, roots grow rapidly in
soil still warm from the summer heat. Planting continues
uninterrupted all fall and through our two winter months, January
and February, since the soil almost never freezes. In Atlanta,
rosemary, bay laurel, lemon verbena and scented geraniums generally
The relatively long days of early autumn prolong our gardening
season. A break in the usual summer drought followed by mild fall
weather brings a bounty of roses, clematis and Japanese anemone.
Many late-blooming herbs flower this time of year, and fruited
branches and brilliant leaves come into full glory.
Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) has reached hip-height, and the
ends of each fragrant branch are flaming with brilliant scarlet
tubular flowers — hummingbird magnets. I’ve seen many of the gray
hummers flitting about the herb garden and paying court to the
pineapple sage. Two large plants flank our mailbox and come into
glory in late October. Velvet sage (S. leucantha) grows to 5 or 6
feet, and forms a large perennial clump with characteristic velvety
purple calyxes in autumn. The tubular flowers can be white or
purple. Salvia coccinea, fruit-scented sage, has a delightful
fragrance and a profusion of crimson flowers until frost. A sage in
name only, Russian sage (Perovskia striplicifolia) forms a filigree
of finely cut, aromatic silver foliage and a haze of
Some of the daisy family members look especially nice in the
fall. Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) — also known as
Mexican tarragon — is one of the latest to bloom, and is reliable
for Thanksgiving Day floral arrangements. It scores points as one
last fragrant bouquet of school-bus yellow flowers before resorting
to evergreen foliage or dried flowers from last spring. Also
included in this plant family are the artemisias. Artemisia ‘Powis
Castle’ does well in Georgia, spreading into round clusters of
finely cut blue-gray foliage. A. ‘Valerie Finnis’ with a broader
leaf, also does very well, forming a low drift of broader
silver-gray leaves. A. ludoviciana ‘Silver King’ is a tall and
vigorous (invasive) spreader, to 6 feet. It is my favorite
artemisia to dry for holiday wreaths. I cut the tall, fresh stalks
and force them into circles inside a bushel basket. Afterward, I
put them in the attic for a week or more, and when I’m ready to
fashion the wreath base, it has dried round and already shaped. The
popular A. schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound’ does not grow in the South,
and won’t survive the summer’s heat and humidity, coupled with the
heavy red clay.
Classical myrtle (Myrtus communis) has aromatic, waxed,
deep-green leaves in small gnarled shrubs. It is a welcome surprise
to find that myrtle has been amenable to another year so far
distant from the Mediterranean. Occasionally I have some branch
dieback over the winter, but it is hardy in Atlanta. I like to
underplant the small, controlled myrtle shrubs with saffron (Crocus
sativus) that bloom a light orchid purple this time of year. The
contrasting orange stamens are used for flavoring, and worth many
times their weight in gold. I try to find saffron bulbs in lots of
100 because they are so much more economical that way.
Mild fall days that provide an added gardening season are one of
the choicest reasons for living in the South.
Thought to be a playground for fairies and choice real
estate for their homes, patches of thyme once were set aside for
them the way we now provide houses for birds.
TORONTO, Ontario—Halloween (or Samhain, as it was known to the
Celts) is a magical time of the year by anyone’s standards. The air
is crisp, the leaves turn gorgeous colors, and weeds practically
have ceased their onslaught. According to many belief systems, it
is also the time of year when magic of a more mystical nature can
It wasn’t so long ago that magic was regarded as a part of
everyday life; those beliefs are still reflected in herbal lore.
Whether used in love charms, fairy potions or as deterrents to
malevolent forces, herbs had supernatural as well as mundane roles
in the average person’s life. Many of these herbs are common;
you’ve probably used them in cooking, in crafts or simply as
integral parts of your garden. Now you can take the opportunity to
get to know the enchanting side of your favorite herbs.
Thyme (Thymus spp.). Given its delicious aromas and delicate
flowers, it’s perhaps unsurprising that thyme has long been
associated with fairy folk. Thought to be a playground for fairies
and choice real estate for their homes, patches of thyme once were
set aside for them the way we now provide houses for birds. Thyme
sprigs, when worn with mint and lavender, also served to bring
romance to eager girls.
Garlic (Allium sativum). Though not as charming as thyme to
wear, garlic has an even more ancient magical reputation. Garlic’s
renown for repelling evil spans many cultures, and is likely older
than recorded history (ask any vampire). It has figured in charms
and spells for this purpose right up to modern times.
To rid oneself of a different kind of unwanted presence, a
western American belief claims that a girl can discourage an
unwelcome suitor by sticking two crossed pins into a clove of
garlic, leaving the prepared clove at a crossroads and enticing the
boy to walk over the garlic. It probably would be easier, though
not quite as mysterious, for a girl simply to chew a clove or two
before meeting with the boy of her disinterest.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). This is an herb with many
magical associations. A common ingredient in spells and potions,
one of rosemary’s purported powers included robbing a thief of the
will to steal. This was accomplished by washing his feet in a
lotion made from rosemary root. Rosemary also was believed to offer
protection from infernal forces, and in the Middle Ages, sprigs of
it were placed under pillows to ward off demons and nightmares. In
addition, tapping rosemary against the fingers of one’s object of
affection was sure to obtain their everlasting devotion. In Sicily,
there is a belief that young fairies take the forms of snakes and
lie amidst rosemary’s branches.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum). Now known as an herb
that helps dispel the inner demons of anxiety and tension, St.
John’s wort has long been believed to drive away external devils as
well. The ancient Greeks believed the smell alone would cause evil
to flee. For centuries it was used in exorcisms and as everyday
charms against dark forces.
Until relatively recently, the Welsh used sprigs of St. John’s
wort to foretell illness and death. Fresh sprays named for each
family member were hung from the rafters overnight to indicate who
was closest to death by the degree of shriveling that had occurred
If you ever visit the Isle of Wight, take care not to step on
this plant at twilight, lest you be carried off on a fairy horse
and not returned until dawn.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). This herb is of particular
interest to me. Unaware of how large it grows when I planted it, I
now have an abundance of mugwort. Hearing of its reputation for
inducing prophetic dreams, I’ve hung two large bundles to dry from
the posts at the head of the bed. So far, none of my dreams have
come true; perhaps I should have stuck to the tradition of stuffing
the herb into pillows.
This is another herb that is believed to protect against wicked
influences. In particular, it was worn as a crown on St. John’s Eve
to protect against possession. In China, it was hung during the
Dragon Festival to keep away evil spirits. Worn in the shoes, it
also was reputed to protect against fatigue, soreness, sunstroke
and wild animals.
Juniper (Juniperus communis). Evil must have lurked about a lot
in the past because it seems almost every herb has been employed to
combat it. The ubiquitous juniper is no exception. Like St. John’s
wort, the odor alone was thought to be enough to drive off all
manner of fiends and imps, as well as disease. Parents once burned
juniper during childbirth in order to keep fairies from
substituting a changeling for the human newborn.
Elder (Sambucus nigra). Alternately believed to house spirits, a
dryad (in Denmark known as Hylde-moer) or the goddess Freya, our
ancestors would never think of cutting a branch of elder without
first asking its inhabitant’s permission, nor would they consider
cutting the tree down. To cause such harm to an elder was sure to
bring ruin upon themselves and their families. Fortunately, once
permission was granted (conveniently, by means of silence), elder
could be used to repel evil and provide protection. Green branches
were buried in graves to protect the dead from witches and more of
those ever-threatening malevolent spirits. To see elder in a dream
meant illness was coming.
In Denmark, some believed that anyone standing under an elder on
Midsummer Eve would see the King of Fairyland and his attendants
Many other common herbs bear magical reputations, including
yarrow, caraway, vervain and fennel. While it’s nice to know the
histories — and alternative uses — of our favorite herbs, herb
lovers know all herbs are magical. Still, it’s good to know what
I’ll need the next time I have an infestation of mischievous
spirits. Perhaps some herbal treats will appease the ghosts and
goblins this October 31st.