Take a journey into the past via the captivating medieval herb garden of the Washington National Cathedral.
If you’ve ever dreamed of wandering through the serene, scented herb gardens of medieval gothic cathedrals, you don’t have to travel all the way to Europe to do it. Amid the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., lies the 57-acre grounds of the Washington National Cathedral. It is a peaceful green space designed to mimic the aromatic herb and flower gardens of the grandest medieval Gothic cathedrals.
While the Episcopal cathedral itself is magnificent, garden lovers will be immediately drawn to a Norman archway in the garden’s stone wall leading to the intimate, three-acre Bishop’s Garden—a series of scented garden “rooms” winding down the terraced hillside. Trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs and artifacts welcome you into a world far away from the rush and noise of nearby Wisconsin Avenue.
As you follow the stone paths and steps through giant, unruly boxwood hedges, you reach the herbal heart of the garden: the Hortulus, Latin for “little garden.” Anchoring the small, square space is a massive stone baptismal font surrounded by a staggering collection of herbs including rosemary, lemon balm, lovage, mint, parsley, wormwood, tansy, feverfew, valerian, clary sage and horehound. Aromatic apothecary’s rose and Iris germanica are also tucked into the planting.
Slipping through a narrow gap in the surrounding hedge, one arrives at another striking piece: a bronze sundial on top of a 13th-century French carved-stone pillar. It marks the start of a large, sunny space featuring classic culinary and aromatic herbs including lovage, chives, fennel, costmary, pineapple and Mexican sages, and more.
Though herbs form the basis for the enchanting Bishop’s Garden, perennial borders and a central rose garden add color to the hillside. A weathered stone wayside cross marks the pathway leading to a shady pool, overlooked by 15th-century bas-relief plaques set into the wall.
Many of the sculptures throughout the garden came from the private collection that formed the basis of the famous Cloisters Museum in New York City. Visit Herbal Escape: The Cloisters Museum and Gardens for more about the museum.
The gardens of the cathedral grounds were part of the original landscape plan developed from 1907 to 1928 by famed American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Olmsted’s vision included gardens, woodlands, native plantings, paths and hardscaping, most of which are realized today.
The landscape was designed to complement the great, Gothic-style cathedral that was built using authentic materials such as hand-carved stone, wood carvings and hand-forged ironwork. As in an original medieval cathedral, outbuildings, gardens and even a school are contained within the cathedral grounds.
While Olmsted developed the master plan, much of the details were executed by members of the All Hallows Guild, a volunteer organization dedicated to acting as stewards to the gardens and grounds of the cathedral. One of the most influential of these volunteer designers was Florence Brown Bratenahl, the wife of a cathedral official and, years later, one of the founders of The Herb Society of America. Bratenahl and the other Guild members went to great lengths to ensure the garden grounds were historically accurate, researching medieval gardens at length. They studied illuminated manuscripts and missals, famous herbals and woodcut illustrations, and the plants depicted in ancient tapestries. For the herb gardens, the members researched ancient documents such as Emperor Charlemagne’s plant list and 9th-century monk Walafrid Strabo’s poem about his garden plants.
And the ladies of the Guild (yes, all women) did not limit their research materials to books and paper. Amazingly, they also sourced mature plant material such as century-old boxwood hedges and large holly trees from ruined estates in the Washington, D.C., area—all while continuously coaxing financial donations from individuals and garden clubs across the country.
In 1929, when the Bishop’s Garden was completed, Bratenahl wrote picturesque descriptions of the lavish results of the group’s efforts. She described in detail “sweet-scented herbs and the fragrance of roses, the colors of flowers seen dimly; ancient stone, Gothic fragments of forgotten monasteries, mellow brick, roughly hewn timber.”
As in any garden, the work is never done. A staff of professional horticulturists and gardeners provides onsite care, while All Hallows Guild determines new projects, raises money and volunteers in the gardens. All to ensure this haven continues in a hidden corner of the capital.
Washington National Cathedral is located at 3101 Wisconsin Avenue in northwest Washington, D.C., at the intersection of Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues.
Admission to the gardens is free. Garden tours are conducted from April through October. Group tours and a combination Tour & Tea can also be arranged.
The annual Flower Mart is held on the first weekend in May. It offers plants for sale, games and rides for kids, live music, food booths and behind-the-scenes cathedral tours.
Mary Fran McQuade is a writer and gardener who lives in an old house near Lake Ontario in Toronto, Canada. She is a longtime contributor to The Herb Companion.