NOTES FROM REGIONAL HERB GARDENERS
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 medicinal. Honestly.
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 for assiduously.
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 winter over.
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 heather-colored flowers.
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 take place.
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 by morning.
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 ride by.
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.
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