A Tribute to Madeleine Siegler

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Photograph by Jewel Pinkham
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St. Francis watches over a portion of Madeleine Siegler’s formal herb garden.
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Color and fragrance draw birds to the blossoms and then to the birdbath beyond.
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The pure white flowers of gas plant (Dictamnus albus) are the centerpiece of this scene.
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A bee skep in the center becomes a focal point in this traditional herb garden at Monk’s Hill Farm.

Socrates could walk through my herb garden and recognize my plants.
–Madeleine Siegler (1923-1993)

It may seem strange that I’m writing a tribute to someone I scarcely knew, but Madeleine Siegler was an enthusiastic teacher who had only begun to share her extensive knowledge of herbs with me. When I received news of her death in 1994, I felt that I had lost a good and valued friend.

I first saw Madeleine’s name in Phyllis Shaudys’s book Herbal Treasures (Garden Way, 1990), to which she had contributed many ideas and recipes. “I spend as much time as possible with Madeleine Siegler at herb conferences,” Phyllis wrote, “as we’ve become very close friends through the years.”

Every entry carries the voice of sure experience combined with an infectious enthusiasm. Madeleine was a born teacher, so humble about her accomplishments that students were not overwhelmed. She wrote about making a spice necklace using allspice, cloves, star anise, tonka and vanilla beans. “Perhaps you do not care for my design,” she suggested. Change it, experiment, be creative, but, she advised, learn the technique. Behind the down-to-earthiness, the warmth, and the lack of pretension were knowledge and experience. She wrote about making spring salad from the oddments in her garden and from the wild, about making wreaths for herbal weddings, about growing gingerroot and, her specialty, making potpourri.

What impelled me to write to her was her success in growing tender herbs such as dittany of Crete and rosemary at Monk’s Hill Farm, her herb business in central Maine. She was so successful with rosemary that she could substitute a 5-foot-tall tubbed plant for the traditional Christmas tree, stringing it with tiny white lights and other decorations. Plants were wintered over in her solar greenhouse, then planted in the ground for the summer, then dug up and repotted in the fall–a chancy operation, I thought. I had asked Madeleine if such plants bloomed significantly. “All of mine,” she wrote, “bloom profusely during the winter, in full bloom in February, especially the large prostrate variety, just loaded with flowers.” But she added that she really didn’t know too much about rosemaries, the cultivar names and such, for which information she suggested I contact expert herb growers. Would I be so modest with such accomplishments behind me? Raising rosemary as successfully as Madeleine did in a northern climate, even with the help of a greenhouse, certainly impressed me.

As for dittany (a desirable Origanum I had thought beyond the reach of northern gardeners), she grew it outdoors in a hanging pot by the doorstep, where it bloomed all summer, then wintered it in the greenhouse. Her method for propagation, which she shared with the readers of Herbal Treasures, is described with characteristic simplicity: “Using very unscientific methods, I have had very good luck rooting 5-inch cuttings in water in a sunny window.” The reader is at once encouraged to try her hand.

Madeleine Haskell was born in Warren, Maine, attended Rosemont College in Pennyslvania, and married Ray Siegler in 1944. The couple returned to live in Maine after World War II, and in 1971, after their six children were grown, they established Monk’s Hill Farm.

Adelma Simmons’s pioneering book Herb Gardening in Five Seasons (1964) had a great impact on Madeleine; even before she had finished reading it, she had sown her first herb seeds. This simple act was the first step in what would become her life’s work of growing, using, teaching, and writing about herbs. Although she had been a gardener since childhood, she now devoted herself wholly to gardening and related subjects.

She established a retail herb business, Monk’s Hill Herbs, which grew faster than she had anticipated, and Ray retired early to help her. People flocked to Monk’s Hill to buy herb plants and Madeleine’s special potpourri and to tour the gardens. “She was known across the country for her knowledge and fantastic personality,” her friend Anna Cushman noted. “Everybody went there, not only for the herbs, but for the kind of nurturing that she gave. It was a real experience.”

About the business, Ray wrote,
“It was a mom-and-pop operation that stretched us both to the breaking point, some days with five cars in the driveway and others parked along the road . . . skipped lunches, leftovers for dinner. . . . Madeleine was the people person, treating all customers as if they were the only ones that mattered in the world, strolling them through the gardens, filling them with enough information to write their own book if they wished.”

The Sieglers changed the operation from retail to wholesale to relieve the pressure, finally closing altogether so that Madeleine could devote herself to writing.

Madeleine’s column “Herbs and Other Growing Things” appeared in the Kennebec Journal and the Central Maine Morning Sentinel. People responded as positively to her columns as they did when meeting her in person at Monk’s Hill. Her enthusiasm for the subject, her willingness to share her knowledge, and her ability to convey it in a friendly chat endeared her to readers. Lynn Ascrizzi, editor at the Sentinel, recalls that Madeleine once offered free samples of garlic chive seeds and received nearly seventy responses, “a lot of mail for a columnist in a country newspaper.”

“Are we read–or what!” Madeleine responded with characteristic gusto.

She wrote prolifically on a wide variety of topics having to do with herbs for Farmstead (a now-defunct country publication in Maine), The Herb Quarterly, and The Herb Companion, as well as for Phyllis Shaudys’s newsletter, Potpourri from Herbal Acres. Her curiosity led her down interesting paths, such as researching the once-popular musk plant (Mimulus moschatus), whose unexplained loss of scent in cultivated clones led to a precipitous decline in its popularity in the early decades of this century.

Madeleine wanted to know everything about herbs and wanted to grow them all. She often sought out the unusual. Does anyone know a source for Cerinthe? she asked her wide circle of knowledgeable correspondents; Thompson and Morgan just introduced it, she was told. Writing about unusual herbs to try, she suggested Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), mace plant (Achillea ageratum), and ambrosia (Chenopodium botrys), “an annual I would wish for every garden.” She promoted Russian sage (Perovskia sp.) before it became so popular. “Once you have seen it in bloom you will not rest until you have located a source for the plants and a spot in which to grow them.” You can be sure that many of her readers tried to grow whatever she recommended.

The gardens at Monk’s Hill, the source of Madeleine’s practical knowledge about growing herbs, were carefully laid out and changed over the years to reflect changing tastes, conditions, and perspective. But the continuing thread was an abiding interest in the classics of the herb genre: the rosemaries, lavenders, and thymes, which she grew in the traditional manner in a formal planting. She once told a reporter, “Socrates could walk through my herb garden and recognize my plants.”

Creeping thyme, a sheet of rosy pink beneath a birdbath, the white spikes of gas plant (Dictamnus albus), and a red-orange azalea were colorful counterpoints in early summer to the rounded clumps of rue and artemisias. Herbs were incorporated not just in her formal gardens, but in the landscape wherever they showed to advantage. Angelica extended its great arms against the white garage wall, and Virginia bluebells made a carpet of blue beneath a little-leaf linden tree.

In the only letter Madeleine ever wrote to me, dated January 15, 1993, she chatted about her favorite flowering herbs. In addition to questions about her tender herbs, I had asked her to list her ten flowering favorites for a book I was writing on the subject. Her answer, so exuberant, was pure “Maddy”:

“My favorites? And a limit of ten! That is tough. Lavender, of course, number one, any variety; marsh marigold because it blooms so early, Anemone pulsatilla [now Pulsatilla vulgaris] for the same reason; calamint because it makes such a display in bloom–sort of a lavender-white haze, always covered with honeybees; clary sage because I love the fragrance of the flower bracts; annual clary because it stays in bloom so long; Culver’s root for its white spikes and leaves clasping the stem; showy marjoram for its showy pink flowers and long bloom period; trailing soapwort for its blanket of pink flowers at the same time as Nepeta mussinii; my other Nepeta which is not mussinii (and I am not sure what it is! Maybe N. ‘Six Hills Giant’). . .; oh yes, my newest Nepeta, the grandiflorum . . . it bloomed profusely last summer, all of 3 feet tall, rosy-purple spikes.

“Already more than ten,” she continued,”and I limited my choices to only those with good flowers. . . . P.S. Hope you don’t omit Monarda citriodora! I love its stacked-up look. Write again if I can help in any way.”

I did write again, on December 13, 1994, but this time, Ray answered: “This will be a difficult letter. I’ll do my best. Madeleine died in August of 1993 of pancreatic cancer at home, with enormous courage, and without complaint.”

In reviewing her life and work, I now understand why the news of her death so affected me. As her friends and even casual acquaintances observed, being touched by her in any way, even the smallest, was a nurturing experience.

Madeleine approached death with the same extraordinary good cheer and practicality with which she faced life. In her final weeks, as her strength was failing, she walked with Ray through the Monk’s Hill gardens so that he would know the names of the plants, the difficult ones, after she was gone. “She would reply to my questions of identification,” he wrote me, “as patiently as if I had not asked the same questions the week or the month before and the week before that.”

Could I, facing death, calmly walk my husband through the garden, telling him the names of plants I would never see again? What most strikes me about Madeleine Siegler is her serenity. In dying, as in living, she drew people to her, always cheering them on. Now it was to help her plan her own funeral down to the last detail. “Rosemary sprigs for everyone at the church,” she wrote to Phyllis Shaudys, to keep or to toss on my grave. The gravestone will be a Maine granite bench for folks to drop by and rest upon. . . . Ray is preparing and liming the soil on the plot in readiness for clumps of wild thyme. Our priest will bless the ground, and there under the fragrant thyme and towering maples will I be.

Jo Ann Gardner, a regular contributor to The Herb Companion, lives in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

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