Mother Earth Living

An Island Refuge

From the deck of the ferry, the first breathtaking view of the jagged coastline of Block Island, Rhode Island, is more reminiscent of a Victorian seaside village than a modern tourist destination. There are no massive steel and concrete resorts, only historic hotels, quaint inns, and private guesthouses adorned with huge pink and blue hydrangea flowers.

Herbs and other plant life abound on the island. In the Chamber of Commerce office at the far end of the ferry parking lot, a large vase holds borage, dill, mint, yarrow, and hollyhocks grown on the island. In late July, a profusion of ripe rosehips beckons visitors to the main street, called Water Street. Here, most people rent bicycles for the short, blackberry-lined trip to Crescent Beach.

Common goldenrod and knotweed are plentiful, but the island is also home to rare varieties such as Elliott’s goldenrod (Solidago elliottii) and seabeach knotweed (Polygonum glacum). A sighting of the globally endangered sea- beach amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus) was verified in 1997, though its location is well guarded. Even plants common in other places, such as butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), require protection in this isolated habitat. If they are picked and removed from the island, they do not have a chance to be re-seeded by mainland plants.

Conservation groups maintain nine areas spanning 27 miles of hiking trails. On the north end of the island, the Clay Head Trail winds through dense stands of bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), Northern arrowwood (Viburnum recognitum), and shadbush (Amelanchier lamarckii). The trail emerges onto rocky bluffs, only to retreat again into the maze of greenery. The same type of shrubbery is found throughout the island ecosystem. Rodman’s Hollow trail, in the southwestern part of the island, also showcases the state-endangered bushy rockrose (Helianthemum dumosum) in its sandy morainal grasslands. The adjacent Greenway trail boasts the state-endangered Northern blazing star (Liatris scariosa), intermingled with common asters, butter-and-eggs (Linaria vulgaris), and Queen-Anne’s-lace (Daucus carota). More than 30 percent of the island is protected from development. Even private lawns are dotted with red clover, wild chicory, and mullein.

On Wednesday mornings customers line up early at the farmers’ market to get their choice of beautifully presented pantry foods, lush flowers, herbed scones, and, of course, produce. Haricot verts bundled in thin blue ribbons and greens so perfect they look like paintings display an awe-inspiring artistry. Bottles of unusual herbal vinegars such as Pansy/Thyme, Gooseberry/Sage, Lemon/Tansy, and Tarragon/Rose are arranged in baskets. Fresh herb-infused deli-style foods are ready for picnickers, and the selection of homemade jellies and preserves rivals that of the finest gourmet shops.

Also at the market, herbalist Johanna Ross sells her Island Mist tinctures, flower essences, and bath and beauty products, made whenever possible from local plants. Ross collects bladderwrack at low tide for her Ocean Facial Scrub, and she harvests on her 4-acre farm where elder, boneset, and several varieties of wild rose grow naturally among domesticated herbs. Although the property is not currently open to the public, Ross plans to have classes and weed walks in the future.

There are no large, commercial farms here. All of the produce is grown in small, private gardens. The plots are surrounded by dense thickets of shrubbery and dotted by freshwater ponds covered with blankets of water lilies. The neat, terraced configurations make the best use of the rolling hills and are fenced off for protection from the island’s thriving deer population.

No trip to Block Island would be complete without a visit to the Hotel Manisses and The 1661 Inn. The gardens, cultivated by owner Justin Abrams, are outstanding examples of sustainable restaurant plots. Each morning in season, Abrams, a former wildlife biologist, can be seen in the 2-acre plot plucking herbs and edible flowers for the breakfast buffet at The 1661 Inn. The Manisses’ dinner menu includes a varying selection of such delicacies as lemon sage au jus, leek compote, and smoked-tomato fennel broth.

Block Island provides a myriad of activities. Special events such as the Harvest Festival in mid-October, the Shad Bloom Festival in early May, and the House and Garden Tour in August provide special opportunities for herb lovers. In season, days are a flurry of activity. Come nightfall, however, the town reverts to a sleepy hamlet blanketed in a peaceful, dense fog. The sandy beaches, tall bluffs, and rocky shoreline are a tranquil respite for rejuvenation of the spirit. In a hectic world, Block Island stands as a tribute to nature, ecology, and the simplicity of bygone days.

Debbie Whittaker, owner of a Denver, Colorado, business called the Herb Gourmet, is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion.

  • Published on Aug 1, 2001
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