Round Robin: Growing Feverfew

LANSING, New York–June is the month when people come to tramp around the garden. This year, I’ve got to do some serious tidying up because people from The Herb Society of America, meeting for five days at Cornell University nearby, will furnish one group of trampers. I hope that the visitors won’t expect to see a separate herb garden: all of my herbs, except for those in pots on my little backdoor terrace, are all mixed in with other border plants. Well, they will have to take me as they find me and be grateful if the garden is weeded and the lawn mowed.

They will certainly enjoy the Robison York State Herb Garden at Cornell Plantations, which is looking particularly beautiful these days. Diane Miske, the curator, is a marvelous hand at grouping plants and combining color, form and foliage in the ground-level beds, the raised stone beds, and the containers around and under the pergola. Most of the beds in this one-acre garden are planted according to themes–herbs that attract bees, herbs that have been chronicled in literature, tea herbs, those grown primarily for their seeds, dye plants and others. I always take a notebook and pen when I go to visit this garden because I know I’ll find plants with which I’m not familiar and combinations I’ve never thought of.

Gazing at the summer border here at home, I am once again impressed by the contribution of feverfew. Years ago, I bought a package of seed labeled Mat­ricaria ‘Tom Thumb White Stars’, and these plants are still going strong, thanks to their propensity to self-sow. This is a double feverfew whose seedlings are also double, and the plant makes snowy masses of bloom here and there all through the border. The parent plants sometimes live through the winter and sometimes do not, but usually they have leaned over during the summer and rooted at an elbow, making a new plant that can be cut away from its dead parent in the spring and reset where needed. As for the many seedlings, I simply pluck and discard those I don’t need and set out a few of the others. I find it a very hardy plant indeed. The only way my present feverfews differ from their forebears planted in the 1970s is that they’ve grown taller–to 21/2 feet and more. No longer Tom Thumbs, perhaps. I regret the change and often cut the plants back to half their height during the spring. This causes them to bloom later, but to me that’s better than letting them make big bushes that obscure all the plants behind them. If I shear off the spent blossoms and stems later on, the plants usually rebloom in late summer.

In the years when I ran a perennial nursery and also sent bouquets of fresh and dried flowers to the local farmers’ market, I used lots of this double feverfew. The intricately incised, bright green foliage makes a lovely background for their clusters of white flowers and other components of a bouquet.

Feverfew has gone under many Latin names. I won’t burden you with all of them. I’ve known it as M. capensis, which was changed to Chrysanthemum parthenium and then to Tanacetum parthenium. I suppose that taxonomists need something to do.

The seed company from which I purchased Tom Thumb White Stars no longer offers it (unless it’s listed under yet another name). They do list some fine-looking yellow feverfews that I’m dying to try. I grew some with small yellow buttons, called Golden Ball, some years back, but they neither lived through the winter nor self-seeded, so I haven’t seen them since. Another seed company offers seed for single or double whites without saying whether they are annual or perennial. No doubt, white ones would self-sow, if given a chance, so if you planted them, you would never be without them.

Elisabeth Sheldon is a garden writer and l­ecturer in Lansing, New York. She is the author of The Flamboyant Garden (Henry Holt and Company 1993).

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