Round Robin: An Herbal Magazine’s Living History

CAPE BRETON ISLAND, Nova Scotia – I wrote my first article about herbs in the late 1970s for the Herb Grower, a magazine edited and published by Gertrude (“Bunny”) and Philip Foster in Falls Village, Connecticut. There were no ads and no payment to contributors (producing the magazine was a labor of love), but every so often I would receive a large parcel of books, back issues of the Herb Grower, and a variety of publications from the couple’s Herb Grower Press. This material has proved to be an invaluable source of information and inspiration.

My most treasured gift of all was a hardbound copy of the magazine’s first eight issues, published between April 1947 and July 1948. By reading the editor’s comments and the contributions by the leading herb authorities of the day–Helen Noyes Webster, Rosetta Clarkson, Helen Fox–it is possible to see the herb renaissance taking shape before our eyes.

For more than forty years, the publication, modestly illustrated with a few black-and-white photos and line drawings, presented fresh ideas, new information on every aspect of useful plants: new basils, how to germinate herb seeds in sphagnum (described by the plantsman Linc Foster, the publisher’s brother), the nutritional value of parsley, interesting orachs, the properties of linden flowers, herbal irises, the art of making perfume, herbal oils, an overview of old gardening literature, plans for a dooryard garden, recipes–a feast for the herb enthusiast.

At the end of the magazine’s first year of publication, the editor thanked the 600 subscribers, commenting that subscriptions had tripled, that the “herb fad,” despite predictions of collapse, was just beginning. The same issue includes an account of the Fosters’ visit to Foxden, Helen Fox’s garden in Peekskill, New York. This was a momentous occasion for the Fosters, new bearers of the herbal torch passed to them by one who had launched America’s renewed interest in herbs in 1933 with her book Gardening with Herbs for Flavor and Fragrance.

There was, of course, the beauty of the plantings: the wide borders of nepetas, anise hyssop, sweet cicely, the dry rock walls topped with many species of thyme, hardy savories, calamints, the sheltered beds at the foot of the walls planted with lavenders in all their colors, the delicate Foxden ­variety of gray-leaved santolina, and, I’m sure, plants yet to be introduced to the ­gardening public.

Is it any wonder that I pause in the archives on this blustery winter day to think about gardens, even my own, as living history? “Gardening is one of the most dynamic of activities,” Helen Fox had observed. “The gardener has to grow with her gardens

Jo Ann Gardner of Orangedale, Nova Scotia, is an herb gardener and author of The Heirloom Garden (Storey Communications 1993), on growing old-fashioned ornamentals.

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