The Robison York State Herb Garden

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Robison York State Herb Garden was constructed from an old school playground.
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Field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) in the herb garden.
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This historic garden was nurtured by one woman’s vision.
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Robison York State Herb Garden at Cornell Plantations opened its gates in 1974.
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The stone stile at the herb garden wall.

Diane Miske has been tending the Robison York State Herb Garden
for the past seventeen years.

The scenic Finger Lakes region of upstate New
York is home to Cornell Plantations, the botanical garden,
arboretum, and natural area preserves of Cornell University. There
you will find a peaceful haven for herb lovers nestled in a quiet
hollow where a noisy playground once fronted the old, ivy-covered
school building that now houses the Plantations’ education staff.
Follow a flagstone path through the cool, vine-shaded pergola
running along the front of the old schoolhouse, then turn out into
the bright sunshine for the array of colors and textures, and
warming fragrances of the Robison York State Herb Garden.

This garden, like many gardens, blossomed from a dream. Its
seeds of inspiration were sown many years ago during the rural New
York childhood of Audrey Harkness O’Connor, the moving force behind
the garden’s creation. Roaming the rolling countryside as a young
girl and helping tend her family’s garden fostered a deep love of
nature that has continued throughout her long and fruitful life.
Audrey’s youthful interest in plants flowered fully when she came
to Cornell University as a student in the 1930s. She was
particularly inspired by botany professor Walter C. Muenscher, a
noted authority on herbs, and by his wife, Minnie, a writer of
herbal cookbooks. A lasting delight and fascination took hold for
herbs and the stories they revealed of people throughout the ages
and across different cultures. It was during these student years
that Audrey first dreamed of an herb garden at Cornell, and she
planned one for a class assignment. It was an idea that would take
years to germinate.

Audrey went on to graduate with concentrations in both
horticulture and journalism, and she worked for many years as an
illustrator for the College of Agriculture. In 1958 she took over
as editor of Cornell Plantations Magazine, a role that combined her
love of plants and her enthusiasm for spreading seeds of knowledge
to others. In 1963 she was one of the founding members of the
Auraca Herbarists. This local herb study group gathered at the feet
of “Grandma” Minnie Muenscher in the early days and flourished for
many years under Audrey’s guidance. The study group is still going
strong today.

Cornell Plantations moved offices to the old Forest Home School
in 1965. From the second-floor windows Audrey gazed out over the
empty, one-acre, former play yard, and her long-dormant vision for
a Cornell herb garden at last began to sprout. One day over lunch,
Richard M. Lewis, then director of Cornell Plantations, sketched
out their ideas on a paper towel, and a basic concept for the herb
garden took form. To raise money to build and endow the garden,
they used donated funds to buy a pair of wrought iron gates from
1800 and featured them in a 1966 exhibit titled “Come, Open the
Garden Gate.” They attracted the interest of Ellis H. Robison, a
Cornell graduate from the class of 1918, and he eventually funded
the project as a tribute to his wife, Doris Burgess Robison. It
took several more years of hard work to bring the dream to life.
Finally in 1974, overflowing with plants raised lovingly by Audrey
in her home garden, the gate to the Robison York State Herb Garden
at Cornell Plantations swung wide open for visitors.

Dream expanded

The vision of Audrey O’Connor continues today, although she
passed away in December of 1999. Today, as you approach the garden
from the old schoolhouse, you are greeted by a rather recent
addition. Two borders of ornamental herbs flank the garden’s
entrance and run along the outside edge for its entire length.
Visitors enjoy a tapestry of aromatic foliage, including such
favorites as silver filigreed ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia, pebbled
gray-green- and purple-leafed sages, and crisp, emerald-green,
curled parsley. This leafy display is punctuated by colorful
exclamations of herbal flowers. The scene here varies from year to
year. You may discover soft clouds of white and lavender blooms,
dramatic sweeps of bold foliage and flowers in dark purples and
reds, or perhaps a sunny show with golden variegated leaves and
yellow blossoms.

Inside the herb garden, architectural features lend an upstate
New York flavor to the place. Six raised beds, the north and south
enclosing walls, flagstone paving, and a central sundial are all
constructed of native stone quarried locally. Some was retrieved
from demolished local buildings, including the farmhouse of Ezra
Cornell, the university’s founder. At the sundial’s base, thyme
surrounds an old millstone that was uncovered along the banks of
nearby Fall Creek, a remnant of a once-thriving mill community. The
dry-laid south wall, with its stone stile for climbing, is
reminiscent of early New York State farm construction, as are the
split-rail fences that define the east and west boundaries. Be sure
to stop and admire the antique iron gates around which the garden
was built. Other features of the garden’s design fulfill its
educational mission. The central court with stone benches is the
perfect spot to gather for an herbal talk or demonstration, the
wide grass pathways readily accommodate tour groups and
photographers, and the raised beds allow easy access to some of the
smaller herbs.

Herbs for all reasons

The hundreds of different herbs at home in the garden are
grouped by use or association into a variety of theme beds. These
make it easy for visitors to find herbs of special interest. Within
the beds, each plant is labeled with its common and scientific
names, its family, and a brief

explanation of its significance or use. “Herbs of the Ancients”
is the first group of plants to explore just inside the garden’s
entrance. Here, for example, long-fibered flax (Linum
usitatissimum) weaves its history as linen cloth for sails of
Phoenician ships and wrappings of Egyptian mummies, and
blue-flowered borage (Borago officinalis) tells of the Greek poet
Homer’s potion to expel sorrow.

“Herbs in Literature” celebrates plants whose significance in
human culture has been chronicled in prose, poetry, drama, myth,
and folklore. You will find Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium) as
the emblem of Scotland, the rampion (Campanula rapunculus) of
Grimm’s fairy tale Rapunzel, and Shakespeare’s cuckoo-buds (Primula
veris) from Love’s Labours Lost. The bed of “Bee Herbs” features
plants rich in nectar and pollen, such as thymes (Thymus spp.),
used for flavorful honey. Herbs containing oils that calm bees or
soothe their stings are also included. Lemon balm (Melissa
officinalis) does both.

Herbs whose leaves or stems are added fresh to salads or cooked
as greens are grown together as “Salads and Potherbs.” These
include Japanese mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica), which can be
tossed in salads, and iron-rich Good-King-Henry (Chenopodium
bonus-henricus), which can be sautéed like spinach. The plants in
the “Edible Flowers” section make elegant garnishes and colorful
splashes in salads and drinks. Crystallized with sugar, they are
beautiful cake decorations. The bright red blossoms of bee balm
(Monarda didyma) carry a sweet citrus flavor, while orange and
yellow nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are peppery.

Exotic flavors abound in the “Culinary Herbs” section, including
Vietnamese coriander (Polygonum odoratum) with its pungent
cilantro-like taste, sweet marigold (Tagetes lucida) with an anise
aroma, and spicy Indian curry leaf (Murraya koenigii). You’ll also
find classics such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), bay
(Laurus nobilis), and Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp.
hirtum). “Savory Seed Herbs” include caraway (Carum carvi) and
black cumin (Nigella sativa), which season baked goods, and fennel
(Foeniculum vulgare), whose seeds add a distinctive flavor to
Italian sausages. Leaves, flowers, roots, or seeds of the “Tea
Herbs” are brewed into tasty hot or cold beverages. You’ll find
lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), which can be steeped for a
refreshing, zesty drink, and chamomile (Matricaria recutita), whose
apple-scented flowers can be brewed for stomach-soothing, calming

To learn of other herbal remedies, go to the “Medicinal Herbs”
area. There you’ll find herbs with long traditions of folk use, as
well as plants used in the manufacture of modern prescription
medications. Look for St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), which
is used as a treatment for depression; Madagascar periwinkle
(Catharanthus roseus), whose extracted alkaloids make
chemotherapeutic drugs to treat childhood leukemia and Hodgkin’s
disease; and horehound (Marrubium vulgare), a traditional remedy
taken in tea form or as lozenges for sore throats. Look also for a
scattering of plants used in traditional Chinese and Indian
Ayurvedic medicine.

“Herbs of the Native Americans” acknowledges the enduring plant
wisdom of these natives and features plants used for medicinal,
nutritional, and ceremonial purposes. Corn (Zea mays) has not only
been an important food crop, but has long been deemed sacred as
well; Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) was named after a
legendary Indian healer who treated typhus with this plant’s root
extracts; and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was used
medicinally for cramps and as a body and fiber dye.

For more pigment-yielding plants, check out the “Dye Herbs.”
Madder roots (Rubia tinctoria) gave the British soldiers their
“redcoats” during the Revolutionary war, while Indian madder (Rubia
cordifolia) supplies Buddhist monks with their traditional maroon
robes. “Economic Herbs” provide commercially useful products such
as oils, fibers, perfume, and flavorings. Peppermint (Mentha
¥piperita) is included here as a ubiquitous flavor of candy,
chewing gum, and toothpaste. Ramie (Boehmeria nivea) has a place
for its stem fibers employed in the manufacture of clothing.

All of the herbs found in the “Fragrant Herbs” section are
enjoyed for their scents in the garden and as ingredients in
perfumes, soaps, cosmetics, sachets, and potpourris. English
lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and the damask rose (Rosa
damascena) are standards here. Dozens of varieties of scented
geraniums (Pelargonium spp), tender plants from South Africa, have
aromas ranging from lemon and lime to peppermint, rose, and ginger.
They are especially beautiful for their assortment of leaf textures
highlighted with dainty flowers and are useful both for flavoring
and in aromatic preparations such as perfumes and potpourris.

Next search the raised beds for a small section called
“Tussie-mussies and Nosegays.” These flowers of traditional
hand-held bouquets convey sentiments in the Victorian “Language of
Flowers.” Because it retains a bright purple color when dried, the
globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa) denotes immortality or unfading
love; red carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) say “Alas! for my poor
heart”; and violets (Viola odorata), blooming low to the ground
with bowed faces, signify modesty and faithfulness.

Finally, pause to reflect on the “Sacred Herbs.” These herbs
associated with sacred rituals or embodying religious symbolism are
testaments to the fact that plants not only excite our senses, but
nurture our spirits as well. The early Christians often prefixed
the name of the Virgin Mary to flowers thought especially
beautiful, and so the gold-blossomed pot marigold (Calendula
officinalis) received its name. It became the floral emblem of Lady
Day, when the church celebrated the feast of the Annunciation. In
India, tulasi or sacred basil (Ocimum sanctum) is consecrated to
the god Vishnu. It is grown near Hindu temples and homes for
worship and protection.

Words to remember

Before wandering off to explore other parts of the Cornell
Plantations, linger to contemplate the herb garden’s motto, an
inscription by the seventeenth-century

Hermetic philosopher and poet-mystic Henry Vaughan, carved on
stone benches in the inner court: The herb becomes the teacher. Men
stray after false goals when the herb he treads knows much, much

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