A National Treasure

Commemorating the dream of The Herb Society of America

| October/November 1993

Nikita Khrushchev gave President Dwight D. Eisenhower a gift of two European linden trees in 1960, the same year in which he ordered the American U-2 spy plane shot down over Soviet territory. International crisis erupted over the U-2 incident, and the linden trees became an awkward footnote. Now, Khru­shchev’s lindens are thriving among the other herbal trees that surround the National Herb Garden in Washington, D.C., the awkwardness long forgotten.

The National Herb Garden is one of the largest gardens of its kind in the world. Covering about three acres, it showcases an enormous range of plants that have played significant roles in human lives. Many visitors leave with a greatly expanded notion of what constitutes an herb garden, as well as an appreciation for the grace and beauty that abound here. They are wont to whisper, “This is an herb garden?”

The setting is a meadow opposite the National Arboretum’s administration building, where grasses and wildflowers paint a peaceful picture. Because the site is near the main gate and parking lot, everyone who visits the ­arboretum passes by or through the herb garden. In fact, since its establishment in 1980, the herb garden has become the main attraction of the 444-acre arboretum, not just because of its convenient location, but because it lends itself so well to studying, stroll­ing, lolling. It is a refuge from the bustling city.

For an idea of the size and scale of this garden, picture a fund-raising party held here last summer: 450 guests and public officials came for a clambake, drinks, and live music, and they all fit comfortably into the garden.

The Key

The stately formal garden, designed by Thomas Wirth for The Herb Society of America (HSA), is laid out in roughly the shape of an old-fashioned key. At the entrance is a brick-paved terrace about 50 feet in diameter that is edged with osmanthus hedges and thymes in ­semicircular beds; a reflecting pool is a central focal point. From the terrace, visitors can look down onto a sunken knot garden, and the elevated view makes the intricate pattern of the knot more visible. The 25-by-50-foot knot is a contemporary interpretation of a ­sixteenth-century English design. Because of its scale, the more traditional small herbs have been replaced by dwarf evergreens: spruce (Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’), false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’), and holly (Ilex crenata ‘Helleri’). These are considered herbs because their resins, barks, and needles have been used for medicinal or industrial purposes.

The garden path leads west to the Historic Rose Garden, a long rectangle about 50 by 80 feet that connects the two ends of the key. Many visitors are surprised to find roses in an herb garden, but herb gardeners are well ­acquainted with the rose’s solid standing among herbs and its usefulness through the centuries for food, medicine, and fragrance. These antique roses, which predate the advent of the hybrid tea rose in 1867, number well over 100 varieties and include some of the most beautiful and fragrant of all roses. The rose garden is bounded on two sides by holly hedges, and along another side by a trellis-covered sitting area, a favorite trysting place for lovers. The fourth side of the rose garden looks out onto the meadow through an open grouping of airy trees, all of herbal value. When the roses come into bloom for a few weeks in mid- to late May, the sight is spectacular, and they are underplanted with herbs to provide color and interest during the rest of the growing season. The variety and contrast among plantings in the rose garden vividly demonstrate that roses need not be restricted to a separate area of the garden.

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