A Tribute to Madeleine Siegler

One herb lover shares in the legacy of a master gardener and teacher.

| August/September 1997

  • Photograph by Jewel Pinkham
  • St. Francis watches over a portion of Madeleine Siegler’s formal herb garden.
    Photograph by Raymond Siegler
  • Color and fragrance draw birds to the blossoms and then to the birdbath beyond.
    Photograph by Raymond Siegler
  • The pure white flowers of gas plant (Dictamnus albus) are the centerpiece of this scene.
    Photograph by Raymond Siegler
  • A bee skep in the center becomes a focal point in this traditional herb garden at Monk’s Hill Farm.
    Photograph by Raymond Siegler

Socrates could walk through my herb garden and recognize my plants.
—Madeleine Siegler (1923-1993)

It may seem strange that I’m writing a tribute to someone I scarcely knew, but Madeleine Siegler was an enthusiastic teacher who had only begun to share her extensive knowledge of herbs with me. When I received news of her death in 1994, I felt that I had lost a good and valued friend.

I first saw Madeleine’s name in Phyllis Shaudys’s book Herbal Treasures (Garden Way, 1990), to which she had contributed many ideas and recipes. “I spend as much time as possible with Madeleine Siegler at herb conferences,” Phyllis wrote, “as we’ve become very close friends through the years.”

Every entry carries the voice of sure experience combined with an infectious enthusiasm. Madeleine was a born teacher, so humble about her accomplishments that students were not overwhelmed. She wrote about making a spice necklace using allspice, cloves, star anise, tonka and vanilla beans. “Perhaps you do not care for my design,” she suggested. Change it, experiment, be creative, but, she advised, learn the technique. Behind the down-to-earthiness, the warmth, and the lack of pretension were knowledge and experience. She wrote about making spring salad from the oddments in her garden and from the wild, about making wreaths for herbal weddings, about growing gingerroot and, her specialty, making potpourri.

What impelled me to write to her was her success in growing tender herbs such as dittany of Crete and rosemary at Monk’s Hill Farm, her herb business in central Maine. She was so successful with rosemary that she could substitute a 5-foot-tall tubbed plant for the traditional Christmas tree, stringing it with tiny white lights and other decorations. Plants were wintered over in her solar greenhouse, then planted in the ground for the summer, then dug up and repotted in the fall—a chancy operation, I thought. I had asked Madeleine if such plants bloomed significantly. “All of mine,” she wrote, “bloom profusely during the winter, in full bloom in February, especially the large prostrate variety, just loaded with flowers.” But she added that she really didn’t know too much about rosemaries, the cultivar names and such, for which information she suggested I contact expert herb growers. Would I be so modest with such accomplishments behind me? Raising rosemary as successfully as Madeleine did in a northern climate, even with the help of a greenhouse, certainly impressed me.

As for dittany (a desirable Origanum I had thought beyond the reach of northern gardeners), she grew it outdoors in a hanging pot by the doorstep, where it bloomed all summer, then wintered it in the greenhouse. Her method for propagation, which she shared with the readers of Herbal Treasures, is described with characteristic simplicity: “Using very unscientific methods, I have had very good luck rooting 5-inch cuttings in water in a sunny window.” The reader is at once encouraged to try her hand.

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