Herbal Haven at The Thyme

| June/July 2003

Walk through most any herb garden and you’re likely to come across several dozen plant specimens. However, The Thyme Garden in Alsea, Oregon, isn’t like your usual encounter. With more than 700 different varieties of organically grown herbs, just being there is a sensory experience unlike any other. Co-owners Janet and Rolfe Hagen have created an herbal haven of color, texture, form and fragrance in more than an acre of fabulous display gardens for people to enjoy.

Sheltered within Oregon’s coastal mountain range, the gardens entice visitors with a profusion of fragrance in one of the largest herb collections in the country. The gardens emerge as you cross the threshold of a hop-covered entrance, unveiling a colossal tapestry of colorful herbs. At the heart of it all lies an artistically arranged composition of 70 varieties of thyme that captures your curiosity and draws you within. “It’s an herbal oasis surrounded by a natural forest,” Rolfe says.

Growing a passion

You might say that the Hagens’ ever-expanding interest in herbs began during their eight years of owning and operating a country-style restaurant. No strangers to using herbs in their cooking, they started growing a patch of fresh herbs to enliven their gourmet meals. As interest grew, the surrounding scrub brush was replaced by additional herbs to accommodate their burgeoning business and customer enjoyment. “The garden not only provided our kitchen with herbs and pleasure for our customers, the herbs also produced seeds which we began to collect and sell,” Rolfe recalls.

In 1989, when the couple’s fascination with herbs outgrew their interest in the restaurant, they sold their business and invested in an 80-acre farm where they could really cultivate their passion. Their budding enterprise soon grew into a mail-order seed business and retail nursery with a hop-covered cedar lathe house to display and protect plants for sale. And, while they both have their area of expertise — Janet oversees the mail-order seed business and Rolfe is in charge of the nursery and plant propagation — they both have their hands and hearts in the garden, tending to herbs from the common to the exotic.

Skillfully arranged in a series of raised beds, the gardens echo an old-English design where the herbs are grouped according to their uses: dye, medicinal, insectary, moon-reflecting, butterfly and culinary (which is the largest of the group). Though each grouping has its own designated area, the gardens flow effortlessly from one region to the next into an all-embracing landscape of flowering and fragrant herbs. Instead of looking at tiny plants or mere photographs, visitors can reap inspiration and garner ideas by observing the herbs at their various stages of maturity.

In the dye garden you might happen upon woad (Isatis tinctoria) or the daisy-like flowers of golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria) in company with madder (Rubia tinctorium), which produces a brilliant red color for the Persian rug trade. You might also see the elusive true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), a sought-after blue dye that has been used for 4,000 years.

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