Round Robin: Gifts of Herbs

Feeling gifted

Newberg, Oregon–This Christmas, I’ll be satisfied with new socks and underwear. I’ve already had so many herbal gifts. Besides the new book on salvias I bought myself, gardening friends have given me two herbs from England that I had only read about: Rosmarinus ‘Silver Spires’ and Hesperis matronalis ‘Alba Plena’.

The first is a silver-variegated rosemary that the herbalist John Gerard wrote about in the sixteenth century. It was lost to cultivation until someone in England noticed a rosemary sport with the same silver variegation that Gerard had described in his Herball. After years of propagation to build up stock, the plant was recently made available to the public.

The second herb is the rare double white-flowered dame’s-rocket, which was a common bedding plant in Victorian times, as popular as today’s marigolds. It was also lost to cultivation until a tiny start with a viral infection was found in Ireland. Through tissue culture, breeders were able to get rid of the virus and slowly introduce the plant back to the trade. (Two double purple-flowered forms have yet to be rediscovered.)

I was given the double white in the hope that I could propagate it and distribute it locally, thus ensuring its survival. I was honored to be the recipient, but I also felt a tremendous responsibility: what if I killed it? My gardening friend Glen, who had given me the plant, absolved me of any future guilt by saying, “It’s only a plant. It can be replaced.” Whew!

Most references I checked recommended simple division as the most successful method of propagation, but I was afraid that if I did that and goofed, it would mean the end of the plant. I decided to take cuttings, selecting one of the two flower stalks to cut off. Even though I knew that the flowers are sterile and cannot produce seeds even if they want to, I couldn’t help wincing as the beautiful, foot-long spike of fragrant white flowers lay in my hand.

I waited for side shoots to develop and took three cuttings in midsummer. About a month later, two of the three cuttings were rooted, and I was proud. Now I’m able to give away these treasures. The first on my list to receive one of my rooted cuttings is a fellow collector who told me he had wanted that plant for thirty years!

Gift giving is a tradition among enthusiastic gardeners. Probably all gardeners remember the first plant that hooked them, as well as the person who gave it to them. I know I began growing herbs because of the great generosity and patience of Emma Wakefield. I’ve mentioned her before in this column, a kindred gardening spirit who would pull out her trowel and start digging up a start of any herb I expressed an interest in. Because of her, I try to be generous with my herbs and to remember her sense of humor about gardening. When Emma mistakenly watered her entire greenhouse with a watering can filled with herbicide and killed most of her stock plants, she was able to laugh at her folly.

People I visit in other parts of the country who are as passionate about plants as I am continue to load me up with more plants than I’m able to carry onto a plane. When I arrive home, I have to empty my pockets to find the botanical names that I’ve scribbled on note paper, then try to match them up with the proper plant. 

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