Sisters of the Soil

Back in thyme

| December/January 2003

  • Although you won’t see the beauty of dyer’s woad’s (Isatis tinctoria) flower stalks on a cold day in winter, the evergreen leaves are a welcome reminder of life.
  • Leaves of Madonna lilies (Lillium candidum) deepen from dark-green to purple with frost.
    Photographs by Nancy Smith
  • Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) may get nipped around the edges by Jack Frost in winter, but she’ll still put on a sprightly show in spring.

I first noticed the woad in our dye garden. Passing it each morning on the way to the barn, I felt we shared a fate. No matter the weather, the woad and I were there. I took to admiring its neat tuft of evergreen leaves, which reminded me of a lady’s hoop skirt. I thought to myself, “If she can look that good without even so much as a warm bed to sleep in, I can do chores without complaint.”

Then, I noticed the dame’s rocket by the windmill. Its skirt looked nice too, just a little bit frayed. And finally, I noticed the Madonna lilies — more elegant than the others in leaf line and with far fewer leaves, but on duty like the rest of us. In contrast, garden ruffians like the comfrey and the tawny day lilies had all ducked underground for an easy winter’s rest.

I like the presence of these winter sisters in our garden, and I’m pondering how to better showcase their off-season efforts. The lily’s dark-green leaves blush a deeper shade of purple — what fashion mavens call aubergine — after each visit from Jack Frost. The rosettes I admire are formed each fall, giving us a clue as to the proper planting depth for these bulbs. They should only be covered by about an inch of soil; other lilies, which disappear in winter, should have their bulbs planted two to three times as deep as their diameters.

Once the Madonna settles in, she will be with you forever. Her fragrant, pure white flowers bloom in mid-June in my garden atop 3- to 4-foot spikes that arise from the rosettes. Lilium candidum is her Latin name, and she is thought to be the oldest garden plant, dating to Biblical times, and blooming at Plymouth Plantation, too.

Madonna lilies are members of Liliaceae; cousins include alliums, daylilies and yuccas — quite a disparate clan. But woad and rocket hail from cabbage land, the Cruciferae or mustard family, which explains their tolerance for cold.

Dyer’s woad (Isatis tinctoria) and dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) are biennials, but if you leave a few flower stalks on after they bloom, both plants easily (some say very easily) self-seed.

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