The Robison York State Herb Garden

| December/January 2001

  • Robison York State Herb Garden was constructed from an old school playground.
  • Field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) in the herb garden.
  • This historic garden was nurtured by one woman’s vision.
    Photos courtesy of the Cornell Plantations Archives
  • Robison York State Herb Garden at Cornell Plantations opened its gates in 1974.
  • The stone stile at the herb garden wall.

Diane Miske has been tending the Robison York State Herb Garden for the past seventeen years.

The scenic Finger Lakes region of upstate New York is home to Cornell Plantations, the botanical garden, arboretum, and natural area preserves of Cornell University. There you will find a peaceful haven for herb lovers nestled in a quiet hollow where a noisy playground once fronted the old, ivy-covered school building that now houses the Plantations’ education staff. Follow a flagstone path through the cool, vine-shaded pergola running along the front of the old schoolhouse, then turn out into the bright sunshine for the array of colors and textures, and warming fragrances of the Robison York State Herb Garden.

This garden, like many gardens, blossomed from a dream. Its seeds of inspiration were sown many years ago during the rural New York childhood of Audrey Harkness O’Connor, the moving force behind the garden’s creation. Roaming the rolling countryside as a young girl and helping tend her family’s garden fostered a deep love of nature that has continued throughout her long and fruitful life. Audrey’s youthful interest in plants flowered fully when she came to Cornell University as a student in the 1930s. She was particularly inspired by botany professor Walter C. Muenscher, a noted authority on herbs, and by his wife, Minnie, a writer of herbal cookbooks. A lasting delight and fascination took hold for herbs and the stories they revealed of people throughout the ages and across different cultures. It was during these student years that Audrey first dreamed of an herb garden at Cornell, and she planned one for a class assignment. It was an idea that would take years to germinate.

Audrey went on to graduate with concentrations in both horticulture and journalism, and she worked for many years as an illustrator for the College of Agriculture. In 1958 she took over as editor of Cornell Plantations Magazine, a role that combined her love of plants and her enthusiasm for spreading seeds of knowledge to others. In 1963 she was one of the founding members of the Auraca Herbarists. This local herb study group gathered at the feet of “Grandma” Minnie Muenscher in the early days and flourished for many years under Audrey’s guidance. The study group is still going strong today.

Cornell Plantations moved offices to the old Forest Home School in 1965. From the second-floor windows Audrey gazed out over the empty, one-acre, former play yard, and her long-dormant vision for a Cornell herb garden at last began to sprout. One day over lunch, Richard M. Lewis, then director of Cornell Plantations, sketched out their ideas on a paper towel, and a basic concept for the herb garden took form. To raise money to build and endow the garden, they used donated funds to buy a pair of wrought iron gates from 1800 and featured them in a 1966 exhibit titled “Come, Open the Garden Gate.” They attracted the interest of Ellis H. Robison, a Cornell graduate from the class of 1918, and he eventually funded the project as a tribute to his wife, Doris Burgess Robison. It took several more years of hard work to bring the dream to life. Finally in 1974, overflowing with plants raised lovingly by Audrey in her home garden, the gate to the Robison York State Herb Garden at Cornell Plantations swung wide open for visitors.

Dream expanded

The vision of Audrey O’Connor continues today, although she passed away in December of 1999. Today, as you approach the garden from the old schoolhouse, you are greeted by a rather recent addition. Two borders of ornamental herbs flank the garden’s entrance and run along the outside edge for its entire length. Visitors enjoy a tapestry of aromatic foliage, including such favorites as silver filigreed ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia, pebbled gray-green- and purple-leafed sages, and crisp, emerald-green, curled parsley. This leafy display is punctuated by colorful exclamations of herbal flowers. The scene here varies from year to year. You may discover soft clouds of white and lavender blooms, dramatic sweeps of bold foliage and flowers in dark purples and reds, or perhaps a sunny show with golden variegated leaves and yellow blossoms.

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