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Fresh Clips: The Enchanted Herb Garden of the Washington National Cathedral

Take a journey into the past via the captivating medieval herb garden of the Washington National Cathedral.

| August/September 2012

  • Lose yourself on the stone pathway that leads visitors around the Washington National Cathedral garden.
    Photo by Mary Fran McQuade
  • Florence Brown Bratenhahl was an influential volunteer designer of the garden.
    Photo courtesy of Washington National Cathedral and All Hallows Guild
  • Take a journey into the past via the captivating medieval herb garden of the Washington National Cathedral.
    Photo by Mary Fran McQuade
  • Washington National Cathedral is located at 3101 Wisconsin Avenue in northwest Washington, D.C., at the intersection of Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues.
    Photo courtesy of Washington National Cathedral and All Hallows Guild

If you’ve ever dreamed of wandering through the serene, scented herb gardens of medieval gothic cathedrals, you don’t have to travel all the way to Europe to do it. Amid the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., lies the 57-acre grounds of the Washington National Cathedral. It is a peaceful green space designed to mimic the aromatic herb and flower gardens of the grandest medieval Gothic cathedrals.

While the Episcopal cathedral itself is magnificent, garden lovers will be immediately drawn to a Norman archway in the garden’s stone wall leading to the intimate, three-acre Bishop’s Garden—a series of scented garden “rooms” winding down the terraced hillside. Trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs and artifacts welcome you into a world far away from the rush and noise of nearby Wisconsin Avenue.

A Medieval Herb Garden

As you follow the stone paths and steps through giant, unruly boxwood hedges, you reach the herbal heart of the garden: the Hortulus, Latin for “little garden.” Anchoring the small, square space is a massive stone baptismal font surrounded by a staggering collection of herbs including rosemary, lemon balm, lovage, mint, parsley, wormwood, tansy, feverfew, valerian, clary sage and horehound. Aromatic apothecary’s rose and Iris germanica are also tucked into the planting.

Slipping through a narrow gap in the surrounding hedge, one arrives at another striking piece: a bronze sundial on top of a 13th-century French carved-stone pillar. It marks the start of a large, sunny space featuring classic culinary and aromatic herbs including lovage, chives, fennel, costmary, pineapple and Mexican sages, and more.

Though herbs form the basis for the enchanting Bishop’s Garden, perennial borders and a central rose garden add color to the hillside. A weathered stone wayside cross marks the pathway leading to a shady pool, overlooked by 15th-century bas-relief plaques set into the wall.

Many of the sculptures throughout the garden came from the private collection that formed the basis of the famous Cloisters Museum in New York City. Visit Herbal Escape: The Cloisters Museum and Gardens for more about the museum.

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