I only met Madalene Hill twice—both at conferences of the Herb Society of America—but I can honestly say she’s one of the people whose work has changed my life.
When I first started my job with The Herb Companion, I was familiar with a reasonably good number of herbs, primarily for cooking. But it wasn’t until I attended my first Herb Society of America gathering that I began to appreciate the depth of what herbs represent in our world and just how completely cool they are.
At that gathering, I met Madalene and her daughter Gwen Barclay, the one-two punch of herbal wisdom hailing from deep in the heart of Texas. I didn’t know at that time exactly what Madalene’s role in this new world was, but it was apparent from the universal respect she garnered from everyone present that she was some kind of pillar of the community.
Courtesy of Jim Long's Garden
I think who she actually was is more to the herb-loving world like Julia Childs or Irma Rombauer was to food-lovers. Each of these intrepid souls re-drew the boundaries of an ordinary world and opened up amazing new adventures to all those who came after. And they kept alive a conversation that grew and grew, ultimately creating a reality where none existed before.
In short: I get to do my job because Madalene and other pioneers like her did theirs. Not counting “garlic powder” and dill, herbs were a foreign conversation in my family, as for most of the country in the 1950s and 1960s when Madalene was at the beginning of her journey. Madalene was amazed at the ancientness of herbs and the fact that they’ve occupied a place in human life—pretty much in the same form as they are in now—for thousands of years. They’re delightful to grow, to cook with , to enjoy in a variety of ways, and Madalene was a successful stalwart in spreading that word.
Through her public speaking and demonstrations, through the Herb Society and later The International Herb Society, through all her remarkable work with the National Herb Garden in Washington, D.C. and at Festival Hill in Round Top, Texas, she broadened and deepened our cultural awareness and practical knowledge of herbs.
And now, these ancient plants and their updated relatives have a conscious and growing cadre of champions—you among them, if you’ve bothered to read this far—continuing the conversation, moving the boundaries of our knowledge ever outward. Madalene Hill’s passion is passed on, her legacy intact.