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 Where no vain flower discloses a gaudy streak
But herbs for use and physic not a few
Of gray renown, within these borders grew.
                                   — Shenstone.

 TO ATTEMPT to put the herb garden, with all its charm, its fragrance, its folklore and tradition and history, its possibilities and its proven delights, into a single chapter, is to attempt the impossible. Much that is of deep interest must be omitted, but I trust to have enough to interest others in this most pleasant and suggestive branch of the gardener’s art.

When the old farmhouse which is now our home came into our possession we found hanging from the roof of the low-browed, dusky attic a number of small paper bags, neatly labelled Hoarhound, Caraway, Catnip, Balm, Sage, Mint, Motherwort, Wormwood, and Marigold. When opened, we found them to contain leaves, dry almost to powder, that gave off most interesting and illusive odours. Later we found that, though our neighbourhood is but one hour from New York City and near to several flourishing villages, the old custom of domestic medical practice by means of plants still prevails, and that there are several aged women, well versed in “the physic of the field,” who dose their families and their neighbours with strange decoctions of “dooryard grass,” Tansy, Catnip, Coltsfoot, Skunk Cabbage, Elder, and others, and believe unswervingly in the efficacy of the ashwithe for the bite of the dread rattlesnake.

Those little paper bags whetted my interest and curiosity, and I determined to know for myself those plants so bound up in the lives of our forefathers and so glorified by centuries of homely usefulness. To this end I began collecting all I could find, growing them in the flower garden or among the vegetables, gaining knowledge of their pleasant ways and becoming always more imbued with their quiet charm, until the time came when I could gather them together, a soft-hued, sweet-breathed company, into a garden of their own.

The planning of the herb garden was a matter for much thought and research. We had seen several, only one of which seemed to answer the requirements, ideal as well as practical. This was at the great gardens of Friar Park, Henley-on-Thames, the pattern and planting of which had been taken from a figure in Hyll’s “Gardener’s Labyrinthe,” 1584, and had been most faithfully carried out. It was made up of many small beds, slightly raised and enclosed with boards firmly pegged at the corners, arranged to form several quaint patterns, and planted in the isolated manner — that is, each plant well separated from its fellows — which was common in that day. And it seems to me very pleasant and fitting to recall in our herb gardens of to-day those much used enclosures of long ago, for I feel very certain that however wild, or natural, or irregular we may care to be in our flower gardens, in the herb garden we have no precedent for being aught but prim and tidy and geometrical. I am sure that even in our great grandmothers’ days herbs were never grown in wavy-lined borders or in clumps and patches just anywhere; they were too precious for this, and were undoubtedly set out neatly in little rectangular beds with paths between that they might be the more easily cared for and harvested.

The pattern of our herb garden is taken from a figure in John Rea’s “Flora, Ceres et Pomona,” 1676. It lies directly behind the stone garden house and is enclosed within a white trellis fence against which is a hedge of Damask Roses. Opposite the garden-house door it extends out and up to form a bay or arbour, which shelters a comfortable seat. The paths between the beds are of brick, the joints of which provide a home for many a mat of fragrant Thyme or Musk spilled over from the little beds. These latter are raised and edged with boards after the manner of those at Friar Park, and are filled with all sorts of sweet and homely things, arranged with some attempt at comely association.

It is a pleasant spot. Here are sober tones of leaf and flower, soothing and invigorating odours and the satisfied hum of winged insects, and the charm of association and tradition broods over all.

All sorts of people enjoy this small enclosure and linger over its softly coloured inhabitants as if temporarily under the spell which many of them are said to cast. Old people especially enjoy it; here they find old friends nearly forgotten, plants associated with their childhood or bound up with some tender memory. Keen housekeepers and epicures find much here to their minds and palates; physicians are interested in meeting their henchmen, Aconite, Poppy, Valerian, Digitalis, and others in so pleasant a guise, and once the English coachman of a friend came into the herb garden and standing in front of my precious Lavender border exclaimed with great feeling: “Oh, Mrs. Wilder, them bushes takes me ‘ome!” I am always pleased when my country neighbours come to me for Wormwood to cure the “swellin” on the horse’s leg, for Tansy or for any other of the green things in which their faith is large and my garden well supplied; and equally am I pleased when I can accommodate my city friends with Tarragon for the vinegar cruet, or with Borage, Basil, and others to flavour their salads. More roots and seeds, besides the dried products, go to friends from this part of the garden than from all the rest put together, and I love to send these little plant evangelists out into the world to make friends for themselves and to teach others the pleasure and the good to be found in that “excellent art of simpling,” which old John Gerarde says, “hath been a study for the wisest, an exercise for the noblest, a pastime for the best . . . the subject thereof so necessane and delectable, that nothing can be confected either delicate for the taste, daintie for smell, pleasant for sight, wholesome for body, conservative or restorative for health, but it borroweth the relish of an herbe, the flavour of a flower, the colour of a leaf, the juice of a plant or the decoration of a roote . . . who would therefore, look dangerously up at Planets that might look safely down at plants.” And the answer, who indeed?

Before setting out to create a garden of herbs it is well to settle in one’s mind just what an herb is, or at least what the word implies to one’s self. There have been many definitions given by those interested in the subject, but none seem to me quite comprehensive. It seems generally accepted that all plants with aromatic foliage are rightly herbs, but beyond this is a debatable land. To me, a plant to deserve the name must serve a use, other than a decorative one, though I should not want all useful plants in my collection. Plants used in medicine, for salads, for flavouring, and even those said to be invested with magic working powers, might properly be included, but if one seeks a list of those in the old herbals, it will be of such length that no garden could hold them, and if it could, would differ little from an ordinary flower garden, for in that credulous long ago nearly every plant was used for meat, for magic, or for medicine. It is rather confusing, but when one is deeply interested a sort of sense of what is fitting develops within one, and of course there is no reason why for each of us the herb garden should not have a special meaning and manifestation.

For myself, I have decided that my herbs must possess beauty in some form, of flower, of leaf, or of scent, and such as Docks, Sowthistles, Ragweed, and Plantains, be they ever so virtuous, are rigidly excluded from the garden. Such plants as grow freely in our neighbourhood, as several sorts of Mints, Yarrow, Betony, Selfheal, Boneset, Catnip, Agrimony, the Mustards, Pennyroyal, and Vervain, are also debarred, as space is a consideration and I like to have fair-sized patches of each kind and not specimens only. Nearly all plants of aromatic foliage are included and such garden flowers as are of important medicinal value; such of the pot and salad plants as are good to smell or to look upon and old-fashioned Roses, for is it not written that “the Rose besides its beauty is a cure?” And the old books teem with recipes of things curative, soothing, or cosmetic, which may be made from the petals of those Roses of other days.

Herbs important in our present-day cooking, which it is good to have fresh, are: Chervil, Chives, Sweet and Pot Marjoram, Sage, Tarragon, Parsley, Mint, the Savories, Coriander, Caraway, Thyme, Sweet and Bush Basil, and Anise — and in the French cook books many more sorts are deemed desirable.

It is not easy to procure roots or seeds of a great many herbs, for the nurserymen and seedsmen carry very few as a rule. French, German, and English catalogues are better stocked with them than ours, as the plants are more in use in those countries. However, in the vegetable section of most seedsmen’s catalogues may be found a fairly generous list under “Sweet, Pot, and Medicinal Plants,” and a few roots also. And then, if we are really interested, roots and seeds will find their way to us, sometimes through friends, often through kindness of a chance visitor to the garden, or from some country neighbour who knows where choice things grow. Frequently we may cull a plant from some old, deserted garden and find another which has thrown off the conventions of garden life and is thriving in the dust and questionable company of the open roadside. “How I got my herbs” would make a chapter in itself, absorbing to me, if to no one else.

After a good deal of experimenting I have come to the conclusion that a poor, gravelly soil is the best for herbs in general. Many which are not hardy in the heavy soil of the flower garden come safely through in the light soil of the herb garden. Of those are Sweet Marjoram, Lavender, and Cedronella. Roses, Mallows, Aconites, and Mints must be provided with something a little richer, but when the garden is made up of little beds, it is a simple matter to provide more than one kind of soil. 

In the choice of herbs for our garden our ideal is that of Erasmus, “To have nothing here but Sweet Herbs, and these only choice ones, too.”

For the most we grow perennials, but there are a few annuals without which no collection would be complete. Of these Borage, herb of courage and glorifier of claret cup, is one of the most important, its soft-coloured foliage and azure flowers making it a striking plant for any situation. Once sown it is ever with us, for the seeds are hardy and spring up year after year. Then there are the five annuals esteemed for their seeds, Anise, Dill, Cumin, Caraway, and Coriander — all pretty and graceful enough if rather fleeting. Saffron bears a pretty yellow flower and is worth growing, and Calendula officinalis, the Pot Marigold of other days, must have a place, both for its fine tawny colour and for its many uses and traditions. Parsley and Chervil belong here, and the latter provides quite as pretty a garnish as the former. The brothers Basil, “sweet” and “bush green,” the latter growing into the most fetching little bushes imaginable, are indispensable and give to salad and stew a decided piquancy. The great Florence Fennel is an annual and a most beautiful plant, rising some four or five feet and spreading its broad yellow umbrellas over the garden in a striking manner. Summer Savoury is a small-leaved aromatic little bush with clouds of tiny white flowers, and no scent or savour is better than that of Sweet Marjoram, a plant which we dare not be without, for it is reputed a cure for stupidity, a malady that our optimistic forefathers believed to be acute rather than chronic, and so, susceptible of cure. A small, blue-flowered Woodruff, Asperula azurea setosa; Rock Camomile, Anthemis arabica, and the tall white Opium Poppy complete our list of annuals, and none need special culture save that Caraway is best treated as a biennial and that Summer Savoury, Anise, and the Basils are tender and should not be sown out of doors until the ground is warm and all danger from frost is past.

Spaces are left between the perennials where these fugitive ones are sown every year, and, of course, many take the matter into their own hands and spring up in the joints of the paths, against the white fence among the Damask Roses, and all about, after the manner of their kind.

When one comes to perennials there is so much that is sweet and pleasant that it is difficult to know where to begin, but perhaps of all herbs there are none quite so delightful as the Thymes. Each year I find myself giving them more room and rejoicing exceedingly when, in searching some foreign catalogue, I come upon a variety which I have not. For the most part Thymes are low-growing, bushy little plants with deliciously scented small foliage. The Woolly-leaved Thyme (T. lanuginosus) spreads a soft-coloured, close-growing carpet along the edges of the borders, and the varieties of T. Serpyllum, the Wild Mountain Thyme, are also of the carpeting type. There are T. S. coccineus, covered with bright crimson flowers, and splendens, a somewhat improved form — and this year I had the great good fortune to find in an English catalogue seeds of the rare white-flowered Thyme. In this same treasure-trove of a catalogue I also found T. azoricus, a little shrubby variety with purple flowers. These two “finds” are entrusted to the frames, and I am impatiently awaiting their fragrant arrival above ground. T. Serpyllum has several fine forms besides the white and crimson, chief among which is the Lemon-scented (citriodorus), with its silver-leaved and gold-leaved variations, both lovely for edging the beds of sober-clad herbs. T. S. micans is a fine-leaved, two-inch alpine species with purple flowers, which is happier in the joints between the bricks than in the beds, and T. vulgaris, the Broad-leaved English Thyme, so much in requisition for seasoning, forms a very nice little bush with dark, evergreen foliage of a most pleasant scent. There are three other species which I hope to add before another summer: Chamaedrys, with several varieties; carnosus, said to grow nearly a foot tall, and villosus, from Portugal. Nearly all the beds in the herb garden are edged with some sort of Thyme, and one may not have too much of it, for this small sweet herb has the power to drive sadness from our hearts.

The Artemisias also make valuable contributions to our herb garden, the best beloved of which is A. Abrotanum — Southernwood, Old Man, or Lads Love, as it is variously called, a woody bush, some two feet tall, with hoary, feathery foliage and a strong, bitter smell, at once balmy and exhilarating. Steeped in oil it is good to rub limbs benumbed by the cold, and I can well imagine its warming and stimulating effect. A. argentea and Stellariana are pretty, silvery foliaged varieties about a foot tall. A. vulgaris is tall with whitish leaves. This is the Mugwort and is much in demand in rural neighbourhoods for all sorts of homely uses. A. absinthium, which gives its name to the famous French liquor, should be included, and, of course, Tarragon, which belongs to this family and is one of the most useful and piquant of herbs. Parkinson says that this plant was supposedly created by “putting the seeds of Lin or Flax into the roote of an onion and so set in the ground, which when it hath sprung, hath brought forth the herbe Taragon.” He adds, however, lest we waste our time in experiment, that “this absurd and idle opinion hath by certain experience been proved false.”

The two Lavender Cottons — Santolina incana and S. chamaecyparissus — are both nice shrubby little plants with silvery foliage and a strong, pungent smell. Many herbs wear sober grayish coats. Hoarhound is one of these, though it is not otherwise very pretty, and the lovely Nepeta Mussini with its continuous spikes of lavender bloom. Lavender, of course, has gray foliage, and is one of the most cherished of my herbs, for in our severe climate we must go to a little trouble for its sweet sake. I lost a sad number of plants during the years before we made the herb garden, but I think they are safer now in a place prepared for them. We made a narrow border along the wall of the garden house-the exposure is southern and the soil poor and gravelly, and in the winter we protect the plants with a blanket of leaves over the roots held in place by light branches. We grow three kinds: L. spica, the broad-leaved; L. vera, the narrow-leaved, which is I think the hardier; and a dwarf, compact sort called Munstead Dwarf. There is a lovely white-flowered Lavender which I have not yet, but as it is said to be less robust than the purple, perhaps I could not keep it. This hot, dry border was also designed to hold Rosemary, but after several bitter losses I have given it up as too tender for our winters —  and filled its place with Thyme.

Rue, Ruta graveolens, is a beautiful low bush with metallic foliage, said to be strongly antiseptic. Pliny says it was an ingredient in eighty-four remedies — bitter ones they must have been, for the leaves of Rue are acrid to a degree. It is easily raised from seed and grows in sun or shade. Only less bitter to the taste is Hyssop, Hyssopus officinalis, and how terrible must have been that cough syrup, once much in vogue, of Rue and Hyssop boiled in honey! However, Hyssop is a very charming plant with small dark foliage and bright-blue flowers which last a long time. The little bushes should be cut over in spring to keep them shapely. In the same bed with it grows a pretty aromatic-leaved herb of which I am very fond — Cedronella cana, sometimes called Balm of Gilead, with spikes of wine-red blossoms with blue stamens and a neat, bush-like form. Bergamot (Monarda) is here, too, both the wine-coloured and the white with its scented foliage, than which nothing is more delicious. It is still used in the manufacture of “sweet waters.”

Tansy and Costmary are two old-fashioned plants, nearly related but differing widely in appearance. Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare, is a tall plant with beautiful foliage and flat, dull gold flower heads borne in the late summer. It has escaped from cultivation and, with other free spirits, decorates the roadsides in many localities, where it is eagerly sought by those who know the efficacy of Tansy Tea in spring, or wish to hang branches of it near the doors and windows of their dwellings to attract flies from the rooms. Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita), also called Alecost and Bibleleaf, the latter from the use made of the long leaves as marks in the Bible, is so entirely out of use and fashion that it is well nigh impossible to get it. My own came to me through a dear Quaker lady, from an old garden in Germantown, and is one of my most prized possessions. It has a tuft of long green leaves, snipped about the edges and giving forth a most tantalizingly familiar but illusive fragrance, and its tall stem, “spreadeth itself into three or foure branches, every one bearing an umbell or tuft of gold-yellow flowers.” In the old days it was used to give zest to ale, but the dried leaves were more in demand for tying up in little bags with “lavender toppes” to “lie upon the toppes of bedds and presses, &c., for the sweete sent and savour it casteth.”

We grow two of the Salvia family here and sometimes three, for the annual Horminum called “Red Top or Purple Top,” according to the colour of its gay leaf-bracts, is pretty and in order. S. officinalis, the Sage of stews and stuffings, is the one herb to be found in nearly every kitchen garden. It makes a spreading bush with beautiful velvet leaves and spikes of blue-purple flowers greatly appreciated by bees. It loves a sunny corner in well-drained soil. A less known Salvia, and one difficult to find, is S. sciarea, Clary, or Clear-eyes, a very tall plant, with broad, soft foliage, once used to flavour certain kinds of beer, but mainly relied upon as a cure for all troubles of the eye. It is a biennial, so we start the seeds in the nursery and set the plants in the herb garden at the beginning of their second season, allowing them plenty of room.

Mints belong here, of course, but several kinds are so plentiful in a wild state that we grow only two — a variegated form of the Apple Mint, Mentha rotundifolia, and the wee Corsican, M. Requieni, which creeps between the bricks and has a good scent. Some other Mints are:

M. Pulegium, Pennyroyal; M. sylvestris, Horse Mint; M. piperita, Common Peppermint, and M. viridis, Spearmint.

Comfrey, Symphytum officinale, is a plant about the virtues of which history is strangely silent, though it is often mentioned with great respect, and one of its names is “Healing herb.” It is rather too coarse and pervasive for even a large garden, but we tolerate the golden-leaved variety for the sake of its pretty blue flowers. Balm, Melissa officinalis, with its highly fragrant leaves, is another plant which must be kept well in check, but has ever been of the greatest importance. It is both a “hot” and a “sweet” herb, and was much used in baths to “warm and comfort the veins and sinewes.” Good for “greene wounds” and bee stings, “it also putteth away the cares of the mynde, and troublesome imagination.” Valuable indeed!

The four central beds of the garden are given up to one kind of plant each: Winter Savoury, Camomile, Germander, and Pot Marjoram. The first, Satureia montana, is a delightful little bushy plant, with small, highly aromatic leaves and a haze of tiny white flowers. It loves a sunny spot and poor, gravelly soil; indeed, in heavy soil it is not supposed to be quite winter-proof. It is still much used for culinary purposes, and I have a vague childhood memory that it used to be bound upon our numerous bee stings to draw out the poison. It is easily raised from seed.

Camomile, Antheinis nobilis, is not very pretty, but it has so many virtues that it must needs be given a prominent place. It is called the “plant physician,” and not only gives aid to frail humanity in distress, but to its brothers and sisters of the plant world. It is said that if Camomile is placed near any weak or ailing plant it at once revives. Besides this, it quiets the baby, breaks up colds, drives away insects, secures us against bad dreams if placed beneath the pillow, and its flower heads are made into a valuable medicine in use at the present day. It is easily raised from seed, but may usually be found growing wild.

Germander, Teucrium Ghamaedrys, is a nice little woody plant with rose-coloured blossoms and pleasantly scented foliage. In Elizabethan days it was chiefly used to edge the quaint garden “Knottes,” and also, on account of its purifying redolence, as a “strewing herb.” It blooms late in the summer and seems happy anywhere in the sunshine. Pot Marjoram is one of the prettiest plants in the herb garden. It is semiprostrate in growth, and the graceful branches terminate in flat heads of soft pink flowers. The whole plant is deliciously sweet and one wants a lot of it. Oil of Marjoram is comforting to stiff joints, and it was, in the old days, greatly in demand in making sweet bags, sweet powders, and sweet washing waters — all so pleasant to think upon. It is, of course, much used in our present-day cooking.

We must have a few clumps of Chives, with their pretty upstanding flower heads, which as children we called “tasty tufts.” Nothing is so stimulating to the salad, and if the plants are cut over occasionally new blades will spring up. Garden Burnet, so well thought of by Bacon, must have a place for the sake of its beautiful foliage, and Chicory with its “dear blue eyes,” and yellow-flowered Fennel, famous in fish sauces. Rampion also, Campanula rampunculoides, with its spikes of pretty purple bells, the roots of which are highly spoken of in the old cook books, and tall rather gawky Angelica, the stems of which are still made into a sweetmeat.

Certain kinds of Roses were of the greatest importance in the practice of medicine, in cookery, and in matters of the toilet, so an herb garden without these would certainly be incomplete. Says Parkinson: “The Rose is of exceeding great use to us; for the Damask Rose (beside the super-excellent sweetwater it yieldeth being distilled, or the perfume of the leaves being dried, serving to fill sweete bags) serveth to cause solubleness of the body, made into a Syrupe, or preserved with sugar moist or dry candied. The Damask Provence Rose is not onely for sent nearest of all Roses unto the Damask, but in the operation of solubility also. The Red Rose hath many physicall uses much more than any other, serving for many sorts of compositions both cordial and cooling, both binding and loosing. The White Rose is much used for the cooling of heate in the eyes; divers doe make an excellent yellow colour of the juice of white Roses, wherein some Allome is dissolved.” And so we may properly have Damask and Provence Roses and sweet Rosa alba, and, besides these, the early authorities attribute virtues to the Musk Rose and the Sweet Brier. As closely allied to the Provence and Damask Roses, we include the lovely Moss Roses and the quaint old York and Lancaster, and I am sure they grow among the herbs of old, they look so at home among ours.

Many of the sweet-smelling leaves of the herb garden may be dried and sewed up in little “taffety” or muslin bags to place among linen, and, of course, one wishes to preserve the leaves and seeds useful in the kitchen. Pleasant indeed it is to make one’s way about the narrow paths, one’s skirts at every step invoking clouds of aromatic incense from the crowding plants, culling here and there one kind at a time, the most promising shoots or flower heads, and piling them in fragrant heaps in the broad shallow garden basket. The old books teem with quaint rules and instructions, largely superstitions, for the harvesting of herbs, but we have not room here to be aught but brief and practical. A breezy, sunny day is the best for this agreeable task; just before they flower is the proper time for cutting plants wanted for their leaves, and when the flower heads are required, as with Lavender, Camomile, and Marigolds, they are most desirable before being fully open. When seed is wanted the plant must, of course, be allowed to flower and fully mature its seed. Flower heads or leaf stalks should then be tied into small bunches, and hung in an airy, shady place — shady, “that the sun draw not out their virtue.” When quite dry the leaves may be stripped from the stalks and rubbed through a fine sieve and put in tightly corked and labelled bottles.

Many good and pleasant things may be made from the products of the herb garden, and the collecting of old books on cookery, household matters, or of the toilet becomes a most gripping passion. There is no room to tell of the cordials, wines, vinegars, blends for glorifying the humble stew or stimulating the salad, sweet waters, and bags for invigorating baths, as well as for the linen chest, that one may have by growing these humble plants, but any one who does grow them will not long allow them to go unused. The old custom of putting bags of sweet herbs under the door mat, that balmy odours might enter with the guests, is certainly a pleasing one, and also that of hanging such bags in doorways or windows, or placing them beneath the chair cushions.

In Donald McDonald’s book of “Fragrant Flowers and Leaves,” for which all those interested in the subject should be grateful, he says: “Man alone seems born sensible to the delights of perfumes and employs them to give energy to his feelings, for animals and insects in general shun them.” And it is to fragrance that the enduring charm of the herb garden is attributable. Many people are insensible to beauty of form and contour, some have little sense for colour, but few are proof against the peculiar appeal of perfume, for is not perfume after all less food for the senses than for the soul?


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