By Sue LaRosa
Gardening is a gift. It is one of those passions that pass from one person to another. Gardeners, if polled, can name that special someone who was the impetus for them to garden. It may have been a grandparent, a parent, an aunt or uncle, the lady next door, or the man who tended the local cemetery grounds. Perhaps they let us plant a seed or two and watch it germinate. Or it could have been the cutting of flowers for home vases or it may have been the plucking of fruit off of a tree or the pulling of vegetables out of the ground that hooked us on gardening. That future gardener may not begin planting, weeding and harvesting for many years. The joys and frustrations of gardening may start as early as late childhood while for others the lure of soil and seed does not emerge until much later in life. Regardless of when we hear the call, it eventually comes to fore with the need to deal with soil, water, sunshine and plant.
Just as we gardeners can name our first influences to garden, most can also tell you when their gardening loves first appeared in their life. For me, my grandmothers were my early influences and it was my exotic grandmother who first introduced me to herbs.
My grandmother was exotic because she came from Hungary, land of Magyars, paprika and goulash. Now, in my home state of Minnesota, land of giant Scandinavians with their white blond hair, their ice blue eyes, and their pale, pale skin, this tiny woman with pitch-black hair, muddy brown eyes and golden olive skin always stood out. You add the facts that she wore huge, golden hoop earrings in her pierced ears (gasp!), dressed in fiery-colored clothing that always seemed to swirl around her, wore 3 inch high heels with open toes, even when gardening, and had a penchant for 'Dragon Lady Red' nail polish and you have the image of the true gypsy to the locals. I thought she was divine.
It was as a young child, perched on her bed, watching her dress for dinner, patting her hair, putting on lipstick, powdering her nose, that I was introduced to herbs - the sweet-smelling kind - lavender. She would open drawers and this lovely scent would waft out. The room would fill with the smell of lavender. Then she would close the drawer, but the fragrance remained. Her last bit of toiletry was to stuff a small lace handkerchief in her pocket or up the sleeve of her dress and the fragrance came back. Lavender would forever be linked with feminine preparations to go out or just dolling up for dinner.
My grandmother stashed little sachet packets of lavender in her lingerie drawers, the towel cupboard and her handkerchief box. Some of these packets were made of lace, others of cotton. But my all-time favorite was this lovely wicker, jar-shaped container with a bitty cap. It had a purple satin ribbon as a hook and a decal of a lavender bunch pasted on the side. My grandmother would fill this with lavender and hang it on a hook inside a closet storing winter clothes in the summer and summer clothes in the winter. As soon as you opened the closet door, you would be enveloped in the wonderful cleansing smell of lavender.
Now my grandmother may have appeared exotic on the outside, but she was deep down a very practical woman. Her kitchen windowsill held little pots that were probably parsley and basil. I don't have a strong memory of the culinary herbs like I do the sweet smelling kind. I also remember her making dandelion wine that everyone raved about and although most people do not consider dandelions as anything other than weeds, to my grandmother it was a practical herb akin to dill for pickling. I recall chamomile tea that she would try administering to those suffering from a cold and sore throat. It was awful and to this day it's my cold remedy of last resort. I much prefer grandfather's cure-all - a stiff shot of Canadian rye whiskey.
My grandmother, now long gone, left me all of her sachet containers, including the wicker jar that had tiny bits of lavender in it when I received it years ago. When I bought my first house, I purchased a lavender plant in memory of her, then a pot of parsley, followed by chives, tarragon and dill. I always have a pot of lavender growing somewhere around the house and at times have gotten it to grow out-of-doors when I've lived in warmer climes. I usually have a pot of parsley on the kitchen windowsill, as well as some tarragon and thyme. I started collecting books on herbs, potpourris and eventually books on the medicinal uses of herbs, both traditional and modern.
When I lived in Virginia I had this large herb garden, brick-lined and filled with herbs bought from a man who lived in a tiny, stone house over-run with herbs. It was there that I was able to truly try all the herbs I wanted. I had wormwood, soapwort, dill, yarrow, tarragon, chives, rosemary, lavender, angelica, many kinds of basil and thymes. When I would weed or just wander around it I would think of my grandmother.
When I moved back to Minnesota several years ago, I had to do my herb growing mostly on my kitchen windowsill. I did find wonderful, wooly thyme that thrives outside and grows more and more each year. Through all my travels I still keep my grandmother's sachets, especially that wonderful wicker jar-like one. And when I open my closet door, I experience a brief moment of my childhood and memories of an exotic grandmother who gave to me the gift of gardening, particularly a passion of herbs - the sweet-smelling kind.
About the AuthorI garden in Zone 4....Minnesota... Passions are roses, orchids, herbs somedays, perennials and trees. Come from a long line of serious gardeners. Forever humbled by the whole process of nature and eternally grateful I can be part of it.