BY TOVAH MARTIN / Roxbury, Connecticut, USDA Zone 5
If your inclinations happen to be herbal, you’ll dig the annual Herb Plant Sale of the New England Unit of the Herb Society of America, happening May 7. Held at Elm Bank (home of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society) in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where the New England Unit tends an 8,000 square foot teaching herb garden, the sale features over 300 varieties of herbs. The sale runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and there’s always a crowd, no matter what the weather brings. Visit www.neuhsa.org for more information.
An Ark for Herbs
It’s happened more than once. For one reason or another (usually my fault entirely) a favorite plant suddenly bites the dust, sending me into a frenzied all-points search for a replacement—only to discover that what I sought is no longer in cultivation. Maybe it was my favorite pelargonium, or perhaps a begonia that I’d adored for a dozen years or more. Fashion had turned its fickle back on what still held my fancy; the apple of my eye was nowhere to be found.
Much has been said and done about endangered species. But for many years, no one in this country seemed deeply concerned about endangered cultivars. Which left such plants as Pelargonium ‘Village Hill Oak’, that intriguing pine-scented geranium with sticky, deeply cleft leaves, to vanish, a victim of grower’s whims, or to be confused in cultivation with its near (but not quite) look-alike, P. ‘Staghorn Oak’. Well, if the Herb Society of America has its way, the legions of scented-leaf geraniums will no longer depend on the tides of commerce, and confusion between cultivars will also be a problem of the past.
Since 1996, the society has led a bold Plant Collections initiative, in which individual members and units curate different herb genera, such as Lavandula, Mentha, Rosmarinus, and Thymus. No comparable plant stewardship venture for individual gardeners has been successfully undertaken in the United States. The American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta has rallied North American public gardens to publish data on their collections since 1988, but the private sector hadn’t participated in preservation until the Herb Society swung into action. The response has been impressive. “We’ve come a long way,” says Anne Abbott, the society’s current Plant Collections Chair. Under the protective wings of various members and groups of members, what started as 10 collections in 1996 has blossomed into 50 collections spanning 14 genera. It’s hoped that other gardening groups will perk up, take notice, and follow suit.
The initiative was originally the brainchild of Dr. Arthur Tucker, a professor at Delaware State University and an active society member. Like many other gardeners, he’d seen too many herbs slip out of cultivation. He was also eager to correct confusion concerning plant identification. Using the British National Plant Collections Scheme as a template, he urged the society to set something similar in motion. There was a rapid response from nurseries, and eventually members and groups of members (the society encourages duplication of holdings) jumped in. “It’s a responsibility, but a stroke of honor,” says Dr. Tucker.
Here’s how it works: An individual member or group of members takes stewardship of a genus or group of herbs. Beyond genera, the society encourages diversified accumulations. “It could be a collection of herbs that cure cancer or a collection of herbs of Celtic origin,” Dr. Tucker suggests. A collection can be any holding of two or more plants—some individual collections have swollen to 150 plants strong. The steward files a list of the holding with Anne Abbott, maintains records, and sends herbarium specimens for evaluation.
The Herb Society hopes that the program will continue to expand, listing education, research, and exchange as part of their mission. They feel that their initiative will prove advantageous for the gardening world in general. There’s an emphasis on sharing. At present, the exchange is limited within the society membership. But because several nurseries are society members and participate as collection curators, the general public is bound to benefit. Already, the fate of Pelargonium ‘Village Hill Oak’ is secure. H
Billi Parus began her rosemary-collecting spree long before the Herb Society started the Plant Collections initiative. So when the call went out for lists, she could offer one, and a journal of observations, too. She notes ‘Salem’ as one of the tastiest varieties. She’s given up wintering the prostrate types in her Virginia garden. And her favorite rosemary is her hardiest, ‘Arp’ (pictured)-but ‘Madeline Hill’ is a close second, upstaging ‘Arp’ by a long shot for flavor.