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The Beginning

( Originally Published 1933 )



As I weed and cultivate the basils, savories, and thymes in my garden, touch their furry or glossy leaves, and breathe in their spicy scent, they seem like such old friends it is difficult to realize that only three years ago these aromatic herbs, except for the parsley, sage, and mint, were quite unknown to me.

Before writing a book about the herbs I decided to grow every plant to be described so that I could watch the seed unfurl into a leafy plant, the buds thicken and swell into flowers, and these drop their petals and in turn ripen their seeds. Since exceptionally wet, cold, dry, or hot spells affect the development of the plants, I grew them for three summers before I was sure I really knew them well enough to describe them.

Daring the first year, five of my friends sent me copies of Mrs. Bardswell's book, "The Herb Garden"; some, no doubt, in the hope that if I saw how excellent a book already existed on the subject I would desist from further efforts and behave as a normal, social being once more, instead of spending my days in the herb garden and my evenings in talking about it. Mrs. Bardswell, however, lives and grows her plants in England, the paradise of gardeners, and since the only literature on growing herbs in America consisted of one slender volume and some government pamphlets, I persisted in the attempt to write a book about how this group of aromatics smelt, tasted, and behaved in our quite different climate.

The first spade into the soil of herb lore was to consult two favorite catalogues, an English one which offered twenty-two herbs and a French one which under the heading of Graines des Plantes Officinales listed ninety-one herbs, many of them medicinal plants. I ordered all the herbs in both of these catalogues, although there were some duplicates, for I thought these would cover the mortalities, inevitable in all horticultural undertakings. After I had learned where to look for them I found that seeds of thirty different herbs are obtainable from commercial sources in America, and that plants of rosemary, lavender, wormwood, and sage as well as a few of the mints and thymes can be bought here. At present the seeds of all unusual varieties of basil, savory, or lavender have to be secured from Europe.

When the seeds arrived during the month of May, they were planted in a well-drained, sunny space which had been prepared for them. It was a warm season with almost no rain, and as many of the herbs are native to southern lands the little plants felt at home and grew lustily.

The first task was to find out which herbs to include and which to leave out of the book, and when the first crop matured I saw that a few of them like chicory, celandine poppy, and viper's bugloss were weeds, and others like melilot and tussilago were forage plants. After working over the problem for a long time I decided, with some exceptions, to choose the herbs some portion of which could be used as a condiment in cooking, or in the preparation of homemade sachets and perfumes, and which were easy for the amateur to grow in his garden.

To find out about the cultural requirements of the herbs, their background of history and legend, and which portion of each was the part used, when it was the seed, the leaves, stems, roots, or flowers which were to be dropped into the soup or minced into the chicken dressing, I first searched through all the old and modern books in my own library on the subject. Books were sent for from England, France, and Germany, and the collection of cook books in the Vassar College Library, and other sources, in the libraries of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and the New York Public Library were consulted. In fact, for one year when not out in the garden I spent every spare hour in taking notes. The study finally culminated in two weeks at Washington in the Congressional Library and the Library of the Department of Agriculture where the librarian Miss Claribel Barnett and her assistants gave me help and suggestions.

Any available printed word which described the herbs was searched through, including cook books which down through the ages have mentioned the herbs used in flavoring foods and brewing drinks. The diaries of travelers, such as Kalm and Bartram, the journals of the Folk Lore Society, articles on ethnobotany, government pamphlets, and as with all research on gardening subjects, the horticultural journals in English, French, and German and even some pamphlets in Spanish and Italian were read, although in these last only the high spots were understood. In order not to make the text too cumber-some with titles the authorities have not always been mentioned, but practically every author quoted is in the bibliography.

The books found most useful and which have spent the last two years on my study table were Piesse, "The Art of Perfumery"; Poucher, "Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps"; F. A. Hampton, "The Scent of Flowers and Leaves"; "The Toilet of Flora"; Pliny's "Natural History"; Eleanour Rohde, "A Garden of Herbs"; Sturtevant's "Notes on Edible Plants" ; Fernie's "Herbal Simples" ; Robinson's translation of Vilmorin's "The Vegetable Garden"; John Parkinson's "Herbal" and "Paradisi in Sole"; Gerard's "Herball"; and Culpeper's "De Candolle, Origin of Cultivated Plants"; Correvon, "Le Jardin de l'Herboriste"; Merck's "Index"; Rehder's "Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs," and Bailey's "Manual of Cultivated Plants" was referred to so continuously that as soon as this manuscript goes to the publisher the poor, shabby book will have to be sent to the binder. As I read, I added or subtracted the names of plants from my list until I had it more or less as it is presented here.

Making out a list was simple enough, but locating the seeds and plants was quite another matter. Although most of them had been grown for thousands of years and had been described from Theophrastus' time in the fourth century B.C. down to Mrs. Grieve's in the twentieth, they were not listed in any seed catalogue and their whereabouts were unknown to horticulturists. In answer to my queries I was told repeatedly, "Seeds of this plant can be secured only from some country woman in a remote village," and for a time it seemed as if to obtain them I should have to embark upon an expedition of exploration through the cottage gardens of Europe.

One afternoon I told my troubles to the members of the Poughkeepsie Garden Club who had come to see my lilies, and to my great joy one of the members said her grandmother had grown costmary and that they still had plants of it, while another had ambrosia. With the generosity typical of all true gardeners they sent me a few of each. Friends sent me slips of fragrant geraniums, and the gardener of a famous herb garden in Connecticut drove seventy-five miles to bring me an unusual Santolina I had seen and admired when visiting him.

There were, however, still others to be garnered into the confines of my garden and having been unsuccessful in my appeals to the commercial people, except for Sutton's who have always been most helpful and this time got me a huge packet of Nigella sativa seeds, I turned to the authorities in cap and gown. Professor Hamblin sent me a few of the rare herbs and told me of the custom obtaining amongst the botanic gardens of the world of ex-changing seed lists with one another in January of each year. Mr. Benjamin Yoe Morrison of the Department of Agriculture was helpful in every way. Not only has he gone over my proofs, but he assisted me in securing "a preferred amateur's permit" to enable me to import all the plants not to be grown from seeds. He sent me the precious lists from the botanic gardens and told me to mark the "herbs" I wanted with my initials, and as I wrote "H. M. F." in the margins opposite the thymes, or sages so rare that they had not even been described in any of the books I had come across, I felt as if I had been permitted to enter the innermost sanctum of the botanical Úlite under government auspices. Copies of my tentative list of herbs were sent to Dr. E. D. Merrill of the New York Botanic Gardens, and Dr. C. Stuart Gager of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens who helped me secure many treasures. Regius Director Smith of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, besides giving me ad-dresses of people to write to, sent me plants of mints, nepetas, and satureias. Other plants were obtained from English nurseries and some from far-away India. I collected many varieties of mints, thymes, tansies, and sages other than the ones used for flavor and fragrance, for I felt I could understand the individual better by knowing the whole family. I corresponded with horticulturists and botanists in China, India, and Europe as well as distant portions of America, all of whom were amazingly kind in answering letters and giving advice and information.

Either the seeds or plants of every herb on my list, and many more besides, were finally gathered together. In February, as the second spring was coming, seed packets arrived from Algiers, Portugal, Spain, India, France, England, and Scotland. By the end of March seedlings filled my little greenhouse to capacity.

The detective work, furthered by kind friends, had been perfect, but as the season advanced our brilliant beginning was somewhat dimmed by several horticultural disappointments and our pride, as usual, took a tumble. The sweet cicely sickened and died and our only angelica plant to grow up turned yellow and did not have the vigor to flower as it should have in its second season in the garden; a friend, however, sent me a flat full of little plants. Because of its place in the religious practices of the Hindus, I had particularly wanted to grow the holy basil, Ocimum sanctum, and compare it with the other basils used for flavoring. After much difficulty I had finally obtained three packets, but no matter how we treated the seeds, although we put some of them in the sun, others in the shade, and kept some of them indoors and a few out-side, they would germinate and raise our hopes and then disappoint us by suddenly expiring. One packetful finally grew and flowered and smelt quite vilely and we thought, "this is it and perhaps the Hindus who like it and we differ about pleasantness in smells," but Dr. Merrill said these plants were a variety of Ocimum basilicum and not Ocimum sanctum.

In spite of the mishaps we managed to raise some three hundred different varieties of herbs. Planted at the top of the sloping cut-flower garden in three long terrace-like rows with little paths running between them and with a pink and white hedge of flowering cosmos behind them, they made an imposing array.

Every day with paper, pencil, and measuring tape I would sit on the ground beside the herbs, and measure, describe, taste, and smell them. Bailey's descriptions and those from other writers were carried with me on cards to compare with the growing plant and if there was any doubt about its identity a specimen was dried between blotters ,on a herbarium sheet and sent to Dr. Merrill, who had very generously offered to check up the nomenclature and happily for me kept his promise.

Miss Mansfield stayed with us while she was drawing the plates and in the cool evenings we would walk through the garden and look over the plants critically and discuss their beauty while deciding which she was to draw the next day. With her artistic training she would note the lines or ridges on a stem or a downward curve in the leaves which had often escaped me.

All this time I was cutting off the leaves and drying the seeds and roots to use in cooking. Recipes had been gathered during the months of research from such varying sources as the "Arabian Nights" (Mrs. Leyel's version), and from English, French, German, Jewish, Italian, and Spanish cook books dating from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. A great many of these were prepared. The first summer we had a fine cook from the south of France who like most of her race was an artist and delighted in creating new dishes. Every morning we had long culinary conferences in French, our voices growing louder and shriller as we became more and more excited over the custard or salad flavored with herbs. When a dish gave promise of not being too startling it was served to the whole family, but when we were not at all certain of its success it would be served in a little, separate dish to me alone. I would eat a spinach of borage or stewed mallow leaves with indications of intense pleasure in the hope of stirring a desire in the rest of the family to share them with me, but my blandishments either met with a smiling refusal or a gentle, "no, thank you," said in a tone such as might be employed to a person who is a bit "off." There were, however, some triumphal successes. The marigold pudding from John Evelyn's "Acetaria" came to the table in a creamy melon shape, with the golden marigold petals sticking out all over it like cloves on a baked ham and was greeted with acclaim while Marie stood behind the pantry door to watch the effect of her masterpiece.

Marie could never tell me exactly how much of the herbs she used nor could she say at precisely what moment she dropped them in the liquids or mixed them into the solids. She would shrug her shoulders and say, "It is very simple, just a pinch at the last minute." Therefore, as I am an exceedingly poor cook, it was necessary to secure an experienced person to work out the exact methods of flavoring the food with herbs. Miss Bertha Shapleigh who lectured on "The Appreciation of Cookery" at Teachers College was recommended as "the expert on flavoring in the United States." She was known to be able to detect the ingredients which had gone into a dish as soon as she tasted it, and although she lived in California was to come East to give a course at the college that spring. Thereupon I wrote her a letter in which the flavoring with herbs was so enticingly portrayed that she succumbed and promised to come and help me out.

In anticipation of her arrival we fitted up a little house in the garden as a temporary kitchen, and jars of rose water and containers filled with saffron powder, sesame, cumin, anise, and other seeds, and the dried leaves of dozens of herbs were placed on the shelves ready for her use. She came for two weeks in September of the second summer, after the herbs had been harvested, and after reading over all the recipes I had collected, selected the ones she thought best for the modern menu and then tried them out. There were too many of these to include in the book, so a second selection was made from the ones we had liked best. They were rewritten to suit modern methods of cooking and are given under the recipes. As she cooked, Miss Shapleigh descanted fascinatingly on her subject and described how the different peoples flavored their food from Greek and Persian days to modern times.

All the information has been harvested and carefully gleaned and we hope this book will show the gardener and cook how to grow the herbs, pack them away for the winter, to flavor food and drink, and brew teas of them, and mix the dried leaves into sweetly smelling potpourris.



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