by Mimi Hedl
One chilly, rainy spring afternoon, the sofa invited me to rest. I settled down, all nice and cozy, with a favorite spring tonic, Barbara Pond’s A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, given to me 35 years ago by my sister Barbara, with an inscription, “I love these familiar little plants with the lovely names.” I never tire of reading that inscription, spring after spring, with the knowledge Barbara found charm in wayside herbs like I do. If you’ve never looked at an old herbal, you won’t understand the fantasy and magic these herbals give to those who dare enter within.
A few days before, Brother Cadfael and I stood where his garden meets the Cottage Garden, both of us with hoes in hand, standing with them as a support of sorts or perhaps as a badge of honor. We smiled at each other when we stood up from our hoeing and admired the cool day, the fragrance of the first iris, and the lushness of the hillsides. He thanked me again for allowing him to take over what was the butterfly garden. He has a dozen monkshood flowers growing well now and many spring ephemerals have shown their sweet faces.
He had hoed down the elderberries explaining that they grew in other gardens and shrub borders and wouldn’t I agree this would make a far better location for special herbs for his remedies and of course flowers for the altar and for the infirm and ? “Without question”, I replied. He knows the uses for so many of the wayside herbs that creep into any area that doesn’t get mowed excessively or that grow under a tree with leaner soil, and I can come to him with my queries. He’ll show me a tincture he’s made or explain what part of an herb to use to treat an ill. I could listen to him all day but we both feel anxious to return to our labors and probably find more comfort in just knowing the other one works the earth in much the same way, with bowed head and contented mind.
My love of plants makes most people yawn or say something like, “that’s nice.” Kinda like what I do when the locals start talking about who’s related to who and so and so is their second cousin twice removed. I go into a trance at such talk and can never keep track of it all. And I’ve been called on it. “I told you she was my mother’s own cousin’s aunt.” Don’t quote me. I never repeat it quite right and my genealogical-minded friends just shake their heads. When they say, “It’s history!” I’ll say, yes, just not the variety I want to dive into.
As the years went by and my interest in plants increased I began studying the flora of Missouri. I wanted to know all of the plants in one family, just because it fascinated me to know which ones were intimately related. The most fascinating discovery was when I learned poison ivy, cashews, mangoes, and pistachios all belong to the same family. (Anacardiaceae for you plant nerds.) My mind expanded by several magnitudes. Wow! I said to myself.
On hot summer days I’d sit under the fan with Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri and make lists of all the plants in the buttercup family – for instance, clematis, columbine, anemones, delphinium. And get this, they’re all poisonous to some degree or another, especially in early spring, to both man and animals. (Think of all the times we put a buttercup under our chins to see if our skin would glow, which meant we liked butter…) I’d go from one family to another, making these lists, then studying them. As soon as I see a new plant, I look for something to recognize its heritage. So I understand folks into genealogy.
I sit among the wayside herbs under shady trees taking note of how the agrimony has spread. (Remember? It has flowers that smell like apricots, belongs to the rose family.) Or I watch this fight for survival by the noble frog. (He won, I might add, after 5 minutes or so of struggle. I was tempted to intervene but firmly believe, mostly, we should let nature go about its changes.)
As I sit, or kneel, or lie down amongst it all, I inevitably find seedlings of every sort of tree, (it’s under a tree, no less), and what do birds do but perch and purge. It still astounds me to find 5 or 6 cedar seedlings in less than a square foot.
Summer has kicked in now. No time for idle ramblings or thoughts, it’s all about getting everything planted, seeds sown. Idleness will come during the dog days. These photographs show some of the beauty and variety of plants on Strawdog. I see Cadfael out and about in the cool of the evenings, strolling around, bending over to smell or taste, sometimes picking small bouquets. Of course that delights me as did a surprise visit the other evening.
I was pounding T-posts in for the tomato cages with a heavy tool that fits inside the post and has handles on the sides to bring home the post. When you heave down on it, the sound travels far and wide. Petra heard me across the road and sent her knight in shining armor, Patrick, to assist me. I’ve never had anyone stop by, out of the blue, to help me, so I felt flabbergasted. He insisted on helping, loyal to Petra’s wishes that I not do such a chore. I demurred and actually enjoyed watching his effortless labor, sending each post in with two strokes instead of the four I required. We carried on pleasant, happy banter and before I knew it, all twelve of the posts stood tall and proud. As Patrick began to leave, I eyed the asparagus, another spring tonic, and realized I hadn’t picked it that day. So with Patrick on one side of the bed, me on the other, we picked enough spears for them to have a meal. There will be more asparagus and I see cookies in his future too.