Crofting: A Little Thyme

a little more thyme

I finally got all the herbs planted in their own wee bed. I had two kinds of thyme, English and lemon; basil; the elder baby bush; lady’s mantle; Italian parsley; sage from Nikki and Doug, who also provided the basil; and oregano. this is a temporary home up against the east wall of the house, in a raised bed. Eventually they will go in bigger raised beds on the south lawn. My hope is to make it cruciform, with the elder tree in a circular tub in the middle. I have been interested in medieval monastic gardens for about thirty years, and this would be my first step toward realizing that goal of having an extensive healing garden.

My favourite medieval style garden is at the Washington National Cathedral, the spiritual home of all Episcopalians (Anglicans) in the United States, and maybe in North America. It is the youngest and largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and probably the last one ever to be built. The grounds and gardens are incredibly beautiful and well-kept, and a favourite place for both city residents and visitors.

Bishop's garden at the National Cathedral

The garden is more than an herb garden. It houses some artifacts such as a baptistry from the medieval convent of St. Julie, and unique plants, including a Cedar of Lebanon and a “Peace” rose planted by the late Emperor Haille Salassie, purported descendent of King Solomon. I used to find a spare afternoon to go up Mount St. Albans to visit, and take along a book. The cathedral and garden were my refuge int he city. My dream sabbatical (as if I will ever have one) would be a term at the College of Preachers at the Cathedral.

Another famous American herbal garden is Dr. James Duke’s private ethnobotanical garden. As far as I know, it is not open to the public. Duke is a pioneering ethnobotanist, that is, someone who explores the herbal healing traditions of indigenous people around the world, looking for new plants with medicinal properties. He has a number of books on the market for herbalists, and this is the one I use frequently when wild-gathering.

The go-to wildgatherer's reference

I have wildgathered for decades, but I am careful to take nothing that is rare or endangered. I’ve even come across a wid stand of goldenseal, the holy grail of wildgathering, and did not take a single specimen. Nor will I tell you where it was! Goldenseal is almost gone from the eastern part of the continent, and wild specimens need to be left alone. American ginseng has almost disappeared for the same reason — wildgatherers have exploited natural plantations. Both of these plants are essential to forest health, but they are close to extinct in the wild.

These are my ethics of collecting: Never take a rare specimen, so make sure you have a guide on hand that tells you the endangered status. Never gather more than 10% of the individual plants in the wild stand. Leave the very best to propagate. Don’t gather on private land without permission. Never remove a cultivated specimen without explicit permission from the garden owner – this means no plucking seeds, taking roots or cuttings, or fruit and flowers of a specimen in either a private or public garden. Some gardens make a living, or at least cover some of the expenses, but selling seed, rooted cuttings, or whole specimens, so taking anything without permission is simply theft.

My garden dreams are always bigger than my budget, but I’m praying that if we can stay here for an extended period of time, we will finally have the garden of our dreams.

4 thoughts on “Crofting: A Little Thyme

  1. magdalena,

    Watch the Lemon Thyme; its an agressive little so and so – mine killed off the common thyme and has designs on a complete takeover of my herb-garden :-) A similar battle has been running between my red sage and pineapple sage, the latter far stronger and hardier than its poor cousin (that clings on meagerly nonetheless). Periodically, the central heart of the Lemon Thyme will die off; I simply remove it, fill the gap with mulch and said gap grows back in soon enough. our italian parsley limps along also… I pray your dream of a medieval monastic herb garden is realized!! Beautiful!!



    • I hope something gets aggressive – my common thyme is tiny and weak, and if it doesn’t make it, well, that’s survival of the fittest! I use thyme as a tea for coughs and such – it is quite potent, so a little goes a long way. I have just common sage, which is my cure-all if I can’t make garlic wine. I have dreams of not only a small healing garden, but a medieval ink garden as the monastics planted, and a walled “poison” garden, for all the medicinal or beautiful plants that children, goats, sheep and pets shouldn’t eat or touch! That would include not only the infamous aconite, but such common herbs as foxglove and arnica.

  2. Magdalena,

    Our common thyme didn’t come on very quickly either; I think you may be more pleased with the progresss of your lemon thyme. a walled poison garden sounds intriguing and mysterious…do you have any recommendations on good herb websites a’la culpepper’s colour herbal? A medieval ink garden – now that takes me back to my spinning days ten years ago now – you’re too far north for fresh tumeric, I fear, but I remember our dyers using all manner of aus herbs, roots and fungi for dyes, some yielding magnificent greens, reds, majentas… What about woad? (excuse spelling) or do you have better ‘blue’ sources? From what I’ve heard, woad is excellent and has historically been used as cloth and yarn/thread dye in England – they say its the one that holds up best in aged tapestries etc (as a former conservator you’d know far more about this than the bits and pieces I remember from the documentary I caught a few years ago now. Doesn’t it stink to high heaven?

    I wish I could join you in your garden for just an afternoon; it would be fantastic!



    • I still use my hardcover herbals. I haven’t tho0ught to look online, which is pretty obtuse, because surely someone has good illustrations. Woad would grow here. In North America indigo was more commonly used, but we are too far north. Indigo fades to grey over time; I beleive woad is more colourfast. Indigo is precipitated in urine, so it is a very smelly process. I don’t know about woad, as I have never had the opportunity toi handle it. Most natural dying is an outdoor job!

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