The Accidental Home Herbalist

As a child I used to watch with fascination as my grandfather’s hands gently teased apart leaves and flowers and laid them over paper towels to dry in the heat of the attic. That attic looked more like the back room of an apothecary than an auxiliary space, with its hot pepper bunches, hanging herbs, long braids of onions and garlic and drying racks of chamomile and lovage.

We used to walk together through the garden and every day I learned something: one day I would find out that Saint John’s Wort tea soothes a peptic ulcer, the next I would collect plantago to mix in a syrup for chest congestion and sore throats. It didn’t seem like learning at the time and it never occurred to me that my grandfather, a natural sciences teacher by training, was delivering a very special Materia Medica lecture for one.

Half alchemy ingredients, half cooking stock, all shrouded in symbolism and superstition, common herbs used to stew in both humble and distinguished pots to turn up flavorful soups, healing poultices, or magical potions.

More than a small patch of dirt covered in greenery, the herb garden is a thousand year old concept which witnessed the birth of modern medicine and pharmacology and generated its own design patterns, some of which were more intricate than embroidery or lace.

Herb growing usually starts with a modest pot of parsley and dill on the kitchen window sill and most people leave it at that. Once you venture looking into the herbs’ culinary and medicinal qualities, you usually get seduced by their ancient significance and an herb garden is born.

Now, when I hear “herb garden” an image immediately comes to mind: a small round divided into quarters, with a fountain in the middle and tall plants growing around its perimeter, as if to protect it. Inside the circle, small sectors radiate neatly, changing color and texture as they move from thyme to parsley, to sage. There are always bees and butterflies buzzing around the tall anise seed heads and the spicy scent of the sun baked mint fills the air.

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