Favorite Flora: hellebore, Lenten rose (Helleborus ×hybrida)

  By: Debra Knapke, Member At Large, Great Lakes District

03_02_2015_FavoriteFlora2A bowl of hellebore flowers is a spring tradition in our home. Hellebore or Lenten rose isn’t really a rose, but it does bloom during and after Lent, and sometimes before. The nodding flowers are single, double; white to cream to pink to deep dusky purple. They are dotted, spotted, picoteed, shaded and blushed.

If I had to point to a true workhorse in the garden it would be this group of plants. I use the term group, because the complex, hybrid cross is made up of at least five different species, one of them being the original Lenten rose: Helleborus orientalis. Culturally, hellebores are easy to establish and maintain. They grow well in part sun to shade and will tolerate full sun (6+ hours) if most of that sun is from the east and south. They bloom for 2-3 months. You will notice that some flowers are “in seed” while others are just opening. If you are looking for winter interest, the large, glossy, evergreen leaves offer an alternative to bare soil. A bonus is that hellebores do not allow light to filter down to those pesky winter weeds that need light to germinate.

Hellebores take two to three years to establish roots that are drought tolerant. Do not let them dry out the first year and watch them the second and third during dry times and water accordingly. Usually, deer do not eat the leaves, because they are well armed with very sharp serrations, or the flowers which are poisonous. However, if a deer is hungry, all bets are off. If you are a lazy or very busy gardener who doesn’t always get to dividing your perennials, hellebores are happy to grow in the same place for years. I have plants that are three foot wide that have been in the same place for 14 years. When you do divide them, do so carefully, as they are not fond of excessive root disturbance.

So what’s the downside of this plant? They do have a tendency to self-seed; a lot. But, the seedlings are easily raked up and left under the plant to compost back into the soil. Or, thinking about this in another way: you have lots to share.

Love and bayberry

When I was young, my mother would put branches of bayberry in a pewter teapot. She received the twigs each year from a friend who had bayberry (Myrica) bushes around her yard. My mother would put the pewter teapot with its silver berries on the mantle next to the clock. When I saw the arrangement I knew that Thanksgiving was coming. We would soon be celebrating with cousins, aunts, uncles, and of course grandparents. During this stage of my life, the sight of bayberry evoked thoughts of friendship and family.WP_20140529_014

Later, when I was in graduate school at Rutgers University, I began a research project examining the soil arthropods under bayberry bushes. I went to a field every other week to take samples of the soil. It was hot, itchy, sweaty, and dirty work. I had to watch out for spiders and ticks—and anything else that might be lurking. But I was happy. I was following my dream.

One day when I was struggling under the canopy of beautifully scented leaves I heard a familiar voice. My long-time friend, Bill, had ridden his bicycle to the field with ice cold root beers for us to enjoy. He parked the bike and himself under the sassafras tree adjacent to the bayberry thicket and handed me the refreshment. While I drank, he asked me to marry him! Most men choose a romantic spot or setting. They try to make everything perfect. Bill, in his usual understated and reassuring way, decided to demonstrate that he wanted me, all of me, just the way I was. Sweat, dirt, ticks, and all! At that point bayberry came to represent acceptance, support, never-ending loyalty, and, most of all, love. My old plant friend had taken on a new meaning for me.

We married and moved to Cleveland Heights, OH. There the bayberry hedge around the garden of the Western Reserve Unit of the Herb Society of America gives me a quiet pleasure as I help tend the garden.WP_20140529_008

This year Bill and I celebrate our thirty fifth anniversary. We are planting bayberry bushes to make our own hedge around a new patio that is just big enough for two. Fifteen years from now the hedge will be large enough to shade us on our fiftieth anniversary, while I tell him how very glad I am that he came to visit me in the field all those years ago!WP_20140529_016

submitted by Priscilla Jones, Western Reserve Unit, Great Lakes District

Monarchs need milkweed

Little did we members of the Native Herb Conservation Committee know when we chose redring or white milkweed (Asclepias variegata) the Notable Native Herb for 2014 that monarch butterflies would suffer a precipitous drop in numbers in the summer of 2013.

We were well aware of the uses of many members of the Asclepias genus for medicines, food and fiber and we knew we wanted to highlight its importance as a larval food source for Danaus plexippus. Even then, it was clear that monarch butterfly numbers were continuing to drop due to habitat loss and pesticide use and it was our intention to help in the effort to bring that to our members’ attention. But we could not have anticipated that there would be the fewest adults measured in recent memory during the summer and fall of 2013 and that the cry to preserve and restore habitat by planting regionally appropriate milkweed species would be such a focus for the spring of 2014.

Although a large number of Asclepias species may be found throughout the continental US and into Canada and Mexico, Asclepias variegata has a relatively limited range.

While many members across the country may desire to grow our 2014 Notable Native in our gardens, I suggest you seek out milkweed species that are regionally appropriate and found growing wild in your own region.

Here on Long Island in southeastern New York, there are three species found growing wild: Asclepias incarnata or swamp milkweed; A. syriaca or common milkweed; and A. tuberosa or butterfly milkweed.

Several years ago, I joined the board of the Long Island Native Plant Initiative, Inc. We collect seed from wild lands on Long Island and grow many of our collections for sale at our annual plant sale. We grow all three milkweed species and find an appreciative audience for these natives.

Butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) is the crowd favorite at our June plant sale. Eager buyers flock to it. Is it because of its charismatic name or the promise of those flame-orange flowers in the hot, dry Long Island summer sun? I am not sure but we cannot grow enough of it to satisfy demand.

I adore the nodding umbels of A. syriaca — the delicate shading of its petals is in such contrast to the coarse paddle-shaped leaves. If it is local to you, don’t be afraid to find places for several of these on your property. They will weave themselves through grasses and other perennials in an exuberant border and are easily pulled if they stray.

But my favorite for ease of growth, beautiful color and attracting monarchs is A. incarnata or swamp milkweed. You don’t need a swamp to grow it! Any well drained and somewhat well watered garden soil will do. It grows three to four feet high with several flowering stalks to each plant. One of its greatest attributes is that it will bloom the same year grown from seed.


By growing Asclepias native to your region, you will join legions of other gardeners and conservationists in 2014 across this continent attempting to aid in the resurgence of the beloved monarchs.

submitted by: Dava Stravinsky, Long Island Unit, Northeast District
Source for plants: www.monarchwatch.org
Fact sheet from HSA: http://www.herbsociety.org/herbs/documents/AsclepiasvariegataFactSheet-1.pdf

The Fragrance of Herbs

Fragrance is one of the characteristics of herbs that appeals to me greatly. The scent of a rosemary bush when you brush by it, the aromas of gardenias and roses, mints and pelargonia, lavender, lemon verbena, and the lovely fragrance of this year’s long gone Meyer lemon blossoms are just a few of the wondrous olfactory delights of these herbal plants.

In December, the scents of fir, spruce, juniper and other evergreens herald the joyous season. Spices, too, increase odiferous delight. Cinnamon, clove, star anise, and ginger, embodied in baked goods, mulled ciders, or simmer pots create a warmth of feeling on the chilly winter days and nights.

Fragrances may evoke memories of those we have known and loved, cultivating delight.

I have been blessed through the years to meet some amazing herb enthusiasts. Each has taught me, nurtured me, encouraged me, and inspired me. Some are no longer in our midst, but remain safely in my heart. And so, as I conjure seasonal herb and spice aromas, I think of them.

In 1979, I met the only remaining living founder of The Herb Society of America, Ann Burrage. She was petite and feisty and introduced me to Coffee Nips from Holland. I have a treasured picture of her from a few years later with my dad, Rollie Remmel, an herbal treasure in his own right.


Three herbal stars were Nancy Howard, Caroline Cadwalader, and Joanna Reed. Each of them became dear to me. And while I do not have a fragrant plant to remind me of Caroline, I think of her often. As for Nancy and Joanna, Nancy’s cardamom plant has survived decades. Its leaves emit a nice scent when rubbed. Joanna’s apothecary rose resides along my fence, offering up the wonderful scent of roses in early summer.

Fuzzy Lord and Madeleine Hill provided plants, knowledge, books and friendship and dwell in my thoughts on a regular basis. Fuzzy taught me about jojoba and folklore – another passion of mine. Madeleine became a mentor and friend.

As for the first herbal enthusiast I met, who is happily still with us, I think of my mom, Ruth Remmel, who now has lost her sense of smell. She can remember scent, though, and delights in those memories.

As you surround yourself with the aromas of the holidays, who or what do they bring to mind? I hope the memories evoked are as special as mine…

submitted by Mary Remmel Wohlleb, former HSA President
Arkansas Unit, Southeast District

In the mists of time

It is a crisp, clear autumn morning. As I walk over a gentle rise toward The Boone House I first see, then smell, the smoke rising from the chimney, letting me know the hardwood fire has been started for our day of cooking. I have been doing this for many years now, and yet it is still a thrill to experience a sense of stepping back in time as I walk toward the house. I close my eyes as I put on my cap, and when I open them I can easily imagine the sounds of a busy 18th century homestead awaking to the demands of the day.


On the way to the house I stop at the garden to pick the herbs we will need for our menu: parsley, sage, thyme, and lovely rosemary whose scent will stay on my fingers for some time. I pick an extra bouquet to place on our table “just for pretty.”

Two other “herbies” from the area and I will be preparing a typical harvest meal at the hearth to show guests what is involved in such an undertaking. Throughout the day we talk as we cook – about our clothes, about the Boones and their lives, about gardening, and food preparation and preservation at harvest time.


The ‘receipts’ (recipes) we use are typical of the 18th century English, Welsh, and German families that lived in the house over the years, though admittedly we use rather simple, homestead dishes that are “forgiving” if we forget a step as visitors constantly ask questions and directions. Since most of our cooking days are on Sundays, we do hasten to explain that none of this would have been done on the Sabbath day as the Boones were observant Quakers. Their Sabbath meals would have been prepared the day before and taken with them to the Meeting House down the road in the beautiful Oley Valley.

Leaning over an open hearth cooking (and talking!) all day is just plain hard work, but the great reward is sitting down at the end of the day, after all the visitors have left and the gates are closed, with kindred spirits who love re-enacting. Together we enjoy the food, the stories of the day, and for just a few more minutes by candlelight as the sun sets, we remain in the mists of time.

submitted by: Courtney Stevens, Pennsylvania Heartland Unit, Mid-Atlantic District

editor’s note: Be sure to check out the website for Daniel Boone Homestead. Approximately one hour west of Philadelphia, it’s a great place to visit when traveling through Pennsylvania.

Bad timing

Last year I purchased plants from my unit at the South Texas Unit Herb Fair. In 2012 in particular, we offered exceptional plants to our faithful customers. For my own garden, I bought lamb’s ears, nasturtium and passionflower. 

Many of my friends grow passionflower in their Houston gardens, but I had never tried one. Passiflora is such a beautiful, useful plant and I wanted to supply larval food to the Gulf fritillary butterfly.

All the plants I purchased did extremely well in my garden. The nasturtiums sprawled across an area like an orange carpet. Stunning! The lamb’s ears did equally well. I love their texture and the silvery-white glow they provide in the evening garden. 
The passionflower grew very fast, as I had been told. My friends warned me that it has a mind of its own and I would be pulling up volunteers all through the yard. Yes, that happened too. I would run out and pull them out before my husband discovered them taking over. 
I had found a perfect place on the west side of our house to allow the passionflower to grow up some ironwork. I carefully staked it as it grew. Mr. Lain, being the tidy clipper that he is, kept its tendrils cut back so it did not attack unsuspecting guests walking up the sidewalk. 
In the meantime, life goes on. I am busy traveling back and forth between Houston and Fort Worth. Then we decide it is time to sell our Houston house and make the permanent move to the Fort Worth area. 
Moves are momentous distractions from gardening! I had cared for the Houston garden for 25 years; it was going to be hard to say goodbye to our plants. 
The move is now accomplished. On my computer, I signed the necessary closing documents from my location in Fort Worth. Billy, on the other hand, was to be present in Houston at the closing on the 29th of August. The day before closing he returned to the house for the final time. Can you guess what he saw? Yup, the passionflower was in bloom! He was amazed and told me that the flowers were as beautiful as I said they would be. 
Like the closing documents I signed, I only got to see the passionflower bloom electronically. Oh well, it bloomed in its own time, not mine.
submitted by Linda Lain, former HSA President
South Texas Unit, South Central District

From Playland to Penitentiary

Last summer, our backyard garden went through a significant change. The swing set that had occupied the prime real estate in our backyard for the past ten years, finally came down. It was time. In fact, the little boys who played there were the big boys who disassembled it.

When spring came around, we were ready to replace the sad spot of struggling grass and weeds where the play area had been with new hardscaping, including four raised beds and a small square bed in the middle for salvia leucantha and a bird feeder.20130717_180045

The boys are used to having lots of herbs in the yard, but their one request for the new garden was to grow some “food.” This first year, we decided to try eggplants and peppers – something we could be assured of growing successfully. It didn’t take long for the herbs and veggie plants to fill the beds.

Since the kitchen window looks out onto the garden, we all enjoy the satisfaction of peeking out in the backyard every morning and seeing the new herb garden continue to mature. It was so exciting the first time we realized that one of the pretty purple blossoms was turning into a cute little eggplant.

Ah, the anticipation of picking our first “food” from the garden! Oh, the disappointment of realizing that a squirrel beat us to it.

You see, that bird feeder in the center of the garden feeds not just the finches and cardinals but also the fat gray squirrels scavenging around on the ground below. They love our garden. The little thieves have made it necessary to put cages around every plant that has fruit on it.


My kids and I have nicknamed the garden our eggplant penitentiary. So far, I’ve gotten the price of my eggplants down to $3 a piece ($42 worth of rabbit wire and netting divided by 14 beautiful eggplants). There are several peppers and quite a few more eggplants undisturbed at this point, so the incarceration has been successful.


It’s been worth the investment to have my kids excited about gardening with me. And it’s true what they say about children liking to eat what they grow. My kids are adventurous eaters, but you can tell how excited they are to eat the grilled eggplant with basil that comes from their own garden.

submitted by: Beneé Curtis, South Texas Unit, South Central District