By Chrissy Moore
As a young intern in the National Herb Garden in Washington, DC, I had no idea the impact that this garden–the largest designed herb garden in the United States–would have on my life. The garden captivated me then, and it still does today.
The Herb Society of America (HSA) member, Mrs. Betty Crisp Rea, championed the idea of bringing a garden dedicated specifically to herbs to a national audience. It was to be an outdoor classroom for all things herbal.
She, along with many other HSA members, worked tirelessly to bring the idea to fruition. Partnering with the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. National Arboretum meant that that idea–that dream–would come true.
The National Herb Garden (NHG) first opened to the public on June 12, 1980. Though barely a garden then (all of the herbaceous and woody plants were newly installed, of course), the bones of what would someday be a marvelous display of useful plants could clearly be seen in the thoughtful design of landscape architect Tom Wirth of Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Massachusetts.
But, what are herbs, exactly, and why do we need a 2 1/2 – acre garden of them? In the National Herb Garden, an herb is any plant that enhances people’s lives, including those used for medicine, dyes, flavoring of food, beverages, historical uses, etc. (1). The HSA members’ goal in developing this garden was to interpret that intensely strong relationship between people and the plants they use and to be an educational resource for those longing to learn more about this amazing group of plants.
Quoting from the NHG’s opening-day program:
Migrating people, across time, have carefully carried along their herbal plants and seeds, which they valued for medicinal, savory, aromatic, or economic qualities.
And we still value them today for these qualities: We may take horehound drops to soothe our coughs, polish our furniture with marjoram and lavender oils, sip mint juleps or rosehip tea, and season the simplest or most elegant dishes with basil or tarragon.
Thousands of herbs could be planted in the National Herb Garden. Those you see here have been selected to demonstrate the significance of plants in human life (2).
As stated above, the palette of plants available for display in the garden is astounding: plants from all over the world, from many different cultures, and from many different times. “Knowledge of herb uses is constantly increasing, and the plantings will be changed to reflect these uses. Gardens also change as plants flourish or perish, so the Herb Garden can never be static” (2).
It is this idea that keeps the garden interesting and relevant, no matter the era or the time of year. It is why I have dedicated my career to supporting, promoting, and maintaining the National Herb Garden (with a lot of help from many others) for all the world to experience. It is my hope that the garden remains the national–no, the international–treasure that it is for decades to come. Join me in celebrating your National Herb Garden’s 40th Anniversary!
1 The National Herb Garden—the largest designed herb garden in the United States—showcases plants that enhance people’s lives as flavorings, fragrances, medicines, coloring agents, and additives in industrial products. The garden exhibits these herbal plants from places and cultures around the world in theme gardens, single-genus collections, and seasonal displays for education, research, and aesthetic enjoyment.
Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. As steward of the NHG, Chrissy lectures, provides tours, and writes on various herbal topics, as well as shepherds the garden’s “Under the Arbor” educational outreach program. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.