By Beth Schreibman-Gehring
“ I work at my garden all the time and with love. What I need most are flowers, always.
My heart is forever in Giverny. “
– Claude Monet
It’s St. Valentines Day, and the whole world smells as if it’s been dipped in a gigantic vat of roses, violet-flavored marshmallows, and chocolate-covered strawberries. It’s been absolutely freezing here in Northeast Ohio, so like most of my herb loving friends, I’m tucked away inside with stacks of rose, seed, tree, and other various and sundry plant catalogs.
Personally? I’m also eating plenty of chocolates and drinking a cup of homemade rose petal and chocolate chai! You‘ll find that recipe below, and I think you will love it!
I have spent many a Valentine’s Day in this way, but as I started writing this, I began thinking about the year that my husband asked me to meet him in France at the tail end of a business trip he’d been on in Spain. It was my very first trip to Paris, and I was completely enchanted by the city and the people I met. Valentine’s Day that year was perfect. We started with tea at Ladurée, where I enjoyed an absolutely delicious pot of jasmine tea and a delectable pastry filled with rosewater and cardamom crème topped with rose petals and fresh raspberries. We ended the day with a fabulous meal of raw oysters and confit of duck on a bed of lentils, with a sauce of orange, lavender, ginger, and honey and, of course, plenty of Champagne, because, after all, we were in Paris!
In between tea and dinner, Jim and I walked hand in hand through the shops and the markets. The shops in Paris are always wonderful, but February the 14th finds them filled with all of the beautiful symbols of romantic love that the French are known for: beautifully hand-dipped and painted chocolates, the softest and most luscious caramels, fabulous perfume, and gorgeous lingerie. But in truth, it’s the flower shops and market stalls that I remember the most, filled with gorgeous bouquets of all kinds and friendly men and women eager and willing to have patient conversations with me (not easy with my limited French!) about their beautiful flowers, produce, breads, cheeses, preserves, and teas. As I wandered happily sniffing and shooting picture after picture, I began to think of my father. It took me a moment, but suddenly I realized why.
When I was a child, our lives completely changed the year that my parents went to France for the first time. I’ll never forget it, because my father went first to Paris and then Giverny and came home a man enchanted. Life at home wasn’t the same after that. It was as if he’d discovered something there in the culture and the landscape, a part of his artistic soul that he’d been missing all along.
Besides possessing a Masters in Biology, Dad was also an excellent painter. But until that trip, he hadn’t paid much attention to his yard. The three acres that we had were pretty basic; what had once been a victory garden lovingly tended by my father and grandfather was covered by a swimming pool. And as for flowers? There were mostly annuals and some pretty boring ones at that.
Until that trip to Giverny.
My father came home from France and realized what his painting had been lacking the entire time: context, or as the French would say, a raison d’être. Dad set out to build his own garden paradise, and he did so with an absolute passion. I wasn’t at all surprised. Even at a very young age, I could see that my dad was wildly romantic, and after experiencing the gardens that Monet had painted in, he couldn’t help but follow in his footsteps.
That entire winter, life became about his garden, planning his borders, reading and learning about all of the plants that he’d fallen in love with when he was in France. That spring, he began to build the beds, amending the soil, and planting the foundation plants. Within two years, his entire property was completely transformed. His favorites were the fragrant old roses, but his lilies, irises, and peonies were just as luscious. His beds were also filled with every kind of fragrant herb and flower imaginable; everything he touched just thrived. Not one to rely on traditional pesticides, antifungals, and commercial fertilizers to keep his plants healthy, he worked with his soil, which was as rich, sweet, and dark as the chocolate many of us are enjoying today. Every plant had a companion or two, specifically chosen to help it stay healthy and as pest free as possible.
His roses never had that much trouble with black spot, beetles, or mildew…rarely were there bothersome pests that took over and destroyed everything. My father, ever the biologist, always planted with the pollinators in mind, stressing native plants like serviceberry, aronia, and American cranberry alongside his beautiful flowers. He loved milkweeds and watching the Monarch butterflies. He had a carefully tended patch of sweet woodruff that was always covered with honeybees, which he used to make May wine every spring, and he loved plants like pokeberry and comfrey, letting them grow wherever they wanted to, because he knew that they were biodynamic accumulators—plants that gather nutrients from the soil to store them in a more bioavailable form. At the end of the gardening year, he’d chop these into his beds as mulch.
My father’s gardens had the fattest honeybees and bumblebees, the biggest and juiciest earthworms, and wonderful snakes that would slither through on occasion, much to the delight of his grandsons. He was generous with his knowledge, and he taught me everything I know about building soil and keeping plants healthy without resorting to the use of chemicals. He loved to share his gardens with everyone, especially his children and grandchildren. As I got older, summer nights would find us wandering together with martinis and hoses…watering, mulching, and laughing, and later, would find us in his living room talking about the garden and listening to his extensive collection of classical music. My father lived such an artistic life in so many ways, and he loved to encourage us to do so as well. He was the first person to encourage me to follow my instincts for herbalism, and he is single-handedly responsible for my love affair with old roses and all of the things that I’ve learned over the years to make from their hips and petals.
When I came back from Paris, I began to remember my father’s lessons from his gardens, and as a result, I slowed down. I began to plan my gardens instead of just buying every plant in sight. I began asking myself what would bring me joy—to look at, to smell, and to taste. I began to think of my gardens as an extension of my inner life, my artistic life. That was when my gardens began to find their way into my kitchen, my vases, and my dreams. Everything became connected. When you look at pictures of Giverny, you can see what I mean.
You see that there is a “whole.” The house is the garden, and the garden is the house…there really is no separation.
Even though my father passed away before I got to share with him the joys of my own trip to Paris, I know that he’d understand when I say that our Valentine’s Day trip brought my life as a gardener into focus. Although I did not go to Giverny as he did, my wandering through France, talking with the florists and farmers, connected me to what he learned so long ago on his own pilgrimage there.
If he were still alive, he would say that gardening is not difficult, but it requires an open heart, an open mind, and a sketchpad; that there is a time to plant and a time to rest; that learning to water correctly is about listening, asking, and observing; that the soil is alive; and that most often, all you need is a great layer of compost. Lastly, that every plant has a best friend that it depends upon for support.
Much like we all do.
I wish you all the loveliest St. Valentine’s Day wherever you find yourself planted.
Rose Petal and Chocolate Chai (no added tea)
You will need:
6 Tablespoons of coconut sugar (if you like it sweeter, add more)
2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon
2 Tablespoons of really good cocoa powder
2 tablespoons of finely ground organic rose petals (you can grind these in a coffee grinder)
2 Tablespoons of ground cardamom
1 tablespoon of ground ginger
1 teaspoon of ground Chinese five spice
3/4 teaspoon of ground allspice
1 inch of split vanilla bean (you’ll leave that in there for flavor)
Mix all of these ingredients together in a bowl with a whisk to break the clumps of ginger.
Store in a tightly covered mason jar away from the light.
To make a cup, take one level tablespoon without the vanilla bean (you can always add more, but be careful, it’s spicy!) and place it into a saucepan with a pat of organic butter. Add a cup and a half of almond milk or whatever milk you enjoy. Heat slowly , whisking the entire time to help the cocoa melt. You can also use a hand frother, or a Vitamix if you have one, once the mixture is hot. Sweeten to taste with more coconut sugar or maple syrup.
This recipe is entirely adjustable. Once you make it the first time, you’ll know how you like it. I’ve been known to add even more chocolate!
Photo credits: 1) Cup of Rose Petal and Chocolate Chai; 2) Dessert at Ladurée restaurant in Paris, France; 3) One of the flower shops in Montmartre, France; 4) Monet’s home in Giverny, France (Stock photo on Canva); 5) Author’s father’s sweet woodruff patch; 6) Author’s father’s comfrey patch; 7) Author’s father’s Rosa rugosa; 8) Dried rose petals the author uses for potpourri, jams, and teas. (All photos courtesy of the author except #4.)
Beth Schreibman-Gehring is the Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society, a unit of The Herb Society of America. She is also a member of Les Dames de Escoffier International (Cleveland), The Herb Society of the United Kingdom, The International Herb Association, The Herb Society of America, and Herbalists without Borders. Her book, Stirring the Senses! Creating Magical Environments & Feasts for All Seasons, can be found on Amazon.