Notes from a New England Cottage Garden

Garden Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Valerian is a wonderful herb that I simply cannot be without! It has been used since at least the days of ancient Greece and Rome, so of course it is steeped in history. Mrs. Grieve says that "It is supposed to be the Phu (an expression of aversion from its offensive odour) of Dioscorides and Galen, by whom it was it was extolled as an aromatic and diuretic". 


It was so highly esteemed during medieval times that it was given the name All-Heal. Another common name was Setewall or Setwall, as in these lines from Chaucer:

"There sprange up herbes great and small, The liquorice and the setewall"

In his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, Gerard writes that "it hath been had (and is to this day among the poore people of our Northerne parts) in such veneration amongst them, that no broths, pottage or physicall meats are worth anything, if Setwall were not at an end: whereupon some woman Poet or other hath made these verses. 

"They that will have their heale, Must put Setwall in their keale." 

Historically, it was used for a wide variety of ailments including epilepsy, neuralgic pains, cramps, hysteria, nervous unrest, heart palpitations, to strengthen eyesight, as a remedy for cholera, and even to stop a fight! During both World Wars, it was used to help calm the nerves of civilians during air-raids, as well as for soldiers suffering from shell shock. And it is still in use now to relieve pain and anxiety and to promote sleep. 

Mrs. Grieve also says that "Valerian has an effect on the nervous system of many animals, especially cats, which seem to be thrown into a kind of intoxication by its scent". For this reason, it is called Cat's Valerian, and it can actually be substituted for Catnip! According to Mrs. Grieve, "it is equally attractive to rats and is often used by rat catchers to bait their traps. It has been suggested that the famous Pied Piper of Hamelin owed his irresistible power over rats to the fact that he secreted Valerian roots about his person". 


A more recent, but still old-fashioned name for Valerian is Garden Heliotrope, because the flowers have, as Louise Beebe Wilder writes, "the delicious fragrance of real Heliotrope". In A Woman's Hardy Garden (1903), Helena Rutherfurd Ely describes its scent as "a most delicious odour like vanilla", and George Ellwanger, in The Garden's Story (1889) writes, "The creamy trusses of the tall valerian are a hive of sweetness". Yet not everyone has such a favorable opinion. My sister insists that it smells like dirty socks, and thinks that Phu is a fitting name! Mrs. Grieve describes it as a somewhat peculiar, but not exactly unpleasant smell". In Flowering Plants, Grasses, Sedges & Ferns of Great Britain (1899), Anne Pratt says, "To many of us, the powerful scent of Valerian is unpleasing; but this odour, still stronger in the roots, is much prized in the East, some of the most valued perfumes being made from the roots of various species". I think the fragrance is heavenly, and its comparison to Heliotrope is well-deserved! Perhaps the name Phu was given on account of the more powerful smell of the roots, which are the part used medicinally.

Interestingly, Valerian seems to have gone somewhat out of fashion in the early 20th century, at least in this country. In 1903, Mrs. Ely writes that it was "seen now-a-days only in old-fashioned gardens. I am told it cannot be bought of horticulturists". And Mrs. Wilder, writing in 1916, says that "It is so old-fashioned and out of fashion that it is not always easy to procure". Happily, many gardeners still appreciated its virtues and shared it with others who were less fortunate. Mrs. Ely says that she first obtained a single plant in this way, and "from this one plant there are now in the garden a number of large clumps several feet in diameter and I have given away certainly fifty roots".  It is now offered by many seed companies who specialize in old-fashioned and heirloom flowers. And, to my surprise and delight, it has turned out to be the best selling of my seeds this year! 


Valerian is a perennial hardy to zone 4, and is very easy to grow. In its first year, it develops a clump of very handsome leaves, and by early summer of the second year, to quote Mrs. Wilder again, "it bears a flat head of pinkish lacelike bloom at the end of its four feet of slender stem".

It is a lovely old herb "well worth having, for it lends a light grace to whatever part of the garden it occupies, and combines charmingly with the other flowers of its day".    

My Garden Journal

Many gardeners keep a gardening journal of some sort. It can be a lot of fun as well as very practical in helping us remember what we planted where and when, what was successful and what failed, and of course to make plans for the future! 

That being said, I must admit I've never been good at keeping records. I've started a journal several times, but I usually forget to write things down, or else tell myself that I'll remember, (and of course I don't!). The only journal I've been faithful to over the last several years is my "copybook", where I record my favorite quotes and passages from my reading. And since I am a voracious reader, this notebook is already a very interesting collection, and is something that I hope to be able to share with my children someday! 

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Anyway, I was recently inspired to begin another journal, devoted solely to gardening, which I call "Garden Miscellany". The idea came from Louise Beebe Wilder's delightful book My Garden (1916). Besides her "Day Book", which contained a daily record of plantings, etc., she also kept a book called "Country Miscellany", which she says is "a repository for all sorts of facts and fancies concerning gardens, plants, and country matters generally". I often wonder what became of that book and wish it had been published! My own journal is very similar and contains interesting facts about plants, quaint flower names, folklore, poetry, herbal remedies, and more. I think this would be an enjoyable project for most any garden lover! 

It is one of my old-fashioned opinions that a book containing beautiful words ought to be beautiful on the outside as well. Unfortunately, I'm not much of a decorator either, but I did adorn my simple black journal with some pressed flowers from my garden. I coated them with Mod Podge, which seems to be working well. I also like to tuck dried flowers and herbs between the pages...little keepsakes from the garden are such a comfort during our long snowy winters!

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If you are artistic, you might include some sketches of your favorite plants as well. There are so many possibilities. I hope you have fun creating your own personal garden journal! 

Castor Bean (Ricinus Communis)

I have admired this plant in seed catalogs each winter for several years now and resisted the temptation each time, assuming that our summers are too cool and brief for it. But after seeing it in person at Monticello last summer, I finally made up my mind that I had to have it! And it seems there is some hope for me, since Mrs. Grieve says that it has even ripened seed as far north as Christiania (now Oslo) in Norway! I am following her advice to plant the seeds in March and grow "under glass" until early June, although I am wondering what containers I will keep them in if they grow at the rate they are supposed to!


The Castor Bean is thought to be a native of India and East Africa but has naturalized throughout much of the tropics, where it grows to the size of a small tree. In temperate countries, it has long been grown as an annual, and according to William Robinson, it is actually "much prettier in the state in which it is seen with us". Joseph Breck describes it as "a very luxuriant, strong-growing annual, sometimes found in the garden, not so much for its beauty as for curiosity". But I think it is beautiful as well as curious!

Its botanical name, Ricinus, means "tick", which "loathsome animal" the seeds very much resemble! Phillip Miller says in his Gardener's Dictionary that it was "commonly known in the West-Indies by the name of Oil-Nut, or Agnus Castus". A much older name for the Castor Bean was Palma Christi, meaning Palm or Hand of Christ, because some think that the leaves look like a hand, and also possibly because of its healing powers. Jefferson knew it by this name. It was included in a list of seed saved for 1794 and was planted around the nursery at Monticello in 1811. 

But this plant's fascinating history goes back much farther. Its oil was used by the ancient Egyptians for their lamps, and the seeds have been found in their tombs. And perhaps most interesting of all, it is believed to be the same plant that shaded Jonah in the Bible, although it has been translated as "gourd":

And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.
And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle. 
(Jonah 4:6-11)

The original Hebrew word for this "gourd" was Kikayon. The Castor Bean was known even up to Gerard's time as Kik, and he says that the Greeks and Egyptians called it Kiki. "Moreover", he writes, "a certaine Rabbine mooveth a question, saying, what is Kik? Hereunto Reseh Lachish maketh awnser in Ghemara, saying, Kik is nothing else but Jonas his Kikaijon".  Yet the identity of this plant has long been a subject of debate. Many translators believed it to be an ivy or a gourd, because of the rapidity of its growth. Perhaps the most famous dispute is that between St, Augustine and St. Jerome, although it seems that it was an old controversy even then. Gerard speaks of this in his Herball: "But the olde Latine writers knew it by the name Cucurbita, which evidently is manifested by an historie, which Saint Augustine recordeth in his Epistle to Saint Jerome, where in effect he writteth thus: That name Kikayon is of small moment, yet so small a matter caused a great tumult in Africa. For on a time a certaine Bishop having an occasion to intreat of this which is mentioned in the fourth chapter of Jonas his prephecie (in a collation or sermon, which he made in his cathedrall church or place of assemblie) said, that this plant was called Cucurbita, a Gourde, because it increased unto so great a quantitie in so short a space, or else (saith he) it is called Hedera [Ivy]. Upon the noveltie and untruth of this his doctrine, the people were greatly offended, and there arose a great tumult and hurly burly; so that the Bishop was inforced to go to the Jewes, to aske their judgement as touching the name of this plant. And when he had received of them the true name, which was Kikayon, he made his open recantation and confessed his error, and was justly accused for a falsifier of the holy scripture". 

In his response to St. Augustine's epistle, St. Jerome says that the Hebrew manuscript does indeed have the word "ciceion", which he says is a "kind of shrub having large leaves like a vine, and when planted it quickly springs up to the size of a small tree, standing upright by its own stem, without requiring any support of canes or poles, as both gourds and ivy do". But he goes on to say that no one would know what he meant if he had used the word "ciceion", and so he used ivy instead, "that I might not differ from all other translators". 

Dr. Pusey quotes an account of the Castor Bean being destroyed in one night by black caterpillars, which "suddenly cut off its leaves that only their bare ribs remain". This is also a very interesting point in favor of this plant as the same as the one in the book of Jonah.

It was mentioned by several ancient writers including Pliny and Dioscorides, who speak of the seeds as a "drastic purgative". The following is from A History of the Materia Medica (1751): 
"Dioscorides prescribes the Kernels of these Seeds, thirty for a Dose, which he says will vomit and purge; and that very strongly; but Matthiolus very reasonably suspects that there is some Error in the Copies in this Case, and that the true reading should be three Grains instead of thirty. The Arabians never gave more than five or six of them, and they talk of their operating very violently; and when they sometimes talk of Doses of fifteen of them, which is but half Dioscorides's number, as the Text stands, they record such Effects as no one wou'd wish to see a Patient exposed to".

I am surprised at even the dose of the Arabians, for Mrs. Grieve says that only three seeds have been known to kill an adult and quotes a letter published in The Chemist and Druggist, about a medical student who nearly died after taking an emulsion which he had made with no more than six of the seeds. The entire plant is highly poisonous, and yet the oil, when properly extracted, has many valuable medicinal uses, both internally and topically! 

The date of its introduction to Europe is a little uncertain. Many historians say it was first introduced to England about the time of Turner. But it sounds to me like it was already a common garden plant in 1548, when he published his Names of Herbes. He writes: "It groweth onely in gardines that I have seen". Gerard, writing in 1596, says that it grew in his garden, "and many other gardens likewise". It seems to have been a well-known plant in America by Jefferson's time. 

I may be the only gardener in my area who has ever been crazy enough to attempt to grow it, but I am still hopeful and very excited to see it in my garden! 

Joanna is a passionate gardener and seed-saver living in Maine. You can also follow her gardening adventures at Heirloom Cottage Garden.


Herbs in the Flower Garden

Last year, I planted some herbs around my new birdbath, and they soon stole my heart with their simple charm and delightful fragrances. Of course, I promised myself that I would grow lots more of them next year, and I have spent much of this winter pondering where to put them! I would really like to give them a garden of their own, but I simply don’t have the room. Not to mention that the grand and formal 16th century herb garden I am envisioning would look just a little odd in the midst of my decidedly messy flower gardens! It seems that the only option left to me is to grow them amongst my flowers, but I have decided that this is not such an unfitting place for them after all!

I’ve always had a few herbs among my flowers. Last year, I was struck by the beautiful (and somewhat accidental) combination of Catnip and Sweet William. It was lovely! Later in the summer, one of my Petunias made its way into the Catnip foliage, which was also quite pretty.This year is going to be an experiment to see just how many herbs I can tuck in among my flowers, and I am eager to see what these combinations will look like!


But there is another reason why I feel that herbs are not wholly out of place in the flower garden, and vice versa. First of all, what is an herb? I agree with Louise Beebe Wilder, who writes that, “a plant, to deserve the name must serve a use, other than a decorative one”. She goes on to say that those used “in medicine, for salads, for flavoring, and even those said to be invested with magic working powers, might properly be included”.  But then she warns us that “if one seeks a list of those in the old herbals, it will be of such a length that no garden could hold them, and if it could, would differ little from an ordinary flower garden”. Since I am just as interested in a plant’s historical uses as present, I am finding that most of my flowers could fit into this category. Even in Mrs. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, I was delighted to find such familiar flowers as Heartsease, Love-lies-bleeding, Foxglove, Sweet Rocket, Forget-me-not, Peony, Iris, Lupine, and Heliotrope! And of course, to quote Mrs. Wilder again, “there is no reason why for each of us the herb garden should not have a special meaning and manifestation”.

bird feeder herbs

So, while I still love the “proper” herb garden, I wonder if we ought to consider planting more of the traditional herbs amongst our flowers. I look forward to sharing more photos of herbs in my garden next summer!