Today is the kind of day, 70 degrees, sunny, that my friend, Madalene Hill would have liked. I last visited her two summers ago at her residence in Festival Hill, not far from College Station, Texas, in the Texas hill country she loved so dearly. I was in the state to present programs to the Texas Herb Association and one of their garden tours included Madalene's garden.
Madalene has been a plant collector and entrepreneur for most of her life. When I visited her a few years ago and she was touring me through her gardens, I inquired whether her plants were indexed in some way and if she knew how many herbs she had (the gardens cover acres).
She said, "We worked most of last summer on the index but got sidetracked before we were done. When we stopped, we had 2,167 herbs listed in my collection, so far, but we have a few more beds to count."
Madalene and daughter, Gwen Barclay, moved several years ago to Festival Hill, which is primarily a music colony where world-renowned musicians come to work with other talented musicians. Gwen is a talented cellist, and also serves as the food coordinator for the meals and events at the institute. Madalene has served as "Herbalist in Residence." They were invited to come to Festival Hill, (correctly known as the International Festival Institute at Round Top) just outside Round Top, Texas, several years ago, and giving a permanent home to Madalene's lifetime collection of herbs.
Just after she had moved there, a dozen or more years ago, she said one day one of the workmen came to the door of her residence and asked what kind of garden she envisioned for her collection. She said, "Before I'd had time to think, I just laughed and said, 'Oh, I've always thought a Roman ruins would be appropriate for the plants I've collected." She walked with me through the lawn to the edge of a wall and said, "Look down there, that's what they've built so far." The view you see here, is what was the beginning to the gardens, little tower, columns and all.
The workmen took her at her word and over the next ten years, built some impressive faux-Roman ruins. The institution exists because of grants and donations, and one of the ways business owners can donate, is by giving building materials, often reclaimed ones from buildings torn down in nearby Austin, College Station and Houston. So, using reclaimed materials, the workmen assembled an impressive series of structures, broken "aqueducts" and other pieces that all highlight the substantial plant collection. Nearly all of the "ruins" are now covered with vines, which gives a look of age and authenticity to the location.
For reasons I don't yet understand, the gardens were named the McAshan Herb Gardens, possibly because they donated to the project. Madalene was always more than generous in honoring others beside herself. The gardens include the Terrace Gardens, Sun-Shade Garden, Fruit Tree Garden and Beethoven's Woods, Cloister Garden, Mediterranean and Wall Gardens, Cultivated Grasses Garden, Medicinal Cacti, Pharmacy Garden, and several more. Her gardens have evolved into one of the outstanding gardens in the United States and attracts visitors and plant researchers from far and wide.
Madalene was also generous with her plants, believing that spreading plants around to friends was the best way to insure the plants' survival. It was from her I received my start of the orchid pepper (also known as turk's cap pepper). And she is the one who gave me the start of green pepper basil (seen here), which I wrote about in The Herb Companion magazine a few years back, and passed the seed on to Nichols Garden Nursery where they continue to sell the plant through their website. She also gave me my start of Greek columnar basil, which quickly became one of my favorite basils making fruit sorbets.
Madalene's Medicinal Gardens include plants listed by specific country. India, for instance, includes 20 or more medicinals; the same is true for Ethiopia, Egypt, etc. She didn't just collect herbs, she knew each one very well. I commented on some Fo-Ti, a Chinese longevity tonic herb, she had growing on her fence and I mentioned I had it in my own herb garden on a little trellis. She, having visited Long Creek Herb Farm some years ago, knew the limitations of my bed areas and said, "Be careful. Fo-ti is an aggressive medicinal. It will take you years to get rid of the roots." She was right, I'm still digging and removing little rootlets that keep trying to come up.
Rosemary 'Hill Hardy' is named for Madalene (you can find it at Mountain Valley Growers, by mail). She discovered the rosemary, blooming vigorously in December, on an old farmstead. It was Madalene, too, who I credit with teaching me how to grow rosemary in the Ozarks. Most people plant rosemary here as an annual because they believe it is hard to get to live over from year to year.
Madalene and her daughter, Gwen Barclay, were here visiting us about ten or twelve years ago. We were walking through the herb garden and talking about some of the newer plants I had. We stopped at the rosemary plants and I said I envied her being able to grow rosemary the year around. I said I had tried and tried and just had given up on getting it to live over.
In Madalene's wonderfully direct method of speaking, she said, simply, "Jim, you just don't know what you're doing. There are some tricks to getting rosemary to live. It's not the cold you have here, nor even the heat in summer, but how you treat the plants."
She went on to explain that rosemary plants have very small root systems and suggested I try this: Plant the rosemary plant in the garden in the spring, regardless of what size the plant is. Grow it all summer and after the first frost, dig the plant, repot it and bring it indoors. Keep the plant in an unheated room, with light, like a garage window or unheated back enclosed back porch. The following spring, unpot and plant the rosemary back in the garden, then leave it alone. And by golly it works! I followed her advice and have rosemaries in the garden that have been there almost 10 years, growing quite happily.
Madalene served as president for the Herb Society of America, ran a restaurant, was active in the International Herb Association, lectured or taught for just about every Herb Society, garden club and herb group across the nation. She was a mentor and teacher to several generations of enthusiastic new herb people. She and Gwen wrote Southern Herb Growing, an excellent book on herb growing many years ago.
Madalene Hill died on March 4, after a brief illness, at age 94, in Round Top, Texas. She will be greatly missed, but deeply admired and fondly remembered by all who knew her.