Mothers and Orphans

Before the city’s urban garden program raked through the lot, there used to be over 40 herbs in Ms. Johanna’s garden. Now there are seven. She sits on the edge of one of her two remaining beds and combs her fingers through the sage. It’s late August and all her plants are going to seed. The sage’s blossoms need to be pinched back and tucked into the dirt to renew the bed.

The other chore today is to find any orphans that might be hiding under the shrubs. The other day she came upon a small cropping of rosemary. That would bring the total to eight herbs that survived the upheaval.

Ms. Johanna loves to read stories about medieval kingdoms, some historical but mostly fantasy, preferably with dragons and complicated battles and skulduggery among the ruling class.

She planted many of her herbs based on what she learned in her books, the medicinal ones used to treat lance wounds, fever, gout and a broken heart. There was hops for the bees and a local man who made his own beer as sweet as mead. The berries from her juniper tree went into a cordial.

Sage protects from dying, whether from a wound or fever or just plain old age. That’s why there is a long overflowing bed and why, she tell me, it survived the garden’s demise.

Maybe others took to hiding under the shrubs. We sit on the ground and begin scooting on our rears over the mulch path between the rest of the beds that are now being farmed by someone she’s no longer talking to. That’s another story she won’t tell because she promised her friend, Ms. Ada, she wouldn’t curse anymore.

She’s half lying down under a burning bush when she cries out, “what kind of person in their right mind wouldn’t think, ‘this must be something special’ and then not have the decency to ASK what it is?”

A right minded person, especially one who has had any type of encounter with Ms. Johanna, would know to leave in place a piece of cardboard or an arrangement of sticks surrounding a plant. Some fool not in their right mind threw away the sticks protecting the little leafy sprout beside her rosemary.

Salvia hispanica, known as chai. Medieval doctors made a thin broth from it to relieve pain, starting with childbirth and on up to battle wounds.

Ms. Johanna tears the cardboard under the rosemary to share with the chai. A firm pat presses it firmly in place.

While we’re here, might as well spend some time reigning in the purple bean mothers.

Ms. Johanna explains, “it’s like what a mother needs to do with their children, cut themselves off from them to make them strong enough to be out on their own. What you want to do is pinch off right to the first leaf under her. That way all the plant’s energy goes into the blossoms.”

We snip off the vines’ frilly ends until all the children have no reason but to work on their own.

Further on, she yelps. She’s found a lone Egyptian onion, once so prolific that she let the other gardeners root some up for their own plots. The onion bulb is small, though bigger than a pearl onion, and purple striped, sweeter but intensely pungent. An eye treatment from the Middle Ages consisted of pounding the bulb into a thin membrane and laying it across the eye. Ms. Johanna believes–but can’t prove–it’s still very effective.

She’ll transplant it to a sunnier location later in the month and hope it will multiply. In the meantime, she trims the mother to just about an inch above her two children and arranges sticks about its base.

Our biggest find is borage, a large and healthy outcropping leaning against a box full of St. John’s Wort. Ms. Johanna first planted both after she read a story spun from the War of the Roses.

I mention that a lot of people think they treat depression.

“I don’t know about that. But I do know knights drank it to strengthen their courage before going into battle.”

“Did it work?”

“Why not?” Ms. Johanna pets one of the long borage leaves and says, “this walked the whole way from where it sat before,” and throws her arm toward the front gate. The borage hasn’t flowered yet so she’ll have to keep an eye on it to harvest its seeds.

The afternoon discovers one last herb along with a spread of greens Europeans eat and we destroy.

Mullein is still used for a variety of ailments, though not with everyone’s blessing. Way back in classical antiquity it warded off evil curses, then advanced through the centuries to cure everything from the top of the body (throat) to the base (hemorrhoids and sore feet).

Purslane is treated as an invasive plant that defies aggressive weeding and chemicals. But when it’s leaves are sprinkled over greens or stirred into salads, they add a wealth of nutrition along with a pleasant lemony taste.

Ms. Johanna counts it in with the rest of her herbs: There are now 14 in her care. She can’t remember every reading about purslane being used in the Middle Ages but we’re happy enough to munch on a handful of leaves as we rest for awhile in the shade of a lilac bush.