A gal recently asked me if I garden. Garden? If you count me letting our 2.5 acres pretty much do what it wants then yes I garden. Otherwise no, not so much. I mostly like my plants wild – untouched and untamed. Despite this affection for the weedy I am an ardent lover of botanical gardens. Anytime I am planning a trip to a new city the first thing I do is find out if they have a botanical garden. To me it seems perfectly reasonable that an herbalist would geek out over a botanical garden. In truth though not every herbalist is as turned on by live plants as I am. Even as I write this I am sitting in a local Ottawa gem – the Unitarian Garden. This peaceful oasis is tucked in behind the Unitarian Church on Cleary Avenue. Perched on my bench in the Saturday morning sunshine I can see elder, rose, yarrow, yellow dock, agrimony, woodland sunflower, solomon’s seal, and ox-eye daisy. I’m not even craning my neck. This is one of my favourite spots to just sit and be. There is a spirit here that speaks my soul. Plus – rabbits.
We are fortunate in Ottawa that we live in a city with massive amounts of green-space. To learn to identify those plants that are native or naturalized to our land-base a person would only be limited by the time one had at hand available to tramp through the trails. In theory. In reality though, unless you happen by on the right day, in the right place, and you are looking in the right direction you might easily miss a plant friend that you are longing to learn from. One of my favourite woodland spots has blue flag growing in it. In 10 years of woods-walking I’ve seen it in flower a single time.
A botanical garden is a great opportunity to see plants up close. Plants that are perhaps not as common as burdock. I’ve spent many hours with a particular jack in the pulpit at the Montreal Botanical Garden.
I could visit the plant throughout the growing season. I could touch the leaves, I could smell it, I could taste it. I am a locavore herbalist. The majority of my dispensary is made up of plants that I have personally harvested within 100 km of my home. I’m crazy about the world of plants though and sometimes I want to see, learn about a plant that does not grow around here.
I was lucky to spend time in Edinburgh this summer. I spent several of my days at the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh. Over 70 acres of plant goodness – plus glasshouses. That’s the UK word for greenhouses. The garden was founded in 1670 to specialize in medicinal plants. Today (more than 300 years later) they are engaged in research and education in plant biodiversity and conservation. I have been before but this year I particularly enjoyed the specimen tress that dot the grounds. Common practice in botanical gardens sees the plants labelled with the common and latin name.
At the RBGE they have gone a step further and for some of the trees with a particular history in Scotland given more depth information about the tree, the history, and uses. As well as the numerous gardens they have a large research library that is open to the public. Want to take a peek at a medieval herbal? The actual original manuscript? This is the place. A collection focused on plants, botany, and herbalism. Admittedly I haven’t yet had a chance to devote any time to the library but that is because I was busy being entranced by the woodland garden (among others).
This purple loosestrife is being lovingly tended in bed at the RBGE. I was entertained by the presence in the garden of a plant I would just have to walk out my back door to harvest easily. Purple loosestrife is making a comeback as a medicinal plant. It had fallen out of favour amongst screams of how it was invading wetlands. More careful observation has shown this to not be the case. Purple loosestrife is an excellent lymphatic and also a plant that is useful for working with folks with blood sugar problems. The plant has a reputation at being useful at remediation of polluted sites so careful where you harvest.
In no way related to herbalism and plants but if you are ever in Edinburgh do check out El Cartel. A teeny bustling Mexican restaurant that should be pictured in the dictionary opposite the term “right livelihood”. They don’t take reservations but give them your #, head on down the street to the pub for a pint and they’ll give you a shout when there is a table. Always inspiring to see folks who have found their calling and are making it happen. May it be so for you.