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A brief history of the Garden’s of the Western Reserve Herb Society

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After 50 seasons of gardening, the WRHS is celebrating its Herb Garden’s Anniversary. Elsetta Barnes, one of the country’s first female landscape architects, designed the Tudor influenced herb garden completed in 1969.

The vision of a place to celebrate culture, education, and family enjoyment in beautiful natural settings inspired Jeptha Wade to donate 63 areas of natural woodlands to the City of Cleveland in 1882. His vision still lives with the continuing efforts of the Herb Garden maintained by the volunteer efforts and financial support of the Western Reserve Herb Society. This Herb Garden is housed in the Cleveland Botanical Garden collection, but is the largest public herb garden in the United States that is designed, planted, weeded, and financially supported exclusively by a volunteer group. It has been nationally awarded for its medieval monastic garden design and is listed among the top 200 gardens in North America. This year, this little gem in the crown of beautiful CBG gardens is celebrating its 50th Season of Growing.

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By 1892, WADE PARK had become a recreational area including a Zoo and a city Rose Garden. In the 1930’s, The Garden Club of Cleveland established itself as a Garden Center in an empty boathouse along Wade Lagoon. The Garden Center sponsored the 1942 Garden Exposition in the Public Auditorium in Cleveland. One of the exhibits was a display of a model Herb Garden and samples of dried herb products that was viewed by more than 250 interested visitors. Mrs. Armin Boethelt and Mrs. Donald Gray, creators of that exhibit and organizers of those enthusiasts, became the charter President and Vice President of the Western Reserve Herb Society Unit of The Herb Society of America.

WRHS’s first public herb garden was planted on the edge of the City Rose Garden in land offered by the City Parks Division. Seeds acquired from Mt. Vernon (George Washington’s homesite), plants from the gardens of members were installed and maintained at the approximate site where their current Herb Garden now exists. In 1956, this Wade Park Garden was awarded the Maybelle Sears award for a Finished Civic Project.

When the Cleveland Garden Center’s Boathouse building was demolished by a flood in 1959, planning began for a new building. The WRHS was asked to redesign the Wade Park Herb
Garden to align with the view from the new Garden Center (future Cleveland Botanical Garden) Auditorium window.

Mrs. Elsetta Gilcrest Barnes, A. S. L. A., was a nationally noted landscape designer who served as the Chairman of the WRHS Herb Garden in 1968. She won the Sears Beautification Award for her design of a large, traditional Old-World Herb Garden suitable for the site. Mrs. Barnes’ design was adopted and the WHRS allotted 49,000 dollars for its construction and it began heroic efforts at fundraising and recruitment of hardscape and other donations from the greater Cleveland and Western Reserve community of supporters. Businesses, Garden Clubs, City government, and philanthropic individuals joined together to help with costs and constructions efforts. The Herman Losely and Sons company constructed the garden hardscape: its heavy slate walkways, sandstone section borders, and the installations of the Armillary, Sundial, stone watering troughs and millstones accenting the gravel paths.

By spring of 1969, the members of WRHS began planting. The Herb Garden design and hardscape took life. A central Victorian Knot was planted with interlaced rows of lavender,
santolina, and boxwood low cut and carefully manicured shrubs. This English decorative form dates to the 16th century monastic gardens where foliage colors and geometric forms provided interest before blooming plants for decorations were available. This Knot is one of the largest in American Public gardens. The Knot is surrounded by 4 corner gardens filled with herbs noted for their fragrance. Spring tulips are followed by Fairie roses, phlox, peonies, pelargoniums, heliotropes and lavender to delight visitors with sights and scents.

On either side of the Knot are 4 more sections devoted to other useful herbs. Medicinal showcases plants with historic and/or current pharmacologic properties. Familiar plants there include Vinca, Foxglove, and Chamomile but the garden section is filled with less familiar useful and gorgeous blooming plants. More than 50 native plants and pollinator friendly cultivars add ecological value to the educational fascinations in the Medicinal area. Its pathways through a chamomile ground cover lead to a 16th century Sundial adding to it’s charm.

The Culinary section hosts the most familiar uses of herbal plants and yearly changes its featured kitchen garden sub gardens from salad offerings, to salsa ingredients, to celebrations of basil varieties and more. Made beautiful while functional, these harvests are dried and sold at the Herb Garden’s yearly Herb Fair fundraiser (2nd Saturday in October). Sometimes fresh samples are also offered (with permission) to touring visitors.

The Dye section showcases many unfamiliar herbs whose Use Stories assure visitors that these plants are far more than “weeds.” The petals, stems, foliage, and roots of these herbs have all been used to create products that yield color. The naturally created dyes were used historically to dye the Red Coats of British soldiers, the Indigo of rug making yarns, and the bright yellows of fabrics used by the American colonists. Last year’s “Herb of the Year: Hops” spectacular display surprised visitors that this fast growing vine can make more than beer.

Completing the sections surrounding the Knot, is the “Trial and Cutting” section. This area of the Herb Garden allows for utilitarian herbs that can be dried while retaining their shapes and colors well and can then be used to build wreaths or greeting cards. Alternatively, this Section allows for the “trial” of new cultivars or comparing of different plants to see what will grow best in this garden. Eye catching purple sage, striking crimson celosias, and multicolor strawflowers make this a popular guest attraction in the garden, as is the “Quilt garden.” Each year, a horticultural quilt pattern is formed by the meticulously placed herbs forming geometric patterns of plants. This year’s quilt will celebrate “50” seasons of Herb Garden growing.

Those 6 sections form a rectangle, and 3 more strips of garden sections complete the Herb Garden. The Edible Flower garden is the youngest section that was added after some
additional construction of the CBG building. Next to the walkway entrance, pineapple sage’s red plumes of flowers, pansies, nasturtiums, and lavender delight visitors with ideas of how to enhance their salads or ice cubes or baked goods with colorful edible natural enhancements. The espalier apple tree shows 3 varieties on apples in a display of horticultural prowess and education as well.

Further down the walkway and up 2 steps is the Terrace Garden, now known as “Ellie’s Overlook” in recognition of a generous gift to CBG by the family of Eleanor Donley. Ellie was a longstanding, beloved member of WRHS—-an artist, an Herb Garden Chair, and an active and creative contributor to this Herb Garden over decades. The Terrace provides peaceful contemplation looking over the entire Herb Garden. It is itself a soft blend of textured greens and gray foliage, with cascades of tulips in the spring and white anemones and zinnias in the summer. Pastel lavenders and geraniums again are profusions of scents and colors for visitors to enjoy as they stop and stare.

And, from the Overlook, visitors look through the Knot garden to the Armillary focal point. An ancient time keeping device referencing spheres of the universe, the Armillary currently sits atop a millstone and vertically place stone lawn roller as the striking centerpiece of the Historic Rose Garden section. This walkway is home to more than 40 rose shrubs whose pedigrees all predate the invention of hybridization of roses. Historic roses have varied shapes and colors but they are unmatched in their intensity of scents. That makes these a glorious perfusion of blooms with rose fragrance that intoxicates visitors during their peak bloom season in early June. This collection was certified by the Herb Society of America as proved providences and places this Garden is the elite company of the National Herb Garden and the Botanical Garden of Chicago. They are nurtured with tender loving care by the members of WRHS, organically, and their spent petals are used in teas, and jellies, and decorations.

During the summer of 1969, all of the plants were placed by the members of the Herb Society working together Tuesday and Thursday mornings in their garden clothes. (And, if the strawberry plants arrived on a Saturday, occasionally in clothes less amenable to digging but were made to adapt in an emergency.) Member gardens were ravaged for more vinca, or another special plant to fill a gap. But, it all was accomplished in time for the September 5, 1969 Garden dedication. A plaque commemorates the occasion reading, “The Western Reserve Herb Society has presented this Herb Garden to the people of Greater Cleveland for the enjoyment of all. Designed and developed by Elsetta Barnes, A. S. L. A.”

Over the ensuing 50 years, the Western Reserve Herb Society has continued to plan, plant, weed, water, fertilize, nurture and harvest the more than 3500 herbs in this lovely garden. The members raise money to support and maintain the Herb Garden. It is a distinct member of the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s collection of specialty gardens that is independently managed by the Society but that enjoys the beneficial partnership of shared expertise and cooperation with CBG. It has become nationally known as one of the largest volunteer maintained public Herb Garden’s in America. It is listed among the 200 finest gardens in North America. Mr. Losely and Mrs. Barnes were nationally recognized by the Landscapers Association of America for their efforts in designing and constructing the garden. It appeared on Public Broadcasting’s “Victory Gardens” television program. When CBG’s building expanded, its boundaries changed slightly and the Edible Flower section was added at the the 9th and final section of the Herb Garden. The Historic Rose Collection has been recognized by the Herb Society of America for the authenticity of its Historic Roses— in the elite company of just a few other Rose Collections in the USA. It has been the backdrop for many weddings, anniversaries and celebrations for Western Reserve regional appreciators. It is a beloved part of the Wade Oval cultural attractions of Cleveland. And, the Western Reserve Herb Society gardeners have every intention of continuing its legacy of beauty, education about herbs, and delight of all who visit it.

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