A Brief History
by Elizabeth Remsen Van Brunt
In 1963 the New York Unit’s records were lost in a fire. By 1975, the Unit’s founder, Elizabeth Remsen Van Brunt, thought it useful to write a brief chronicle for the benefit of future members. The following is an abridged version of that essay.
A history of the New York Unit may include an amusing preamble, the happening leading to its founding. It was the word of a landscape architect friend about a garden at Washington Cathedral which triggered my interest not only in the Herb Exhibit at the Boston Flower Show, but the recent (1933) founding of the Herb Society in Boston, and their project of American-grown herbs to replace the limited and inferior importations.
Research in sage interested me as we had our own home-grown sage at Kitchawan for our farm-produced sausage. Correspondence followed, and advice, then an invitation to join the Herb Society. In 1936, I became a member...sight unseen.
In due course, notice of a meeting arrived, and conscientiously, on that date, I traveled by train to Boston, found Horticultural Hall, took the elevator to the top floor, and emerged in a maze of book stacks. Following the murmur of voices, I found a small group of women around a table between some stacks, and apologizing, said I was looking for the Herb Society.
All turned to look at me rather blankly as though I had come from Mars - then, recovering politely, found a chair for me, made room - and welcomed me to my first Herb Society meeting! Later, a member took me to her club for lunch, and probably, with relief, to my train at Back Bay Station.
I discovered then that there were members scattered about the New York area. So, after contact and the interest expressed in the aims and projects of the Society, it was suggested that we form a group to study herbs and their cultivation, keeping records of their 18 hardiness, yield and pungence. Four ladies and I formed the “New York Chapter” of the H.S.A. A report to Boston dated February 26, 1938, from the “Metropolitan Unit” in New York lists seven members.
This group, soon with several others, met informally four times a year, taking their responsibilities rather seriously - only those actually growing herbs or doing definite research were admitted. Those commercially inclined were frowned upon, except for one member who had a very successful business, not only producing superior dried herbs, but running a marvelously popular restaurant in her old stone barn. We ignored that angle of her value as a member!
The New York Unit was the first to be formed, after the New England founding. Activity commenced immediately. In 1938, with Unit members as advisors, Brooklyn Botanic Garden established a Culinary and Medicinal Herb Garden. In 1942, the New York Botanical Garden held a two-day Conference on Herbs. Afterwards, they asked the Unit to do a Herb Border. This created so much public interest that two formal herb gardens were then installed by the Unit. One, paved with brick and closed with an iron fence, was, for many years supervised by the Unit and maintained by the Garden Staff. Unit members also collected specimens of herb plants, and those now mounted are in the Garden’s Herbarium.
In 1940, the Unit began publishing a Newsletter. Eventually, other Unit publications followed, among them Try Growing Herbs, Primer for Herb Growing, and the Bulletin. Also popular were our herbal wreath note sheets, labels, and a Christmas Card. Members wrote articles for and edited several Brooklyn Botanic Garden publications related to herbs, which the Unit also helped finance. In addition, books on herbal subjects have been given to botanical libraries.
Our displays of herbs for the public include replicas of Medieval Knot gardens as well as of Colonial American gardens staged at several International Flower Shows in New York City as well as at shows in Bryant Park, White Plains, and at various local exhibitions. The Unit also established herb gardens at the Veterans’ Hospital in Northport, Long lsland, and at the Queens Botanical Garden.
Individual members helped develop herb gardens at Old Westbury, L.I, The Governors’ Mansion in Princeton, NJ, and the Thomson House in Setauket, LI.
During World War II and into the 1950’s Unit members focused on the practical uses of herbs “temporarily putting aside the more romantic aspects” (as the Chairman noted) to supplement the limited market supplies from Europe. Through the 1970’s, the Unit’s energies were directed towards supporting the creation of the National Herb Garden in Washington, DC. Activities had by then expanded to include Herb Garden tours, and Herb Symposiums, open to the public.
Members continued to provide support for a number of public gardens and environmental projects. In the early 1990’s, Unit member Page Dickey designed the large herb garden at the historic John Jay Homestead in Katonah, which the membership still maintains. Unit publications currently include a newsletter, a series of herbal postcards and a cookbook, the successor to an earlier compilation of members’ favorite recipes. Linda Yang