Q + A | House + Home

Q+A: Cathy Campbell, manager of the John Wornall House herb garden

Updated: 2013-04-21T01:21:07Z

By ALICE THORSON

The Kansas City Star

Herb gardens were a common feature of frontier farms and home plots in 1858, when the John B. Wornall House was built on what was then the Missouri frontier.

The house was restored after the Jackson County Historical Society bought it in 1964, and in 1976 an herb garden was added to the site’s attractions. Three years later, the museum established an annual plant sale that has become a popular local tradition.

Preparations are underway this week for the 25th Annual Herb and Wildflower Sale on April 27, which benefits the John Wornall House and Alexander Majors House museums.

Volunteers are also sprucing up the herb garden. It has been managed for many years by planter Cathy Campbell, who shared her knowledge about the garden’s history and the herbs she tends.

How did the sale come about?

In 1979, we wanted to get some different herb plants for the garden. We had to buy in bulk, so there were plants left over. We planned to have the sale for two days, but we sold out the first day. This was when garden centers were not growing herbs. In the 1970s, people weren’t used to herb gardens.

So what sparked the decision to create one at the John Wornall House?

They had them in the East and in New England. Some of our people visited Williamsburg and saw the herb garden there. The thinking was that when the Wornall family moved here from Kentucky, they probably brought some plants with them. The current garden was designed by Dr. John P. Baumgardt and has a more formal design than Liza Wornall would have had.

Who else has helped with the garden over the years?

Donna Baltis and Maryellen Cottier got a local garden club interested. They were our first volunteers.

The Weatherly sisters had an herb garden at 57th and Main and helped us a lot. Their garden was included in “The American Woman’s Garden” book in 1984, written by Rosemary Verey and Ellen Samuels. It was the only Kansas City garden that was featured.

Vic Viard, a local grower who used to sell in the City Market, grows herbs for us and has for many years. We get mulch and markers and other supplies at a discount from Soil Service.

And the many dedicated gardeners who volunteer their time to our garden are very important.

What was the role of herb gardens in pioneer times?

The early pioneers used herbs for medicine, and they also used them to enhance food. They used what were called “strewing herbs” in the days before air conditioning. They’d put them on the floor to release an aroma when they walked over them. They also used plants for dying wool and cloth.

What herbs do you recommend for beginners?

Basil, parsley, sage, mint, lovage, thyme. Here, we grow the mint in barrels and cut the blossoms off. People don’t realize how plants travel due to birds and wind.

Can you suggest a reference work?

“Park’s Success With Herbs” by Gertrude B. Foster and Rosemary F. Louden was put out by the George W. Park Seed Co. in 1980. I use it as a bible.

What herbs will you be featuring at the sale?

All the basics and also purple basil, lemon grass, scented geraniums — rose geranium is our most popular scented geranium — and rosemary.

Do you have some favorites?

Lovage. It tastes like celery. If you cut the leaves off and put it in a salad you don’t have to mess with celery. It usually grows 2 feet. One summer the lovage grew to 6 feet tall.

I see the Wornall House garden volunteers have put together a little herb cookbook that includes a map of the garden. You have all the thymes planted in a center bed with something called yellow bedstraw?

It’s also known as lady’s bedstraw. It has a fine leaf and a lovely yellow flower. The pioneers used it to fill their mattresses and make them fresh.

Tell me about this bed next to it on the east.

It has basil, summer savory, marjoram, different parsleys and cilantro. Down the center we’ve planted garlic chives, and there’s an oregano bed at the north end. A lot of these were used for medicinal purposes. People use lemon balm to make tea .

And you referred to this bed on the west side as a gray and green garden.

It includes lavender and lamb’s ears. During the Civil War, if someone had a cut, they would put a lamb’s ear leaf over it to stop the bleeding. They didn’t have Band-aids.

The long bed against the fence has wormwood and plants that are supposed to be moth repellent, and tansy, an ant repellent. We have monarda or bee balm, which is also called “Oswego tea” after the Native Americans who brought it to the settlers to use as tea after the Boston Tea Party dumped all the imported tea in the harbor.

And I see you have some flowers as well as herbs.

Many of them date to the era of the house. We have peonies, larkspur, hollyhocks and phlox. Our old-fashioned roses come from a stock dating to 1850 and most bloom once in June. They have a wonderful fragrance, and the rose hips are full of vitamin C.

We put gomphrena along the front for color. It dries beautifully and is drought-tolerant.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4783 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

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