My father introduced me to the subtleties of fragrance in the garden when I was a girl of about 10. He helped me build my first herb knot garden, a 15’x15’ square with stone paths forming a cross and a little birdbath in the center. There I learned to grow and harvest French Lavender, Genoveve Basil, French, Lemon and English Thyme, Flat Leaf Parsley, Fennel, Chamomile, Borage, Bee Balm, Chives, Chervil, Pineapple Sage, Damask Roses, Scented Geraniums, Bergamot, Calendula, Rosemary, Hyssop and a host of old fashioned Snapdragons and the Benary Giant Zinnias. I made hand made pot pourri sachets for family and friend year round, hanging blooms to dry in our garden shed.
At 18, I lived with my French cousins in the Loire River Valley. Here I learned the nuances of french cooking from the garden which included using rose syrups in cakes, applying classic French Thyme to the fresh chicken before roasting and serving it with a bright green persillade relish followed by freshly harvested nasturtium mixed into salad greens. My lessons in the French kitchen taught me the importance of rubbing the tarragon over the freshly plucked chicken (which I had plucked). Daily I worked in the garden, and at Linden harvest time, I spent the day in the Linden tree harvesting the flowers for Linden tea. I picked many baskets and laid the Linden flowers to dry on a cotton cloth spread over a large rack where they would dry and then were bagged in muslin for Jacque's tea.
Fragrance and color is ever present in French daily life. Le potager or vegetable garden is always chock full of tidy rows of cutting flowers, fragrant shrub roses, squash blossoms, melon blossoms. It is paradise in the morning and early evening when there is often the hint of a soft melon blush in the air. I harvested blossoms from the meadows, from the potager and from the trees, always different fragrances. The rich, mossy smell of the persil along the meadow and moat, the tantalizing fragrance of the Jasmine in bloom by the steps to the Orangery and the Lemon Verbena planted throughout the garden.
I spent hours combing my father's seed catalogs from England and France. It was there that I found my seeds for the french scented geraniums and Dad found his seeds for his many melons including the Charentais. I spent hours in my herb garden during the summers with French lavender that spilled onto the stone path. My old friends remained parsely, chervil, bergamot, pineapple sage, sages of all kinds, every imaginable thyme, old damask roses, the famous Grasse rose, bee balm, rosemary, hyssop, mints, calendula and my favorite --the old fashioned french scented geranium or pelargonium.
In our gardens today, we think of our plant combinations as if we were parfumeurs from Grasse, France. https://www.fragonard.com/en/about-fragonard In the same ways I learned from my French cousins to incorporate bee balm with fragrant French roses and Thymes into a loose floral arrangement, we apply the same principles to our planting designs and our soils. We think about fragrance, and the properties of fragrance to repel pests such as mosquitoes. We use the Grasse rose in combination with French lavender in a sandy, loose, dry top soil or atop a low stone wall.
The herbs are companion plants to roses, helping to reduce pest problems. We like to plant Rosemary in large planters at the edge of terraces or in herb planters for summer and fall for a handful of reasons--fragrance, the cooling look of the gray green foliage, the many culinary uses and to rub on hands to keep mosquitoes away (yes, it is a mosquitoe repellent). In perennial borders, we use oregano and allow it to flower instead of harvesting prior to the bloom (which we would do if cooking with oregano) as the flowers are a lovely filler in floral bouquets. We love to blend lemon, French and English Thyme along the stepping stone paths, and are excited when snippets from the path are used in the chicken, fish or salad for dinner.
The health benefits of Lavender, the old Damask Roses, Thymes, Peppermint, Hyssop, Rosemary and other herbs are well documented for treating colds, sore throats, mild headaches, cuts and scratches, blemishes, dry skin and much more. Plant collections such as the one at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London are a great place to learn to identify the less common species. https://www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/Pages/Category/plant-collections
Then there is the aromatherapy side where the organic essential oil is distilled from the freshly harvested plant using a water vapor distillation process. We have always kept fresh lavender beside the powder room sink and add a few drops of the organic essential oil to preserve the scent.
In winter, we have a favorite tea we make that is very easy and it has more than once prevented a cold from getting worse. There is no doubt as to the healing and antibacterial properties found in Rosemary.
Here is our recipe for Rosemary and Ginger Tea:
1-2 sprigs rosemary
1 slice lemon
1-2 slices fresh ginger