GROVE CITY —
“As you decorate for the season using different Advent herbs, take the time to inhale their fragrances, and let the bedstraw, rosemary, and thyme carry you back to the beginnings of Advent and the true meaning of Christmas.”
The above quote is taken from the foreword to “The Season of Advent: Herbal Symbolism, Projects, Garden Designs & Recipes” by Don Haynie.
Maureen and I purchased the small soft-cover book on a trip we made to Buffalo Springs Herb Farm in Raphine, Va. several years ago. We met Mr. Haynie, a soft-spoken southern gentleman and curator of Buffalo Springs, on my first visit to the farm. Maureen had been there once with members of The Herb Thymers. Unfortunately, Buffalo Springs is no longer open for business but I have photographs of the farm, and the memories of hearing Mr. Haynie’s lovely Old Virginia accent and its characteristic drawl will keep the farm open for business in my mind for a long time.
Mr. Haynie’s book is a handy reference that I use during the season of Advent. It rests between my arms as I type this week’s article while the aroma of sage and a roasting turkey waft up from the kitchen.
The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “the coming.” Christians celebrate the period leading up to the birth of Christ on Christmas Day during the month-long season of Advent. There are four weeks of the Advent season, celebrated on each Sunday. Symbolically represented in an Advent wreath, four candles are lit; one on the first Sunday of Advent, two on the second, and three on the third, leading up to the lighting of all four candles on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Tradition calls for an Advent prayer to be read or verse from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to be sung before the lighting of the candle.
Each of the past eight Advent seasons, my wife Maureen has made a beautiful Advent wreath that we use to remind us of the blessings and special meaning this season brings. Herbs are used in the making of the wreath, but are not necessary if you don’t have them on hand. You can use greens from arborvitae shrubs, or small branches and stems from the evergreens growing in your yard or your neighbor’s yard (please ask for permission first).
Some common herbs you can use for making an Advent wreath include bedstraw, boxwood, juniper, lavender, rosemary, sage, and thyme. Most of these herbs were used during biblical times and are mentioned in the Bible, giving their use in Advent wreaths a special meaning.
Bedstraw (Galium verum) is often called “Our Lady’s Bedstraw” because it is said to have been used as manger hay for the Christ Child. The soft texture and yellow color of bedstraw is attractive in the summer garden. It grows well here, and also is grown in the Holy Lands as one of the “flowers of the field.” It grows to 24 inches and needs full sun. This perennial blooms in late June and into July. Harvest bedstraw just as its clusters of miniature flowers are opening and hang in a dry, dark room for use later in your Advent wreath.
Boxwood (Buxus longifolia) symbolizes long life and immortality and has been used for decorations in churches around the world. Buxus sempervirens is the variety you’ll see growing here and is available at most nurseries. It can take full sun but also grows well in part shade.
Juniper (Juniperus communis) is the traditional symbol of life and hope and has been used in wreaths and garlands for centuries. St. Francis of Assisi is said to have used juniper for plantings so that wildlife could hide among the branches and be protected from predators. Juniper likes full sun and specimens can grow to 25 to 30 feet. (We have a low creeping dwarf variety here at Conner Country Gardens.)
Lavender (Lavandula) symbolizes purity and virtue; its lovely aroma is one of the most pleasing in the herb family. “Spikenard” is the biblical term for lavender, mentioned in Mark 4:3-5. Native to the Holy Land, lavender was used as an infusion to cleanse the body and also in bath water for its sweet aroma. Lavender grows best in well-drained soil and reaches from 8 inches to 3 feet tall depending on the variety.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) represents love and loyalty. Recent studies at the University of Cincinnati say that the scent of rosemary acts as a memory stimulant. Known in the Holy Land as “Dew of the Sea,” ancients often wore sprigs of rosemary around their heads to improve their memory. As with most herbs, rosemary does best when planted in full sun in well drained, sandy loam; it grows to 4 to 5 feet. Legend has it that rosemary will not grow taller than Jesus when he was on earth--6 feet--or live longer than his 33 years.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) symbolizes immortality and has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries. This herb grows 12 to 30 inches and its leaves can be harvested for drying. Grow salvia elegans (pineapple sage) for a strong pineapple flavor that can be used in deserts and drinks. Sage can also be used for marinating meats and vegetables and is often used when preparing the Thanksgiving Day turkey. Sage is commonly used with other cooking herbs such as rosemary, thyme and oregano.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) symbolizes bravery. In ancient times it was used for embalming by the Egyptians. It was also used as incense and in baths. This herb grows 1 to 15 inches tall and does well in full sun or part shade. Give thyme plenty of room in the herb garden as it needs good air circulation. There are hundreds of varieties suitable for any garden design plan. Low-growing varieties such as Wooly Thyme and Mother-of-Thyme are perfect for filling in gaps in paved walkways and stone paths.
To make a simple Advent wreath, use an Oasis wreath form, available at craft stores; fresh herbs or dried herb bundles; candle holders and tapered candles. Soak the wreath form in water for a few minutes, and then place the herbs and flowers in the wreath until it’s full, then add the candle holders and candles. Water the Oasis every few days to keep the greens from drying out. And, of course, always be conscious of fire hazards when using candles indoors.
T.C. Conner is a Master Gardener and columnist for Allied News. He can be reached at email@example.com. Check out his blog at www.the writegardener.wordpress.com.