As a nine and ten year old I spent six months in the local Children’s Hospital in Aberdeen. Rheumatic fever was one of the nasties at that time, and a number of the children in the ward were victims, all of us on bed rest, the treatment at that time. One method of self-amusement was reading. The Dimsie books, by Dorita Fairlie Bruce, were among the one or two books a week that my favourite aunt brought in for me.
From Dimsie Goes to School to Dimsie Grows Up and Dimsie Carries On, Dimsie has remained a favourite with me for many years.
The most influential was Dimsie Grows Up. The morality of the tale strikes me afresh every time I look at the book. Dimsie could not fulfil her ambition to become a doctor; her father had died and left very little money. Sadly, reluctantly, but determined to be cheerful and not to moan (moral message here!), Dimsie decides to join her mother in the old family home in Perthshire. She begins to travel north from her school on the south coast of England, but a train strike intervenes. A fellow traveller hires a car and several passengers abandon the train journey and drive north with him. He just happens to be a doctor who eventually takes up a practice in Perthshire. No prizes for guessing one of the story’s themes.
Dimsie’s family home includes an old garden on a west-facing hillside. It is her great-grandmother’s garden of healing with many of the old herbs still growing, but a wilderness, nevertheless, untouched for years.
So, in the spirit of healing and of making the best of things, Dimsie turns her attention to herbal medicine, and begins to reclaim the garden, employing as many people as she can to help dig and weed, and also of course, provide characters in the story. Eventually the garden comes to be filled with plants with “strange aromatic perfumes”. Particular herbs mentioned are lavenders, rosemary, lemon balm, foxgloves, marigolds and garlic. There must have been many others, since Dimsie boasts of her garden having a thousand fragrances. And there are frequent references to the many-greats grandmother, who is said to haunt the garden. Maybe that’s why the herbs were so successful. Her herbs grow magnificently, so much so that she can supply various local pharmacists with herbs to assist in their dispensing. Not only that, the new local doctor, who rescued Dimsie, just happens to be interested in herbs, and asks if Dimsie can supply herbs for his practice. The ending of this part of the story is obvious – of course Dimsie and the doctor marry.
There is another ending to Dimsie Grows Up, and that is the establishment, many years later, of my herb garden in Dunedin, New Zealand. We settled into our new house, and there in the garden was lavender a-plenty, thyme and rosemary. “Now’s your chance,” said my husband. “Fill up with herbs.”
So I did, an inexperienced gardener cherishing and encouraging seedlings and small plants and learning from the local Herb Society members as I went. With Elizabeth Hinds, then director of The Otago Early Settlers’ Museum (Toitu), I wrote several herb books, culminating in The New Zealand Pleasure Garden: Gardening for the Senses, which emphasises that herbs are plants for all the senses – visual, taste, touch, smell, hearing (think of bees) – as well as providing mental stimulus (think stories in history).
Among my many favourites are appleringie or southernwood, aka lad’s love, maiden’s ruin, old man – or, politely, Artemisia abrotanum – with it’s intriguing scent. Appleringie is excellent as an insect repellant, among other things. Or how about alecost or costmary, aka Bibleleaf. Alecost as a name refers to the use of the plant in flavouring ales and spiced wine. Bibleleaf refers to its use as a marker in the Bible, with its fragrance keeping Tudor churchgoers wide awake during lengthy sermons.
I avoid medicinal use of herbs, best left to the experts, but I do enjoy household uses. Try lavender in pillows. Dry lavender flowers, rub them, put into small cotton bags, and tuck them into pillows. Very good for a peaceful night’s sleep. Need insect repellants? Dry the leaves and again make bags, tuck them wherever the insects appear.
My garden is a healing place, much like Dimsie’s in far off Scotland. Getting my hands in the soil, readying it to support the plants. Sowing seeds and seedlings, and watching them grow. Enjoying their beauty. Smelling, tasting, using the leaves, reading the stories, connecting with the past. The herb garden is more than just plants in the earth. It’s a world in itself.
Beatrice Hale is a social worker and writer who lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Read about Beatrice Hale’s time as a child in hospital with rheumatic fever here.
For more on aromatic herbs and landscapes, read: