Thursday, December 16, 2010

Adelma Grenier Simmons - First Lady of Herbs

Today herbies everywhere celebrate the birthday of Adelma Simmons.  She would be 107 years old today, but unfortunately she left us back in 1997.

by Marcy Lautanen-Raleigh

Adelma Grenier Simmons (December 16, 1903 – December 3, 1997) was one of the leading herbal figures in America in the 20th century. Called the “First Lady of Herbs” by the International Herb Association, Mrs. Simmons was a fervent and ardent spokeswoman for the joys of an herbal life. 

A legend for her knowledge of herbal lore and history, she was also a prolific author and sparked an interest in herb gardening across the country. Mrs. Simmons published dozens of books which address the culinary, design, medicinal, aromatic and historical aspects of herbs. Through her writings, she also shared her extensive knowledge of herb lore and myths, the planting and nurturing of herbs, and suggestions for festivals which revolve around herbs. Her first book HERB GARDENING IN FIVE SEASONS, in 1963 has become a bible of herbal knowledge that few herb growers have not seen, read or own.  Her domain was a Coventry, Connecticut farm called Caprilands Herb Farm which she owned and managed for over 55 years.

Caprilands was the 50-acre plot of bought by the Grenier family around 1930. A large 18th century farmhouse and outbuildings sat upon the grounds of a failed dairy farm. The land had been neglected and was of poor farming quality due to the large number of glacial boulders and wetlands.

Mrs. Simmons is said to have made her first attempt growing vegetables while running a goat farm on the property, finding that goats thrived on the rocky terrain; hence the name, Caprilands, capri being the Latin root for goat. Though interesting, goat farming was not very lucrative. In the 1940s, after a devastating vegetable season resulting in the death of her crop, Simmons turned her attention toward growing herbs. Herbs, similar to weeds, thrived on the land.  After several decades of determination and effort, Simmons herb farm flourished and she used her farm as a school of herbal lore and history.  For countless years, she delivered a one-hour lecture five days a week to visitors, who were then treated to an herbal lunch in the dining room of her colonial house.  The gardens surrounding the house included some 300 herbs grown on the farm's 33 thematic gardens, which include the Saints Garden, devoted to medicinal and food herbs; the Silver Garden, which has only silver plants, and the Shakespeare Garden, dedicated to plants mentioned in Shakespeare's plays.

Those years of experimentation resulted in a base of knowledge that few had in that time period and her ability to write and speak and share that knowledge lead to a perfect union of popularity during the 1960s.  Though only 5 feet in height, she was an imposing figure who was always seen in public wearing a custom pileolus hat and a cape.  I remember her slightly hunched signing autographs and talking about herbs at the Illinois Herb Growers Association Meeting back when I was just starting.  I remember thinking – someday I want to know what she knows.  And someday maybe I will!

An imposing figure given to wearing a cape with her signature hat, Mrs. Simmons lectured authoritatively but with a touch of humor. ''Silver rosemary is good for mind and memory, in case you have need of that,'' she once told a visiting group. ''It's also good in tea. If you don't like that, you can wash your hair with it. If that doesn't work, you can wash your dog's hair with it.''
Mrs. Simmons died on December 3, 1997 in her bedroom at her beloved Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, CT. She left her entire estate to a nonprofit educational institute. The Caprilands Institute is to further the research and education in herbs, plants and flowers that Mrs. Simmons lectured upon and many of which were displayed in her gardens.  Currently only the gardens are open, but Caprilands Institute does have a Facebook page.

Mrs. Simmons wrote 35 books and many pamphlets on herbs, including ''Saints in My Garden,'' ''The Witches Brew,'' ''The Gold Wreath Book'' and ''A Merry Christmas Herbal.''
Here is an abridged list of her publications, you might want to put a couple on your winter reading list:
  • 1964 Herb Gardening in Five Seasons
  • 1968 A Merry Christmas Herbal
  • 1969 Herbs to Grow Indoors; For Flavor, For Fragrance, For Fun
  • 1972 The Illustrated Herbal Handbook
  • 1974 Herb Gardens of Delight, with Plants for Every Mood and Purpose
  • 1980 The Caprilands Kitchen Book : Economy Cooking with Herbs
  • 1981 A Witches Brew
  • 1983 The World of Rosemary
  • 1987 Herbs Through the Seasons at Caprilands
  • 1987 The Caprilands Wreath Book
  • 1987 Herbs are Good Companions : To Vegetables in the Garden : To Cooks in the Kitchen
  • 1989 Country Wreaths from Caprilands : The Legend, Lore, and Design of Traditional Herbal Wreaths
  • 1990 Tea and Tranquility
  • 1991 Seasonal Wreaths from Caprilands : Holiday Celebrations with Herbal Wreath Lore and Design
  • 1991 Seasonal Herbs from Caprilands : Step-by-step in the Garden
  • 1992 The World of Herbs & Flowers : A Guide to Growing, Preserving, Cooking, Potpourri, Sachets and Wreaths
  • 1992 World of Fragrance : Potpourri and Sachets from Caprilands
  • 1992 Herbs are Forever Caprilands' Guide to Growing and Preserving
  • 1992 A Year in Wreaths : Caprilands' Guide to Wreaths
  • 1992 The Pride of Cooks : Herbal Recipes from the Caprilands Kitchen
  • 1992 Caprilands Herbs and Festivals : Part I Winter Ways
  • 1993 Caprilands Herbs and Festivals : Part II Easter Joys & Herbal Magic
  • 1995 Caprilands Herbal Soups for All Seasons
  • 1996 Appetizers Delicious Easy to Prepare
  • 1996 Pasta Cookbook: Pasta and Noodles from Around
  • 1996 Fish and Seafood
  • The Little Book of Scented Geraniums
  • The Strawberry Book
  • Plants of Shakespeare
  • The Little Book of Thyme
  • Autumn at Caprilands
  • Saints in My Garden
  • Caprilands Breads for All Reasons
  • Desserts, Pies, Cakes, Puddings, Tarts, Crepes
  • The Book of Valentine Remembrances

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