When she died suddenly last week at 87, Florence Williamson was as celebrated for her knowledge of herbs as her Woodville, Va., neighbors are for their fields of expertise -- James J. Kilpatrick for punditry and Eugene McCarthy for politics and poetry.
Mrs. Williamson -- Flossie to herbalists and everyone who knew her -- was about to celebrate her 25th anniversary in the herb business. She had plunged into herb and perennial flower growing in 1961 for an interest and livelihood upon the death of her husband, an Army colonel.
Her ability was soon recognized and she started supplying herb plants to the National Cathedral greenhouse. She delivered 6,000 to one spring Flower Mart there. In addition to the plants, she also delivered thousands of bottles of the distinctive Oak Forest Mixed Herb Vinegar along with countless jars of Grape Thyme Jelly and Rosemary Apple Jelly for selling at the Cathedral Herb Cottage.
Preferring a simpler approach, Flossie did not have a greenhouse. The plants got their start under grow lights in her basement. She said, "It's sort of like an incubator." She next moved them outdoors to a cold frame with a heating coil. She referred to this as "my halfway house." After the plants had sufficiently hardened off in the cold frame, she put the pots in standard cold frames in her terraced garden.
Then the fun began. A friend could be happily enjoying herb lore, tea and cakes when Mrs. Williamson would suddenly jump up, saying, "Excuse me," and run out to uncover a cold frame of seedlings so that they could benefit from the sun. "It keeps me busy and on my toes," she explained.
Mrs. Williamson had devised a Conestoga wagon-looking shade for her seedlings that consisted of a frame made on bent wire over which a length of sheer white cotton could be easily placed or removed.
"I spend my whole day running back and forth -- checking, moving, watering, shading. The only time I can transplant is 4 a.m. It's the only time I don't have interruptions."
Oak Forest was a 24-hour open house. Garden clubs from Washington and all of Virginia held their annual spring meetings at Oak Forest. Busloads of gardeners came to hear Mrs. Williamson talk about herbs and demonstrate their many uses. The happy visitors were invited to help themselves to the salad, sandwiches, tea and punch -- all made with the herbs Mrs. Williamson had so enthusiastically told them about.
A visit to Oak Forest was often the choice of school groups for their spring learning excursions. Mrs. Williamson had a special rapport with young people because they recognized her as one of them. At an April meeting of her church group she defended the right of the young to kneel or not to kneel during prayer. And about the even younger who might let out a wail or sudden shriek of delight, she said, "How else will they learn good manners if you don't bring them to meetings like this?"
Every spring herb lovers looked forward to the May Oak Forest Herb Fair that Florence Williamson had at her welcoming pre-Revolutionary brick house with its view of the Blue Ridge and Old Rag.
For two days friends came to eat, drink and talk herbs. The drone of bees in the linden tree competed with conversations about herb culture as visitors strove to share the secrets they had discovered. If Flossie's mission was to share her love for and knowledge of herbs, her May Herb Fair was the full flowering of this spirit of love and sharing.
The Fair abounded in demonstrations. If a visitor wanted to know what about the hot tea was so intriguing, the ingredients and copies of the recipe were right there with someone to show how to brew the tea. Thin-leafed lemon verbena and sprigs of rosemary were there to pinch and inhale.
On warmer fair days the table with the punch bowl did a big business. Furry, round, bright green leaves floated in a glass bowl filled with a seductive pink liquid. Those who got refreshment there learned that bergamot, or bee balm, was the answer to the pink secret and the furry round leaves were spearmint.
Chive sandwiches brought out the rapture of the visitors as they strolled over the lawn and terraced gardens. The chives and bread were easy to recognize, but what was the tantalizing stuff that held them together? Flossie shared that secret as she did everything else. Copies of her recipe for vinaigrette were on the demonstration table.
If Flossie devoted half of her life to herbs, she gave the other half to promoting and sharing her belief in the effectiveness of good nutrition as a powerful preventative of and help in curing illness. Hearing of a friend who had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy treatment, Mrs. Williamson lectured the friend on the benefits of a healthful diet to fight the infection. She brought along a loaf of whole-wheat, coriander, orange peel bread to prove her point that good food can also taste good.
The day before Mrs. Williamson's heart attack, which led to her hospitalization, she had driven to Culpeper to buy bananas for an older friend who was taking a blood-thinning drug. Mrs. Williamson knew a great deal about vitamins and minerals and once a week bought and delivered in her vintage Pontiac station wagon the bananas that her friend needed to keep up her potassium level in the natural, nutritious way.
Friends often asked Mrs. Williamson, who had no colds, arthritis or rheumatism and could bend over and touch her toes like a girl of 14, what kind of vitamins she took. Her reply was, "I don't take any vitamins. I eat them."
She enjoyed reciting her menus. "Guess what I had for breakfast (no later than 6 a.m.) this morning? A whole orange, a big bowl of oatmeal with a banana and raisins, and a glass of milk. It was so good!"
Unlike many who live alone, Flossie took time to make a nutritious lunch. Her recipe for eggplant, which she planned to include in a low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt cookbook she was working on, was typical of her inventive cooking -- fast, easy, and wholesome.
Innocently called "Mother Nature" by a young visitor to Oak Forest, by others "The Herb Lady" and "The Elf of Oak Forest," she was perhaps best suited by the last because everyone realized that there was not just a keen intellect that went into her herbal harvests, but also a magical, spiritual quality.
Oak Forest was truly a shrine for herb lovers and Florence Williamson was its priestess. She would have laughed at that, but her friends know that she was not sharing just her herbal knowledge, because along with that came her great gift of belief in the beauty and goodness of the earth.
Friends who visited Mrs. Williamson in the Culpeper Hospital last week knew what mattered to her. A bunch of deep purple violets on her dresser, branches of winter jasmine from Oak Forest gave her the fragrances of home. A friend who brought aromatic herbs said, as she held them for Flossie to sniff, "I don't have to tell you what this one is." Flossie smiled.
At her burial in Arlington Cemetery after a symbolic bit of Rappahannock County earth had been sprinkled on her coffin, a friend of Flossie's said, "We gotta lot of Flossie in us." OAK FOREST MIXED HERB VINEGAR (Makes about 3 cups)
1 cup fresh basil, sweet or opal
1/2 cup fresh chives
1/8 cup fresh tarragon
1/4 cup fresh borage or salad burnet
2 cups apple cider vinegar (white vinegar, though less healthful, is acceptable)
1 clove fresh garlic, mashed or minced
1 teaspoon chopped onion
Gather herbs after the sun has dried the dew on them. Spread on rack to dry till limp (2 to 3 hours).
While heating vinegar almost to boiling, chop herbs into small pieces. Do not pack into measuring cup.
Pour hot vinegar over herbs, garlic and onion in crock or glass jar. Do not use metal. Cover container with a cloth. Stir with a wooden spoon every day. After the first week, taste for strength and add more herbs or vinegar. Continue to stir every day. At the end of 3 weeks, strain through cheesecloth and bottle.
The vinegar can be used on cooked vegetables, in salads, and as a marinade. FRENCH DRESSING (Makes about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/3 to 1/2 cup Mixed Herb Vinegar
1 cup salad oil
Mix dry ingredients in jar. Add a small amount of the vinegar; mix well. Add remaining vinegar and the oil. Stir and use about 2 teaspoons for each serving of vegetable salad. OAK FOREST TEA (2 to 3 servings)
* 1 bag of ordinary tea
7 leaves fresh lemon verbena, crushed, or 4 leaves dried lemon verbena, crumbled
3-inch piece fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled
3 cups boiling water
Honey for serving
Put first 3 ingredients in a warmed teapot. Pour boiling water over. Steep 3 to 5 minutes. Offer honey to taste. HERB PUNCH (Makes 1 quart)
1 generous cup chopped orange mint
1/2 cup bergamot (bee balm)
1 tablespoon honey or sugar
1/2 cup spearmint
Juice and rind of 1/2 lemon
1 quart boiling water
Put first 5 ingredients in teapot, enamel or pyrex container. Add boiling water; let steep 15 minutes. Strain, cool, and refrigerate. This also makes a delicious hot tea. AUGUST HARVEST EGGPLANT (1 serving)
1 teaspoon polyunsaturated oil
2 1/3-inch-thick slices eggplant
2 1/3-inch-thick large slices tomato
4 1/4-inch-thick slices onion
1/2 cup low-fat mozzarella cheese
1 teaspoon summer savory, oregano or marjoram (optional)
Heat iron skillet on moderate heat. When hot add oil.
When oil is hot add eggplant and cook for 4 minutes. Turn. Stack on eggplant the tomato, onion, and cheese in that order. Cover and cook over low to moderate heat for 10 minutes. During last 3 minutes of cooking, add optional herbs.