Jekka McVicar - Queen of Herbs
David Hurrion Interviews Jekka McVicar - Queen of Herbs
David: So Jekka, I’ve heard you described as an herb guru and the queen of herbs…. Where did your interest come from?
Jekka: Plants are in my genes as my great aunt was a wonderful gardener, and I learned about herbs from my grandmother and mother. But this remarkable group of plants saved my life when I was playing in a taverna on Crete in the late 60s. I became very ill and the taverna owner treated me with Origanum dictamnus which worked and so I became fascinated by the healing properties of herbs.
David: Why are herbs important to us? Aren’t they old-fashioned? Surely most of our medicines are synthetic today?
Jekka: The tradition of using herbs to make food more palatable and to cure health problems has featured in our lives for millennia and if they didn’t help us then herbs would have fallen out of use. Science is still only scratching the surface of what plants can do for us and we're discovering beneficial compounds that help in the fight against cancer and a wide range of other diseases. Aspirin was first extracted from the willow and although it is now produced synthetically, we wouldn’t have it in our medicine cabinets if it weren’t for the plants.
David: And I gather you have a herbetum. What’s that?
Jekka: Having started our herb nursery back in 1987, I’ve accumulated a huge amount of knowledge and folklore about which are the best herbs, both for culinary and medicinal use. I wanted to hand this information on to others so I decided to plant up a collection, grouped together under different genera, in the style of an arboretum which is a collection of trees. The suffix - etum means ‘a collection of’ hence the word Herbetum, a collection of Herbs. We have the largest collection of culinary herbs in the UK with more than 500 different varieties from all round the world.
David: This is your first Chelsea show garden, but you’re no stranger to creating Gold Medal winning displays are you?
Jekka: I love Chelsea and we've been lucky enough to win 14 Gold Medals for our nursery displays in the Floral Marquee and its successor, the Great Pavilion. In fact, in total from 1993-2009 we were awarded 62 RHS Golds in total at different shows and the Lawrence Medal for our 2009 Chelsea exhibit, but never for a show garden. So I am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to be doing one this year at the Chelsea Flower Show. It’s wonderful to think that herbs will be taking centre stage, the last time one of the show garden featured herbs was in 1993.
David: So tell us about your Chelsea garden.
Jekka: It is the St John’s Hospice Garden, ‘A Modern Apothecary' and specifically designed for Chelsea. In fact the whole thing will be relocated to St John’s Hospice, this autumn after the show. The garden aims to demonstrate the crucial role that herbs play in medicine and the benefits of all plants in health. It’s full of sweeping curves emanating from a circle which demonstrates the cycle of healing. The rich tapestry of foliage and flower colours is both restful and encouraging, while the essential oils from a host of herbs provides soothing scents that help relax and calm. It’s a garden for reflection and contemplation, somewhere to get away from the stresses of the modern world and the anxieties of ill health.
David: You’ve spent years as an RHS judge and chaired the judging of the Great Pavilion, so how will it feel to be judged yourself this year.
Jekka: I know how important it is to get things right for my own standards as well as for the judges. I’ve walked into the Chelsea show ground so many times over the past two decades, wondering about the outcome of the judging, but I’ve never lost the sense of trepidation. This year is a big one though, being with so many great garden designers and wonderful show gardens, all I can say is that I and my amazing team will give it 100%.
David: So lastly Jekka, you’ve inspired so many of us to grow and use as many herbs as possible but, in true Desert Island Discs style, what is the ONE herb you wouldn’t be without?
Jekka: That is incredibly difficult to answer as I have favourites that change with the seasons. So I will not give you just one, but one family it has to be the Lamiaceae family which includes mint, rosemary, sage and basil to name but a few. OK so I know it's a cheat, but I hope you'll forgive me?