St. Fiacre’s name isn’t exactly a household word, but that could change if the local Herb Society has its way.
The group — known officially as the New Orleans Unit of the Herb Society of America — hosts a Blessing of the Herbs on Thursday, Aug. 28, on the eve of St. Fiacre’s feast day, just as it has for the past 16 years.
The difference this year is that the group is inviting the public to join in what was previously an invitation-only event.
“This is the first year we are inviting the public to come join us,” said Audrey Driscoll, an interior designer and Herb Society member who owns Driscoll Antiques with her husband, Ralph. “Few people know very much about herbs and their uses, and even fewer know that St. Fiacre is the patron saint of gardeners — and taxi drivers.”
To understand a little about what gardeners and cabbies have in common, Driscoll said, one must go back to the seventh century, when Fiacre left his native Ireland for Meaux, France. He was told by the bishop of the area that he could build a garden on as much land as he could clear in a single day.
“The legend is that angels came at night to help him, so that in the morning, a vast area had been cleared for his garden,” Driscoll said. “People came from all over to visit him and be cured.”
A thousand years later, pilgrims from Paris were taken to the sanctuary in carriages which came to be known as “fiacres” because of their destination — hence the saint’s association with the carriage drivers’ modern day equivalents, taxi drivers.
“St. Fiacre was said to have used medicinal herbs and plants from his garden to heal the sick,” Driscoll said. “But we shy away from emphasizing too much the medicinal qualities of herbs because people tend to take herbal remedies without getting good information about how they might interact with prescription medication. The interactions can be deadly.”
The joys of herbs are not limited to the curative properties that might have served St. Fiacre’s needs in the Middle Ages. Instead, Driscoll and her colleagues promote herbs for their culinary and other uses.
“You don’t have to be a cook to have an herb garden,” she said. “In fact, growing the herbs, cutting them, smelling them can be the perfect entrée to becoming a cook and finding out what flavors and aromas appeal to you.”
Another reason to grow herbs is for the fragrances many of them release when brushed against, as with rosemary and mint.
“Vetiver falls into that category, and it was used to repel moths as well as to freshen linens when it was cut and put in the linen drawer,” Driscoll said. “Garlic, whether you cook with it or not, emits an odor that helps ward off harmful insects in the garden.”
The Blessing of the Herbs takes place in the most ideal of settings: the Walled Garden at Longue Vue House and Gardens.
“When Ellen Biddle Shipman designed it in 1938, she intended it as a culinary garden, so in addition to herbs there are citrus and other edibles,” Driscoll said. “By 1996, the garden needed to be restored and we looked at her original plans and tweaked them a little bit to better support the kinds of plants that can thrive here in the heat.”
After a blessing, guests retire to the Playhouse for refreshments and a brief demonstration by Driscoll and Linda Franzo on herbal liqueurs.
“We let guests know that they can bring their statues of St. Fiacre to be blessed so they can take them home and put them in their gardens,” Driscoll said.
And while the statues are not likely to attract a host of angels to weed the garden overnight, they may just serve as a gentle reminder of how gardens and gardening are good for the soul.