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Writing on Water: Adelma Simmons’ legacy of magic

The first time I attended a “luncheon” at Capriland’s Herb Farm in Coventry in the 1970s, I was met by the 5-foot-tall Mrs. Simmons at the door of her circa 1740 home.

“Come in, come in. You’re almost late,” she said as she hustled us through the door, wearing her tam hat and signature cloak, into a room festooned with ribbons, herbs and dried flowers. The aroma of mint, rose geranium and lavender permeated the air and our clothes. A table at the entrance held a wedding-sized punch bowl surrounded by a wreath of silver artemisia and delicate wild carrot.

Soon we were squeezed elbow to elbow next to smiling strangers at a long table by a window overlooking one of her many herb gardens. Seated on a variety of antique chairs, some low, some higher, some women wearing flowered hats, we might have arrived at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Within moments, the “girls” with trays arrived at our table — Mrs. Simmons referred to her staff as “my girls” — actually middle-aged women dressed as if they were cooking and serving a Methodist church supper. We each received a small cut-glass cup of midsummer punch from the bowl by the door, seasoned with May wine, woodruff and in which floated mint leaves and the tiny faces of Johnny-jump-ups.

Our host, Adelma Simmons, “First Lady of Herbs,” author of 55 books on herbs, recipes and holiday saints, renowned for her knowledge of herbal lore and history — and a moment of stardom on the David Letterman Show in 1987 — slipped in and took her place in a corner of the room.

The room hushed into silence as she welcomed us and began to speak in a precise tone with a slight Vermont accent about the herbs in the food and drink that we were about to consume.

“A leaf of mugwort under your tongue and you will never be tired again. Rosemary is for remembrance. Just a sprig in your martini in the afternoon and memories will return.”

Her monologue was hypnotic. She would go on to describe that the salmon and peas we would enjoy for the main dish following the canapes with butter and chervil were made from the same recipes that her grandparents prepared every fourth of July at the homestead in Vermont.

I realized that the food itself was merely an accompaniment to the herbs and, to reach sainthood and enlightenment, our lives need only be suffused with the right herbs, along with her special punch.

It was an enchanting experience to visit Capriland’s in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Her luncheons were wildly popular but never appeared to be a commercial enterprise. Each time I came, I felt the same excitement as if I was being personally initiated into a secret society dedicated to primeval delight.

Adelma Grenier Simmons, Capriland’s creator and guiding force, was born in Sheldon, Vt., in 1903. When her family moved to Massachusetts in the 1920s she became a buyer for the Albert Steiger department store in Springfield.

In 1930, her family bought 50 acres with an 18th century house in Coventry, where they hoped to create a goat farm (hence the name Capri-land). When the goats proved too difficult and vegetables wouldn’t grow in the poor soil, Adelma decided to grow herbs. By the 1960s, her gift shop was bursting with seasonal ornaments made with all manner of fresh and dried herbs. Visitors came from around the country to walk among the gardens and attend her luncheons, which she described as “parties” to keep a lower profile with local town officials.

For me, they always felt like parties to which she invited her friends for a modest fee.

Adelma exuded humor, wisdom, whimsey and more than a touch of magic. Seasons and holidays were linked to mystery and mythology. Valentine’s Day, May Day, Midsummer, Halloween, Christmas, summer and winter Solstice were presented and celebrated as magisterial events like scenes in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

She died in her bedroom in 1997 at age 94, in the house where her “parties” were held, and I like to think that the room was draped with the appropriate herbs to accompany her departure.

Sadly, the spirit of Capriland’s Herb Farm departed with her. But, in the darkest days of winter, I can look out to my sleeping garden and be reminded that some of her magic is just beneath the surface.

Ruth W. Crocker lives in Mystic. Visit her website at ruthwcrocker.com.

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