Madalene Hill, considered by many to be the Grande Dame of herbs in the United States, passed away on March 5, 2009, at the age of 95.1
“Madalene Hill was a leader in herb growing in North America and a pioneer in growing herbs in the Deep South,” said Arthur Tucker, PhD, an expert on herbs and aromatic plants at Delaware State University (e-mail, March 9, 2009). “She was innovative in her use of herbs in a restaurant/ greenhouse/nursery business, probably the first of its concept in the US.”
Hill was born in Rock Island, Texas on November 7, 1913. In 1957, Hill and her late husband Jim created Hilltop Herb Farm near Cleveland, Texas, where she worked with herbs for 30 years.2 What was originally a retirement plan for the Hills became a successful business venture, where eventually 25 staff members were involved in tending gardens, harvesting herbs, creating herbal products, mailing herbal goods to customers, and creating herbal food for the famous Hilltop Restaurant.3 In 1983 a tornado destroyed the original structure in Cleveland, but Hill and her daughter Gwen Barclay rebuilt and continued the business until 1987. At that time, Chain-O-Lakes Resort & Conference Center purchased the Hilltop Herb Farm Restaurant, as well as all of its herbs and famous recipes.
“She was a stalwart and devoted herbal ‘trooper,’ admired and beloved by all who knew her,” said ABC Board of Trustee James A. Duke, PhD (e-mail, March 9, 2009).
Dr. Duke is not the only person to describe her this way. Katherine K. Schlosser, editor of the Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs (Louisiana State University Press, 2007) decided in 2001 that someone needed to record the life of this extraordinary woman, who persevered even after her house burned down in 1982 and the tornado ripped apart Hilltop Herb Farm in 1983.
“She was a trooper, rarely letting things get her down,” said Schlosser (oral communication March 11, 2009). Schlosser is currently writing a biography about Hill that she hopes to name Promise Kept, a phrase she feels denotes Hill. “There was so much depth to Madalene,” Schlosser continued. “People recognized her contributions to the herbal world, but I’m not sure they were aware of the range of her interests and abilities. She aspired to excellence herself, and encouraged others to look beyond cooking, crafting ,and gardening with herbs and to research and study their history, uses, and potential.”
Hill discovered or otherwise introduced 7 herbs.2 Two herbs are named after her: Madalene Hill doublemint (Mentha x gracilis cv ‘Madalene Hill,’ Lamiaceace) and Madalene Hill rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L. ‘Madalene Hill,’ syn. ‘Hill Hardy,’ Lamiaceae).
According to Dr. Tucker, Hill originally called the mint she found in the now-defunct Plantation Gardens in Rustburg, Virginia, redstem applemint. “The mint violates the so-called ‘Reitsema Rule,’ which says that 2-oxygenated and 3-oxygenated monoterpenes cannot be in the same plant because they belong to different, alternative pathways,” said Tucker. “‘Madalene Hill’ (which I named from her cultivated material) has a genetic breakdown because of a high chromosome number of 2n=96, and it combines both spearmint and peppermint odors in the same plant—a true doublemint.”
According to the Houston Chronicle, Hill found “Arp” rosemary, on a snowy January in Arp, Texas.1 She also had the Knot Garden at the National Arboretum in Washington, DC dedicated to her in the 1980s by Houston benefactors Maurice and Susan McAshan.
“She had the most incredible memory for plants and people: their names, where she met them, the best things about them,” said Gayle Engels, ABC’s special projects director. “She was very generous—one of those people who seemed to think that if she had two of any plant, she should give you one. She contributed many of the plants found in the American Botanical Council gardens.”
Hill was previously (since 1993) the curator of the Susan Clayton McAshan Herb Gardens at the International Festival-Institute in Round Top, Texas. This famous herb garden contains botanical collections from around the world and is part of an international music institute.4
“Madalene was always an inspiration to me and to all who came into her life. She graciously prodded us to learn about herbs and other plants and make them a daily part of our lives,” said Henry Flowers, director of McAshan Gardens (e-mail, March 11, 2009). “She appreciated every aspect of the herbs that filled her life—their culinary attributes, medicinal uses, historical significance, exhilarating aromas, and, perhaps above all, their subtle beauty. Most importantly, I think, she wanted us to keep our eyes open to learn, to investigate, and to marvel at the many wonders of our world— something she surely did all of her life.”
Hill was also a founding member of the Pioneer unit and the South Texas unit of the Herb Society of America (HSA), of which she was president from 1986–1988 and a member for over 50 years.
“She was an entrepreneur, an author, a teacher, a plantswoman, and a gardener,” said Lois Sutton, PhD, HSA president (e-mail, March 5, 2009). “She will be sorely missed by The Society and personally by all of us who were fortunate enough to have been her students.”
According to Rexford Talbert, HSA member for over 40 years and a co-founder of the South Texas Unit, Hill remained a humble person, despite the overwhelming adoration she received from others (oral communication, March 11, 2009). “Madalene was very humane and was never condescending toward anyone,” said Talbert.
Former President of HSA Sue Trevarrow compared Hill’s passing to “a library being lost.” This is appropriate considering that Hill was well-read in both scientific and popular literature and wrote several scholarly articles about herbs. She also received numerous awards including: the Helen De Conway Medal of Honor (1978), the Nancy Putnam Howard Award for Excellence in Horticulture (1997), and the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature (2005), the latter shared with her daughter Gwen Barclay.2 She co-authored the famous Southern Herb Growing (Shearer Publishing, 1987) with Barclay and Jean Hardy. In 2006, Hill was awarded the Catherine H. Sweeney Award for extraordinary and dedicated efforts in the field of horticulture by the American Horticulture Society.
“Madelene was a remarkable person, a most gracious woman, and a never-ending fount of herbal knowledge,” said ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal. “Truly one of my herbal heroes, she was one of my favorite people in the entire herb community. Known and admired internationally, there is no one like her. If she were an athlete, we would have to retire her number.”
Hill is survived by her daughter, sister, 6 grandchildren, 7 great grandchildren, and 3 great-great grandchildren.1
- Huber K. Madalene Hill 1913–2009. Houston Chronicle. March 5, 2009:2.
- Donalson D. Madalene Hill receives AHS Award. HerbalGram. 2007;73:13.
- Hilltop Restaurant History page. Artesian Lakes Web site. Available at: http://www.artesianlakes.com/HILLTOPBRRESTAURANT/History/tabid/78/Default.aspx. Accessed March 6, 2009.
- The Gardens page. The International Festival Institute Web site. Available at: http://festivalhill.org/index.php?module=pagemaster&PAGE_user_op=view_ page&PAGE_id=13&MMN_position=29:4. Accessed March 6, 2009.