Scents of the season

Herbalist/horticulturist Lorraine Grochowski-Kiefer, owner of Triple Oaks Nursery and Herb Garden in Franklinville, N.J. heads toward the old wood stove-heated shed where her workers are assembling holiday wreaths. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Herbalist/horticulturist Lorraine Grochowski-Kiefer, owner of Triple Oaks Nursery and Herb Garden in Franklinville, N.J. heads toward the old wood stove-heated shed where her workers are assembling holiday wreaths. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Lorraine Grochowski-Kiefer is a horticulturist who has a long history with herbs. At holiday time, her stash of frankincense and myrrh takes on special meaning.

Posted: November 30, 2013

 Lorraine Grochowski-Kiefer's herbal education began at age 2 or 3, literally at the feet of her two grandmothers.

Babci was Polish; she grew dill and parsley for her pickles and cabbage. Mom-Mom was Italian; she favored parsley and basil for her lasagna and meatballs.

And like the herbs that flourished in their large kitchen gardens, the Grochowskis and Kiefers lived intertwined lives in rural Franklinville, back when the tiny pocket of Gloucester County seemed like one seamless farm.

"I grew up with herbs. I just thought it was so neat that the dill was taller than me. And it smelled so good," recalls Grochowski-Kiefer, co-owner, with son Joe, of Triple Oaks Nursery & Herb Garden along Delsea Drive, a landmark in these parts since 1977.

Grochowski-Kiefer, now in her 50s and coauthor of Best Garden Plants for New Jersey (Lone Pine Publishing, 2007) is an institution in her own right.

She hosts year-round horticulture programs at the nursery, lectures at the Philadelphia Flower Show, writes garden columns for six local newspapers, promotes herb society events. For almost four decades, she also has sold trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, flowers, wreaths and gifts, and her beloved herbs to gardeners and non-gardeners alike.

This time of year is especially busy. So many scents to share, including one very odd one.

Grochowski-Kiefer may be the only person you'll ever meet with a ready stash of frankincense and myrrh, which come from Africa and the Middle East and are identified as the "gifts of the magi" in the biblical story of Christmas.

These scrubby little "plants of the ancients" produce tree sap or gum resin that hardens into small nodules or pebbles, known as "tears," that are burned during religious services.

On All Souls Day last November, Grochowski-Kiefer was doing just that, over a small charcoal flame, inside a church in Clayton when the fire alarm went off. This year, she says, "I left it on the sidewalk."

Today, Grochowski-Kiefer is in her basement workshop, safely burning frankincense and myrrh for a visitor, for whom the setting isn't familiar but the smell - oh, the watery eyes and gag-inducing stink - certainly is.

"It's reminiscent of old times," Grochowski-Kiefer says, explaining that "a lot of smell is psychological, like when you see a rose, you can almost smell it."

Scents are experienced both physically and psychologically, according to Pamela Dalton, an olfactory scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in University City. "Do we recognize some place we've been or someone we've been with? Once that happens, your heart could race, your palms could get sweaty," she says.

Fall and winter holidays add another dimension to this process. The scents are unique and freighted with associations. Also, our houses are closed up and warm, rendering the smells more intense and volatile.

For example, Dalton says, "You can walk through a pine forest and smell terpenes and everything associated with pine trees, but bring a Christmas tree into your home and it's ever so much more intense."

And so it is, down in the close basement, with Grochowski-Kiefer's just-baked gingersnaps, clementine pomander balls studded with cloves, dried-flower potpourri, and Christmas wreaths and table centerpieces layered with dried flowers and fresh greens. Favorites include witch hazel, seed eucalyptus and protea; arborvitae, juniper, cedar, spruce, white pine, and North American native Abies concolor, an unusual fir whose silvery needles, when crushed, release a tantalizing blast of orange.

Grochowski-Kiefer begins to speak about Isabelle Kiefer, "my dear, dear mother-in-law," who died, at 101, just two days before our visit. The two women shared a love of cooking, gardening, and picking strawberries and apples in season.

This time of year, Grochowski-Kiefer says, will forever be associated with her mother-in-law's passing - and a particular fragrance for which she was known.

In 1965, for their first Christmas as a married couple, Isabelle Kiefer presented the pair, now parents of three grown sons and grandparents of five, with the first of many bayberry candles.

"Real ones, not the ones you get now," Grochowski-Kiefer says.

"Real ones," which she also makes, are not simulated wax with artificial scent. They require 15 pounds of wild bayberries to make one pound of wax and often have beeswax mixed in. They have a soft olive color and a light, natural scent.

By American colonial tradition, the tapers signified luck and prosperity. They were lit on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve and allowed to burn out. They were - and in Grochowski-Kiefer's holiday ritual, still are - delivered with a poem:

"A bayberry candle

Burned to the socket

Brings joy to the home

And wealth to the pocket."


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