Margaret Roberts, our queen of hearts and herbs, an expert on our panel for over 10 years and much-loved and respected herbal pioneer. Her passion for plants is reflected in the diverse range of culinary, aromatic and medicinal herbs she cultivated and shared with people both locally and internationally.
I visited Margaret (1937 to 2017) every few years and experienced her love, care, tireless dedication and extensive knowledge she shared with millions. She will be remembered as a proud, gentle and dedicated true herbalist. I will particularly treasure her handwritten letters, notes of encouragement and enthusiastic text corrections. May her family and friends find comfort and may her soul rest in peace.
Margaret Roberts originally trained and qualified as a physiotherapist. She began working with plants over 50 years ago when she lived on an isolated farm and had to start vegetable gardening as an absolute necessity. Her family grew lavender, catmint, rosemary, lemon verbena, garden mint, spring onions and parsley. Her grandmother introduced fennel (which grew wild at Gordon’s Bay) and sage that she had brought from Scotland years before, as well as lemons, violets, calendulas, foxgloves and soapwort, Saponaria officinalis, which Margaret later learned could be used to aid skin ailments, for washing delicate tapestries and woven fabrics, and even for bathing the dog!
This necessity born out of isolation led Margaret to all the botanical books she could lay her hands on to help her cultivate useful plants. She studied courses on medical herbalism, took tours to the herb gardens of England, and gleaned as much information as she possibly could from the Herb Society in London and the American Herb Society. She also sent small fortunes of money overseas for seeds. And it was Margaret who brought the first sweet basil seeds into South Africa – by chance! ‘A friend in England sent an envelope of a few seeds to me, and the rest, one could say, is history!’
And what a history! Margaret introduced marjoram, oregano and chives to this country, and would often send our own rose-scented pelargoniums, indigenous wild rosemary and sunflower seeds to European and British herb growers in exchange for their fascinating caraway, aniseed and coriander seeds. It wasn’t always easy, and Margaret remained grateful that she never gave up on the challenges of importing and exporting cuttings of lavenders, winter savoy, pennyroyal, thymes and chocolate mint. Gradually she became more proficient, her study broadened, and she created the first herb gardens in Africa. ‘I began small, with a fascinating perennial border that just extended and extended, then the first real massive herb garden with circular paths and separate sections I planted up when my children were still small.’ Today the glorious Margaret Roberts Herbal Centre, situated in the Magaliesberg and fully embracing organic principles, is one of South Africa’s top 10 gardens, which she ran with her daughter Sandy.
The Centre’s herbs are continually trialled and stabilised, and visitors can learn about their diversity and uniqueness in detail. Cross-pollination gave birth to the Margaret Roberts Lavender, the High Hopes Basil, tall and perennial, and two exquisite new rosemarys: Mountain Mist and Ginger Rosemary. These are available countrywide under the Malanseuns Margaret Roberts label.
INVOLVEMENT WITH DIFFERENT ASSOCIATIONS
Margaret enjoyed an intimate and golden 20-year relationship with Woolworths, developing stationery, cosmetics, beauty products, bedding, carpets, curtains, lamps and picture ranges that tied in with books she wrote for them. According to Margaret, ‘It was an amazing and a very challenging experience, as my organic ways were out of the box! To this day I am constantly stopped wherever I go by people who avidly followed those exquisite Margaret Roberts collections, true collectors’ items, and mourn the loss.’
Several years ago two Egyptian professors from Cairo came to link the top of Africa to the South in a common agricultural interest. Margaret gave them seeds, collections, data and records of her trials and they left her with renewed excitement about food plants, which formed the subjects of many subsequent trials – all with a focus on medication and nutrition. The professors left her with the added gift of a beautiful plate made of brass, silver and copper, depicting the seed sowers and the Goddess of the Harvest, ‘to remind me “forever”, they said, “of the value of my life’s work”.’
In November 2006 Margaret received a Laureate Award from Pretoria University for her role in organic farming and the educational value of her work with food and plants through the decades.
The first African seed bank
Government officials make frequent visits to the Herbal Centre’s seed bank, which is a constant source of discussion for education on effective plantings for sustainability. Margaret’s seed bank, possibly the first in Africa, safely stores pure seeds away from the storms of life (genetic modification or engineering). The seeds are stored in containers and will be opened in May 2025. ‘The seeds will be planted, thus continuing the promise of health and prosperity in this world.’
Margaret has written over 30 books and was in the middle of another three at the time of her passing – one being her autobiography. I would like to highlight six books in particular: The Lavender Book, My 100 Favourite Herbs, Edible and Medicinal Flowers, Healing Foods, 60 Herbs to Revitalise and Restore and Tissue Salts for Healthy Living.
Together with Fithealth, Margaret created a range of pure and safe natural medicines including treatments for menopause, sinusitis, hay fever and raised cholesterol, a ‘cope and calm’ remedy, a laxative and even a natural antibiotic. She included the precious tissue salts in every product of this wonderful range, which is available through pharmaceutical wholesalers, pharmacies and health shops.
Margaret and her daughter Sandy also produced culinary delicacies such as jams, syrups, preserves, pickles, liqueurs, salts, rubs, oils, mustards and marinades – all health building and created from the gardens’ organic fruit and vegetables. These products, together with the beauty range, which consists of pure soaps, lotions, talc powders, skin and massage oils and bath salts, fill a hungry niche in the market as they do not contain any preservatives, colourants, fragrances, petrochemicals or parabens. The shop on the estate has become a landmark, and merchandise can be posted anywhere in the country.
Margaret offered monthly lectures on the nutritional and medicinal uses of new plantings under trial. Her vision was to increase awareness in building energy and reducing stress and anxiety in order to cope with all that life throws at us in this changing world.
She leaves behind three biological children and grandchildren, and many of us considered her to be a mother or grandmother figure in our lives. I personally did. So much love to her family and all her many friends around the globe.