Gardens guide highlights healing plants
Nell Johnston didn't always appreciate her grandmother's natural remedies.
She still has traumatic memories of Anna Harvey making her drink castor oil at the start of every school year.
“It was to clean you out so you wouldn't get sick,” she said. “She put it in orange soda and I still can't stand the sight of orange soda.”
Eventually she came to appreciate what her grandmother was trying to do.
At 84, she's leading tours through the Botanical Gardens, identifying plants and their medicinal uses on behalf of the Bermuda Botanical Society.
“Broadleaf plantain, for example, is good for cuts and scrapes,” said Mrs Johnston. “We'd crush up a bit of the leaf and rub it on the wound or my grandmother would make it into a tea.”
Another remedy was drinking a ginger tea to ease arthritis.
“Some people are sceptical,” she said. “Others worry that it's witch craft. I don't think of it that way; if someone offers you help, you should take it.”
One of her challenges is just making sure everyone understands exactly which plant she's referring to.
“Sometimes Bermudians call broadleaf plantain, rhubarb,” she said. “One man called me and said he rubbed it on his wound and it didn't work.
“That's because he was using the vegetable, not plantain. They are completely unrelated. It's also called cat's tail.”
She's passionate about plants. She joined the Botanical Society when it started in 1983 and has been leading tours through the Paget park for more than 40 years.
“I love plants because they don't talk back,” she joked. “Treat them right and they'll treat you right in return.”
She's known for being “relentlessly cheerful”.
“I've always been like that,” said Mrs Johnston. “I have my bad days like everyone else, but I try to make something positive out of it.”
One particularly bad day was October 17, 2014 when Hurricane Gonzalo devastated her back garden.
“I had a lot of fruit trees back there, peaches and avocados,” she said. “A lot of trees got knocked down. It just so happened that there was a bumper crop of avocado. They were all over the place after the storm.”
She still laughs at how she and her niece worked frantically to make the fruit into cakes, pies and sandwiches.
“We tried to put it in the freezer, but the electricity was out,” she said. “I still have a lot of cleaning up to do [in the garden] but I'm too busy with other things.”
In her early 20s she worked as a nanny for children on the Kindley Air Force Base, but became a housewife after marriage.
Her late husband, Robert Johnston, lived near her family in Flatts. They started dating when she was 19.
“He lived on the same street, a couple of doors down,” she said. “We'd go fishing together or go out in the boat, or just enjoy each other's company.”
They married on October 22, 1959, at St Mark's Church.
For many years Mr Johnston was a plumber. He was also a member of the Bermuda Industrial Union, serving as its president from 1964 to 1974.
She recalled the time he tried to teach her to drive.
“He did it in this quarry,” she said. “There was a big hole in the middle. He kept saying, ‘Careful, don't drive into the hole'. Finally, I just said, ‘Never mind, I don't need to learn to drive'.”
Today she takes the bus everywhere.
Her husband died in 2014.
The couple never had any children, but helped to raise Mrs Johnston's nieces and nephews.
“My sister Wendy Steede died at age 32,” she said. “She had pneumonia. She left behind six children — Robert, Julian, Charles, Granville, Linda and Dorothy.
“When my nieces started Harrington Sound Primary, I became a class parent. I used to do a lot of craft work with the children at the school.
“Some of the students, now all grown up, still come up to me and say, ‘Remember when we did this?'”
When her nieces joined the Girl Guides, Mrs Johnston joined them too as a leader.
“I've been involved with the Girl Guides for over 40 years,” she said. “I went camping with them; I went away for training.
“I received an MBE from the Queen for my work with them in 1965.”
She is also a long-time judge of the Bermuda Day Parade and for many years helped organise the Agricultural Exhibition.
Her secret to a happy life is staying positive.
“I try not to get mad at people,” she said. “If you are happy with yourself you are happy with others.”
Mrs Johnston's tours leave from the Visitors' Service Centre at 10.30am on Tuesdays. The tours are also held, at the same time, on Wednesdays and Fridays. Admission is free
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