Gwen Barclay, a lifetime member of The Herb Society of America (HSA), died on August 15, 2022, at age 84. She was the chair of the HSA’s South Texas Unit in Houston, Texas, from 1979 to 1981 before moving to Round Top, Texas, where she was a founding member of the HSA’s Pioneer Unit and served as the second unit chair. She celebrated her 50th year of HSA membership in 2022.
Gwen was born on December 31, 1937, in Houston. She was the daughter of Madalene Hill (1913–2009), who is known as the “Grande Dame of Herbs.” In 1957, the Hill family opened and operated the Hilltop Herb Farm, which included the Hilltop Herb Farm Restaurant, in the Sam Houston National Forest, near Cleveland, Texas. Working with the family business, Gwen learned both culinary and herbal arts.
In 1987, Chain-O-Lakes Resort purchased the farm and restaurant. In 1992, Gwen accepted the position of director of food services for pianist James Dick’s Round Top Festival Institute, an international center for music and learning in Round Top, Texas. I remember Madalene telling me: “When Jimmy hired Gwen, I came along as lagniappe [a bonus].” Together, they were a force of nature that forever changed Festival Hill — the home of the Round Top Festival Institute — to an herbal as well as musical destination.
Gwen was director of the institute’s food services from 1992 to 2006, while Madalene created the Susan Clayton McAshan Herb Gardens, bringing hundreds of potted herbs from her collection. Much credit goes to James Dick for his foresight to bring the duo to Round Top, where he promised them a home for life in the Menke House, a renovated homestead from 1902 on the grounds of Festival Institute.
As her daughter Kathryn Barclay told me by phone the week after Gwen’s passing: “The last eight years were very difficult for Mother, but the last eight months were good.” Gwen started having seizures about 20 years ago, which led to her retirement from food service at Festival Hill. The seizures became more frequent and severe after July 2022. No cure for her condition could be found, which is why Gwen donated her body to medical research.
In addition to Gwen’s Golden Sage status for 50 years of HSA membership, she received the society’s Certificate of Achievement in 1996 and the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature in 2005 (along with Madalene) for Southern Herb Growing(Shearer Publishing, 1987). Hilltop Herb Farm is certainly where Gwen’s creativity with herbs blossomed. Those of us who were lucky enough to attend those Saturday night dinners will never forget it.
Henry Flowers, former horticulturist at the Festival Institute, wrote: “Gwen was a culinary herbalist, delighting in the use of herbs to create wonderfully flavorful meals. She was always thinking of how various herbal flavors could blend with and enhance different foods, and she loved to experiment [with], critique, and improve dishes until they were just right to her taste. She shared this passion for flavor and encouraged many others [including me] to be creative in the same way. Every time a new herb-infused culinary inspiration or creation comes to my mind, I am thankful for her inspiration” (email to H. Bauman, September 27, 2022).
Gwen Barclay is survived by her sons John S. Barclay and Thomas S. Barclay, her daughter Kathryn A. Barclay, five grandchildren, and two great grandchildren, who all reside in Texas.
At the time of this writing (September 2022), Kathryn hopes to have a celebration of life in spring 2023 to remember Gwen by serving some of her favorite recipes for friends to enjoy.
Susan Gail Wood is a Golden Sage (50-year), Life Member of The Herb Society of America and past chair of the South Texas Unit in Houston. She was awarded the HSA’s Certificate of Achievement in 2007, and she grows more than 150 varieties of herbs and other plants in an artistic garden in Bellaire, Texas.