Coventry, Conn. — According to centuries of legend and folklore, herbs are the stuff that enchantments and magic charms are made of. And at Caprilands, a lovely herb farm spread over 50 acres of Connecticut countryside, it is difficult to spend an afternoon without feeling both enchanted and charmed.
During much of the year, particularly in summer when the 31 stylized herb gardens reach their peak of beauty and fragrance, Caprilands draws hundreds of visitors. Many come for the well-known luncheon and lecture program; others are content to picnic and wander through the gardens or browse through the shops for herb plants, pomander balls, sachets, and herb wreaths made by the Caprilands staff.
Not the least of Caprilands' attractions is its owner and creator, Adelma Grenier Simmons, a world-renowned authority on herb cookery, gardening, and lore. Dressed in heathery skirts and capes and often with a small cap resting on her nutmeg-colored hair, Mrs. Simmons presides at Caprilands, imparting a wealth of knowledge, anecdotes, and advice.
Perhaps the best way to enjoy Caprilands on a first visit is to participate in the luncheon and lecture program, an event that allows guests to enjoy a variety of herb-seasoned foods while learning some important facts about raising the flavorful plants themselves. Many guests arrive at Caprilands during midmorning, sign in with the receptionist, and wander about the grounds at leisure until the program begins at 12:30.
During inclement weather the lecture portion of the program moves inside to the lecture hall adjoining the gift shop. Situated in an 18th-century barn with antique baskets and bunches of bright blue statice and herbs hanging from the weathered beams, both lecture hall and shop are in a setting as pleasing as the one outside.
The luncheon program gets under way with a tour of the gardens accompanied by either Mrs. Simmons or her granddaughter Joan. While leading the tour, Mrs. Simmons speaks on aspects of herb gardening appropriate to the season. During April, May, and June the theme centers around planning and planting the herb garden, while during July, August, and September the topic turns toward harvesting and preserving herbs for the winter. From October until Christmas the program focuses on using herbs for wreath making, pomanders, decorations, and other gifts.
What guests on a garden tour soon learn is that each of the 31 herb gardens is as different from another as parsley is from thyme. The oldest and one of the most charming is the Butterfly Garden, planted by Mrs. Simmons over 35 years ago. Its central feature is an intricate planting of herbs in the shape of a butterfly, one ''wing'' consisting of savory herbs such as chives and sage and the other of fragrance herbs such as lavender and lemon verbena. Connecting the butterfly plantings to little beds of mint and horehound are curving gray walkways fashioned out of local stone.
There are also gardens intended specifically for drying, fragrance, dyeing, and culinary uses. The Shakespeare Garden, bordered by an old stone wall and filled with herb beds enclosed with weathered boards, contains all the herbs mentioned in the Bard's plays and sonnets. Other gardens are distinguished by their color combinations or historical associations, such as the Victorian Garden and the 18th-Century Colonial Garden. What many of the gardens share in common are their artful plantings embellished by sundials, statuary, and meandering walkways.
By the time the garden tour ends at 1:30, most appetites are whetted by the scents coming both from the gardens and the kitchen of Mrs. Simmons's 200 -year-old farmhouse. The twin-chimneyed house with its dark clapboards, red shutters, and latched doorways is the cozy, innlike setting for the lunch portion of the program. Most guests are ushered into the farmhouse living room, where an early New England atmosphere is evoked by two large fireplaces, multipaned windows, and bunches of dried herbs hanging from the beams.
The food that is brought to the trestle tables and ladder-back chairs varies from day to day, but always contains a variety of herbal seasonings. Lunches begin with an assortment of canapes followed by soup, herb breads, a vegetable casserole, a meat or fish main dish, salad, and dessert. The visual star attraction of the lunch is always the Caprilands salad, a glorious wooden platter of fresh herbs and garden greens garnished with red and gold nasturtiums and calendulas - both edible flowers.
That flowers can be edible is only one of the surprises that the lunches provide. If there is applesauce, it is likely to be studded with raisins and caraway seeds. A cake frosting may be subtly flavored with rose geranium leaves. As lunch progresses, Mrs. Simmons discusses the ingredients and answers questions from her guests.
Those who want the recipes usually head for the Caprilands bookstore after lunch, where an extensive collection of books on herb gardening and cookery are for sale. Several of the titles are by Mrs. Simmons, including ''The Caprilands Kitchen Book'' and the long-popular ''Herb Gardening in Five Seasons.'' Often the author is on hand to provide her own beautiful signature for the flyleaf.
Mrs. Simmons has lived at the old farmstead since 1929, when she and her parents moved there from northern Vermont. During her early years on the farm she raised goats on the property, the reason the farm came to be called Caprilands (capri is the Latin word for goat). When raising goats proved to be economically impractical, Mrs. Simmons turned her attention toward planting the pasture with herbs.
As her business grew, she traveled to various corners of the world to research herb gardening and the considerable folklore surrounding the subject. Today her busy schedule includes lecture tours, writing books and pamphlets, and personal involvement with the seasonal events at Caprilands. To her great delight, two granddaughters and a grandson-in-law are key members of her staff.
Most of her visitors have an interest in gardens and in gardening, but few are herb garden experts themselves. ''What people are seeking tends to be basic information on starting and caring for an herb garden,'' Mrs. Simmons says. ''The most important reason they come is to have a good time.''
Practical information: Caprilands is about 30 miles east of Hartford and 85 miles southwest of Boston off Route 44A. The luncheon program is offered on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from Jan. 21 to March 31, and on Monday through Saturday from April 1 to Dec. 18. Sunday teas are offered from May 2 through Dec. 19. The gift shop is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Herb gifts, a wide variety of plants, and books can be mail-ordered.
Reservations for the luncheon program are strongly recommended, particularly during summer or the Christmas season. For detailed directions, a calendar of events, and a list of products, write Caprilands Herb Farm, 534 Silver Street, Coventry, Conn. 06238 or call (203) 742-7244.