My family and I have moved six times during the past nine years, and after each one, as soon as we were settled and the weather permitted, I would seek out the local nurseries and purchase several herb plants. Basil, parsley, sage, thyme and oregano were must-haves, of course. But I delighted in discovering harder-to-find plants such as borage, lovage, stevia, winter savory, lemongrass, betony, lobelia, sorrel, marshmallow, fennel, rue, feverfew, mullein, horehound, calendula, tansy (planted in its own pot!), vervain, costmary and angelica.
Basil, parsley, sage, thyme and oregano were must-haves, of course.
Today, I have less space devoted to herbs (to make room for more tomatoes, peppers and squash!) and grow Lemon Balm, Basil, Oregano, Thyme, Sage, Bee Balm, Chives, Hyssop and Santolina. Although this year’s spring weather proved to be inconsistent and uncharacteristic (yes, even for Michigan!), new growth appeared right on cue (except for basil, an annual). And like every year, as I dig with my double hoe into the undisturbed dirt of planter boxes teeming with weeds, my mind drifts to two things: the first time I encountered something called an “herb” and, consequently, the bond I once shared with my high school business teacher, Mrs. Horton.
My first exposure to the world of herbs began one spring morning during my junior year of high school. A friend told me that she had found some wild asparagus near her house and invited me along to search for more, so that Saturday I joined her on a bike trip. I was skeptical of what we would find, but when she pointed out a large patch of the veg—alongside a dirt road!—I was fascinated that such a thing would grow in a place far removed from a farm. We troweled several stalks, and I placed them neatly in my basket. But she had more to show me. We rode along a short distance and this time abandoned our bikes to make our way down a ditch and up to the edge of a woods. She searched for a few minutes, and just as my interest faded, she whooped. I joined my friend as she peered down at, what I believed to be, a morass of grasses and weeds. She suddenly grabbed a large, saw-toothed leaf, rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger and held it to my nose. I frowned when I recognized the minty smell. Here? Near the woods along a dusty dirt road?
Within a few hours, we also found wood sorrel, chives and wild mustard. On the way back to her house, my friend informed me that dandelions and
plantain were also considered herbs, and because I understood “plantain” to be a kind of fruit that looked like a banana, I had to find out more. I visited my local library (pre-Google!) to check out a wild plant identification book, and inside I found that plantain, with its broad leaves and gangly stem, could heal wounds, draw poison from sting bites and balance histamine responses to allergies. In other words, it was useful. Something that grew wild in my yard, a “weed” I walked on without hesitation or consideration, possessed therapeutic properties. And dandelions! I was shocked to discover that the root of this weed/herb was used as a coffee substitute, and the flowers were actually used to make wine!
I was shocked to discover that the root of this weed/herb was used as a coffee substitute, and the flowers were actually used to make wine!
In fact, everything my friend and I had found that Saturday proved to be useful. The asparagus was delicious grilled, the chives made the potato salad even better and the wood sorrel lent a lemony taste to an otherwise boring bowl of iceberg lettuce. I washed the mint leaves, steeped them in boiling water and drained the liquid into the prettiest teacup I could find. I sipped slowly, enjoying its cooling, almost menthol, flavor.
I sipped slowly, enjoying its cooling, almost menthol, flavor.
As to the wild mustard, my book revealed that this herb had many medicinal properties. But more practically, the leaves could be chopped and used in salads, so I made plans to use it later that week. Alas, I would not experience this herb’s usefulness, for I had left the bunch on the back porch only to find it missing a few days later (the culprits were never found and run loose to this day!).
I had been bitten by the “herb bug,” so I planted seeds into small pots and placed them on windowsills. They grew, but not very well, and I knew my next step would be to dig up a small portion of our backyard—with permission, of course—to satisfy my need to grow these herbaceous plants. There was just one problem: I needed to find a rototiller. Enter Mrs. Horton.
Have a great day!
To be continued . . .