Finally, someone noticed there had never been an address on the flyers. So for the 78th annual Herb Sale of the Philadelphia Unit of the Herb Society of America on May 11, one will be included for the first time.
Since the event’s start in 1938, it hasn’t mattered. Patrons have always lined up with wagons on the second Thursday in May. With typically 350 attendees, the charity sale enjoys many repeat customers—some will even reserve vacation time to peruse the 10,000 plants nestled in the meadow at Historic Yellow Springs.
Shoppers take “first come, first served” seriously, too. One year, a woman was nearly in labor. Some would’ve let her advance to the front of the line, but not everyone, so she didn’t get more than a seat in the shade after she had made her rounds. “If you’re not there by 11, you get the dregs,” says event co-chair Joanne Montowski.
Herbs are arranged on tables in a horseshoe shape according to common name. In the middle of the horseshoe are salvias and scented geraniums. The latter is the expertise of Caroline Amidon, a past president of the national organization who has two 20-by-20 greenhouses in Glenmoore that she fills for the event.
Sale prep starts with caring for mother plants all winter in private greenhouses. In early spring, members make cuttings of host plants for propagation. Then newly rooted herbs are transplanted into larger pots and maintained until the sale. Other herb plants are imported.
“The one member I often want to trail to see where she finds what she does is Mary Ann Thomas,” Montowski says. “She can show up with a carload or 10 carloads.”
Elizabeth Kennel is involved with an HSA committee that establishes a list of so-called “promising” plants, one that may include eight herbs this year. The International Herb Association also picks an herb of the year. There’s a $15 prepaid “box brunch,” and members make and sell herbal products like jams, baked goods, lavender wands and lip balm. These are all tools for increasing profits, which help pay for speakers at HSA events, research initiatives, and two $1,000 grants for college students pursuing the study of horticulture or a related field. Proceeds also fund an intern at the U.S. National Arboretum’s National Herb Garden in Washington, D.C.
Among the reasons the Herb Sale is so successful: “Our mentorship,” says unit chair Holly Cusumano, who has an all-white “moon garden” at her Phoenixville home. “We give advice on what to select and what the benefits of a certain plant might be. Our interaction is a value-added amenity. We have a clue.”
“Last year, we had the three hottest chili peppers—the Herb of the Year—and we had to explain that they might send you to the hospital, but the people bought them anyway,” says Kennel, the unit’s assistant treasurer and education chair who maintains 100 potted plants at her West Chester home. Her husband, Allan, is the chapter’s treasurer and lone male member.
In 1933, seven women created the HSA in Boston. By 1937, the Philadelphia area had its own chapter. Today, it has 40 active members in the five-county region, with two over the age of 90. It’s had four members serve as national president.
Members say there are as many reasons for the popularity of herbs as there are herbs. Beyond garden aesthetics, the uptick in interest is seen in the culinary, medicinal and industrial fields, from fabric dye and dried flower arrangements to beverages crafted by breweries and distilleries.
The desire for herbs runs so deep that the unit’s scholarship chair, Rena Barnett, and her master-gardener husband, Sam, had to seek expert help to coordinate and keep the peace on their Media property. “There’s competition because I’m willing to put herbs anywhere,” she says.
When the unit isn’t busy with the sale, it maintains three outdoor spaces: Tyler Arboretum’s Fragrant Garden, Welkinweir’s lavender study garden near Phoenixville, and the 18th-century Medicinal Herb Garden at Historic Yellow Springs, set above the ruins of Washington Hall, the only commissioned Revolutionary War hospital. “That’s enough,” insists Montowski, vice chair of the chapter.
Open to the public, monthly meetings feature lectures, luncheons, plant studies, and trips to gardens of interest. “While garden clubs might have the long history we do or an education program like we do, we have active members who are required to participate in various ways,” says Cusumano. “It’s not as if we have a single person who pays dues and then reaps the benefits of those dues. There are no benefits for us other than the learning and camaraderie we share.”