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Secrets of the American Herb Society


For recipes using fresh herbs like these, follow these recipes, provided by the Herb Society.

A 15-foot chocolate tree is growing in the hot tub inside the bathroom of Elizabeth Kennel’s West Chester home—and it’s not alone. A curry plant and a coffee tree share that hot tub, so the Kennels won’t be using it anytime soon. But after almost 50 years of marriage, her husband is well accustomed to her devotion to herbs. 

Kennel is a member of the Philadelphia Unit of the Herb Society of America, officially formed in the Main Line area in 1937. Its members maintain the fragrant garden at Tyler Arboretum in Media and the medicinal herb garden at Historic Yellow Springs. The latter has been around since the Revolutionary War.

“We’re ‘dirty fingernails’ gardeners who get up close and personal with our herbs,” says Amy Borer, chair of the Philadelphia Unit. “When we say ‘garden party,’ we mean that we’ll be doing some gardening. And that, to us, is a party.”

After one of the most dreadful winters in recent memory (it’s the reason why the Kennels’ hot tub became a hot house), the women of the herb society are ready to party. The digging, seeding and planting are about to commence. The official spring kickoff happens this month at Historic Yellow Springs with the HSA’s annual herb sale. It’s the 75th anniversary of this local tradition, which attracts herbophiles from New York, Maryland, western Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 

“People bring wheelbarrows and baskets, and the line to get in stretches down the street and around the corner,” says Borer. “At 10 a.m., we ring the bell, the gates open, and people stream in, usually heading right for the herbs they traveled there to buy.”

And the HSA has a huge selection. Caroline Amidon’s scented geraniums come in peppermint, rose, lemon, apple and 106 other varieties. They grow in  greenhouses on Amidon’s East Nantmeal Township property in Chester County. 

A grande dame of the Philadelphia Unit, Amidon has a long history with the HSA and receives her 40th-year pin this spring. She was inspired by her mother, who kept a garden at the family’s Merion home. “She was in one of the first classes
that Mrs. Barnes had,” says Amidon.  “During World War II, we worked on the victory garden that was right across from what became the Barnes Foundation.”

Amidon’s grandmother grew vegetables and herbs like basil. “You must have basil in your garden,” she says. “I don’t see the point of having vegetables without it. It’s a companion plant to tomatoes and helps them grow.” 

Such tidbits fill Amidon’s conversations and line the pages of the books she’s written about gardening. But it was the HSA that broadened her herbal horizons. “I became more aware of what I was planting, and I fell in love with scented geraniums,” she says. “I have a devotion to salvia, as well. I’d love to grow oregano, which may sound pedestrian, but that darn herb simply won’t grow in my soil.”

Amidon may do some experimenting this year. “I’m still discovering different kinds of herbs,” she says. “There’s not a shortage of information to learn.”

In fact, education is one of the HSA’s tenets. Its local seminars and national conferences feature a wide range of experts. Every herb has a history, and some are quite old. “Native herbs were in North America before European settlement during the American Indian era, or far earlier,” says Kennel, who served as the botany and horticulture chair for the HSA’s national organization. 

But despite that long history, many native herbs are now endangered, thanks to suburban sprawl, climate change, and non-native invasive plants and insects. It’s why the HSA launched Green Bridges: to promote sustainable gardening with native herbs. Every year, the organization designates an endangered herb and encourages members to plant it in their gardens. It’s milkweed for 2014. 

“Just planting them is wonderful, and the further purpose is to create corridors of movement for the birds and insects that pollinate native herbs as they travel,” says Kennel. “We’re providing green bridges to attract those creatures by growing what they eat.”

Eating herbs is good for humans, too, and HSA members have devised many tasty inventions. Kennel pairs tarragon with cream cheese and orange marmalade, and lavender with grape jam. She creates coins with sage and cheese on crackers, and she’s cooking with the curry that’s growing in her hot tub. Amidon makes opal-basil jelly and puts basil in her pound cake. Borer is known for her purple-basil vinegar and horehound cough drops, which taste as bad as they sound. But she insists that they are an effective remedy. The ladies also use dried herbs in  crafts—from potpourri to tussie-mussies and fragrant wreaths.

But what they most like to do with herbs is grow them. Borer has a 50-by-50-foot vegetable-and-herb garden at the Birmingham Township farm where she and her husband live. In addition to her bathroom-turned-greenhouse, Kennel has an entire porch devoted to containers, plus extensive outdoor gardens. Amidon started with a 20-by-20-foot greenhouse but outgrew that, adding another unit. Cuttings from the herbs she grows are used for the HSA sale. Members travel to Amidon’s home to care for the plants from March to early May, then cut, pot and bring them to Historic Yellow Springs. “I did 300 salvia cuttings, and I’ll do about 300 scented geraniums,” she says. 

Amidon has high hopes for 2014. “I think it’s going to be a great year for herbs,” she says. “After this long winter, we’re all looking forward to spring.”

The HSA’s annual herb sale is May 8. Visit www.hsaphiladelphia.org.

Spring Into Action 
The Herb Society of America’s  top seeds.
  1. Basil (large-leaf Italian)
  2. Basil (Mrs. Burns lemon)
  3. Basil (Thai Siam Queen)
  4. Borage
  5. Calendula
  6. Cilantro (Santo)
  7. Fernleaf dill
  8. Parsley (plain-leaf Italian)
  9. Sorrel
  10. Summer savory

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