Since 1945, members of the Cleveland area Western Reserve Herb Society (WRHS) have thrown a grand herbal party every year. On the second Saturday in October, the WRHS Herb Fair invites herb lovers and others to indulge in a day of herbal delights. The event celebrates herbs and gardeners by showcasing the society’s extensive garden at the Cleveland Botanical Garden and by offering a wide array of herbal products that have been handmade throughout the year by WRHS members.
A mind-boggling amount of everything herbal is available—from jams, jellies, and vinegars to herbal soaps and herb-dyed bags. Tables and walls display herbal decorations such as dried herbal flower wreaths, topiaries, and my favorite—the sweetly scented, old-fashioned tussie-mussies. On fair day, members are happy to customize these Victorian treasures for customers using freshly picked rosemary, scented geraniums, roses, lavender, and other herbs and flowers all tied carefully in a lace doily with a silk ribbon.
If there is a special place in heaven for all good herb gardeners, it will smell like the WRHS Herb Fair. Entering the herb fair is like walking into a soothing cloud of herbal fragrances. The air is a complex and intoxicating fog of rosemary, thyme, scented geraniums, lemon, pine, lavender, sage, honey, orange, rose, cinnamon, and vanilla. The powerful herbal aromas are invigorating and calming, like a dose of aromatherapy.
This is no casual garden party. Preparing and running the fair is the work of 150 members of the society who work all year growing, harvesting, and making the products. Except for tropical spices and essential oils, the ingredients used in the products at the fair have been grown by members in their home gardens. The fair generates revenues to finance the upkeep of the organization’s nationally renowned herb garden and to sponsor education programs, scholarships, and garden internships for horticultural students.
Herb fair frenzy
My sister Anne, who introduced me to the herb fair back in 1984, is a devoted fair shopper. Armed with bags and boxes and a strategic plan based on years of fair shopping, she is a woman on a mission. Knowing that the jams and jellies quickly sell out, she is one of the first to arrive. When the doors open at 9 a.m., she heads for the jams and jellies and selects her favorite cinnamon-basil, rose-geranium, rosemary-sherry, lemon-marjoram, and cider-sage jelly. With these secured, she moves on to mustards to scoop up a year’s supply of ginger curry and Cajun mustards, and then collects a box of spiced cranberry-raspberry and blueberry-basil vinegars. Finally, before she is able to relax and leisurely enjoy the fair, she moves to the potpourri tables to buy her WRHS Christmas Blend before it is sold out.
The potpourri is one example of why the fair has hundreds of repeat customers each year. The potpourri connoisseur can choose among jewel-colored mixtures of dried rose petals, orange peels, cinnamon sticks, herbs, and flowers scented with essential oils that are just right to fragrance a room. Liz Vinson, co-chair of the 2000 fair, says that “the personal touch, expert craftsmanship, cooking skill, and beautiful packaging distinguishes WRHS products from other similar products.”
The appeal of this fair goes even deeper. It is evident here that the herb society members not only appreciate the beauty and usefulness of herbs, but also maintain a respect and love for the plants. The WRHS Herb fair isn’t just another market full of random goods. It’s filled with a joy that you can almost taste, smell, and feel.
Maureen Heffernan is the director of public programs at Cleveland Botanical Gardens. She is a freelance writer and herb lover who lives and gardens in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Recipes and Instructions
Here are a few signature products from the WRHS Herb Fair to try making yourself.
Red Pepperberry Heart
This simple craft creates a pretty dried ornament for hanging on walls to add a bright bit of color and charm. The chairperson of the fair’s wreath department, Louis Sturrock, submitted this craft.
One 8-inch by 8-inch piece of corrugated cardboard
Darning needle or small nail
Hot glue gun or white glue
About 11/2 cups fresh pepperberries
24-inch piece of 1/4-inch-thick ribbon
Floral wire or raffia
On a piece of cardboard, draw and then cut out a heart shape that is about 6 to 8 inches wide and about 6 inches long from the top of the heart’s center to the base. Using an X-acto knife, carefully cut a small heart out of the center of the heart about 3 inches wide and 2 inches long from the top of the heart’s center to the base. Take a needle or small nail and from the backside, make two holes in the middle of each shoulder of the heart. This will be used to place wire or raffia through for hanging the ornament.
Using a hot glue gun or white glue, apply glue (if you’re using white glue, a cotton swab works well) onto the cardboard and place pepperberries on it one at a time. While this is labor intensive, a one-by-one application process will create a more even and much nicer finished appearance. Make sure each berry is applied next to the previous one so no cardboard shows.
Glue ribbon along the outside edge of the heart completely covering the corrugated edge of the heart. Thread wire or raffia through the holes for hanging.
Allow to dry fully before hanging. Do not hang where the sun will hit it directly as prolonged exposure to sunlight will cause the color to fade.
Moroccan Mint Meat Rub
Makes enough to marinate 4 servings
Here is WRHS member Linda Turner’s recipe for an herb rub that is excellent for lamb, chicken, and flank steak. If you’re making this to store or give as gifts, use dried leaves, not fresh. This rub is an easy and unusual gift; just place the mixture in a cellophane bag or glass jar with a label and directions for use.
2 tablespoons dried peppermint or spearmint leaves, or 1/2 cup
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Add all of the ingredients to a bowl and stir to mix. Set aside.
To use, combine the juice of 3 lemons with 1 tablespoon of brown sugar; then add 4 servings of meat or poultry. Marinate in the refrigerator for 2 to 6 hours, turning the meat occasionally. When you’re ready, mix the mint, garlic, allspice, and cinnamon in a medium-sized bowl.
Remove the meat or poultry from the lemon juice mixture and place in the bowl with the herb rub, coating all sides. Grill or broil meat or poultry as you normally would. After cooking, add salt and pepper to taste.
Une Tisane Francaise (A French Tea)
Makes 11/8 cups dry blend
WRHS has been creating this delicious blend since 1981. The flavor of this tea, submitted by members Gail Bartter and Lois Mills, complements special occasions and is a pleasant after-dinner, caffeine-free tea.
2/3 cup dried, crushed lemon balm leaves
1/3 cup dried, crushed mint leaves
1/8 cup dried lavender blossoms
Combine and mix ingredients. Store in an airtight container. To use, place 3 tablespoons of the tea blend in a paper coffee filter, and tie it with a string to form a bag. Place the tea bag in a scalded teapot. Add 6 cups of boiling water. Cover the pot and let steep for 20 minutes.
Bergamot-Mint Aftershave and Body Spritz
Makes 11/2 quarts
This natural aftershave is a beautiful amber color with an invigorating, spicy smell that many men enjoy in the morning. In the summertime, I like to pour this into a spritzer bottle and refrigerate it. When I need a burst of icy mist to revive myself after gardening, I spray this on the back of my neck, arms, and legs.
1 drop bergamot oil
2 drops peppermint essential oil
1 ounce benzoin tincture
1 quart water
1/2 pint unscented alcohol (rubbing or vodka)
Gently combine all ingredients and pour into individual glass bottles. Seal tightly.
Braided Sweet Grass Strips
Makes 1 braid
Ellie Donley, a longtime member of WRHS, grows sweet grass in her garden to make lovely braided strips that can be used to scent linen drawers or closets, or to throw on a fire to send a burst of sweet aroma into a room.
3/4- to 1-inch clump of sweet grass
Rubber band, raffia, or decorative ribbon
When the grass leaves are at least 18 inches long, grab a clump about 3/4- to 1-inch in diameter from the base of the plant. Cut off the clump (but leave the roots in the ground), and secure a rubber band around the base. Allow the clump to dry for a few days (hanging works best). When dry, separate the “ponytail” of grass into three equal sections and braid. Tie the bottom of the braid with a rubber band, raffia, or a decorative ribbon if desired. Braids can be hung from closets or placed in drawers. A rustic basket full of sweet grass placed next to a fireplace looks charming and is handy for throwing a clump into the fire in winter. The braids will retain their sweet smell for six months to a year.