Pecan Springs, Texas (located halfway between Austin and San Antonio) is a sister city to Lake Wobegon, a small town up north. But the Pecan Springers have something the Lake Wobegoners don’t: the Myra Merryweather Herb Guild. China Bayles, who runs a fictional herb shop in this fictional Texas town and whose adventures are related in such mystery novels as Thyme of Death, Witches’ Bane, and Hangman’s Root, tells us all about it.
Neither event was minor in the life of the town, although it might be argued that the Herb Guild has had a more beneficial effect. The steam train only brought jobs and money, while the Herb Guild has created many of the niceties that give Pecan Springs its unique charm. Take the Joe Pye Memorial Knot Garden, for instance, created in honor of the veterans of The War to End All Wars. Or the Texas-shaped bed of red and blue salvias bordered by white-painted rocks, which was first planted on the west lawn of the Adams County courthouse back in ’31, the year Ma Ferguson began her second term as governor. Or the semi-annual Herb Bazaar and Plant Sale in the basement of the First Baptist Church, a slam-bang event that last year furnished the Laverne Scurry Conversation Lounge at the Colonial Nursing Home. The Chamber of Commerce calls the Herb Guild “a shining beacon of civic pride” and recently awarded it the Hilda Bonger Golden Trowel in appreciation of its many contributions to the health and well-being of Pecan Springs. Guild president Pansy Pride received loud applause when she said in her acceptance speech that the guild “stirs a pinch of savory, a potpourri of thymely delights, and a bushel of herbal joys into the melting pot of our fair city.”
To celebrate a century of dirty hands and green thumbs, the Herb Guild recently gathered a collection of herbal recipes, crafts, housekeeping tips, and gardening suggestions from its members. The collection is called Happy Thymes: A Calendula of Herbal Dillies, and it is available for only $14.95. Proceeds will go to repair the termite damage at the historic Myra Merryweather Herb Guild House at 217 Ladybird Johnson Avenue. Pansy says that if you want to see the termites, call her and arrange for a tour. While you’re there, you can also admire the concrete armadillo recently donated to the guild by Homer Thompson. Everyone who sees it is amazed. Pansy reports that a committee has been named to investigate suitable locations for Homer’s generous gift. Homer is now at work on a tumbleweed made out of coat hangers.
According to Pansy, the collection is “a cornucopia of herbal delights, gourmet treats, and crafts you can’t live without.” Here are a few snippets from Happy Thymes.
If you enjoy the little herb garden behind the Mabel Pendleton Thorpe Free Library, thank Nelda Narendorf, head librarian. You can also be grateful to Nelda for a formula for fizzing bath salts that appears on page 46 of Happy Thymes. She claims that taking a bath in her salts is just as good as a trip to the hot springs at Mineral Wells. “It makes a pretty gift, too,” she says. “Last year at Christmas, the Herb Guild made up a washtub of it, poured it into jelly jars prettied up with ribbons and lace, and gave them to people at the nursing home.” The recipe makes about 4 cups. Use a few tablespoonfuls for each bath.
Old-Timey Fizzy Lavender Bath Salts
- 16 ounces baking soda
- 8 ounces cornstarch
- 8 ounces citric acid (sold in the supermarket with baking supplies)
- Essential oils or fragrance oils: 2 teaspoons lavender, 1 teaspoon patchouli, and 1 teaspoon rosemary or bayberry
1. Blend the dry ingredients.
2. Blend the oils and add a drop at a time to the dry ingredients.
3. Mix with your hands, then force through a fine sieve to further distribute the oils.
4. Store tightly covered for two weeks before using to develop the scent.
Lyle Bippert retired last month from his job at Filbert’s Feed Store, which gives him more time to spend in his herb garden and out on Canyon Lake bass fishing. His contribution to Happy Thymes is an insect repellent he calls “Bug-Bee-Gone.” He invented it last year and now bottles it up by the gallon for his fishing buddies. He swears by it. “Not only does it keep the bugs away,” he says, “but it lures fish, too. Last month, I caught a four-pound bass on a purple plastic wiggle-worm I accidentally dunked into my Bug-Bee-Gone.” Lyle is famous for his fish stories, but it’s a fact that Hank Etzel, of Hank’s Worms & Minnows, has offered to take a dozen bottles on a trial basis. Maybe Lyle will be the next Texas millionaire. Or maybe he’ll catch so many fish that his wife, Hazel, will need to double her famous recipe for Lemon Thyme No-Fuss Fish, which you’ll also find in Happy Thymes. Here’s Lyle’s recipe, and you can try dunking a few plastic worms if you want.
Lyle Bippert’s Surefire Bug-Bee-Gone
- 2 cups rubbing alcohol
- 1 teaspoon rosemary oil
- 1 teaspoon pine oil
- 1 teaspoon lemon oil
- 1 teaspoon juniper oil
- 1 teaspoon citronella oil
1. Mix all the ingredients in a clean peanut-butter jar with a tight lid. Shake it well before you splash it on or dunk your fishing lure in it. (Not guaranteed against killer bees.)
Lyle also contributes “Fisherman’s Foot Formula” that he claims his father invented. After he’s been wearing his fishing boots all day, he brews up a strong herbal tea, using 1/3 cup dried thyme, 1/3 cup dried rosemary, 1/3 cup dried peppermint, and two quarts water. “When this has cooled off some, I pour it in a basin and soak my feet in it. When I’m done, I pour it in a big jar and stick it in the refrigerator to warm up and use again.” (Hazel Bippert adds a caution: “Make sure you label the jar. Lyle’s formula works good on feet, but it’s just not real tasty.”) When Lyle’s Foot Formula has gone around a second time, he heats it to boiling, then takes it outdoors and pours it onto the nearest fire-ant mound. “Kills ’em deader ’n your average doornail,” he reports. “Who needs ant poison when boiling Foot Formula works just as good?”
While we’re on the subject of formulas, here’s Gretel Schumaker’s favorite recipe for an old-fashioned salve that soothes blisters, bites, minor infections, and even hemorrhoids. “It’s been around for years and years,” she says. “It even works on fire-ant bites.” (That’s if you haven’t gotten rid of the fire ants with Lyle’s Foot Formula.)
All-Purpose Green Salve
- 3/4 cup fresh plantain
- 1/2 cup fresh sage
- 1 cup sunflower seed oil or almond oil
- 3 tablespoons grated beeswax
1. Put the herbs and oil in a double boiler and gently heat over simmering water for 2 hours.
2. Cool, then strain through several layers of cheesecloth until you’ve gotten out most of the plant bits. (A few pieces of cooked herb won’t hurt.) Put it back in the double boiler, add the beeswax, and melt it together.
3. Cool again. Before it gets solid, pour it into a clean jar. If you keep it in the icebox, it won’t go moldy.
Gretel says she often opens three or four capsules of vitamin E oil and adds them to the mix when she puts in the beeswax. Her mother makes it with lard instead of oil and omits the beeswax. Her grandmother adds a half cup of mullein for her hemorrhoids. “It’s every bit as good as what you buy in the store,” she says.
Mullein is also the essential ingredient in Beatrice Banner’s old-fashioned allergy remedy. “The cedar pollen gives me allergies like you wouldn’t believe,” Beatrice says, “so I dry plenty of the herbs to use when I feel an attack coming on.”
Banner’s Herbal Allergy-Ban
- 4 parts dried mullein leaves
- 1 part dried peppermint leaves
- 1/2 part dried yarrow leaves and flowers
1. Mix the herbs together and store in a jar.
2. To use, boil a quart of water and pour into a bowl with 4 to 5 tablespoons of the herbs.
3. Cover your head with a towel and breathe the steam for 10 or 12 minutes. Don’t burn yourself.
4. Refrigerate the leftovers and reheat for a second treatment. (Don’t boil it, or you’ll vaporize the oils.)
If Beatrice starts feeling really stuffed up, she also drinks a cup of hot mullein tea three times a day.
Crafty Ways With Herbs
Liz Bean and Ruth Hudson, who take care of the herb garden next to the Post Office, say that their secret potpourri ingredient is basil. “It adds fragrance and bulk,” Liz says, “and color, if you use a purple basil.” Liz and Ruth also grow clary sage, patchouli, and peppermint for potpourri, and rows and rows of globe amaranth. Ruth, who works part time as the Pecan Springs Park manager, is the reason you never see any deadheads hanging around in the rose garden at the park. “If you don’t grow roses,” she advises, “cozy up to somebody who does. There’s no point in all those beautiful petals ending up on the ground.” Another herbalist who hates to see things go to waste is Harriet Hopkins, who always saves all her orange and lemon peels for potpourri. “I just stick ’em in the oven with the pilot light on until they get kind of leathery,” she says. Harriet uses her food dryer to make apple and orange rings for potpourri from fruit she finds on sale at the supermarket. She dips the rings first in a mixture of 1/4 cup lemon juice and 1 teaspoon salt to keep them from browning.
Happy Thymes also includes instructions for Jaynelle Jones’s padded herbal hangers. She starts with two pieces of satin (each about 3 inches wide and the length of half a wooden coat hanger plus an inch or so), folds them in half, and stitches them into sleeves that are open on one end. She slips them over the hanger, stuffs them with herbs that repel moths, blind-stitches them together in the middle, then decorates with ribbons and lace. “My favorite mix is equal parts pennyroyal, lavender, santolina, and thyme,” she says. “Be sure to add a fixative, like powdered orris root, and a few drops of lavender and cedar oil.”
Catherine Winkler tells how to make dream pillows using pretty antique handkerchiefs that you find at garage sales to cover handkerchief-sized pillows stuffed with lavender, lemon verbena, marjoram, mint, rosemary, and mugwort. Clara Renner describes her Kitchen Spice Braid, a raffia braid 2 to 3 feet long, decorated with cinnamon sticks, whole nutmeg and star anise, clusters of nuts, dried fruit rings, and tiny colorful calico pillows stuffed with cinnamon-scented cotton. “I also add a few bits of yarrow and tansy,” she says. And Maylene Peters makes a pretty paper sachet out of 4-inch-wide twist paper (this comes in ropes and is available at the town craft store). She cuts a 14-inch length, folds it in half, and glues the edges to make a little bag. She fills it with potpourri and adds a ribbon and bow.
Herbs for Housekeeping
Happy Thymes has plenty of housekeeping hints as well. Maxine Schultz, whose Pekingese Itsy-Bitsy won Best of Show in the recent Greater Pecan Springs Dog Show, says pennyroyal is her favorite herb around the house. She uses a few drops of pennyroyal oil in the washing machine rinse cycle when she washes Itsy’s bedding. She also grows pennyroyal around Itsy’s outdoor kennel to repel fleas. (If ants are a problem, she recommends planting tansy and catnip along with the pennyroyal.) Maxine also dips unscented incense sticks, called joss sticks, in pennyroyal oil. After they’ve dried, she burns them around her patio when she and husband, Royce, invite folks over for barbecue. “I also put a few drops of pennyroyal oil into the melted wax around the wicks when I’m burning candles outdoors,” Maxine says. She warns that you should never use pennyroyal oil on your skin or take it internally. “And don’t pour oil into a lighted candle,” she says, “or you’ll rue the day. It could flash in your face.”
Lila Seigler thinks rosemary is a wonderful housekeeping herb. “I mix a half cup of rosemary leaves, a teaspoon of rosemary oil, and two cups of baking soda,” she says, “and sprinkle it on my carpet. I vacuum it up after a half hour, and any odor is gone.” She also places a few drops of rosemary oil on a light bulb for fragrance, puts a tablespoonful into her mop water, and adds a teaspoon to a half cup of vinegar that she then puts into a cupboard to absorb odors. “You can also make a strong rosemary tea (a half cup of herb to a pint of water) and put it in a spray applicator to use as an air freshener.”
Credit Where Credit is Due
With the Golden Trowel award, the Myra Merryweather Herb Guild is finally getting the credit it deserves for making Pecan Springs a nicer place to live. That’s what herbs are all about, when you get right down to it—people growing and using plants that have been known through the centuries to help us, heal us, and make us happy. Like all herb societies, the herb guild in Pecan Springs celebrates the beauties of the natural life, the life we share with plants. It lives up to Myra Merryweather’s legendary motto, embroidered in parsley green and marigold on a banner that hangs over the fireplace in the historic Myra Merryweather Herb Guild House: “Herbs + People, Partners 4 Life.” Pansy Pride adds: “If you’d like Henrietta Powers to paint you a T-shirt or apron with this inspiring motto, just phone me at home with your order or drop by the Electric Co-op, where I work.”
And while you’re there, ask Pansy to reserve your copy of Happy Thymes: A Calendula of Herbal Dillies. It’ll make you smile.
Susan Wittig Albert is the author who dreamed up China Bayles and the wacky residents of Pecan Springs. She and her husband, Bill, live on five acres in the Texas hill country where they grow herbs, raise an assortment of barnyard creatures, and write books. Under the pseudonym of Robin Paige, they have recently coauthored a new series of Victorian mysteries. Look for Death at Bishop’s Keep as well as the China Bayles mysteries in your local bookstore.