With the enormous popularity of cooking and gardening shows, and with herbal health and beauty products filling the shelves of local supermarkets, it seems hard to imagine a time when herbs were little-known and underappreciated.
Yet that was the case in 1932, when Edgar Anderson, Ph.D., of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston received a call from a woman representing a small garden group. “We want to do something more worthwhile than the ordinary garden club, so we’ve started studying herbs,” she told him. “Will you give us some botany lessons?” So began The Herb Society of America (HSA), now a group of 2,300 members worldwide and celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
Throughout the fall and winter of 1932, the group of seven women (Adeline Philbrick Cole, Anne Shirk Burrage, Harriet Adams Brown, Corinna Searle Mitchell, Florence Bratenahl, Ellen Greenslet and Frances Norton) met with Anderson to study rosemary—growing, drying and mounting specimens for future research.
By May 1933, the group officially organized and invited others from the horticultural world to join its mission, gathering and contributing knowledge of the useful plants. Annual dues were $2, plus a $5 initiation fee. In 1935, Mrs. Cole began an
herbarium collection that grew to more than 2,000 specimens by the time it was donated to the Arnold Arboretum in 1966. That same year (1935), the group put together “A Seventeenth-Century Stillroom,” the first herbal exhibit in the country, winning a gold medal in the Boston Spring Flower Show.
As HSA grew in membership, regional groups formed, many of them beginning their own public herb gardens. The first seeds of a library were sown in 1944 with a gift of reference books from Elizabeth Wade White.
By 1980, 47 years after the original seven women met, membership had grown to more than 1,500, including 16 regional units. By then, HSA had the resources to work on its most ambitious project to date—the 2.5-acre National Herb Garden at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Supported by $200,000 from HSA members and friends, and matched with a $200,000 grant from the U.S. government, the garden includes hundreds of different herbs, all labeled. Educational signs and programs bring the many uses of herbs to life for visitors.
Today, HSA continues to promote the use and enjoyment of herbs. Supported by nine full- and part-time staff, the organization has more than 2,300 members and 44 units. The library contains more than 3,000 volumes, which circulate to members. HSA’s annual journal The Herbarist has grown in size and is full color, but provides the same blend of scholarly and popular articles intended by the founding members. A website, www.HerbSociety.org, provides information about herbs and, along with the quarterly HSA Newsletter, helps keep members connected.
Each year, HSA’s Educational Conference and Annual Meeting of Members draws more than 250 herb enthusiasts to listen to nationally recognized speakers. This year, HSA traces its roots back to Boston, with a special anniversary celebration at the Educational Conference June 26-28, 2008. Why not join us? (For details, visit www.HerbSociety.org.)
— Robin Siktberg is the horticulturist and editor for The Herb Society of America.