A Family-run Business Turned Herbal Landmark
“We live and breathe herbs here.”
That’s what they say at Richters Herbs, an internationally known herb nursery and mail-order business in the little town of Goodwood, just outside Toronto, Ontario.
For herb lovers, a visit to Richters is like being a kid in a candy store. Greenhouses are open year-round—even in the snowy Canadian winter—and crammed with a tantalizing selection of plants. Looking for lemongrass? No problem. Want to expand your echinacea collection? Richters has half a dozen kinds to choose from. Revel in the endless rows of scented geraniums or splurge on a baby bo tree (Ficus religiosa), a junior version of the one that sheltered Buddha during his meditations. An adjoining gift shop features books, pots, stationery, and seeds—enough to satisfy the most ardent herb-o-phile.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to attend one of the many free seminars or special events held onsite, such as soap-making or landscaping with herbs.
The company boasts more than 900 herbs—plants or seeds—for sale. American gardeners aren’t left out, either. “All our plants are pre-approved for entry to the U.S.,” says Conrad Richter, vice president in charge of this family-owned business. In fact, he adds, “We will give it a try to ship anywhere in the world.”
There’s always something new to drool over at Richters. About a dozen new types of herbs are introduced each year. Some, like this year’s ‘Magical Michael’ basil, a 2002 All-America Winner, are widely known. Others are special finds exclusive to Richters.
Orange Spice thyme (a trademarked name), started out as a sport—a chance variation—in the nursery’s own fields. Other exclusives come from private gardens. “Because of the profile we have, people submit things to us,” says Richter. Homegrown discoveries include the trademarked Profusion chives and Profusion sorrel. Both are seedless varieties that stay tender and delicious throughout the growing season.
Richters takes a satisfyingly broad view of herbs. Traditional culinary herbs are the main focus, but their stock includes plants with an herbal heritage that are mainly beautiful or unusual. Boxwood, flax, the true tea plant (Camellia sinensis), and a fascinating collection of marigolds (Tagetes) turn up on their shelves and in their catalog.
In recent years, a steady stream of Chinese herbs have been added, a result of Conrad Richter’s personal interest, as well as market trends. He’s particularly proud of two of this year’s introductions: ma huang (Ephedra sinica), “a very important medicinal herb,” though controversial, whose seeds were brought in from Mongolia; and rehmannia (R. glutinosa), which Conrad cites as one of the most important tonic herbs in Chinese medicine.
Richters’ staff includes a full time Chinese herbal researcher, Lisa Li, to track down elusive plants. A current quest is for Chinese rhubarb, “a real mystery,” according to Richter. All kinds of plants from Tibet and China have been brought in and studied, but the right one hasn’t turned up yet, he sighs.
Herbal research is something of a passion for Richter—he has a master’s degree in botany. The company has funded plant propagation studies and was involved in early work on feverfew and migraines. Richters provided ‘Frensham’ lemon geranium plants for a landmark university experiment that showed these herbs could remove heavy metals such as lead from the soil.
Ironically, the Richters never intended to go into the herb business. Back in 1967, Richter’s mother and father, Waltraut and Otto, bought a small greenhouse operation, planning to establish a flower and garden center.
“My mother being of German descent, herbs were second nature to her,” Richter recalls. “She had her plants sitting in a corner, grown from seed brought over from Germany, and people asked about them.”
Waltraut was always happy to talk about her beloved herbs and, over time and a move to a new location, they became a bigger and bigger part of the business. In the mid-1980s, the Richters stopped selling other plants to concentrate on herbs. A few years later, they expanded their clientele to include commercial growers.
Almost from the beginning, a catalog was part of the picture. The first one went out in 1970 from a handwritten mailing list. Today, the computerized catalog, packed with fascinating herbal lore, goes out to hundreds of thousands of people each year. Every plant sold is grown in Richters’ greenhouses—43,000 square feet of them—or on its twenty-three-acre, Zone 5, site.
Staff members always have time to talk herbs with visitors, sharing their enthusiasm over a pinch of this or a sniff of that. Distant gardeners can tap their expertise at Richters’ easy-to-use website (www.richters.com), where herb lovers can ask questions and research herbal information, as well as place orders. For more information, contact Richters Herbs, 357 Hwy. 47, Goodwood, Ontario L0C 1A0 Canada; (905) 640-6677.
“It’s been an amazing path,” Conrad says of his life in herbs. “The public is much more sophisticated today and more receptive to herbs. We were considered a little whacko when we started out. Now everybody knows about herbs and respects them.”
Mary Fran McQuade is a freelance writer who lives and gardens in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She has a special interest in herbs and city gardens.
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