People come to the love of herbs in different ways. I’m frequently asked how I became an herbalist, and I find it a difficult question to answer succinctly.
My love for herbs certainly grew from the strong influences of my parents and my grandparents, all of them avid gardeners, but there was another influence that cultivated in me this lifelong love affair with everything herbal: I was romanced into herbalism by all the elderly women gardeners in my hometown.
My parents had a small grocery store, and I grew up knowing every person in our tiny community through their patronage of our business. Each spring, I helped my father unpack the seed displays and fill them with seemingly magical packets of garden, flower, and herb seeds. I looked forward to the many customers who would visit the store specifically to buy their garden seeds.
Other customers, particularly the elderly women in town who did not get out much, requested deliveries. Since I was the only kid in town whose parents had a grocery store, it was my responsibility to deliver groceries and other supplies to them. When one of them would call the store, she would read off her grocery list to my mother, who would put her order together. I’d load as many bags as humanly possible in the basket of my bicycle. I even had a wagon outfitted to pull behind the bicycle for larger orders.
“Don’t stay long,” my mother would call after me as I pedaled away. She well knew that I considered visiting a little with each patron part of my job as a delivery person. These women were often lonely, often unable to drive or travel, often with grown children living far away. I never had any trouble getting them to talk about their lives, about the rich history of the area, and about the early days of our riverside town. What I loved most, though, was when they would talk to me about their plants.
They were all dedicated gardeners. Each one possessed a family’s wealth of gardening lore and practice, which she supplemented with information gleaned from magazines and seed catalogs. Their opinions differed greatly–if I had brought them together for a meeting, there probably would have been an awful argument–but each one led me into her garden and sang me a different herbal siren’s song.
Among them, they grew acres of mints, horehound, horseradish, thymes, sages, lemon balms, and more. Most of the plants that they tended were useful in cooking, many were medicinal, while a few merely soothed the soul. One of my favorite customers always ordered the newest plant introductions, and she would send me home with Oriental poppies, irises, new colors of peonies, or some new scented geranium that she had weeded out of her garden to make room for something even newer.
The one rule that my parents had about my accepting plants from these herbal temptresses was that it was my responsibility to find a place for, plant, and care for everything I brought home. They made it when I was twelve, after I had brought home enough catnip, irises, giant sedums, and horehound to plant our entire back pasture. I was like a kid with a stray puppy, but I couldn’t use the line “Look what followed me home.”
Over time, I assembled a sizable plant collection from those gracious women. Each plant bore not only flowers and seeds or fruit, but also the history of the woman who had given it to me and the wisdom she had shared with me. One patron gave me some horehound with the reminder that winter and very early spring were the times to propagate that herb. Another gave me an apple seedling planted in a tin can, a souvenir of an apple she had bought at our store. A tribute to her kindness and instructions, that apple tree still stands in my father’s yard forty years later.
I am thus the product of the community where I grew up. My parents encouraged me because they were gardeners themselves. They tolerated my experiments and enjoyed knowing that I appreciated what I learned and had been given by others. Those early influences led me to my first career in landscaping and my lifelong love of herbs. This is why I feel that it is so important to encourage others who have an interest in plants.
Garden projects that allow children to make mistakes while they learn and offer them opportunities to experience the magic of growing a seed, to discover the flavor of a mint leaf, to become acquainted with the wonder of a sunflower blossom’s design are among the most valuable lessons we can offer young people. They are also one of the best ways of demonstrating to children our love for them and for all of life around us.
Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.