Herbs: Rooted In History

THE REAL DIRT

April 05, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Before she left for school, I handed our 10-year-old a gift from the garden. I gave her a sprig of fresh rosemary.

"For you," I said graciously.

Beth frowned.

"I had breakfast," she said.

I laughed. "It's not to eat, silly. You're supposed to wear it. The ancient Greeks believed that rosemary helped them remember important stuff. Kids used to wear rosemary crowns on their heads whenever they had big exams in school."

Beth stared first at me, then at my herb.

"So?"

"So you have a math test today, right? Here, try it on."

But Beth declined my offer for, I thought, the silliest of reasons.

"It would kind of, like, get stuck in my hair," she said.

Undaunted, I tucked the rosemary in my shirt pocket. I'll save it for the day she takes her college boards. Meanwhile, maybe the rosemary will help me remember where I parked in the office garage.

Rosemary is one of eight kitchen herbs that grace our garden. The others are basil, chives, dill, oregano, parsley, sage and thyme. See? I remembered them all. That sprig is still in my pocket.

To the ancients, rosemary was more than the herb of memory. It also symbolized love and luck.

"Rosemary garlands were as commonplace at [Greek] festivals as balloons are at a modern-day parade," writes Mary Forsell in her book, "Heirloom Herbs."

What fascinating folklore surrounds these plants! Their history is richer than the soil in which they grow. Most herbs thrive in ordinary garden loam, including rosemary, a glossy evergreen which grew into man-sized shrubs on the rocky Mediterranean coast thousands of years ago. Greek sailors swore they could smell its piney fragrance miles from shore.

Would that I could do the same. Alas, there are too many diesel fumes 'twixt the office and home.

Nonetheless, I feel a comforting kinship with my forebears while harvesting rosemary's pungent leaves for use in soups and stews. I suspect other gardeners feel the same. Paula Oliver believes they do.

"If you go out and cut some rosemary or thyme, you have a link with the distant past. You have something in common with the housewife in ancient Rome. You have something that goes back centuries," says Ms. Oliver, a Minnesotan who publishes a national trade journal for small herb businesses.

In today's uncertain world, she says, people cherish such links with the past. Herb plant sales are booming, she adds.

"The more paranoid people get about the future, the more they want to grow herbs," she says. "What a long history these plants have! It's partly psychological, but people see herb gardening as a way to get some control back in their lives."

The dainty clump of chives in my back yard has roots that go all the way to China. In the 13th century, Marco Polo discovered chives growing in the Far East, where they had already flourished for some 4,000 years.

When I brush up against my sweet basil plants, I inhale the same clovelike fragrance that bewitched Alexander the Great, who swooned over basil during a conquest of India and who brought the seeds to Greece.

Dill, with its feathery blue-green leaves and umbrella-shaped flowers, conjures up images of Colonial America, where children chewed dill seeds to keep them quiet in church.

Parsley was once displayed on battlefields. Plutarch reported that waving great clumps of parsley in view of an advancing army made the soldiers "retreat in terror." Which side? Plutarch never said.

The oregano in my garden can be traced to an herb that was consumed 60,000 years ago in a dark, damp cave in Europe. What thoughts raced through the mind of early man as he chewed those pizza-flavored leaves? More important, did he tip the delivery Neanderthal?

My thyme is a meek-looking, low-growing plant with tiny, round leaves and delicate pink flowers. Yet this herb packs a historical wallop. Roman soldiers bathed in thyme water before major battles, and the Greeks burned huge thyme bonfires in a bid to speak to their gods.

Sage's past is darker still. The Druids of ancient Britain, who condoned human sacrifices, used sage in their grisly efforts to bring back the dead.

Eccch. It'll be hard to stuff a turkey after hearing that one.

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