It's a chili day as herb festival peppers a park RED HOT CELEBRATION

May 23, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

In Mary Louise Wolf's garden, bumble bees court the dame's violet, and yellow clusters of azalea poke through tree branches like miniature suns. The breeze waves patches of bronze fennel and sorrel, passes through the oyster plants, ruffles the Japanese cherry.

And it's going to be a good year for the chili peppers.

Mrs. Wolf is growing 24 different types -- including the wild Honduran pepper -- in her lush corner of Dickeyville. As founder of the sixth annual Baltimore Herb Festival, this is her way of keeping faith with the state's premiere herb celebration.

This year's festival is dedicated to the chili pepper -- the only spice measured in the Btu -- and to the 500th anniversary of its discovery by Christopher Columbus. In addition to the usual lineup of herb vendors and exhibitors, today's daylong event will include lectures about the chili pepper, odes to the chili pepper, jingles about the chili pepper and demonstrations of how to decorate with it.

It's unusual to hear someone get all worked up over spice.

"Chili peppers are far healthier than anything else you can put in your mouth because they stimulate the circulation to increase by 25 percent," says herbalist and lecturer Bertha Reppert. "Do you realize what this does to your calorie count? . . . They can also assist with lowering cholesterol."

This year's festival marks the planting of the first pepper garden in Leakin Park. The plants stand just east of the park's 19th century wooden chapel, the beneficiary of funds raised by the herb festival.

"There are hot peppers and sweet peppers and long peppers and fat peppers," Mrs. Wolf says fondly. Retired as an engineer from Westinghouse, she helped create the fledgling pepper garden as well as the adjacent herb beds. She points out herbs as if they were old friends.

"This is woolly thyme. There's the woodruff -- you make May wine with it. And those," she waves a hand, "are various kinds of sage. Now that, over there, that's borage, a salad herb. The little blue flowers are lovely in salads."

This festival features a strong and quirky bunch of plants and a strong and quirky bunch of people. Sixty herb vendors from the Mid-Atlantic region have staked out turf. Exhibitions include Pat Kenny's Herbs of Devotion and Larry Wilton's Pinch and Smell plants. The Rock Hearts Bluegrass Band will sing about herbs. An herbal cook-off will salute various subtleties of the chili pepper.

Seymour Ponemone of Randallstown, epicurean herbalist, is presenting a much anticipated cooking demonstration.

"Don't laugh at this, it's called Pasta From Hell," says his wife and fellow herb fancier Shirley Ponemone. "It has hot peppers and bananas and orange juice. When it comes to that kind of cooking, I let him take over the kitchen."

Mrs. Ponemone is taking herb muffins.

The festival, supported by the city's Bureau of Recreation and Parks and the state's Department of Agriculture, draws several thousand herb fanciers each year. And it has a devoted group of volunteers. Some, like Mrs. Wolf, became champions of Leakin Park in the early 1970s to fight the proposed extension of Interstate 70. Then there are the neighborhood folks from Dickeyville. There are many celebrants of nature. There are those who just stumbled upon a good cause. And those who make a point of working for the event, in part, to help erase its tragic beginnings.

At the first festival, in 1987, about 75 people were packed into the tiny chapel for a lecture on "Herbs in the Bible" when the building was struck by lightning. One man was killed and 12 people were injured.

Herb Gordon, main caretaker of the park's herb garden, says it took him a few seasons before he could overcome the spooky feeling of the event.

"Last year was the first time we had some of the lectures inside the chapel again, and it didn't seem to bother anyone at all," says Mrs. Ponemone, a volunteer with the festival since 1987.

Another pillar of the festival is octogenarian Eunice Winters, who has been tending herbs since the 1930s. She's helping to run the Great Wild Herb Show today at the park's Carrie Murray Center and will lead a nature walk for such wild culinary herbs as lamb's quarters, poke and watercress.

She's particularly keen on dandelions.

"We always had dandelion greens in the springtime," she recalls. "I've always liked them because they have so much food value: You can eat their roots as well as the leaves and blossoms. Entire populations of cities have survived in times of siege because of dandelions."

Roger Talbot, assistant curator of the National Herb Garden at the National Arboretum, will speak on behalf of the 300 or 400 varieties of peppers under his care. He also likes to talk about how popular herbs have become.

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