I was not especially excited about traveling to Huntsville, Alabama. It's been almost 30 years since my last visit and my memories were of a dusty, backward town with a lot of red clay where soil should have been. What I did not expect was a very multicultural, cosmopolitan city with miles of space-related industrial complexes, a shopping center that has gondoliers and looks very Venice-like. And I did not expect to find a Waffle House with an official greeter.
I hear the comment from women friends fairly often, "Jim, I'm always a little intimidated to cook for you since you write cookbooks and cook with style." So for all of you who've told me that in the past few years, here's where I eat when I travel. Waffle House. Yes, really. I like Waffle House because it's fast, friendly (they always greet every customer who comes through the door) and I like their omelettes. Eating cheap for several meals means I can go somewhere nice during my trip.
Imagine my surprise to find a real first class greeter, Ms. Suzie. She greeted every customer that came through the door and was constantly chatting with, and hugging, the regulars. I looked around and the clientele was made up of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and "generic whites," including myself. I inquired about Ms. Suzie and was told she's been at Waffle House for 17 years as a waitress. After retiring, her husband had a heart attack and the manager thought Ms. Suzie needed something to keep her busy and active and offered her a job as greeter. She drives 2 hours each way every day she works and I very much enjoyed meeting her.
The reason for this trip was to attend the International Herb Association's annual conference. It's a small group, one I used to serve on the Board of Directors for back when it had several hundred members. It's evolved over time, gotten much smaller, but is still a nice group. It is meant to support small herb businesses. The conference included an interesting mix of programs and demonstrations.
My sciatica had a flare up on the last day of the conference, the one in which we were to take a half day tour of the basil research project, led by Dr. S. Rao Mentreddy, at Alabama A & M University. Dr. Mentreddy is performing a wide range of testing on 87 varieties of basil, including examining which varieties hold the best potential for treating diabetes and the potential for preventing colon cancer. One of the high ranking (in quality of essential oils and potential usefulness for medicinal uses) is Indian Holy basil (Ocimum tenuifolorum syn. sanctum). In the 87 basils he's looking at included the one I was given by Madalene Hill, the green pepper basil (Ocimum selloi) I've written about here before. Mine came from Oxaca, Mexico while the specimum Dr. Mentreddy is using came from Paraguay. The Journal of Ethnopharmacology sites research on selloi oil as being used as mosquito repellents, as well. I was especially disappointed to have to miss the tour of his facility, but if you can't walk, you can't walk. (Another round of Prednisone and Tylenol got me home).
Dr. Art Tucker, Research Professor and Co-Director of the Claude E. Phillips Herbarium at Delaware State University and author, Susan Belsinger presented a fine program kicking off the next herb of the year, Dill, for 2010. Donna Frawley gave a bountiful cooking demonstration with Susan Belsinger on a variety of dill recipes in preparation for next year's Herb of the Year publication (check my Herb of the Year blog for links to all of the information on the "official" herbs of the year). Charles Voigt, Principal Research Specialist in Agriculture at the University of Illinois, gave a fascinating program on the plant trials he conducts in Illinois, Steven Lee gave a cooking and blending demonstration, Tina Wilcox from the Ozark Folk Center presented, "How to Raise a Kitchen Garden from Scratch, Terry Hollembaek gave, "Natural Farming, Where it Came from and Where it's Going." And Phyllis D. Light, presented "Appalachian Folk Medicine" which changed a lot of people's minds about when, and who populated the South. (A hint is, the Spanish, French and Irish were there nearly 100 years with established towns, before Jamestown Colony was founded by the British). She explained how those cultures influenced folk medicine, with considerable contributions from Native Americans and Africans.
The real big surprise of the weekend for me was the world class Huntsville Botanic Garden. It's the kind of botanic garden most cities dream of having some day. Extensive, labeled, well funded, spectacular plant collections and beautifully landscaped. On the lawn I found a series of giant ants and upon closer examination, discovered they were made of bent willow! You know how attached I am to bent wood, having written 3 books on making bentwood trellises, fences, gates and arbors. But I never imagined giant ants!
The Herb Garden, which is managed and tended by the Herb Society of Huntsville was exceptionally well done, well labeled and I spent a good deal of time there photographing plants. There was an exceptional collection of Native American plants, with labeling to explain the medicinal uses and which tribes used which plant.
But it was the Children's Garden that impressed me the most. There's an ongoing debate about children's gardens, not whether to have them, but what they should contain. Many botanic gardens put in a children's garden as a way of attracting families, and revenue, and they make it essentially a kids theme park. The opposing view is that a kid's garden should be a teaching garden with lots of displays of earthworms and how roots grow and activities to explain the garden to kids.
Huntsville Botanic's kid's garden attempts to do both. There are plant displays of unusual and interesting plants (I found my favorite bean, the Chinese red noodle long bean on a trellis). Raised beds with sides that let down so kids can look through glass and see how earthworms and roots exist in the soil, along with a fascinating "Rainbow Garden" which had water mists and several prims at kid-level to look through to see the rainbows. It included kaleidoscopes and a rainbow of flowers and pathways.
The most popular part of the kids' garden was the "Dinosaur" garden, which included a big sand pile where kids could dig for dinosaur footprints and fake bone parts. Within that area, amidst a big planting of Equisetum hyemale (which you may know as scouring rush) were intermittent mist machines. Boys and girls were carrying gravel and piling it, playing in the sand and having a great time in the mist and water. The great thing is the garden is virtually kid-proof so parents can bring a book and read and let the kids play as long as they like. And it seems to attract kids to the idea of gardens and plants and educates them while keeping them entertained.
Scouring rush is appropriate plant for a dinosaur garden simply because it is a plant that has remain unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. It is widespread around the world, contains silica and was once used medicinally. And it's not easily damaged by kids.
More stories from the gardens I visited in the next entry. For now, stay cool and happy gardening!