International Herb Association Conference

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!


compost in my shoe said...

Looks like the whole event was a lot of fun. Glad it didn't relate back to your previous visit!

Kathy Schlosser said...

Thanks for the delightful travelogue--makes me wish I had gone!

Anonymous said...

What a great blog! I am going to add it to my blog roll (I am a home gardener - herbs - in the Texas Hill Country) and leader of a local herb interest group

txherbgrower said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences at the conference. It is a shame our herb groups are all getting to be so small but it looks like it was well worth the trip.

Jim Long said...

Well I got pounded roundly by, "Anonymous" who says there never was any racism in Huntsville and that I'm wrong in having seen signs there. And that I was wrong on the name of the Space Center. Actually if you look at the photo, I used the name on the building in the photo. Maybe they put the wrong name on their buildings! Here's his/her comment: Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "International Herb Association Conference":

I appreciate your post painting Huntsville in a positive light but I have to say I'm a bit offended by you saying your last vist was less than 30 years ago and all you saw were these racist signs. I've lived here since 1970 and i can assure you that none of that stuff was present in town then unless your last visit here was to attend a KKK rally or something. People tend to fixate on the south as being backwards and racists when those were relics of a long gone time. So I suggest you revist your memory instead of drudging up some stereotypical stories to try to create contrast.

PS its called the US Space and Rocket Center and its located on the West side of Huntsville. I guess now the recollection problems make sense.

okoreena said...

I'm not really offended by anything that you had to say about Huntsville, I just question when it was that you were here and saw Whites only signs. Being in my 50's and growing up in Birmingham, I'm familiar with the signs. I saw and lived with them. I've lived in Huntsville since 1966 and never once saw a whites only sign in Huntsville. Huntsville was always more progressive than most of the rest of the state and had a calmer and smoother racial integration. Of course there was and is racism here as in most other places and not just in the south. But 30 years ago.... no whites only signs in Huntsville. Not so.
Alisa Bennett

another herb lover said...

I do not believe that "Anonymous" said that Huntsville was never racist, nor were you "pounded roundly". What he/she said was that the signs you wrote of were not here in Huntsville 30 years ago. Not saying they never were here, but even 30 years ago times were changing. Racism and ignorance are not relegated to just the South; they exist everywhere, unfortunately. We here in Huntsville have seen more changes than most over the decades, and we are very proud of our city. As for the actual name of the "Space Center", it is the US Space and Rocket Center. The Davidson Center for Space Exploration is a relatively new addition to the Space and Rocket Center, and of course, we are delighted to have you highlight some of our special spots. I think what "Anonymous" was getting at, and which I would concur, is that it would be nice if every time someone visits a Southern city, they did not always reference the tragedies of the past when referring to the delights of the present. It diminishes us, and also you.

Jim Long said...

I give up. I wanted to post nice things about how much the city had changed. I remember my visit very differently, and people who live in that area also have a very different view than the comments that have been left. But I'm sorry I offended anyone with what I had seen all those years ago. Maybe there are 2 Huntsvilles in Alabama, I don't know. But I just hate it when I offend someone and when I'm told I stepped on toes, I feel sick for days. I'm tried of feeling awful for what I reported seeing 30 years ago and I've just deleted (hopefully) all the offending material. And because I reported on what I saw, and the sign on the space building, and the website for it and obviously am wrong about what the name is supposed to be, I deleted that, as well. I know what I saw and was told, but evidently I was just wrong, wrong wrong and I apologize for whatever hurt feelings and insults I have caused. I'm going back to my garden and dig up something.