A harvest of herbs

The frosts of autumn are just around the corner, but the basil that Marcia Neely sowed from seed this spring is still green and fragrant. As the days get shorter, Neely will harvest the leaves, dry them and put them out for sale at Honey and Herb...

The frosts of autumn are just around the corner, but the basil that Marcia Neely sowed from seed this spring is still green and fragrant.

As the days get shorter, Neely will harvest the leaves, dry them and put them out for sale at Honey and Herbs, the tiny country store she and her husband, John, own in rural Benson.

A similar harvest dwells within the pages of "101 Herbs," Neely's new book that describes the many herbs she grows, their history and uses, along with herbal recipes and essays about family, pets, the environment and country life.

It's a distillation of the knowledge Neely has slowly acquired over more than a decade of growing and using herbs.

"I just think it's important information to share and have future generations remember and relearn if necessary," she said. "It shouldn't be lost."


Neely knew almost nothing about herbs when she and her husband, disenchanted with the pressures of careers and busy lives, retreated in 1993 to five acres of quiet, rolling prairie northwest of Benson.

She had spent 20 years as a public health nurse; John Neely was in the newspaper business. For five years the couple also owned and published the Granite Falls Tribune.

"We decided it was time to live in the country and take life a whole lot easier," Neely said. "Neither of us had grown up in the country, but we just thought that country life would be good."

Intrigued by the long tradition of herbs and the idea of using them herself, she began studying with an herbalist near the Twin Cities.

She soon became interested in planting an herb garden of her own.

"In starting to learn, I just felt I needed to grow things in order to understand them better," Neely said. "It wasn't that I planned to grow herbs. It was organic. It all just happened."

Today she raises more than 100 different herbs, ranging from the staples -- basil, parsley, lavender, rosemary -- to lesser-known plants such as elecampane, celandine and butterbur.

What started as a personal interest has turned into Honey and Herbs, a thriving little business where customers can buy fresh and dried organically grown herbs and organically grown fruit and vegetables.


There's also pure honey, produced from John Neely's flock of honeybees, and handmade candles that Marcia Neely makes from beeswax.

The small store sells homemade soap, herbal teas, crafted wood items and fair-trade tea and coffee as well.

Neely found that many of her customers liked to chat and ask questions about herbs.

"When people come, they see the herbs and want to know more. Herbs are interesting to a lot of people," she said.

Writing a book, she decided, was a way to help feed this interest.

She already had a head start in the form of several essays and short articles she'd previously written, some of which appeared in a Honey and Herbs newsletter she publishes two or three times a year.

She began compiling and writing more information, ending up with a 132-page book.

"It's just things I'd written over the years," she said. "Some of them were specifically for the book. A few of them I'd written in newsletters before. A lot of it was internal knowledge I'd gained over the years. I just kind of put it together as one."


In "101 Herbs," Neely describes the herbs she grows, often drawing on historic sources to explain their usage and lore. The book's illustrations are drawn by Neely's brother, Doug Pederson of Watson, who is an artist and woodworker.

Interspersed among the descriptions of individual herbs are recipes, instructions for how to freeze herbs and how to make herbal tisanes, and essays that reflect on the seasons, life, death and family.

The book was published in May. It was formally introduced at a reading this June in Montevideo.

And yes, Neely really does have at least 101 different herbs in her garden.

She plucks a leaf of scented lemon verbena for a visitor.

"Rub that between your fingers and smell that," she said.

Over here is celandine. "It has an orange sap in it," she explains. "The sap is good for warts."

Over there is a large clump of Solomon's seal. "It's the root that's used," she said. "It's one of the ones my mom believed in. She swore by it."


Many of her herbs -- especially the less common ones -- were acquired from a nursery in Ontario. Others are North American natives that grow wild on the prairie surrounding the Neelys' farm.

She points out flowering rue, wild bergamot, marshmallow, maral root. The farm contains a small apple orchard, a raspberry patch and even a gingko tree specimen.

Neely said much of what she's learned about herbs has been through trial and error.

"If it grows, good. If it doesn't, well, I tried it," she said.

There has been a surge in public interest about herbs, especially their medicinal qualities, she said.

Indeed, it was the health aspect of these plants that initially captured her interest in growing them and incorporating them as a way of life.

"I choose them more for their medicinal value or because they're interesting somehow or their story is interesting," she said. "Almost all of the culinary herbs are medicinal too."

She said she hopes her book will help cut through some of the hype about medicinal herbs and encourage people to appreciate and learn more about herbs.


"My first interest was in wellness and secondarily in their beauty and their stories," she said. "As I grew them, I grew to enjoy everything about them."

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