[May 07, 2014]Mary Buckles of Mount Pulaski has been
an avid gardener since she was a child, but her real passion is the
study and practical uses of herbs. When she came to Lincoln to give
a talk to the Logan County Genealogical & Historical Society, "The
historical usage of herbs," she said with a smile that it could
really be called "A step back in thyme," pun intended.
Mary Buckles grew up on a farm near Manito and credits her
grandfather for instilling in her a love of gardening. While the
adults took care of the crops, the children in her family were given
the care of the garden, an essential part of rural life at the time.
While her mother did not approve of her children playing in the
dirt, her grandfather encouraged it, as long as it involved tending
the soil, planting seeds and caring for the growing bounty of the
Buckles laughed when she said, "Granddad chose me to be his main
garden helper because I was closer to the ground than him, so he did
not have to bend over during planting. It was like heaven to me,
being able to play in the dirt and grow things."
She also credits her father with instilling in her a love of the
land. "Dad gave me a wonderful gift," she said, "when he taught me
about plants, water and the environment, and how to take care of the
This love of gardening led to a lifelong fascination with herbs
and how they can affect our lives.
In one way or another, Buckles has always been associated with
growing things. As a kid, she helped on the farm and was a 4-H
member. In college, she grew herbs in pots in her room and shared
them with her fellow students. She has also helped plant the
majority of the trees in the state forest in Mason County.
When she met and married her husband, Kenneth, her life’s journey
was set. Kenneth wanted to be a farmer himself, and they finally
settled near Mount Pulaski to become a farm family, eventually
raising three daughters. The couple's busy lives revolved around
farming, parenting and Mary’s job as a teacher.
One day her husband asked if she would consider quitting her job
and become the hired hand on the farm. After all, he pointed out,
his current hired hand made more than she did as a teacher. Mary
Buckles jumped at the chance. Now she could indulge in her passion
for gardening and especially learn more about her ultimate passion
Buckles points out that people sometimes mistakenly equate herbs
with spices. That could not be further from the truth.
"Herbs are soft, leafy plants that have always existed in our
country," she said. "The American Indians knew about them and
evolved a sophisticated knowledge about their uses. They shared this
knowledge with the growing population that was immigrating to
Their policy of sharing was a wonderful gift to the settlers.
Spices, at least originally, were brought from overseas and are
generally a hard plant. Some herbs were brought from overseas, but
many were native to America. They like a temperate climate.
"Herbs do not have as long a shelf life as spices," Buckles said.
Herbs contain an element called an essential oil that is the
foundation of their beneficial uses. Herbs can be used for medicinal
purposes, culinary flavorings for food, natural dyes and as
decorative effects for the home, as well as for their wonderful
Historically, herbs were grown by every farm family, and it was a
simple matter to snip a leaf or two from the backyard plants for use
the same day, when they were at the peak of freshness. Today, herbs
can be grown in pots in apartments, as well as in sunny backyards.
They still provide wonderful additions to our lives, much as they
did hundreds of years ago.
While extolling the multitude of benefits that herbs provide,
Buckles was very serious when she said that knowledge of herbs and
the effects they can have on us is vital. To use herbs effectively
and safely, a person has to know what individual herbs look like and
their specific fragrances.
While a violet is a beautiful herb and is edible, it contains an
enormous source of vitamin C. A person with an allergy who
unknowingly eats too much can get a reaction.
"Herbs can be very potent," she said. This is true for all herbs.
Buckles said she has been a member of the Illinois Herb
Association and the Illinois Specialty Growers and has used
their wonderful resources to educate herself about herbs. She
also became acquainted with local herb guru Wilma Clark of San
Jose, whose knowledge of herbs was legendary. Clark taught
classes on herbs and stressed full knowledge of their benefits
and possible side effects. All of this is to point out that
education on herbs is absolutely essential to their safe use.
Buckles made everyone at her presentation raise their right hand
and pledge that before jumping into the herb garden or the woods to
collect wild herbs, they would educate themselves about the benefits
Ways to learn more about herbs include taking classes or reading
books, but Buckles maintains that the best way is to grow them. "I
could see teaching from my herb garden," she said, "It is different
every day. You have to work with plants to understand them."
For many years, Buckles operated a business called Prairie Home
Herbs out of her herb garden. She collected the abundant variety of
her garden and shared it at local farmers markets. She has also
taught classes and given presentations aimed at educating the public
Historically, thyme, rosemary, tarragon and basil have been used
medicinally and as additives to food. Tea tree and lavender have
been used as antiseptics. A bit of lavender in a spray bottle filled
with white vinegar is a very effective counter disinfectant as well
as a wash for vegetables. It does not have the unpleasant odor of
chlorine products and is safer. Vinegar can be infused with fresh
herbs to provide a wonderful cooking supplement.
Buckles was very emphatic that the proper amount of herbs be
carefully studied, especially if using herbs that have been reduced
to a tiny bottle of their essential oils. Essential oil is highly
concentrated and can be harmful if too much is used.
Cosmetics should contain only the essential oils. Herbs can be
used for face rubs and soap. "Some herbs are only appropriate for
external use," she said.
Collecting wild herbs is problematic, and she cautioned that the
environment around the wild herbs must be well understood. "Never
collect herbs from roadside ditches," she said. They can contain
agricultural chemicals if collected in the wrong areas, even in
seemingly clean woods.
One unique product that Buckles came up with is blending culinary
herbs with sea salt. She often had this blending available at her
farmers market stand. When her son-in-law was serving on a submarine
years ago, it had rudimentary cooking facilities and bland Navy
food. She mixed and sent 16 pounds of her herb and sea salt blends
to the ship to help make the food more flavorful. It was a big hit.
The list of useful herbs is huge, and it takes some serious study
to understand them. Just a few grown in the home garden can enhance
our lives. Then try a few more and muck about in the garden to learn
Mary Buckles is an enthusiastic advocate for gardening and herbs.
She firmly believes that gardening empowers a person, especially
kids. When kids, and adults, see a plant sprout from a seed they
planted and nurtured, and then get to eat the results... well, what
could be better! Playing in the dirt and growing your own food is a
prime example of her gardening ethos. Mary Buckles practices what