Wednesday, May 07, 2014
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From the Spring Home and Garden magazine: "OUT OF THE ORDINARY"

Herbs for health and home

By Curt Fox

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[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 garden.

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 crops."

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 for herbs.

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 America."

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 fragrances.

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.

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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 and detriments.

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 about herbs.

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 about them.

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 she preaches!


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