There is magic in capturing the scents of summer and releasing them inside on a gloomy winter day--signon the wall at Stillridge Herb Farm.
This morning my kitchen is fragrant with the aromas of herb tea, of alfalfa mint, lemon verbena, spearmint and camomile. There is basil jelly the color of amber for my wheat toast and the pleasant memory of an afternoon spent with Mary Lou Riddle at Stillridge Herb Farm in Maryland's Howard County.
Riddle's commitment to growing herbs -- "a happy hobby that makes you feel good" -- started with four plants in 1970. "Three of them died," she recalls; only the mint survived. "Then I started reading. Old herbals are fascinating. They make you realize what life was like back then. As I read, I wanted to grow the plants."
At last count, that interest had grown into 400 varieties of herbs on her nine-acre, family-run farm in Woodstock, Maryland, which is open to group tours and individual visitors.
The farm offers herb gardens -- one of them composed solely of herbs mentioned in the Bible -- the greenhouse where all the herbs are grown from seeds or cuttings, a shop stuffed with handmade herbal gifts and the farmhouse where Riddle grew up (her husband, John, helped her father build the house when he was 17).
For the tour groups, she provides a short lecture on the lore, planting and use of herbs; a visit to the gardens, where visitors are encouraged to touch and smell the herbs; and an herb-seasoned buffet luncheon in her home. Other visitors are invited to drop in any time and, occasionally, to stay for lunch if there are extra places on the group tour.
She emphasizes herbs' fragrance and beauty and her love of them, but she also offers a quick glance at their legendand history.
Herbs (the word is derived from the Latin for grass or green crops) were mentioned for their medicinal properties by Hippocrates, who taught Greek physicians how to use them to treat diseases. As the Roman armies marched, they carried herbs and planted them.
The Greeks used to rub virgins with lavender before burning them as sacrificial offerings to the gods. Rosemary, for remembrance, was carried in bridal bouquets, tossed into the graves of loved ones and worn as a wreath by Roman scholars seeking to improve their memories. Roman warriors bathed in thyme, symbol of courage and bravery, to renew their strength.
And true myrtle, a symbol of love, was worn as a wreath on a bride's head. If the flowers wilted, it was a sure sign that the bride was not a virgin.
The colonists brought herb seeds to this country and, by the 18th century, "dooryard gardens" were a common sight. Housewives used to lay clothes on the gardens to absorb the pleasant scents while they dried.
They also learned that: camomile tea relaxes the nerves; dill and hops are sleep-inducing; insect bites respond to hyssop, savory or lemon balm; pennyroyal repels mosquitoes and gnats; sage is good for sore throats and clogged sinuses; rose hips, full of vitamin C, help fight a cold; comfrey reduces swelling; and lamb's ear could be used to bind wounds.
On the other hand, they were also taught that southernwood was guaranteed to grow hair and catnip tea could "give courage to the timid and make the weak strong."
Stillridge offers other enjoyments besides the lore: Its Herb House is filled with everything from herbal teas to Riddle's dried-flower arrangements. (Riddle doesn't pinch back her herbs when they begin to bloom. And besides, she likes "the bees and butterflies that visit my garden.")
There are pots of herbs for sale in the greenhouse but there's also lots of free advice on cooking and gardening.
The highlight of our visit was the luncheon served in her home. Garlands of dried herbs festoon every doorway and window in the house. Worn wooden tables hold earthenware bowls perfumed with lavender, orange rind and potpourri. One wall is hung with antique iron skillets, molds and baskets. Hooked rugs cover the floors. Pomander balls and dried flowers form centerpieces on the trestle dining tables, where rough-woven placemats are laid for lunch.
Lunch began with a shandy-like wine punch laced with lemon balm. Crackers were passed with herbed cream cheese and chipped beef. The buffet consisted of garden salad with herb dressing, a macaroni-chicken-cheddar casserole with a hint of rosemary, peas with tarragon butter and sweet-potato bread slathered with herb butter. Dessert was peach melba with a sprig of mint. Each dish was delicious, partly because herbs were used sparingly to enhance rather than obscure the flavors.
Then it was time to retire to her Victorian flower garden, sway gently on an old wicker swing, enjoy the herb-scented breeze and sigh. HERE'S TO HERBS Stillridge Herb Farm is open Monday through Saturday from 9 to 4. To get there, take Maryland Route 29 (New Hampshire Avenue extended) as far as you can go, then turn left on Route 99 and go three miles to the farm. Driving time: a little over an hour. The herbal luncheon, lecture and tour are available only to groups on request. The cost for a group tour is $10 per person. To inquire about reservations, phone 301/465-8348.