BALTIMORE -- Walking last Saturday through the lush woods of Baltimore's Leakin Park, one smelled rosemary, basil, savory and mint wafting through the air thick with moisture from a rain. In fact, it smelled as if the park had been transformed into a giant spice rack.
The unusual bouquet was a byproduct of the fourth annual Baltimore Herb Festival. Touted by organizers as the "largest herbal event in the country," the day-long festival drew about 1,400 people and featured some 40 vendors, most of whom sold herbs and gardening accessories.
Among herb-growers, there seems to be a range of interest from those who want to add a bit of fresh seasoning to their foods to those who believe herbs have great spiritual and medicinal purposes.
Someone who is on the latter end of that spectrum is Silver Spring resident Pat Kenny, a medical illustrator at National Institutes of Health, who set up an educational booth at the festival entitled "Herbs of Devotion." Kenny displayed some of the herbs she has grown and distributed literature about the traditions associated with many herbs. For example, her display explains that sweet marjoram is considered by the Greeks to be a symbol of peace and happiness.
"Herbs can help you make a connection with your past. And that certainly makes eating a lot more fun," Kenny said.
For Leroy Wilton, a vendor at the festival who also owns Wilton's Organic Plants in Pasadena, Md., interest in herbs began on a spiritual level.
"I read the book, 'Back to Eden,' and realized God placed all these herbs here for us to live," He said.
To the novice, the tiny plants appear very similar. But the herbalist's nose can spot the difference between lemon basil and Thai basil from a foot away.
"I need winter savory; this smells like it's a little more toward the rosemary side," an elderly woman said to Wilton.
"No, that's winter savory, I'm sure," Wilton replied.
Mary and Roger Brower of Catonsville, Md., went from booth to booth loaded down with plants bought at the festival. They explained that they grow their herbs in large containers outdoors and use them to season their food.
"Not all herbs are easily available in grocery stores," said Roger Brower.
"And fresh herbs taste better than dried," added Mary Brower.
Sandy Kingsland traveled from Jackson, N.J., especially to attend the herb festival. Kingsland, who grows herbs for cooking and to make wreaths, potpourri and natural deodorizers, came to the festival in search of an herbal-based flea and tick repellent for her pets.
Deborah Merchant, of Burke, was selling such a bug repellent (made of southernwood oil, thyme and basil) at her booth, along with herbal vinegars and natural throat lozenges. From her home-based mail order business, she also sells natural baby products, including a colic remedy (fennel seed, camomile flowers and catnip) and a teething remedy (clove powder).
Sponsored by Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks and by Maryland's Department of Agriculture, profits from the festival will be dedicated to the restoration of the chapel in Leakin Park.