The women working in the sunken, walled herb garden behind the Phipps Garden Center reserve a wealth of expertise in herbs — those grown for food, medicine, fragrance or for the natural dyeing of materials.
All are members of the Western Pennsylvania unit of the Herb Society of America; many have belonged for decades. The local unit was established in 1958 and includes about 40 members.
"They all work so hard and they're so knowledgeable," says Rin Babson, one of the junior members. "Almost every member, practically, has the ability to get up and give a lecture [at the monthly meetings]. They're so spectacular — you just sit there and say, ‘This is the best thing I've heard all month.'"
Indeed, Jean Reiland, a retired medical-research technician who is in charge of the dye bed, speaks easily about each of the plants — describing how parsley can be used to dye fabrics green and onions to dye them yellow or orange.
"Vegetable dyes never come out quite the same in any two dye batches," she says. "It's always interesting to see what you're going to get."
She speaks, too, of the culinary bed, which features the usual herb suspects — with one exception: Sprinkled in are a few ramps, a wild onion foraged and treasured by local chefs. They are known to be difficult to cultivate.
Reiland laughs gently at the suggestion, almost winking. "Not once you get them started," she says.
The unit is made up mostly of retirees — but that seems to be more a product of the time of day they gather (meetings and garden work are usually scheduled at 10 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays) than mission. Anyone of any age is welcome, they say.
Ruth Rouleau, a former children's librarian who joined in 1975, says she's learned more from her peers than she ever could have imagined.
"We can all buy all the books that are out there, but doing what we're doing today and talking to one another and learning — it's just the best way to learn about herbs," she explains.