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Interview: Stephen Orr’s New American Herbal

by Maxwell Tielman

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The term “passion project” can sometimes be used pejoratively, an implication of over-enlarged ego or misguided grandiosity. It seems remarkably apt, however, when applied to gardener extraordinaire Stephen Orr’s new book, The American Herbalonly in this case, it is said with nothing but slack-jawed admiration. Passion seems to be the guiding force behind this volume—an epic, encyclopedic, and utterly beautiful tome devoted to the cultivation and appreciation of herbs in America. Created during weekends upstate with almost full creative freedom, the book is as much a compendium of herbal facts, lore, and uses as it is a reflection of its creator—witty anecdotes and observations pepper the book’s writing and Orr’s own stunning photographs fill its pages. While many gardening books can have the charm of an automotive manual, mere compilations of growing tips and run-of-the-mill images, Orr’s book covers its bases (everything from tried-and-true choices like thyme and lavender to more off-beat selections like hemlock and marijuana) with style. Both a great read and an indispensible resource for everything from gardening to cooking, this beautifully designed book is just as at home on a gardener’s shelf as it is on the nightstand or coffee table. We’re so thrilled that Stephen could take some time from his (quite surely) busy life to answer a few questions about this fabulous book. Check out our full interview after the jump! —Max

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DS: What drew you to this topic?

SO: I’ve been a plant nerd as long as I remember. I used to get in trouble in Little League in West Texas for picking weeds and flowers and tying them into little bouquets with grass blades. I dreaded it when the baseball came into my lonely left field spot. You get the picture. Later, in high school, my parents were traveling a lot so I started cooking for myself and inviting friends over. I loved using herbs even then, though I only really had access to dried bottles of herbs and spices. I thought they made my cooking fancy. Once I had my first garden, a roof space on West 19th Street in Manhattan, I learned I could easily grow fresh herbs in pots and never have to buy bottled herbs again. When it came time to do my second book, herbs was at the top of my list of topics. I had been thinking of doing a book on herbs and useful plants for four or five years and I was so happy when my editor Pam Krauss at Clarkson Potter gave me the green light. She also gave me the gift of a lot of freedom. I think we trust each other because we had worked together on my last book, Tomorrow’s Garden, and she’s always right there with advice to help guide me through the long process of organizing all the material.

The amount of work that clearly went into this book is a little mind-boggling! In addition to all of your research and writing for the book, you also managed to photograph each one of the images within it. What was it like having so much creative control and responsibility when it came to this particular project? Can you tell us a little bit about your process?

Thank you! It was a huge project but very freeing. I had only me to answer to until I submitted it to my publisher. The hardest part was trying to narrow down the range of useful plants (which is the broad definition of an “herb” that they are useful to humans). I decided to restrict the list to plants that could be grown in the U.S. either outdoors or as a houseplant. That still left hundreds of herbs to research and write about. But I loved (almost) every minute since the subject is so gratifying to me. The hard part is writing, writing, and more writing. I feel like it’s all I did for over a year. It’s way too much sitting and a real bummer on a person’s social life. I am a procrastinator so it’s very hard to stay inspired and focused. But somehow I did it.

I loved making the images. I have a BFA in photography and a background as an art director so I have experience in taking and styling my own pictures. I love working with my more talented photographer friends. However by doing it myself I can be in the right place when and where I see an herb on my list. I might find it on the side of the highway in northern California or in a botanical garden or food market in Flushing’s Chinatown. The bottom line is I have complete control over the creative process up until I send it off to the publisher and I love that.

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I can only imagine what your workspace must have looked like while you wrote this book—probably an herb-lovers dream! Can you tell us?

Since I’m a magazine editor, I wrote and photographed the book on weekends, mainly upstate where we have a lake cabin. That’s my laboratory for growing as many herbs as possible on my tiny piece of land. A lot of the photography came out of my everyday life, the recipes are things I cook upstate for guests. The situations were all natural and came about organically with everything photographed on my screened porch where the light is soft or out on the back terrace if I needed more light. But I photographed all over the place, even on the floor of my apartment by the window. That’s where I shot the cover, which was rather last minute and done early in the morning before I went to work. I wrote most of the book on my laptop sitting in front of a fire or at a little desk facing the wall. I can’t have silence but I can only listen to wordless music playing or it breaks my concentration, so I put these three records on endless loop to get me in the right head space: Ahmad Jamal – “The Awakening,” Miles Davis – “Kind of Blue,” and “The Goldberg Variations” (both of the versions played by Glenn Gould).

Most of the herbs mentioned in your book have an accompanying photograph—how were you able to track down and photograph each of them?

I was a fanatic (cough…OCD) to find as many herbs as possible. I grew a lot of them. Luckily enough, I have a great herb nursery near me upstate called Silver Heights Farm. The owner, Trina Pilonero, sells an amazing selection of plants, many of them hard to find elsewhere. I also mail-ordered seedlings from favorite sources: Richters in Canada, Mountain Valley Growers in California, Logee’s in Connecticut, and The Growers’ Exchange in Virginia.

I also visited a number of fascinating herb collections at public gardens: The National Herb Collection at the Arboretum in Washington, DC, Wave Hill and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Medicinal Plant Garden at the University of Washington in Seattle, and my favorite, The Garden of Useful Plants at the Botanical Garden in Montreal. And then to fill in any gaps, I hunted down herbs at farmers’ markets (my local in Jackson Heights, Queens is exceptional for Mexican and Asian herbs) and I also visited as many ethnic markets as I could in New York, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Seattle. It was a real adventure and I thoroughly enjoyed the reporting and places I visited along the way. Thankfully living in Queens for the past seven years has greatly broadened my culinary knowledge.

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Turning through the pages of your text, it quickly becomes evident that this is not just a compilation of various plants, flavors and remedies. It’s a cultural investigation of sorts. For each herb, it seems that there is some historical or anecdotal significance, beyond its mere practical application. Are there any herbs that you became particularly fascinated or enamored with while writing this book? Were there any findings that surprised you?

As I said before, I’m a plant geek. And I have a mind for arcane and sometimes trivial knowledge. The history of all these plants is fascinating to me. And especially their long-standing relationship with humans. I can really nerd out on the research by using my own fairly large herbal book library but I also poked through online library collections and digitized herbals online from all over the the world.

One of the things I’m most happy to report is that I love herbs even more now than when I began. That’s the sign of a good project for me. I was never bored. You’d think after 90,000 words and over 20,000 photographs of herbs that I’d be damn sick of them. But it’s just the opposite. I now have even more favorites, like tulsi or holy basil, which I grow in a pot and use in tea. Before working on the book, I thought the scent, which is very pungent, was kind of repulsive. In India, people treat their tulsi plants with the utmost respect—now I do the same. I also love lovage, a medieval-era herb with a smokey celery flavor and sweet woodruff, which smells and tastes a bit like fresh mown hay and wildflowers and honey from a compound called coumarin that provide a distinctive aroma that gains strength as the leaves dry. The same fragrance is found in tonka beans and sweetgrass, two other new favorites.

I like that you titled the book The New American Herbal. After all, the documentation and research of herbs has been an ongoing process for much of the history of civilization. What is the significance of the term “new” as it applies to your text? 

The “New” is the most important part of the title to me. There have been a lot of books on herbs. But I wanted to focus attention on plants that are being brought to the U.S. by our newest immigrants and not just make a book about plants that have been in European gardens and herbals for hundreds of years (though I love those, too).

I found herbs that were new to me and probably many readers like papalo, pipicha, and tlapanche at my local farmers’ market. They are grown by a Mexican American farmer from Puebla where these cilantro-type culinary herbs are very popular. Or Asian herbs like shiso, ngo om, curry leaf or mitsuba. Middle eastern herbs like nigella, mulukhiyah (a kind of mallow), sumac, fenugreek, or za’atar. As a travel editor and writer, I find all this culinary history and cross-pollinization really inspiring.

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Just like the clothing that we wear, the popularity of certain herbs ebbs and flows throughout time. Are there any herbs that you think are especially in vogue now?

I think herbs in general are coming back into fashion—and I hope they continue to gain popularity. I’m very evangelical about it. Herbs have come and gone over the years. There was a big interest in them in the 1970s when natural healing was gaining popularity. Before that they were popular in the 1930s and 1940s. You’ll find a lot of herb books written during that time that are focused on colonial American herb history and English herbals by what I call the Herb Lady authors: Mrs. Grieve, Mrs. Leyel, Rosetta Clarkson, and Eleanour Sinclair Rohde. These were authors who were examining Tudor herbals and synthesizing the information for early 20th century readers. And for many people herbs have never gone out of favor. I really admire more recent herb experts such as Rosemary Gladstar, Matthew Wood, Deb Soule and the late Juliette de Baïracli Levy. I’m just traipsing in their deeper footsteps.

As for specific herbs, people are very interested in herbs for health/medicinal purposes such as ashwagandha, valerian, black cohosh and in cooking the world of artisanal, farm-to-table, locally sourced loves unusual herbs that can be infused into dishes or cocktails. I’m thrilled that people are getting into plants forgotten or neglected by the general public. I’m trying to reach out to the broadest audience possible and lure them in.

You mention in your text that many of the herbs that Americans use today are not indigenous—oftentimes they have been transplanted from different regions, brought here by immigrants and travelers. Given your interest in sustainable and region-specific gardening, how do you advise that gardeners go about planting herbs? Are there any particular herbs that you would not advise using in certain climates or regions?

There are plenty of amazing native American herbs like echinacea to grow but I don’t think gardeners should be wary of growing imported species unless they are invasive. I’ve never been a natives-only gardener. Just region appropriate. And even a plant that can be a thug in the garden bed like horseradish or valerian, isn’t the kind of plant that will run rampant in the natural landscape and cause damage like escaped garden ornamentals such as kudzu in the south or Japanese knotweed in the northeast. In fact, there are some herbs I wrote about that have been carted around for so many centuries that no one really knows where they grow natively. These include indigo, fenugreek, and even marijuana (which was exciting to write about with all the changes in legislation).

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What is one uncommon herb that you would love to see make it onto everyday supermarket shelves?

I can’t get enough lemon verbena. I grow several pots and never seem to have enough and I really miss it in the winter when my dried stash is exhausted. Chives, though they are often sold in little plastic clamshells in the supermarket, are one of my most used cooking herbs. They have such a subtle onion flavor. I grow as much as I can upstate and once again, don’t ever seem to have enough. One more, then I’ll stop but I could go on. I wish more people used chervil. It has a fine, sophisticated flavor reminiscent of mild tarragon with a touch of anise. It’s a very French flavor.

What’s in your herb garden?

Wow. Well where do I start? In just about a quarter acre with lots of deer roaming by I grow about 20 or 30 kinds of mint. All sorts of tea herbs like lemon balm, lemon verbena, pineapple sage, lemongrass, anise hyssop, lemon thyme, holy basil. All sorts of other basils: miniatures, bush, Thai, purple, ruffled. Tarragon, chervil, chives, rosemary, fennel, caraway, sage, dill, lovage, horseradish. Papalo, Cuban oregano, and culantro. Allspice, myrtle, scented geraniums, and bay in pots. Many kinds of thyme, lavender, and oregano. Valerian, feverfew, sweet cicely, sweet woodruff. Patchouli. Myrtle. A few beautiful, but poisonous herbs (remember not all herbs are edible), such as monkshood and colchicum. Even some struggling saffron crocuses in the front lawn. And there are others I’m forgetting.

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Click here to purchase The New American Herbal.

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