Students reap rewards from nature; Connections: Harry McCrone's class at the South County Senior Center in Edgewater not only teaches about herbs, but links the people who take it.


Harry McCrone doesn't need store-bought flavored vinegar: he makes his own with herbs and he makes soaps, shampoos, air fresheners, cookies and breads too, all tinged with herbs and spices.

McCrone, who's spent nearly three years teaching dozens of seniors how to grow and use herbs in their daily lives, has become something of a guru among south county residents.

"He knows what our problems are," said Irene Winters of Hillsmere after a lecture in which McCrone mentioned that he treated achy knees with pepper-based compound pain reliever. "He's very well prepared. He knows what he's talking about and he makes it fun."

McCrone's course on herbs at the South County Senior Center in Edgewater is always full of students, aroma and flavor. Visitors need only follow their noses to find it in a corner room where about a dozen seniors meet at 1 p.m. each Thursday.

The faint scent of rosemary, the overpowering essence of lemon, and the aroma of percolating spiced apple cider spill out into the hallway through a door that's always ajar.

Inside, groups of men and women slice peaches, measure out peppercorns, grate lemon peel, shake out basil, spoon allspice and pour vinegar into large glass jugs. In eight weeks their concoctions will yield a small collection of spiced vinegars: peach white wine, nine pepper, basil-chili-garlic, and spiced rice wine.

"Your can use the vinegars to marinate your meats," said Winters, who is as quick to hand out herb tricks as to tell you the time. "I also like to use these different vinegars in salads."

Like Winters, who has been taking McCrone's herb class for two years, many seniors have returned to the herb class repeatedly to learn new tricks. Though the course is only 10 weeks, the seniors don't count how many sessions they've taken, they measure their time in years. Of the 18 students in the current session, only three are new.

"Like anything, you keep doing it; you hone your skills," said Dave Staples of Shadyside, who has been with the class since it began in 1996.

McCrone, a retired history teacher, started the herb class in April 1996 as an extension of his interest in growing and using herbs. He said he did not start out knowing a lot about the plants, he just got a good book and tried different things.

"The class just evolved from lectures to field trips to making things," he said. "It's sort of just using what's our natural heritage -- plant materials."

In the course of each 10-week session, students take field trips to local herb gardens, participate in projects making air fresheners, deodorants, colognes and vinegars, listen to lecturers, and learn tips on growing and preserving the plants.

The students get a little taste of the legend and lore of herbs such as rosemary, McCrone's favorite. The dark, tender plant with needle-shaped leaves can be trained to grow into a small tree.

It's Latin name, ros marinus, means "dew of the sea" because the plant grows on middle eastern seashores, McCrone said. According to legend, the plant will not grow over 6 feet, even if it lives 33 years -- references to what are believed to have been Jesus' height and life span.

"There's something about that clean, sharp tang of the plant," McCrone said. "You either love it or hate it. Plus it can be used in so many dishes."

The variety -- in plants and activities -- is what makes the herb class sought after, said Shirley Miller, assistant director of the senior center.

"There's always a few on the waiting list to try to get in for the next cycle," Miller said. "It's just a good lively class very active. I expected it to be a lot of interest at first but I really didn't expect it to last as long as it has."

The class has become almost a family affair. Classmates joke together through classes, celebrate each other's birthdays and share bread, cider and cookies at the end of every meeting.

"We have a wonderful camaraderie here," said Dorothy Sullivan of Mayo, who's been taking the course for two years. "This is another group of friends for me and my husband."

The herb class, a continuing education program managed through Anne Arundel Community College, is among several offered at the center. People 55 to 59 pay $20 per 10 weeks to use the senior center and $40 for each course. There is a $6 supply fee for the herb course. Those 60 and older pay $20 per 10 weeks for an unlimited number of classes at the senior center, plus applicable supply fees for each class.

Information: 410-222-1927.

Rice Wine Vinegar

Note: This vinegar has a shelf life of two years and can be used as a marinade, as a flavor enhancer for stir fries and soups, or as a salad dressing.

2 cups rice wine vinegar 20 black peppercorns 2-3 quarter-sized slices of garlic root 1-2 cloves of garlic

Mix the ingredients in a glass jar or container, seal and place in a sunny window for a week. Shake the solution daily or every other day to mix the ingredients. Add more flavor by allowing it to sit six to eight weeks.

Herbal Oil

This oil has a shelf life of about four months. It is good to use when browning meat or as a salad dressing.

2 cups extra virgin olive oil 2-3 twigs of rosemary or basil or 2-3 cloves of garlic

Mix the ingredients in a bottle, seal and place in a sunny window. Taste after three days. The solution may sit for up to one week until it has reached the desired flavor. Refrigerate after opening.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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