Herb fest is infused with spirit of founder; Enthusiasts head to Leakin Park for 15th annual event


To the hordes who toted pots of oregano, basil and rosemary on little red wagons or tried to imagine their gardens with a gazing ball or gargoyle, yesterday's 15th annual Baltimore Herb Festival was just about perfect.

The path through Leakin Park in Northwest Baltimore was lined with vendors selling everything from the commonplace to the exotic (interested in chocolate mint or tricolored sage?), along with wrought-iron trellises, ergonomic spades and other garden tools.

A steady drizzle probably kept attendance from surpassing last year's record of 3,500, but the crowd was enthusiastic in spite of the weather.

What most didn't know is that death and fire almost kept the festival from happening.

Or that the spirit of Mary Louise Wolf might have been what saved it.

Wolf was the dynamo who rescued Leakin Park from a plan in the early 1970s to extend Interstate 70 through its heart. She later organized the festival as a way to raise money to renovate the Gothic, gingerbread chapel that stands on the property.

Not long after it began in 1986, the event grew to become one of the nation's leading herb fairs -- a place where anyone who is passionate about buying and selling herbs might want to come. The fair now draws herb fanciers from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and vendors from North Carolina to Ohio.

Wolf, a retired statistical engineer for Westinghouse, did most of the work, although she was surrounded by friends who helped her with last-minute details.

'Mary Lou's baby'

"The truth of the matter was, this was Mary Lou's baby," said Jane Lewis, a Dickeyville resident who heads the festival's organizing committee. "She was retired, single. This was her social life. She traveled around the countryside visiting some of the vendors and growers. It really became a year-round avocation for her.

"We'd meet. Then Mary Lou would inform us of what was going on."

So when Wolf died in December 1998, it left an enormous hole. Lewis and the small collection of people who had watched Wolf work wonders made it their business to keep the festival afloat. It wasn't easy.

Wolf, for instance, might have been a statistician, but she never took to computers.

Everything worth knowing about the festival was kept in boxes of 3-by-5 index cards.

That included the names and addresses of vendors, musicians and lecturers, and contacts in the city parks department who lent their support.

When she died, she had planned most of the details for last year's festival. But who knew how to plan the next one, or the next?

Computer meltdown

Lewis transferred all the information to computer and even thought to back up the information on diskettes, a hedge against a Y2K computer disaster. The digital disaster never happened.

Something worse did.

Her house burned down.

Fire not only destroyed a lifetime of treasures but melted the diskettes.

A family friend with computer experience, however, noticed that the computer's plastic casing was only partly melted and quickly extracted the hard drive and downloaded its contents onto another machine. Every last number was salvaged.

"We still insist Mary Lou is still hovering somewhere, keeping an eye on her child," Lewis said. "Every time a seemingly impossible question arises, suddenly within 24 hours the phone would ring and someone would provide the answer."

If Wolf was there yesterday, she no doubt liked what she saw.

Dealing in dandelion

Near the entrance, Peter Gail of Cleveland was selling a coffee substitute made from dandelion root, as well as books filled with recipes and nutritional information about the maligned weed.

"I probably have 450 recipes for lasagna and pizza and other things from Italy," he said.

Elsewhere, Jim Duke, a leading expert on medicinal herbs, munched on freshly picked St. John's wort, kudzu and clover while lecturing to a small group of onlookers.

And practically everywhere, vendors such as Jeanne Grimes of Two Hollies Farm in Shady Side were selling -- and talking -- herbs.

"There isn't just one rosemary," the Anne Arundel County gardener said. "There are 15 to 25. The same with lavender and oregano. There's Greek oregano. Do you have golden oregano? Do you have tricolored sage? Look, it's purple, white and green."

Surging popularity

Surging interest in alternative medicine and the growing popularity of ethnic cuisines such as Indian, Thai and Vietnamese have helped festivals like this one prosper. People who are introduced to new seasonings in restaurants want starter plants so they can grow the herbs themselves.

"Festivals like this are the only place you can buy them," said Maureen Rogers, president of the Herb Growing and Marketing Network, a trade association. "Herbs are hot."

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