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Author an expert on herbal essence

September 30, 2000

Author an expert on herbal essence



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer


HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - For more than 10 years, Linda Ours Rago has been writing books to educate people about herb use and horticulture.

She introduced readers to the varieties of herbs in "Dooryard Herbs," then showed them how to use herbs in the kitchen with "Dooryard Herb Cookbook."

In "Herbal Almanac," she delved into the sometimes strange folklore associated with herbs, such as the practice of putting parsley seeds on a fence post so the wind would blow them onto the ground. It was commonly believed that planting parsley by hand was bad luck, and doing so would result in death in the immediate family within a year.

In her new book, "Blackberry Cove Herbal," Rago takes readers to a special place.

Blackberry Cove was the name Rago gave her grandfather's home place in Hampshire County, W.Va. On a set of terraced gardens leading up a hill, Rago's grandfather raised apple trees, tomatoes and other crops.

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The cabin Rago's grandfather lived in eventually fell to ruin, but Rago and her husband, Ron, decided to rebuild it in the 1970s and use it for a summer retreat.

"When my children were toddlers we lived in a narrow townhouse convenient to my husband's job in Washington," Rago wrote in the book's introduction. "On Friday nights we would often bundle everyone up for the long drive from flat tidewater Virginia to our mountains of West Virginia. The rutted lane to the cabin jostled the children awake just long enough to be wide-eyed at the crisp starry sky, undimmed by city lights, before we tumbled them into their beds and lit a warm fire in the stove."

Rago was intrigued by the wisdom of Appalachian grandmothers she met while visiting the farm as a child, and she relates their sayings in the book. The phrases were often set in rhyme to help remember important points about the weather or diet, Rago said.

Robins for example, are "prophets of weather," Rago writes, and she relates a rhyme used to measure the arrival of fair weather in spring:

"If the robin sings in the bush, the weather will be coarse. If the robin sings in the barn, the weather will be warm."

Today, health experts emphasize the importance of fiber in a diet, but mountain people knew about that hundreds of years ago.

"If you eat leeks in March and mugwarts in May, so many young maidens would not go to the clay," Rago said, recounting a passage.

In past centuries, people did not have the luxury of being able to eat fruits and vegetables year-round like modern society, and Rago believes the phrases were important messages meant to help people survive.

"My personal feeling is a lot of these things are associated with truth," Rago said.

The book is divided into the four seasons. Along with the folklore, Rago describes the herbs that grew wild in her Hampshire County getaway.

There's mullein, "which will prevent fainting" or can be wrapped around fruit to prevent rotting. Bloodroot was used to treat athlete's foot, dandelion to remove warts and heal sores. Horsetail can relieve muscle aches, and chewing mustard can ease a toothache.

The power of herbs has made a resurgence recently with the popularity of herb extractions sold commercially to correct a variety of ills. Rago said that is good, because it proves the Appalachian grandmothers were on to something.

But because the remedies are offered in pill form, Rago said she is concerned that people will not realize or appreciate where they come from.

All the more reason to appreciate what our ancestors understood about their natural world, said Rago, who is a member of the Harpers Ferry Town Council.

"That thread of knowledge, so much of it is lost," she said.

The book is illustrated by Shepherdstown, W.Va., artist Diana Suttenfield. When Rago was writing the book, a friend recommended that she consider Suttenfield's work. Rago visited Suttenfield's studio and was convinced her illustrations were the best to help tell the story.

Suttenfield had to paint one scene for the book. The rest she had created previously and have appeared in exhibits in Chicago.

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