VISTA — Legend has it that rosemary, one of the oldest herbs known to man, is a virtual cure-all. Through the ages, the blue-flowered plant has been credited with healing wounds, alleviating headaches, restoring memory and preventing the spread of disease when burned as an incense.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare hailed rosemary as a symbol of fidelity, and balding men have long pinned hopes of sprouting new hair on the herb. "Banckes' Herball," a handbook published in London in 1525, even claimed that rosemary would ward off old age: "Smell it oft," the book advised, "it shall keep thee young."
Kent and Betty Taylor wouldn't put their money behind such promises. Nonetheless, they believe in herbs. And why not? Herbs have been good to them.
The couple owns and runs Taylor's Herb Gardens Inc., a 30-acre operation tucked between Vista and San Marcos that may be the nation's largest herb farm. A family business started on a $100 patch of land in Rosemead, near Los Angeles, by Kent's parents 37 years ago, Taylor's Herb Gardens grows and sells 130 varieties of living herbs to nurseries, supermarkets, health food stores, restaurants and individuals.
Even major tea makers like Lipton's and Celestial Seasonings are supplied with starter plants by the Taylors, who have 23 full-time employees--three of whom do nothing but hand water the rows and rows of lush, exotically fragrant herbs cultivated on the property.
About 85% of their plants are shipped to customers throughout the United States and Canada, with the balance sold to visitors who weave their way through winding back roads to the Taylor place. The couple declined to reveal the company's annual sales. But they did say that more than 1 million small, potted plants--which retail for $1.25 apiece when purchased at the gardens, $2 or more if ordered by mail--are sold each year.
Taylor's biggest sellers are the culinary staples--oregano, French tarragon, sage, sweet basil. But the most unusual herbs for the oddest of uses can be found in the gardens, as well.
Aphids attacking the roses? Try planting chives or garlic near the flowers. Fleas driving the dog mad? Crush up some leaves of English pennyroyal and sprinkle them on his bed. Ants invading the house? Scatter tansy outside.
"We don't like to make any promises, particularly about medicinal herbs, because that could get us sued or at least in trouble with the FDA," said Kent Taylor, 41. "But the truth is, herbs work. And once you get
outside the industrialized nations, you realize that in much of the world people still rely on herbs for most of their needs."
Fortunately for the Taylors, herbs are also trendy. Gourmet cooking is a booming pastime, and, after a brief lull, the back-to-nature movement is experiencing a renaissance of sorts.
More and more Americans are forgoing salt and sugar and using herbal substitutes to jazz up their food. Rose hips, now added to Vitamin C and many other nutritional supplements, is billed by many herbalists as a medical panacea, while oil from the jojoba plant is widely used in shampoos and lotions.
Contemporary mothers know juice from the aloe vera plant is a sure burn soother, while parsley and more sexy herbs like wintergreen, anise or any variety of scented mint, are great ammunition against bad breath.
Herbs also have industrial uses. The gopher plant yields a milky juice that contains hydrocarbons and has been refined into gas and oil substitutes. Others are used as embalming agents.
Herbs even have their own official sanctuary--the National Herb Garden at the National Arboretum in Washington. Believed to be the largest of its kind in the world, the two-acre garden has 10 specialty sections and attracts thousands of visitors annually. It was founded in 1980 by the Herb Society of America.
"Herbs are popular," Kent Taylor said. "There are all sorts of herb magazines coming out, and every month the major publications, like Sunset and Organic Gardening, have a good herb article. Heck, a few months back they had a three-day symposium in Oregon on comfrey. Three days talking about one herb!"
"For (the lawns) we use any of 10 herbs that don't get over two inches tall," Kent Taylor said. "There are apple fragrances, caraway thyme, all sorts. They're very popular. The idea is, you get out of your hot tub and lie back on your herbal lawn. Very therapeutic."
The growing use of herbs is not surprising, the Taylors say, considering the plants' deep roots and historical importance. The earliest recorded use of herbs was in 3000 B.C., when the ancient Assyrians were said to have used dill, fennel and oregano, to name a few. About 800 years later, the Sumerians described more than 1,000 medicinal plants on clay tablets.
Roman emperors hired botanists who traded in highly prized seeds and specimens, and meals in the Middle Ages were heavily laced with the natural additives. The search for herbs and spices also led to the New World, when Christopher Columbus set sail in search of the Spice Islands.