Herbalist takes on apprentice to carry on plant traditions

KERENS (AP) — One small step or wrong turn in Marion Harless’ garden, and you might never find your way out.

But losing yourself in Harless’ array of plants means you’ll likely gain something else — like an understanding of how scouring rush horsetail, a plant that belongs to the equisetaceae family, can be used as a toothpaste or mouthwash when dried.

Bitterweed and dandelion, which grow near the gate to her garden, are used for summer salads. Jewelweed is used to make a lotion that combats poison ivy. And agrimonia? It’s a member of the rose family and can help with liver problems or become the perfect substitute for black tea.

“It’s medicinal but it’s just a beverage tea, too, like witch hazel,” Harless said. “Some Native American tribes drank witch hazel tea, and some of them sweetened it with maple syrup.”

Following only a few steps behind, her apprentice, Kara Vaneck, of Weston, scribbles notes in a small hardback journal.

Harless and Vaneck are paired together through the West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, which offers a stipend to master traditional artists or tradition bearers working with apprentices on a yearlong in-depth apprenticeship. Their grant is called “Green Traditions.”

“It’s not just food aspects or medicinal aspects, but all sorts of other things like pewterwort and using plants as cleaning agents,” Harless said.

An herbalist, Harless’ love for plants began when she was a young girl wandering in her family’s garden in Weirton.

She learned to grow peppers, cabbage, radishes, carrots and parsnips the length of her father’s arm.

“Everybody had a garden, it was not unusual,” she said. “When people would come to visit, they’d say, ‘Well, let’s go up to the garden,” and we’d take the saltshaker and paring knife and eat tomatoes and peel kohlrabi,” a kind of turnip.

Her parents allowed her to experiment with different plants and herbs.

“I would say to my dad, ‘Do I pull this?’ and he would say, ‘No, don’t pull it, it’s not hurting anything,’ and so if you see my garden now, there’s no bare ground hardly.”

She advises visitors to stay on the path, so as not to step on anything.

“Some people hate my garden because there is too much stuff,” she said, with a laugh. “I think it’s just right.”

Her home is filled with overflowing stacks and shelves of books on herbal science. Some include recipes for teas, and others are filled with herbal remedies.

For example, the tannins in the leaves, bark and twigs of witch hazel help reduce itching, pain and swelling when applied directly to the skin. It can also be taken by mouth for colds and fevers.

“My dad was born in 1910, and at that time, there was still lots and lots of Native American knowledge, plus what they had brought over from the settlers,” Harless said. “It’s just really nice to be able to pass it on to somebody who is really interested and who already has a lot of information in her head.”

She and Vaneck met and bonded over their love of plants four years ago on a ride home.

“She showed me her garden and I remember I was just enamored,” Vaneck said.

When Harless reached out to her about becoming her apprentice for the new West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship, she couldn’t say no.

“I think without the apprenticeship program guiding us, we probably wouldn’t meet as frequently,” Vaneck said. “It just gives us the opportunity to sit down and do that and to reserve time for it. It’s something that most of the time, we don’t get the opportunity to do because we’re so busy with our own lives.”

Since November, they’ve spent about three hours each Monday discussing green traditions.

Their lessons range from discussing new plants to walks through the garden, or even trips to a nursery.

Vaneck moved to West Virginia as a materials scientist with a focus on ceramics engineering. She focused on environmental sustainability. But for her, engineering was always “a means to an end.” She wanted to farm.

“Our health system, I think, is pretty obviously flawed and not really serving us, and there is so much medicine in the greenery that is everywhere,” Vaneck said.

In high school, she started gardening with herbs in her parents’ backyard.

“I guess I’ve always been attracted to plants,” she said. “They’re just such strange organisms, and then they’re just so amazing and they’re all so different and every one is just this unique creature.”