The State Folklorist’s Notebook: “People need to know about plants”: Herbarist Marion Harless

The State Folklorist’s Notebook is a regular column written by state folklorist Emily Hilliard for Goldenseal magazine. This article appears in the Spring 2019 issue.

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Marion on her porch in Kerens

Some people speak in complete sentences. Marion Harless speaks in entire paragraphs, punctuated by laughter. The first time I went to interview her at her home in Kerens in Randolph County, she spent two hours meticulously preparing us a lunch of traditional Mexican food (even plating it on Southwestern-themed dishes) while regaling us with stories of her work as a comparative psychologist in Venezuela; quoting author Nikki Giovanni; and offering instruction on how to prepare dandelion fritters, what herbs make good root beer, and the best natural deer repellent. We never actually got to the interview, but I’m glad I had an excuse to return for more (on the second visit, we skipped the meal).

Marion, 83, calls herself an herbarist rather than an herbalist, explaining, “An herbarist is a person who grows herbs, and uses them, and an herbalist is a person who uses herbs medicinally and doesn’t necessarily know anything about the plants! Often herbalists buy everything that they use and I like to grow things. And so, even though I may use them medicinally, I’m still interested in the growing part of them too.” “Interested” is putting it mildly. Marion’s knowledge of gardening, cultivating, harvesting, and using both wild and cultivated plants is deep and broad, dating back to her early childhood.

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Kara and Marion, sitting down to a traditional Mexican lunch

“I’ve always been interested in plants my whole life and I guess I just learned things by osmosis the way kids learn the difference between carrots and cabbages and lettuce. I learned all those, plus many, many, many other plants,” she says. She grew up in Weirton, where her family kept a large garden, orchard, and vineyard. Her parents also knew wild plants like ironweed and jewelweed (though they disagreed on some of their names), and often ate foraged food like black walnuts, butternuts, wild berries, bitterweed, and dandelion greens. Marion remembers canning hundreds of quarts of fruits and vegetables each year, including peaches, tomato juice, grape juice, vegetable soups, sassafras tea, and wild black-cherry cough syrup. They also made wine. “We made wine out of everything you can think of,” she says, laughing, “strawberries, blackberries (we didn’t have blueberries), currants, peaches, plums, and grapes. Grapes, grapes, grapes.”

In 2018, Marion was a master artist in the inaugural West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, leading a yearlong study in “green traditions” with Kara Vaneck of Weston. Marion was also a master in the former Augusta Heritage Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and taught various green traditions at Augusta for 32 years. “Green traditions is very, very broad because I didn’t want to say we’re just going to do natural dyeing or we’re going to do papermaking or we’re going to learn how to graft fruit trees or etc.,” Marion explains. “And so we left it as broad as we possibly could and decided that would be a good title for just passing along information that I have picked up over the years.”

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White lobelia in Marion’s garden

Marion’s garden is large, wild, and busy, covering every bit of her land and spilling over onto the porch as if the house were a plant, too. Herbs like dill, basil, and mint grow next to tomatoes and other vegetables, which grow next to day lilies and lobelia flowers. There are no straight rows, no visible empty plots, and no “weeds.”

Along with access to her extensive plant knowledge, Kara says that Marion’s garden was a main selling point in her decision to study with her. “Knowing that I would get to come and spend time with her in her garden with more frequency was really enticing,” she says. “It’s just been so wonderful to watch the garden change over the course of the year and learn new plants every week and take home cuttings and seeds to propagate.”

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Marion’s cat Miranda in the garden

When I asked Marion why she felt it was important to pass on her botanical knowledge to apprentices like Kara and the thousand or so other students she’s taught, she replied, “Because the world cannot live on plastic alone. I think if people knew the many uses of plants, that we would have so many fewer problems in the world, like this opioid crisis.”

She spoke of the power of plant-based medicines for pain, rashes, and other ailments, and expressed concern for tree species that are being lost to disease and invasive species. Kara elaborated, sharing another lesson she’s learned from Marion, whether directly or through osmosis, “Aside from all of the uses of plants, once a person experiences growing plants, it becomes such a pleasure. It’s something to live for—if you have a garden, every day something new is happening, so maybe there are some seeds to collect or maybe one of the seeds you planted is coming up or the leaves are changing color—for me it’s a purpose of life!”

Read the apprenticeship feature of Marion and Kara here

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