Wednesday, November 17, 1999

Pioneer in the Power of Herbs

Rosella Mathieu's love for fragrances put her decades ahead of her time

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rose petals and lavender potpourri dot the face of 93-year-old Rosella Mathieu, an expert on herbs.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
| ZOOM |
        Rosella Mathieu figured all along that herbs — lush, sweet-smelling, enticing, relaxing, spicy, healing — would catch on with the general public. She just didn't know how far ahead of her time she would be.

        Or that it would take so long for everyone to discover about Mother Earth's bounty what she has known for half a century.

        In the late 1930s — long before Walgreens began selling ginseng and certainly before “aromatherapy” became part of the popular vernacular — Mrs. Mathieu first crushed a nameless plant in her Silverton garden and became curious about the overpowering and enticing smell it produced.

        Three years later, after reading and scouring botanical books, she identified it as sweet marjoram. From that moment on, she was hooked on herbs.

        Blame it on her nose.

        “I like smells. I smell everything,” says the 93-year-old woman who has lived at at Marjorie P. Lee Retirement Community in Hyde Park for the last three years.

        “My father always had a garden, and we weren't allowed to touch it, but if he wasn't around, I would cut some of his roses. I wasn't interested in growing stuff. I just wanted to smell it all. I started out working with herbs because that's what I was interested in at the time.”

    People could ask Rosella Mathieu just about anything about herbs — her favorite one, the strongest-scented, the most unusual. “In all these years, the biggest thing people would ask me at a lecture was, "Do you pronounce it H-erb or 'erb'? ” she says.
    And the answer?
    “I pronounce it h-erb, with the h,” she says. “Either way is correct, but I always liked the sound of h-erb. If you pronounce it "erb,' it's Cockney to leave off the H. That was another reason I feel that h-erb is better.”
        For more than 50 years, she kept the interest alive through a Silverton-based business that sold herb-scented products across the U.S. She has also been an author and a consultant to small companies interested in finding herbal oils and personal-care products with long shelf lives.

        Even though she has been retired from business for more than a decade, her zest for herbs culminated recently in two major awards: a 1998 certificate of achievement from the Herb Society of America and a Professional Award from the International Herb Association for “outstanding contributions to the herb industry.”

        That certainly explains the calmingly curious aromas that emanate from her apartment and drift down the hallway at Marjorie P. Lee.

        Bottles of herbal oils fill part of her dining room table. Spring through fall, her balcony is awash in flowers and herbs — an eclectic mix of colorful annuals, aromatic lavender and mint, lemon verbena, Thai basil and distinctive anise.

        “When something is good for you, it has both a chemical and electrical result in your body,” she explains, stepping across her neat living room to open a ceramic jar containing still-fragrant herbs dating from 1956. “I didn't realize that at first. I thought the smell was just for pleasure, but pleasure does very physical, positive things in your body.”

Practical applications
        Over the years, she's cooked with herbs. She's used aloe and comfrey to ease arthritis aches and pains (and continued playing tennis until she was 80). She shops at health-food stores and avoids using makeup on her young-looking skin. She gives occasional talks and demonstrations about herbs and aromatherapy and offers gardening tips to anyone who's interested.

        “What makes her tick is her enthusiasm, her knowledge, her wanting to share with everyone,” says Doris Weiller, 84, a friend and fellow resident for more than two years at Marjorie P. Lee.

        “She wants everyone, all of us, to understand herbs, from a medicinal standpoint and just for the sheer enjoyment of them,” she says. “She has this marvelous nose and can recognize the various scents without any labels or anything. The product is very important to her. She wants to make it last, just like her reputation.”

Fragrant Herb Farm
        Enquirer articles from 1942 highlight Mrs. Mathieu's thriving potpourri and scent business, Fragrant Herb Farm, in Silverton. At one time, the family business employed five women who sewed scented sachets, pillows, pincushions, heart hangers and other items that were sold in department stores and at 25 women's exchange stores nationwide. The Mathieus lived there for 56 years, until 1996, the year her late husband, Aron, publisher of Farm Quarterly, died. A daughter, Sue, died in February.

        She credits her 87-year-old brother, Milton Feher, with her interest in herbs and relaxation. He still oversees his own classical dance/relaxation studio in New York City.

        “She really was ahead of her time,” says Madalene Hill, former herb farmer and former HSA president, pointing out Mrs. Mathieu's role in writing some of the first articles about herbs for the lay public in the 1950s and her insistence on high-quality products.

        “She was interested in using only the very best and finest ingredients,” Ms. Hill says. “She was not a trained chemist or botanist, but she went to the people in the industry who were and purchased only those ingredients of the finest quality.”

        She also founded (but is no longer involved with) Herb Garden Fragrances, a business that sells essential oils for potpourri and other products. In 1949, Mrs. Mathieu wrote and published The Herb Growers Complete Guide, a book that sold at the time for $2-$2.50.

        “I was a pioneer and people didn't know much about herbs at the time, but they were beginning to be interested,” Mrs. Mathieu recalls.

        Today, herb sales are estimated at $3 billion-$5 billion a year, with about 12 percent of Americans using herbs for health or medical conditions, according to HerbalGram and the American Botanical Council.

        Mrs. Mathieu has a few favorite herbs — purple basil, for example, (“it's like perfume when you open the container”) and exotic varieties of sage. She likes mixing and experimenting with different scents, but acknowledges that today's public seems far more interested in herbs for health reasons than in aromatherapy or sheer savory smells.

        “People need to know they cannot dose themselves,” she warns, “because there's too much to know. Using herbs can be just as dangerous as using prescription drugs without knowing anything about them. I discourage use unless you ask someone who knows.”

Future plans
        In the meantime, she's scheming about the future.

        She'd love to update and reissue her book, which has been out of print. She'd like to compile a kit to sell over the Internet, complete with herb seed packets, herbal cooking oils, a book and recipes.

        She's getting ready to make and sell sachets and potpourri at an upcoming holiday bazaar at the retirement home, which explains the lavender, balsam pine and colorful spools of ribbon in her apartment.

        “I haven't made bows in such a long time, and it's so much fun,” she says. “Sometimes, you wonder why you live so long. I've been so fortunate, being grounded in a certain way. I think it's important for me to share what I know.”


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