Walking through Creekside Park, tucked between downtown Gahanna and Big Walnut Creek, I just see a bunch of trees – at first.
As Brooke Sackenheim leads me along the path, she gives them names and traits: black walnut trees scattering nuts across the ground, pawpaws that are not quite ripe yet. Then she thrusts a bright green leaf into my face: spearmint.
“Once you start to see plants and recognize them, you’ll start to see that there’s way more than the sea of green you may have started with,” Sackenheim says.
You might know Gahnna from its annual blues and jazz festival, or maybe its quaint downtown. But Gahanna has another, lesser-known identity: Herb Capital of Ohio.
Sackenheim is the manager of the Ohio Herb Education Center, located in a small house just outside of the park. It's her job to teach the public about herbs, and not just the ones in this park, although there are plenty.
She can tell you that yarrow was used to stop bleeding in World War One, show you that loveage grows over four feet tall and tastes like fennel, how other breeds of mint can taste like berries and cream, teach you how to grow them in your own backyard.
“I kind of like to subscribe to a larger definition of what herbs are: plants that are useful,” Sackenheim says.
You can find herbs anywhere. But it's because of Jane "Bunny" Geroux they found a special place in Gahanna.
Beginning in the 1960s and ‘70s, the towns and suburbs around Columbus pushed to distinguish themselves apart from the city. Reynoldsburg took the title of "home of the tomato,” Marion became known for its popcorn, and Pickerington embraced violets.
According to Gahanna Convention and Visitors Bureau director Laurie Jadwin, defining Gahanna was a matter of pride for Geroux, a prominent member of the local historical society.
“Gahanna at the time was really a developing community,” Jadwin says. “A lot of subdivisions were being built, and a developer happened to make a comment to Bunny one day that Gahanna was never going to be anything more than a bunch of subdivisions. Bunny did not take too kindly to that.”
With the help of Jo Ann Davidson – who would later become Ohio’s first female House Speaker – Geroux pushed the Ohio General Assembly to pass a resolution in 1972 declaring Gahanna the "Herb Capital of Ohio."
Why Gahanna? Well, Bunny herself was an avid gardener, and no other town had claimed the title.
Otherwise, it wasn't an obvious pairing. Unlike Reynoldsburg and the tomato, Gahanna played no prominent role in the development of the herb industry. There are no spice businesses based there; its environment is fine for herb cultivation, but nothing to write home about.
Gahanna's herb embrace really came afterward, along with the creation of the Herb Education Center, which is now run by Visit Gahanna. The town built the Geroux Herb Gardens in 1975, and in 2012, an Herbal Trail that winds through the parks.
You can celebrate Herb Day every May, right after "Herb'n Restaurant Week.” But you can get a herb-infused drink anytime at the nine stops of the Herbal Cocktail Trail, which was launched in 2017.
“We’re all vying for that visitor, what makes Gahnana separate, why should a visitor want to come here versus any of the other suburbs around the area,” Jadwin says.
Gahanna pairs with over 50 local businesses for its herbal offerings. Laurie says that thousands of people have participated in their herb trails in the past six years, although she won’t put a dollar value on their economic impact.
Recently, as part of a rebranding effort, Gahanna surveyed its residents what the city meant to them. Their responses were about the small town feel, the community, the parks and trails. Their new brand is “Where Currents Connect.” No herbs in sight.
After all that, I asked Brooke, how many people actually know Gahanna is the Herb Capital of Ohio?
“A lot more than when I started,” she says.