Grace’s Favorite Herbs

ARTEMESIA

Artemisia is a large, diverse genus of very aromatic perennial plants that includes between 200 and 400 species belonging to the daisy family (Asteraceae). Some of the more commonly known species in this genus are:

  • Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris),
  • Wormwood (Artemisia absinthum ),
  • Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentate),
  • Sagewort (Artemisia annua),
  • French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), and
  • Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum).

This listing alone gives some idea of how big, complex, and widely divergent this family of plants is. Unlike some of our previous herbs of the year, it’s not one that can be fully discussed in a single, short article. It’s one that we’ll have to tackle bit by bit and come back to repeatedly during the course of the year. For now, I just want to touch on a few of the genus’ most common traits and highlight some of its most popular and successful species for growing in this area.

Virtually all Artemisia can be used as ornamental garden subjects and thrive in average soil. They bloom from August through September. Although they vary widely in shape and size, ranging from 6 inches to 12 feet high, they’re all beautiful and work well toward the rear of a cutting garden. Propagation is most often by division, sometimes by seed.

Those which have small white or yellow flowers are grown for both their aromatic and medicinal qualities. Many species have leaves covered with white hairs. Some of them are so densely hairy, the foliage actually appears to be white.

The following species are most satisfactory for U.S. gardens.

  • Silver King (Artemisia ludoviciana), the showiest of the Wormwoods, is native to the Southwest and grows 3 feet tall. Its leaves are white and finely hairy. It makes great fresh bouquets and requires considerable moisture.
  • White Mugwort (Lactiflora) is tall with deeply-toothed, smooth-green foliage. It also has masses of very fragrant, white flowers that appear in September.
  • Mugwort (Vulgaris) is a tall plant with purple stems and very fragrant yellow flowers which, unfortunately, gives it a somewhat weedy appearance. Medicinal qualities are similar to Wormwood – love potions, stomach tonics, etc. Its tea is also said to help in childbirth. The Romans planted it along roadways to keep travelers from becoming exhausted.
  • Southernwood (Abrotanum) is nicknamed “Old Man” because of its raggedy-looking foliage in winter. It’s a shrubby, green plant, with leaves divided into thread-like segments. Another nickname is “Lad’s Love” because some people use Southernwood as a love charm. And, it can also be used as a moth deterrent. It should be planted where you will brush against the aromatic foliage.
  • Wormwood (Stelleriana) is nicknamed “Old Woman,” but we probably know it better as “Dusty Miller.” The foliage is very densely wooly and silvery and looks great in rock gardens. It can be raised from seed but it’s easier to propagate it. It is used as a treatment for malaria, many stomach and heart problems, and as a flea repellent. It has a licorice-like flavor.
  • Mountain Fringe Wormwood (Frigida) is very decorative in borders and grows 15 feet tall.
  • Absinth (Absinthium) is a shrubby plant with silky white leaves. One of most popular uses of this plant is Absinthe, a very intoxicating, green alcoholic beverage.
  • French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is one of the most sought after culinary herbs, but beware of what you buy. French tarragon has a sweet anise flavor, but Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides) is very inferior. They look similar, but French tarragon leaves are long, narrow and willowy while Russian tarragon leaves are larger and coarser and its flavor is bitter.

It should be obvious from just these few examples that there are Artemisia to suit almost every taste and every growing condition. Even if none of these spark your fancy, a little bit of searching, online or in garden stores or seed catalogs, will surely yield some that will.


BASIL

Basil is a culinary herb beloved for its spicy flavor and intoxicating scent. It is native to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and South America. It was often revered for having spiritual powers. “Sweet Basil” is probably the best known and perhaps the favorite variety, but there are as many as 180 other varieties that come in a wide range of colors and flavors. Basil flavors include licorice, cinnamon, lemon, lime, and Thai spice.

Latin name: Ocimum basilicum (sweet basil);        Family: Lamiaceae (mint);

Basil

Appearance:   There are so many varieties with so many differences that no simple description will suffice. Red and Green Holy Basil has red and green slender leaves, hairy purplish stems, and flowers. It also has a hint of mint and cloves in its flavor. Cardinal Basil is rich and heady with a touch of spice and has bright red flowers. Blue Spice, with slightly fuzzy leaves and light pink flowers, has a fruity fragrance and a taste with vanilla overtones. Red Lettuce Leaved Basil has deep red ruffled leaves that are so large they
can be used as sandwich wraps. And, Christmas Basil has glossy green leaves and deep purple flowers. It also has a nice fruity flavor

 
Cultivation:   Sow seed indoors in spring or outdoors after last frost. Basil is an annual and will not winter over. Plant in full sun, rich well-drained soil. It’s great in containers.

Growing:   Grows best in areas with hot summers. Remove flowers by cutting one-fourth of the stem just above the first set of leaves to encourage branching and more leaves.

Uses:   Use basil leaves in vinegars and pestos as well as on lamb, fish, poultry, beans, pasta, and vegetables. Basil goes particularly well with tomatoes. Cut leaves as needed, and cut flowers as they open. The flowers are as delicious as the leaves. Preserve by chopping, mixing in oil, or freezing. Basil can be dried in paper bags, or in a microwave, or by tying stems together and then hanging in a cool, dry place, but be aware that some flavor is lost in drying


BORAGE

Borage came from southern europe where it is grown as a medicinal, ornamental, and edible plant. It was named in the middle ages from the latin word “burra,” which was also used for a type of woolen cloth. It presumably received this name because of the fuzzy, rough texture of its leaves and stem.

Although it never became popular, “Euphrosinum” was another name given to borage by Pliny because he believed the herb made people happy. In a similar vein, John Gerard in the 16th century wrote: “Those of our time do use the flowers in salads to exhilarate and make the mind glad . . . The leaves and flowers put into wine drive away all sadness, dullness and melancholy.” Personally, I wonder if the wine didn’t do most of the driving.

Latin name: Borago officinalis;        Family: Boraginaceae;        Environment: Native of Europe;

Borage

Appearance:   Long, fuzzy leaves and flopping stems up to about 2 feet high. It produces many star-shaped blue, white, or purple flowers.

Cultivation:   Sow the seed in spring and summer. Borage is short-lived; sow successive crops.

Growing:   Grows best in light, dry soil and full sun, although it will tolerate light shade. Unless you pinch the plant back frequently, you may need to stake the plants to keep them upright. Mulch to prevent rotting of lower leaves. Pick off and destroy Japanese beetles should they appear.

Uses:   Fresh borage leaves and flowers can be added to salads and drinks such as fruit punches. In Greece, the flowers are used to flavor drinks called euphrosunon which means “joy in a feast.” The cucumber-flavored flowers are also excellent for garnishes or vinegars. They can also be candied, and you can dry them or freeze them in icecubes.

For more information see:   Herbs: The Complete Gardener’s Guide by Patrick Lima & Turid Forsyth or Growing and Selling Fresh-cut Herbs (2nd ed.) by Sandie Shores.


DILL

Although the name “dill” is from the Old English word “dile,” meaning to soothe or to lull, it was in widespread use long before that. The earliest evidence for its cultivation comes from Neolithic Lake shore settlements in Switzerland, but dill twigs were also found in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian ruler, Amenhotep II. Traces of it have also been found in the Roman ruins in Great Britain.

And, throughout the ages and in all those places, it’s been highly valued. The Talmud specifies that tithes shall be paid on the seeds, leaves and stems of dill, and The Bible concurs that the Pharisees were in the habit of paying dill as tithe. The Greeks also considered the presence of dill as a sign of prosperity.

In the 8th century, Charlemagne used it at banquets to relieve hiccups and, in the Middle Ages, it was used as a love potion and believed to keep witches away.

Latin name: Anethum Graveolens;        Family: Apiaceae (carrot);        Environment: Originated in eastern Europe;

Dill

Appearance:   Dill grows to 16-24 inches with slender stems and alternate, finely divide, delicate leaves. The flowers are white to yellow in small umbrels. Some varieties are:

  • `Long Island Mammoth’ is a vigorous plant that matures quickly. Large umbrels are covered with masses of seed.
  • `Kukat’ produces much more foliage before forming seed than most dills.
  • `Dukat’ has a very fine bouquet and flavor, excellent used fresh or dried with ten-inch seed heads.
  • `Fernleaf’ is a dwarf dill suitable for container and makes striking annual border plants. It is a long season producer of fresh dill weed. It is twenty inches tall.

Growing:   Dill likes full sun; partial shade will reduce the yield. The seed are viable for 3 – 10 years.

Companion planting:   Dill improves the growth and health of cabbage. It also goes well with lettuce, onions, cabbage, sweet corn and cucumbers. But, DO NOT plant dill near carrots, caraway or especially tomatoes; dill attracts the destructive tomato tomato hornworm.

Uses:   Dill leaves can be used fresh or dried, as well as the seed. It has a better flavor if freeze-dried. Dill seed is used as a spice in soups, and pickles, and various sauces.


HYSSOP

Hyssop is a fragrant ornamental that is good for clipping and cooking or that can be left unclipped to produce cut flowers. This trouble-free perennial is a small, semi-evergreen shrub, with spikes of tubular flowers that are sometimes blue, white or pink and appear from midsummer to autumn. The flowers attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. – For a visually-appealing trio, plant hyssop with white petunias and yellow daylilies. – But, be aware that some people think Hyssop’s pungent aroma smells like Vicks salve or moth balls.

Latin name: Hyssopus Officinalis;        Family: Labiatae;        Environment: Native of Europe;

Hyssop

Appearance:   Thin, dark green leaves that are handsome when clipped into a knot or edging. If you don’t clip the plant, its foliage can reach up to 2 feet high and it can produce lovely, long-blooming blue, white, or pink flowers that stretch up even higher.

Cultivation:   Start hyssop from seeds in fall or spring, or propagate it from cuttings and divisions of its flexible green stems. You can also transplant self-sown seedlings. Flowers and leaves can be cut at any time.

Growing:   Plant in well-drained soil to prevent disease problems. Plant in sun or light shade spaced 12 inches apart. Cut plants back to keep them shapely and apply a balanced fertilizer in the spring to encourage fresh new growth.

Uses:   Flower heads and young leaves dry well and can be put in potpourris. Leaves have a bitter, sage-like flavor – sometimes described as a cross between licorice and mint with a bitter tang – and should be used sparingly to flavor robust meats, bean dishes, and savory stews. Hyssop can also be used to flavor liqueurs.

For more information see:   The Herb Gardener by Susan McClure or The Successful Herb Gardner by Sally Roth.


SWEET BAY

Sweet bay is the common name for the glossy, oval leaves of an aromatic and very useful Mediterranean evergreen tree whose leaves, fruit, and wood are all useful. The leaves are used for flavoring and to aid digestion. Added to a bath, they relieve aching joints, and they are a mild insecticide. Oils from the leaves and berries have several uses, and even the wood is used to smoke foods.

Latin name: Laurus nobilis;        Family: Lauraceae;        Environment: Native of the Mediterranean region;

Sweet Bay

Appearance:   An aromatic evergreen tree with dark, glossy, oval leaves; small, pale yellow flowers; and shiny black berries. It can reach 60 feet in height in its native lands but seldom reaches even 6 feet high when grown in a pot in cooler climates.

Cultivation:   Buy a healthy tree from a nursery. Once it is growing you can try taking cuttings, but they take many months to root.

Growing:   Grow outdoors in fertile, well-drained soil or in a large pot with compost-enriched growing mix. Put it in full sun or light shade and keep it out of blustery winds. If you bring it inside during the winter, place in a cool, brightly lit area. It may need light pruning. If a bay tree gets scale, it should be scrubbed with rubbing alcohol.

Uses:   The leaves may be slightly narcotic and are known to aid digestion when added to food. Harvest leaves to use whole in meat dishes, stews and soups. Their flavor stands up to a lot of cooking, but pull them out before serving so no one chokes on them. You can also dry and pulverize bay leaves to use as a powder in cooking.

For more information see:   The Herb Gardener: A Guide for All Seasons by Susan McClure or Herbs: A Visual Guide by Lesley Remness.


THYME

Thyme is a wonderfully versatile herb for cooking, cleaning, decorating, and home remedies, but it’s almost misleading to talk about it as a singular noun. The thymes, all of which are perennials, include hundreds of different culinary, medicinal, and landscape varieties. They ought to be a regular part of your herbal arsenal.

Thymes have been widely known and used since at least the Middle Ages. But, before they became popular for cooking, they were associated with the idea of cleansing. They were burned as incense or sprinkled on church floors to get rid of odors and, ultimately, were used in death ceremonies.

Latin family name: Thymus        Original environment: Europe;

Thyme

Appearance:   They grow from 1 to 12 inches high and have clusters of tiny pink, white, or red flowers.

Cultivation:   Thymes are slow to start from seed, so have patience. Once it’s established, you can take cuttings from your favorite plants in the spring.

Growing:   Plant in average, well-drained soil where they will receive full sun to partial shade.

Uses:   Use thyme in salads, stocks, soups, stews, stuffing, sauces, vinegars, and all meats. It’s great on scrambled eggs or baked in bread. It’s often referred to as the “blending herb” because it does such a good job of pulling flavors together. Of all the varieties, English thyme (pictured) which is also known as common tyme or garden thyme usually has the best flavor.