Category Archives: herbs

The Magical Flowers of Butterfly Pea Plants

In August 2017, I visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden. It was beautiful and I took many photos. As always the plants that stayed with me were the ones I had not seen before. I remember vines with beautiful pea-like flowers, about 2 inches wide, wrapped around dead trees, which were painted (“art”). The flowers were blue/purple with a yellow inner strip and the green leaves reminded me of Kentucky coffee trees. Obviously it was a tropical vine in the legume family (Fabaceae) but I could not find a sign. Later when I got home, I stumbled across the same plant on Facebook only with cobalt blue flowers. Its name, I learned, was butterfly pea (Clitoria ternatea).

The Facebook post said the flowers were used for an herbal tea. I had no idea this pretty vine had herbal qualities.  I researched online and discovered that the cobalt blue variety is well-known in Asian countries. The flowers are dried and sold in bags but one can purchase a powdered form or an extract. The flowers can be brewed alone or combined with other herbs such as lemongrass, ginger, and mint. The blue comes from anthocyanins, which are antioxidant compounds, similar to blueberries.

When brewed with water the tea is cobalt blue. However, when an acid is added, such as lemon juice, the tea turns purple. When an alkaline liquid such as roselle tea is added, the tea turns red. Apparently butterfly pea tea acts like a litmus strip, the color of the drink changes with the pH of what it is mixed with. This does not affect the taste but has transformed butterfly tea into a novelty cocktail drink. The cobalt blue flowers also are used to dye food such as custards, puddings, rice dishes, and sticky rice.

Butterfly pea is native to Africa. Here in Virginia it would be grown as an annual. The vine grows rapidly in the summer and needs support so an arbor is ideal but would be interesting to try it in a hanging basket. As a member of the pea family, the plant fixates nitrogen and is good for the soil. The vine can take full sun to light shade and is drought tolerant. There are several varieties, some have cobalt blue, lavender, or white flowers in single or double flowered forms.

This is not an easy plant to find here in Virginia but it seems that once you have the plant, you can let some flowers go to seed and collect the pods for next year. Last week I was in Florida and toured a friend’s garden. He was growing this plant in a large container with a trellis. I was so excited to see the butterfly pea again and explained how I was interested in growing it. He had a plastic bag full of the seed pods and offered me some. I took a handful of pods which by now had dried and split open and brought them home. This week, I plan to sow the seeds outside and grow butterfly pea plants in order to experiment with novelty drinks!

Pegplant’s Post April Giveaway: 21 packages of seed!

Cosmos, one of the flowers of the flower seed collection

For years I have been receiving the Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog as well as the newsletter. John Scheepers is a family-owned seed company that sells a large collection of vegetable, herb, and flower seeds. They produce a beautifully illustrated free catalog with detailed information on the plant itself and the varieties. This catalog is a great resource for beginner gardeners. Their website has horticultural information, an e-cookbook, and a blog. You also can subscribe to their free newsletter featuring particular vegetables, flowers, or herbs with sowing and growing information.

Borage, from the herb seed collection

The giveaway for the Pegplant’s Post April issue is three seed collections: vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Each collection has 7 packets for a total of 21 packages of seeds valued at $65.95. Only subscribers can enter the giveaway so subscribe now to Pegplant’s Post, a free gardening newsletter for the Washington DC metro area.

 

Photos courtesy of John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

Winter Savory: A Beneficial Herb for the Garden

Winter savory blossom, up close

Winter savory (Satureja montana) has been a member of my Virginia garden for a number of years.  My plant is in full sun, in poor soil, and has never been bothered by diseases or deer. Hardy to zone 6, my winter savory has grown to be a short, woody shrub, about a foot tall. The green, needle-like foliage is less than an inch long, with many leaves per branch. Now, in February, the leaves are bronze-purple because of the cold. In the summer, the green plant is covered in small, white flowers, attracting beneficial insects and pollinators, including bees.

Winter savory in winter

I like winter savory for two reasons. It retains its leaves and transforms color in the winter, adding interest to the garden. It is a great pollinator plant, which I need for my summer veggies. Although winter savory foliage can be used for cooking, I tend to leave it alone and let it flower. For the kitchen, I grow its cousin, summer savory (Satureja hortensis). Summer savory is an annual herbaceous plant with similar foliage only a bit longer and not as woody. It is easy to grow from seed once frost has passed. Since I harvest the leaves for cooking I tend to disrupts summer savory’s ability to flower. Although it produces similarly shaped flowers, it is not grown for its flowers.

Savories are very old herbs, used for more than 2,000 years. Interestingly, there are two theories for the “Satureja” name. One is that it is a derivative of za’atar, a general name of eastern Mediterranean herbs with oregano-like aroma. The other theory is that Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, called the plant “satureia,” meaning “of the satyrs.” The satyrs are the mythical half horse/half man animals who eat plants such as savory to achieve a great level of sexual stamina (thought you might find that handy since Valentine’s Day is this week).

Winter savory blooming in August

Today, savory is known as the bean herb. Chefs tend to use the summer savory leaves to flavor beans, stews, tomato-based sauces, vinegars, stuffing mixtures, vegetables, meat marinades, chicken salad, and soups. They are an ingredient in herbes de Provence and fines herbs. They blend well with other herbs such as parsley, marjoram, oregano, basil, rosemary, and thyme. Both summer and winter savory have thymol and carvacrol, the characteristic aromas of oregano and thyme. However, winter savory is more pungent and has been used as a pepper substitute.

This summer, buy both and grow them for the garden, the pollinators, and for zest in your meals!

Free Culinary Herbs Presentation

Join me as I talk about 10 culinary herbs at the Merrifield Garden Center. I will cover cultural requirements, harvesting and preserving techniques, inspiring ways to use the herbs in the kitchen, and local herb resources. Don’t worry if you don’t have land or a garden, these 10 herbs can be grown in containers. Everyone will receive a handout to take home. No reservations required, this is a free lecture on Sunday, March 24, 1:00 to 2:00 pm, at the Gainesville location, 6895 Wellington Road, Gainesville, VA.

Anise Hyssop: Culinary Herb of the Year

anise hyssop at the National Herb Garden in July

The International Herb Association has named the Agastache genus as the 2019 Herb of the Year. There are about 20 species, all native to North America. Of the agastache plants, anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is the most well-known for culinary uses in Europe and America.

Anise hyssop is an herbaceous perennial hardy to zone 4. It is a short-lived perennial but it self-seeds and spreads a bit by rhizomes. In March, the leaves emerge with a purple hue. As the plant grows the leaves become green (although there is a golden cultivar). A member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), the leaves have scalloped edges and look like catnip leaves. Anise hyssop grows a few feet tall and about one foot wide. In the summer, there are small lavender-blue flowers on 4 to 6-inch terminal spikes, creating fuzzy wands. The flowers attract beneficial pollinators, including butterflies and hummingbirds. Because the foliage is so fragrant, deer do not seem interested.

Anise hyssop is a full sun to part shade plant tolerating a wide range of soils in a well-drained site. In addition to its culinary use, anise hyssop is an asset in the garden as an ornamental. It provides contrast to orange and yellow flowers and complements purple foliage plants.

purple foliage of anise hyssop in March

Anise hyssop is harvested for its leaves as well as its flowers. Although the aroma is categorized as anise or licorice, some might say anise with a touch of basil or anise with a touch of tarragon. The most common use of the leaves is tea but you can also add the leaves to lamb or pork dishes, to the milk for making ice cream, sugar syrups and/or sugar syrups for cough drops, cocktails, honey, butter cookies, and sugar to make flavored sugar. The leaves dry well, retaining their taste and fragrance.

Use the flowers as a garnish for desserts, add to a salad, or add to a beverage such as ice tea. The flowers also dry well, retaining their color and aroma.

You can find small plants in the nursery in the spring or you can grow anise hyssop from seed. Sow the seed indoors under lights in order to transplant outside after the last frost or sow outside in the summer. Anise hyssop can also be propagated by root division.

This summer, grow anise hyssop in your garden for beauty as well as flavor.

February Pegplant’s Post Giveaway: Italian Herb Seeds

Every January I attend the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS) in Baltimore. MANTS is a trade show serving the horticulture industry. It is a green industry marketplace for finding plants, nursery stock, and garden items wholesale. I attend as press to meet new people in the horticulture field and to learn of new businesses and products. This year, I met Joe Salerno, the owner of Salerno Seeds, a 40-year-old, family-owned New York business that imports seed packets produced and packed in Italy. The herb and vegetable seed packets are sold in a few New York retail locations and online. Joe has kindly sent me five packets for my February 2019 Pegplant’s Post giveaway: oregano, thyme, borage, arugula, and wild chicory.

This giveaway opportunity is for subscribers of Pegplant’s Post, an online, free gardening newsletter for the Washington DC metro area. Each issue provides 50 to 100 gardening events; newly published gardening books; local tips, advice, and articles; and a monthly giveaway contest.

To subscribe, click here or visit pegplant.com and enter your e-mail address in the box above “subscribe!” on the right column. Pegplant’s Post is issued on the last weekend of the month.

 

Parsley: A Landscape Edible

parsley

parsley in January 2016

Parsley is one of those easy to grow landscape edibles that adds beauty to your garden and flavor to your cooking.

Here in Northern Virginia, parsley can stay green above ground in the winter.

Parsley is a biennial, it produces foliage the first year and flowers the second year. I have set aside a small area in the ground I call the parsley patch. There are enough plants so that some are in the first year (when I want to harvest foliage for the kitchen) and some are in the second year (when I want them to flower, develop seed, and drop the seed to the ground to create new plants for next year). Just for extra luck, I also scatter seeds every spring. This way I can harvest fresh parsley year round.

Parsley likes organic matter, moisture, and morning sun or dappled sun. My plants are in the ground but parsley can be grown in containers and window boxes for the summer. I grow flat leaf or Italian parsley, which is best for culinary purposes. There is a curly leaf type that is best used as a garnish.

curly parsley in summer

To harvest parsley, cut outer, older leaves at the base, leaving the core or inner, younger leaves.  Cut with scissors (don’t pull) and put in a large bowl of cool water for about 20 minutes (to wash the foliage and drown any bugs). Pat dry and cut the leaves and stems into small pieces with scissors or a knife.

I use parsley for my bean stew, roasted vegetables, roasted potatoes, pasta, and salads. I have used leaves for garnish for holiday dinners and plates of fruit. In addition to its flavor, parsley has high levels of vitamins A, C, and K, plus a high level of chlorophyll that freshens your breath!

New Herban Lifestyles Series of Classes at U.S. National Arboretum

Interested in learning more about herbs? Check out the new Herban Lifestyles series of presentations at the U.S. National Arboretum. This series of presentations is designed to help you learn new ways to incorporate herbs into your everyday life. You can register for all the events or just select particular events. Some are free, some require a fee. Some are in the National Herb Garden while others are in the Visitor Center Classroom at the Arboretum. Below is the list for this year.

Herbal Bitters: Sweeter than You Think!
August 4, 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
National Herb Garden

Discover the benefits that bitter herbs offer, from jazzing up your favorite cocktail to aiding digestion after a heavy meal. A variety of hand-crafted bitters will be available for tasting. This program is part of the Under the Arbor series and is free. No registration required.

Herbal Salves: They’re the Balm!
August 11, 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Visitor Center classroom

Learn how to make herb infused oils for use in soothing salves. The healing properties of various oils and herbs will be covered, and participants will get to take home a jar of salve made in class. Fee: $35 ($28 Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) members). Registration required.

Hot, Hot, Hot! The Secrets of Herbal Aphrodisiacs
August 18, 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Visitor Center classroom

Herbalist Joan Greeley, owner of Plant Wisdom Within, will instruct participants in the creation of mojo-enhancing herbal concoctions. The weather isn’t the only thing hot this summer! Due to the mature nature of this program, registrants must be at least 18 years old. Fee: $35 ($28 FONA members). Registration required.

Cold Comfort: Herbs to Aid Immunity during Cold and Flu Season
October 20, 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Visitor Center classroom

Join herbalist Whitney Palacios as she teaches participants how to make syrups, teas, and other herbal preparations that fortify and nourish the immune system during the winter months. Fee: $35 ($28 FONA members). Registration required.

Herbs – They Make Scents!
October 27, 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Visitor Center classroom

Learn how to harvest and prepare herbs to create fragrant herbal incense cones and powders. Participants will create their own blend to take home. Please bring a small container to safely transport your freshly made incense. Fee: $35 ($28 FONA members). Registration required.

Additional herb presentations by Herb Society of America units:

Under the Arbor: Lemon Herbs
September 8, 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
National Herb Garden

A refreshing drink on an early autumn day. Tasty citrus cookies after a light lunch. What could be better? Discover how the South Jersey Unit of the Herb Society of America creatively incorporates lemon-flavored herbs into every day culinary fare. Free, drop-in, no registration required.

Under the Arbor: Chile Pepper Celebration
October 6, 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
National Herb Garden

The weather may be cooling down, but the National Herb Garden will turn up the heat during its annual Chile Pepper Celebration. Join Herb Society of America members and National Herb Garden staff as they present chile peppers at their finest. Experience the fire with colorful varieties that don’t hold back! Free, drop-in, no registration required.

Under the Arbor at the National Herb Garden, U.S. National Arboretum

Basic Culinary Herb Recipes To Try This Summer

This summer, as you cut and harvest your culinary herbs, consider these simple recipes to try. Print this and tape on the inside of your kitchen cabinet (along with the list of herbs you are growing) for easy reference.

Herbal vinegar

tarragon is often used in herb vinegars

Wash one cup of herbs, allow to air dry. Pack leaves (can use stems too) in quart glass jar with wooden spoon. Fill with 3 to 3 ½ cups vinegar to one inch from top. The vinegar should be 5% acidity and best types of vinegar are white or red wine vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or apple cider vinegar. Push down with spoon and bruise leaves. If a metal lid, first cover with plastic wrap, if plastic lid, just close. Store in dark place for 4 to 6 week, shaking every few days. Taste to see if too strong, add more vinegar, or too weak, add more herb. When done, strain leaves out and pour liquid into clean bottles and add a sprig of fresh herb for decoration. Label.

Butter

Wash herbs, let dry. Take a stick of unsalted butter out of the fridge, put in bowl, and let come to room temperature so is soft. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the chopped herb, do this to taste. Depending on the leaf, may have to cut into small pieces. Can put in a container to keep in fridge for 2 weeks or roll into saran wrap like a log and freeze for up to 6 months.

Syrup

Put one cup of water and one cup of sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer. When sugar dissolves, turn off heat, add large handful of herb leaves. Bruise with wooden spoon by smashing against side of pot. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes. When cool, strain leaves out and pour syrup in glass jar and store in fridge for up to 2 weeks.

mint has a variety of uses in the kitchen including sweet syrups

Pesto

Pulverize in the blender 2 cups washed fresh basil, 4 cloves of garlic, (chopped), and ½ cup olive oil until pasty. Add 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, blend again. Can freeze in plastic ice cube trays or flat in plastic bags.

Marinade for meat

rosemary is great for marinades

Depending on the amount of meat can change the quantities but the ratio is 1/4 cup of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of vinegar like a wine vinegar, ¼ cup water, a dash of salt (like soy sauce), a dash of sugar (honey or brown sugar) and about a cup of fresh herb leaves (tear leaves apart if large). Have meat sit in this mixture for at least 30 minutes. Drain and cook meat.

Herb paste

If don’t need pesto, make basil paste to preserve

Can use this as a frozen base for pesto and then add the fresh garlic and Parmesan cheese to the thawed paste or a frozen base for stew or soup. Clean herbs but make sure are completely dry as water and oil do not mix. Blend in the food processor 4 cups of herb leaves to ¼ to 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil to make a paste. Freeze in bags or plastic ice cube trays. There should be some texture to herb so is a paste and not pureed like liquid. Good with savory herbs such as basil, parsley, and cilantro. If using a “sweet” herb like mints, may want to try sunflower seed oil instead.

Herbs in the Garden Attract Beneficial Insects and Pollinators

small thyme flowers

The herbs in my garden live among the annuals, perennials, vegetables, and shrubs. I have not designed a separate, formal herb garden and now every new herb plant gets tucked in any space I can find. If I remember and have time, I harvest the leaves for teas or for cooking. If I forget or get too busy, the herbs just thrive without me. By summer, they are blooming along with everything else but that’s okay, they still serve a purpose. Even if I didn’t get to harvest them, they are helping the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and beans by attracting beneficial insects.

In addition to attracting pollinators such as bees and butterflies, flowering herbs can attract beneficial insects that will destroy the “bad” bugs. These beneficial insects are either predators, i.e., they eat harmful bugs, or parasites–they lay their eggs in or on the “bad” bug which release larvae that consume the bug.

Many of these beneficial insects are small, thus preferring easily accessible nectar chambers in small herb flowers. In many cases the adult insects need the nectar and pollen of the herb flower while the “babies” or larval stage eat the insects we don’t want in the garden. For example, the larval stage of ladybugs, which look like mini alligators, consume aphids, many beetle larvae, and spider mites, among others. One can attract ladybugs into the garden by planting cilantro, dill, fennel, oregano, thyme, and yarrow so the adult form, the ladybug, can enjoy the pollen.

pollinator on oregano

Lacewings are beautiful slender green insects with translucent wings. Their larvae, known as aphid lions, eat a large number of aphids –thus they have a lion’s appetite — and many beetle larvae to name a few. Lacewings are attracted to angelica, caraway, tansy, yarrow, dill, fennel, and cilantro.

Parasitic wasps are small, non-stinging wasps. There are many types but they all destroy pests by laying eggs inside or on the pest. The eggs hatch to release larvae that consume the prey, eventually killing it. Parasitic wasps will destroy tomato hornworms, bagworms, cabbage worms, Japanese beetles, and squash vine borers. The wasps are attracted to dill, fennel, lemon balm, thyme, yarrow, and cilantro.

Tachinid flies look like houseflies but as parasites, they destroy many kinds of caterpillars, Colorado potato beetles, cucumber beetles, Mexican bean beetles, and Japanese beetles in the same manner as parasitic wasps.  The flies prefer cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, feverfew, and chamomile.

Hover or syrphid flies look like small wasps because they have yellow bands but they don’t sting. The adults–the flies–will “hover” as they drink nectar from dill, fennel, feverfew, lavender, mint, yarrow, and cilantro flowers. The larvae will consume aphids, cabbage worms, other caterpillars, and mealy bugs.

hover fly in the cilantro

Herbs also help beneficial insects by providing pollen and nectar when other annuals or perennials are not blooming yet.  For example, cool season herbs such as cilantro and chervil bloom in the spring, providing an early source of pollen to beneficial insects.

Many aromatic, perennial herbs, such as oregano, thyme, and lemon balm, are not eaten by deer and small animals so they become permanent fixtures or “houses” for beneficial insects. Plus herbs are usually planted in bunches or become small shrubs, providing a large “neighborhood” for these insects.

a beneficial insect attracted to agastache

However, despite the number of plants in the garden, these insects will only stay if there is a need, i.e., food for them, and if the surroundings are hospitable. Beneficial insects seek large populations of bad bugs in order to feed their own population. Some beneficial insects wait to lay eggs until there is enough “food” so it may be that the appearance of many aphids is the trigger to have ladybugs increase their own population because they now know there is plenty of “food.” In other words, if there a lot of aphids on bearded irises, wait to see if many ladybugs will arrive on the scene to correct the problem before reaching for an insecticide. Spraying chemicals may kill or alter the balance of beneficial insects. It is now known that plants that are under attack by bad bugs release chemicals which are signals to the particular type of beneficial insect that would be needed to correct the problem. There may be a little or minimal plant damage in order for the beneficial insects to receive the signal to come to that plant.

Herbs can be useful for their flowers as well as their foliage. Planting several different types of herbs in the garden helps protect the rest of the plants against pests.