Category Archives: herbs

Mexican Mint Marigold

Almost Halloween and my Mexican Mint Marigold (Tagetes lucida) plants are blooming profusely. The orange flowers are perfect for the season. My plants are not very tall and bushy but I know they can grow to several feet tall and wide. Native to Mexico and Central America, this marigold is a useful herb and a pretty garden plant. The foliage can be used as a tea for treating colds, fevers, intestinal gas, and diarrhea. The foliage also is used in an Aztec hot cocoa drink called chocolatl or xocolatl, along with vanilla, chiles, and ground cacao bean. And the foliage can be used as a tarragon substitute. The leaves have that anise/tarragon flavor, and the plant is much easier to grow than tarragon. The edible flowers can add interest and flavor to meals and garnish desserts. The petals can be sprinkled like confetti on green beans for contrast or a plate of mushroom stuffed appetizers.

This may be hard to find as a plant at the local nursery, but Mexican Mint Marigold is easy to grow from seed. Just make sure you are getting the correct species. I have seen some seed companies sell Tagetes tenuifolia as the Mexican Mint Marigold but that is a different type of marigold. Also, this plant has many common names so make sure you are purchasing Tagetes lucida.

I started mine plants from Botanical Interests seed packets in June. Later in the summer, I transplanted many plants (they germinated easily) to several areas in the garden. It was touch and go when we did not have rain for a long time, but I kept them well watered. They are in full sun and are not particular about soil except that it should be well-drained. These are fall bloomers so do not expect flowers until late September and October. Pollinators, beneficial insects, and butterflies love them.

Unfortunately, these herbaceous plants are tender perennials, hardy to zone 8. I don’t expect them to come back next year in my Zone 7 garden, but I like them so much I will start them again from seed. Next year though I may start them earlier in May after the last frost.

The flowers can be cut for floral arrangements. Recently, I learned how to make small arrangements in carved out pumpkins at my garden club. After growing Mexican Mint Marigold, I can see how these small orange flowers would be perfect for the desktop pumpkins. Try growing this next year, you will be pleasantly surprised!

Salad Burnet: Lovely Medicinal, Culinary, and Decorative Herb

Salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) is a medicinal and culinary herb and a beautiful ornamental plant. It is one of those pretty yet useful herbs in the garden. An herbaceous perennial, this relatively small plant grows to about a foot wide and one-half foot tall. It stays green above ground for quite a long time, dies back in the winter, and re-appears in the spring. The plant grows in a clump, in a rosette formation. The small summer flowers are very small on wiry stems — barely noticeable.

As a medicinal herb, salad burnet has astringent qualities and staunches bleeding. As a culinary herb, the young foliage is tastiest so pick from the center of the rosette and use leaves in a green salad, egg salad, herbal vinegar, butter, cheese spread, or as “lettuce” with sandwiches. The foliage can be added to lemonade and is a popular garnish for gin and tonic cocktails. It has a clean green flavor, much like cucumbers.

The foliage has a delicate, lacy appearance which makes it a great garnish. When my daughter and I made a charcuterie board for Thanksgiving, we decorated the board with stems. We also used the green lacy leaves as a contrast to red cranberries and white mashed potatoes.charcuterie board

I have been growing salad burnet for years, but not necessarily the same one. It does self-seed a little, just enough for babies to show up in odd places. I dig them up and put them where I know they will thrive. Over the years, I have learned that salad burnet prefers moist areas, in full or partial sun, depending on the amount of soil moisture. I now have a plant growing next to my cutting celery and lovage, all of which are moisture lovers.

You are not likely to find the plant in local nurseries, but you can purchase seed from online seed companies. Start seed indoors in the spring, under lights, much like starting tomato seeds. You can direct sow in the summer, but my birds always steal my seed before they germinate. Or if you have a friend who has salad burnet growing in the garden, ask for a division in the spring. Try growing salad burnet in your garden or in a container.

There’s More to Basil Than Pesto

Pesto Perpetuo basil

I cannot imagine a garden without basil plants. Basil is the essence of summer. I don’t limit myself to just one — I grow lemon, lime, sweet, Thai, holy, and cinnamon, just to name a few. It seems that most people only know sweet basil and only one use for it: pesto.  Granted sweet basil has become the poster child, but there are many different types of basil plants to explore. The genus Ocimum has more than 30 species. Within the Ocimum basilicum species, there are more than 40 cultivars.  All of these can be used in a variety of ways both in the garden and home.

Basil plants are herbaceous annuals that need warmth, full sun, and well-drained soil. If I think of basil as an annual flowering plant, I can imagine how to use the different varieties. Also, classifying basil into five basic categories makes it easier to select a particular type for a particular function.

  • sweet green foliage (the green plant we always associate with pesto such as Genovese or Italian large leaf)
  • small leaves and dwarf size (spicy globe basil, dwarf Greek basil, Minette, or Pluto)
  • colored foliage (purple leaved Purple Ruffles or Dark Opal or light green/cream variegated Pesto Perpetuo)
  • colorful flower heads (Thai Siam Queen has purple stems and fragrant purple flowers), African blue (many prominent purple flowers), or cardinal (purple stems, purple/red flower heads)
  • fragrant leaves (holy, lemon, or lime).

Some basils fall in two or more groups. For example, cinnamon basil has fragrant leaves, purple stems and veins, and deep pink flowers. This plant provides scent, flavor, and color.

cinnamon basil

The following are suggestions for using basil. The exact species or cultivar depends on your personal preference and availability in your area.

Container Plant

All types of basil can be used as container plants for green, variegated, or purple foliage, or colorful flower heads. Basil comes in different sizes from 8 inches to 4 feet so make sure the maximum height is in proportion to the container. Companion plants must also like well-drained soil and the container should have drainage holes. I had a few extra holy basil plants that I stuck in the same container as my bush beans and both are thriving.

basil flowering in container with ornamental pepper

Annual in the Garden

All types can be used as an annual in the garden bed, either for green, variegated, or purple foliage or for colorful flower heads or simply to fill in a gap. If you think of basil as a flowering annual like a marigold, you could plant them in the same type of location. My Thai, lemon, and lime basil have filled the gap left by my bleeding heart plant, which goes dormant in the beginning of the summer. In particular, the dwarf basils are best for creating a tight edging effect. They have small leaves, similar to boxwood, and are great for delineating a garden bed in the summer. Spicy globe basil is often used to outline a garden bed.

purple basil

Cut Flower for a Vase

The basils that are grown for colorful flower heads or dark foliage are beautiful in flower arrangements. For example, Thai and African blue provide purple flowers and Purple Ruffles provide purple leaves.

African blue basil

Potpourri and Dried Flower Arrangements

Basil produces a tall, sturdy flower stalk that dries well and can be used in dried flower arrangements. The leaves or flowers can be used in potpourris, especially the more fragrant leaves such as cinnamon basil. When I cut Thai basil and fresh flowers such as dahlias for a vase, I can throw away the dahlias after they have past their prime and put the Thai basil flower spikes in another vase with purple gomphrena as a dried flower arrangement. A basil flower has a rigid calyx, like a socket, that holds the small delicate flower like a lightbulb. Once the flower is past its prime, it drops out and the rigid calyx remains.

Thai basil

Pollinator Magnet and Bird Food

Basil’s small flowers are attractive to beneficial insects and bees. Birds, such as goldfinches, love the seed heads. I grow lemon basil in a container on the deck to attract the finches so I can see the birds up close through my kitchen window.

Botanical Flavor

Usually a sweet basil such as Genovese is used in pasta, eggs, pesto, soups, salad, and vegetables, but you can try any type of basil.  I use lemon basil with fish and Thai basil with stir fried chicken and vegetables. Thai basil is often used in Asian cuisine because it keeps its flavor at high temperatures.  Holy basil often is used in Indian cuisine and the sweet basil is often used in the Italian cuisine. There are so many cuisines that employ basil and so many recipes it is best to obtain an herbal cookbook.

sweet basil

The purple basils work well in vinegar or oil for color and scented basils such as cinnamon can be used for flavor in either a vinegar, oil, or marinade. I use the cinnamon which has a purple tinge in homemade vinegar and give it as a gift to my family.

Sweet basil is good for butter and the spicy types are good for honey and jellies. I swirl small pieces of sweet basil into a stick of soft butter for use on breads and rolls. (This also makes a good hostess gift).

Lemonade, cocktails, tea, and fruit juice pair well with basil. Try adding the spicy, cinnamon, lemon or lime flavored basils to these drinks for flavor or just make a cup of tea with basil leaves.

Basil flavors cookies, pound cakes, and breads (rolls, muffins, flatbreads). I use the sweet basil for flatbreads and dinner rolls and the lemon, lime, or cinnamon for pound cakes. For a real conversation piece, sometimes I decorate a cake with basil flowers, which are edible. The actual flower is small and within the calyx so I have to pull the flower out from the calyx with tweezers. This takes time but is good for a special occasion when you want to “wow” folks.

Basil can be used in sugar syrups for fruit salads, desserts, and drinks. This is especially good with cinnamon, lemon, or lime basil. Make a sugar syrup by bringing to boil one cup of water and one cup of sugar with one cup of leaves and then simmer for 15 minutes. Drain through a colander to remove the leaves and let the syrup cool before using. Keep the syrup in a jar in the refrigerator to have on hand (throw out after a week or two).

glass jar of basil sugar syrup

Another way to “wow” family and friends is to sprinkle strips or ribbons of lemon, lime, or cinnamon basil leaves on fruit salads and/or add the small flowers to the fruit salads (again pull the actual flower out with tweezers).  As mentioned before, coat fruit salads with the sugar syrups or intersperse a leaf with chunks of fruit on a kebab.

Try growing several basil plants in your garden, which are easy to grow from seed but small transplants are commonly found at the local nurseries in the beginning of the growing season.

Grow Lemon Balm for Lemon Fragrance and Flavor

lemon_balm (2)Lemon balm is one of the easiest herbs to grow. A hardy perennial, lemon balm has lemon scented leaves. My plant thrives in morning sun and afternoon shade in my Virginia garden. It dies back in the winter, coming back in early spring. By summer, it is  about 2 feet tall. Hardy to zone 4, lemon balm co-exists well with other plants in the garden, serving as a beautiful green “landscape edible.”

It also is a pollinator plant. Its botanical name, Melissa officinalis, refers to the bee attracting white flowers (“Melissa” is Greek for “bee”) and long-serving medicinal qualities (“officinalis” refers to historical medicinal value). Actually, lemon balm’s medicinal value dates back over 2,000 years but for my family I tend to focus on lemon balm’s culinary uses. Fresh leaves add lemon flavor in baked goods such as pound cake, muffins, scones, and cookies; fruit salad; sorbets; butters; cheese; and fish and chicken dishes. Plus, the leaves’ wrinkly texture provide visual interest as a garnish in fruit salads, drinks, and desserts.

Out of all the herbal teas, lemon balm tea taste most like black tea, without the caffeine. I use the dried leaves for hot or iced tea either alone or as a base to which I add more pronounced fruity flavors from other plants. In the spring and summer, I pick the leaves as I need them or shear the entire plant down.  The plant revives quickly and a second shearing can be done before the fall.

Lemon balm is easy to grow from seed but also cheap to buy as a small plant. If a friend has it, get a stem cutting and root it in water. As a member of the mint family, lemon balm roots easily but this species is not as invasive as mints because it spreads by seed instead of runners. Whenever I give talks about herbs to gardening groups, they said that lemon balm is too assertive for them but I have not had that issue. I have had my plant in my garden for many years and twice I noticed new plants several feet away in other parts of the garden but they are not long lasting.

Try growing lemon balm in your garden or in a container for fresh lemon flavor!

Purple Blooming Anise Hyssop

anise hyssop at the National Herb Garden in July

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is blooming now in the summer. A native, herbaceous perennial hardy to zone 4, this plant is short-lived but 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 purple-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 are not interested.

Anise hyssop is a full sun to part shade plant tolerating a wide range of soils in a well-drained site. The purple-blue flowers provide contrast to orange and yellow flowers and complement purple foliage plants.

purple foliage of anise hyssop in March

Anise hyssop can also be used as a culinary or tea herb. It 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 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.

Flowers are edible and can be used as a garnish for desserts, added to a salad, or added 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 directly outside in the summer. Anise hyssop can be propagated by root division.

Anise hyssop is a great garden plant — it provides color in the summer, supports pollinators, and can be used for making tea or to add flavor and color to meals.

Look to Herbs for Drought-Tolerant Plants

Drought Tolerant Garden in Loudoun County Master Gardeners’ Demonstration Garden

Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow GardenComm member who lives in the dry climate of Arizona. We were talking about drought tolerant plants for the garden. I said I tend to use herbs when I need drought tolerant plants in my garden. Many herbs–culinary, medicinal, or otherwise–make great landscape plants.

Coincidently that same weekend, I visited the Loudoun County Master Gardeners’ demonstration garden in Leesburg. I highly recommend visiting this garden, which is free and open to the public. There are several mini-gardens designed to demonstrate a particular characteristic such as the drought tolerant garden. I, of course, looked for herbs and found yarrow, hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), catmint (Nepeta), and winter savory (Satureja montana).

You don’t think of Virginia has having to need drought tolerant plants, but we do have dry stretches in the summer. In addition, my garden has dry areas, particularly under the roof eaves where rainwater cannot enter the narrow, sheltered space.

Yarrow in the drought-tolerant garden

For this area, I have several 6-year-old bushes of ‘Phenomenal’ lavender to the right of the front door. These bloom reliably every summer; the bees love the purple flowers. Nearby is a 5-foot-tall fennel plant that supports beneficial insects and pollinators.

To the left of the door, I have low growing lemon thyme and 2-foot-tall curry plants which are gray with small yellow flowers (Helichrysum italicum).

Throughout the garden, I have various drought-tolerant herbs. We have been on this property for more than 20 years and I am struck by how many of my herbs are old, yet they still perform well. My 13-year-old oregano and knot marjoram plants still bloom every summer, surrounded by bees and beneficial insects. The 10-year-old, 4-feet-tall Rosemary ‘Arp’ blooms lavender colored flowers in the winter. Now it often blooms when the azaleas are blooming. The 10-year-old, 3-feet-tall tansy has small yellow flowers now. The 7-year-old English thyme serves as a groundcover in the front of the house. The 3-year-old germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) is blooming small lavender blossoms now. This can serve as a small hedge in place of boxwood.

Tansy’s yellow button flowers

I have a penchant for the “flavored” thyme plants so I have 3-year-old rose thyme and 2-year-old lemon, nutmeg, and Pennsylvania Dutch thyme plants. All are great groundcovers and can be used in the kitchen. My 2-year-old sage (Salvia officinalis) blooms in the spring and my 2-year-old, 3-foot-tall silver artemisia (Artemisia absinthium) is just now beginning to bloom.

I am really impressed with my 2-year-old santolina (Santolina rosmarinifolius). This is the green foliage type which not only has thrived but bloomed many yellow pom poms type flowers in the late spring/early summer. I highly recommend this for any garden.

English thyme blooming for the bees

My 2-year-old winter savory is still only a foot tall but this is a perennial that has just started to bloom small white flowers.

The 1-year-old horehound (Marrubium vulgare) was very easy to start from seed last year. In fact, it seemed all the seed germinated quickly so I ended up with quite a few plants. They have already bloomed which have resulted in fascinating Dr. Seuss type seedheads.

I have yarrow throughout the garden in various flower colors. I used to grow rue which is a pretty plant with yellow flowers but you have to be careful about touching it as it can cause a skin irritation.

Because these plants are drought tolerant, once they are established, I do not have to worry about watering them with a hose and I don’t worry about fertilizing either. I may deadhead – especially the lavender and santolina – but for the most part they don’t require much attention.

Of course, this is only a sample, there are plenty more drought tolerant herbs and I always keep an eye out for them at the local garden centers. If you have had success with any, please let me know by commenting below and maybe I will add them to the garden.

The gray curry plant smells like curry the dish!

Learning About Herbs Under the Arbor

One of DC’s best kept secrets is the Under the Arbor program. The Units of the Herb Society of America in the mid-Atlantic area host demonstrations at the National Herb Garden in the U.S. National Arboretum. These are on designated Saturdays, 1:00 to 4:00 pm, free and open to the public. Plenty of parking and visitors can also roam the entire Arboretum and/or check out the National Herb Garden. Sometimes one Unit will host the event and sometimes it is a multi-Unit event with many tables and demonstrations. Volunteers drive up to the Arboretum for the day from other states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the DC metro area to set up the tables, complete with displays, handouts, and often freebies to take home. They love to educate the visitors about herbs and answer questions.

Members of the Potomac Unit

The first Under the Arbor this year was held on June 10. Several Units gathered to present “Well Contained Herbs.” The Potomac Unit had a table literally under the arbor in the National Herb Garden, with information on fire cider, ginger, and rose beads. Folks could sample the fire cider and pick up informational flyers. Nearby was the Pennsylvania Heartland Herb Society discussing scented geraniums and showcasing a strawberry jar full of scented geraniums and large plastic containers planted with several culinary herbs. The Philadelphia Unit talked about Wardian cases which are glass cases used to transport plants on ships in the 19th Century. They had many glass jam jars for visitors to start seeds by adding a little bit of soil and water, and a seed. Next to them a Potomac Unit member was filling a strawberry jar with herbs and giving away ginger rhizomes while another member from Virginia Beach, a member at large, demonstrated thematic containers of tomatoes and herbs.

Members of the Philadelphia Unit

The next Under the Arbor event will be on June 24 and theme is tussie mussies. Tussie mussies are small herbal bouquets that were very popular in Victorian times. Often the herbs were gathered with a bit of lace and ribbon and a small holder to make it easy to hold. While they provided a nice scent, the plants were chosen for their special meanings. The Philadelphia Unit will demonstrate how to make tussie mussies, explain the symbolism of the herbs, and visitors may be able to take one home.

On September 16, the theme is ginger, which is the herb of the year for 2023, and lemon scented herbs. The South Jersey Unit will take the lead in showcasing ginger and other units may participate with ginger delicacies. Volunteers will explain the many lemon-scented herbs.

On October 7, most of the mid Atlantic Units will attend for the annual Chile Celebration. Visitors love this event because they get to taste very hot chiles, as well as fudge made with chiles, and other delicacies. Don’t worry, the volunteers will bring milk and bread if it gets too hot! In addition to learning everything there is to know about the genus Capsicum, visitors can view the Herb Gardens’ chile border which is planted every year by staff.

Members of the Pennsylvania Heartland Unit

Under the Arbor programs are planned and conducted by the National Herb Garden committee. The committee is comprised of representatives from the Herb Society’s mid-Atlantic units, members at large, and with the support of the National Herb Garden’s curator and gardener.

Make sure you visit one or all of these Under the Arbor events this year!

Under the Arbor events are also a fun way for members at large and members from different units to catch up with each other

Growing Cilantro From Seed in the Summer

cilantro

Cilantro in early spring

I love cilantro and I plant it every year. It is easy to grow from seed although one can find small plants at local nurseries. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a member of the carrot family. Because of its tap root, it is best to sow seeds directly in the garden bed or in a container. Often called Chinese parsley, the leaves do look like parsley but if you rub the foliage you will smell a citrusy/woodsy scent.

In the beginning of April, I sow the seed in the ground and in containers on the deck. In early spring, this particular patch in the ground and the containers are in full sun. The seeds germinate in a week to 10 days. The plant grows to about one foot tall and the leaves are broad with scalloped edges. In late April and early May, I harvest the foliage for a variety of dishes. We like to use fresh cilantro for beef empanadas, fried rice, enchiladas, tacos, and salsa.

By late May, beginning of June, the leaves alter their shape to be thin, finely dissected, and lacy. Flower stalks emerge and small white flowers appear. Soon the plant sets seed, which are small, tan balls. These are known as coriander. I clip these off and put in a paper bag to sow next year. Although they are a spice that can be used in the kitchen, I tend to save them to sow again.

cilantro

Cilantro bolting and sending up a flower stalk

Because my original spring cilantro plants have expired before summer tomatoes have even appeared, I sow seeds again. However, cilantro is a cool season annual. For these plants to grow in Virginia’s hot summer, I have to change the environmental conditions to mimic spring.

Cilantro likes cool temperatures and relatively moist soil. This happens naturally in the spring, but in the summer, that means I need to provide morning sun and afternoon shade or dappled shade. This will decrease the summer’s heat. The soil needs to drain well yet be high in organic matter. If it does not rain for a while, I will have to water the plants with a hose. I have to constantly be aware of soil moisture and rain.

In the summer, I sow the seeds in a different place in the garden, a place with afternoon shade. If one cannot provide shade, consider buying a shade cloth or grow in containers that can be placed under trees. I also sow the seeds in containers on the deck where there is a tree because it is easier (i.e., takes less time) to walk out on to the deck from the kitchen door and monitor the plants. It takes more time to walk into the garden so I do both in case I get too busy. Gardening is a gamble; it is a high stakes game. The more you sow in a variety of places, the higher the likelihood that something will germinate and grow so you can enjoy the harvest.

cilantro

Cilantro flowers

I sow seeds every few weeks. With the high summer temperatures, the plants will bolt even quicker than in the spring. Thus, I have a narrow window of opportunity to harvest leaves from a planting.

One trick to having fresh cilantro all summer long is to continue to sow the seeds in as cool a place as you can manage. Another trick is to use varieties that are known to be slower to bolt. They will still bolt but you may be able to delay it a few weeks. Try Santo, Caribe, Calypso, Slo Bolt, Leisure, or Longstanding. You may have to order the seed packets online; it is likely your local nursery will not carry these. Check out these seed companies.

coriander

Cilantro seeds, also known as coriander

Some people get tired of this real quick and just give up during the summer. This is fine too; it does take more time and diligence to grow cilantro in the summer. Remember though that fall conditions are like spring, cool and moist. Try sowing seeds in September to have foliage in the fall. Because cilantro is resistant to a light frost, you can sow seeds every few weeks and then protect with a row cover, low tunnel, or a cold frame to harvest up until the holidays.

In the DC metro area, one can continue to purchase small cilantro transplants at local nurseries to plant in the garden. You can also purchase fresh cilantro at many grocery stores in this area. I like a challenge, though, and I like to be able to walk out to the garden and snip fresh cilantro whenever I need it. Try growing cilantro from seed this year.

Growing and Cooking with Oregano and Marjoram

Flowering Greek Oregano

This week I was in the garden, cutting back the old flower stalks from my oregano. I love seeing the new growth in the spring. Nearby is the marjoram, also flushed with new green growth. Now, before they flower, is a good time to harvest the leaves and either use fresh or dry them for future use.

The Origanum genus is in the mint family, Lamiaceae. There are more than 40 species and many varieties and hybrids – they cross pollinate easily. All have typical “mint” flowers: bilaterally symmetrical with five united petals that create an upper and a lower lip. The small flowers occur in spikes and attract beneficial insects and pollinators. Some plants have bracts or modified leaves that are more pronounced and colorful than others (poinsettia and bougainvillea are examples of colorful bracts that look like flowers but are not true flowers). They all have hairy stems and leaves and again, some more so than others.

Of the culinary herbs in the Origanum genus, all hail from the Mediterranean area, thus requiring full sun, well-drained soil, and good air circulation. Not all are hardy here in the mid-Atlantic area but they are all deer resistant because of their chemical constitution. These plants have two primary chemicals: carvacrol and sabinene hydrate. Some have thymol. Carvacrol is responsible for the pungent, peppery flavor you know so well from “pizza oregano.” It is a creosote-scented phenol with antibacterial and antifungal properties. The amount in each plant varies.

If you are purchasing a plant for culinary use, crush a leaf, and smell and eat it first before you purchase the plant. You want to ensure it has the right amount of carvacrol for your palate. You want to do this so you don’t accidently purchase Origanum vulgare, which is a common oregano type plant that has naturalized in this area. Although edible, it is not considered “tasty” because of its low level of carvacrol. It can still be grown as an ornamental in the garden and has small pink flowers (not white) in the summer.

Baby oregano popping up among the sedum

For the best flavor, buy Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum, which is Greek oregano, or Origanum x majoricum, which is Italian oregano. Both have a high levels of carvacrol. Both are hardy to this area and make great landscape plants. These plants have small white flowers on inch-long terminal flower structures and provide greenery above ground in the winter.

Greek oregano’s new spring growth

I have Greek oregano. From spring to summer, there is new growth and the stems grow upright. If I were to cut the leaves now to use in the kitchen, it will rebound quickly and then I let mine flower. By summer, the branches topple over with the weight of the flowers. The area is surrounded by insects and bees. By late fall it gets a little ratty looking. Usually I leave it as is over the winter.  The plant remains above ground in the winter and the foliage turns purple. Every year, a baby plant pops up in the front garden which is easy to pull and either throw away or pot up and give to a friend.

Greek oregano bending under the flowers’ weight

I was given ‘Hot and Spicy’ which is a cultivar of Greek oregano. I find it too pungent and peppery so I grow it in the backyard, against the tool shed. It receives morning shade and afternoon sun but still flowers. I don’t harvest it, I just let it flower to attract the pollinators for my vegetables nearby.

Next to my Greek oregano is sweet or knot marjoram. Marjoram has a low level of carvacrol and but a high level of sabinene hydrate, which is more of a fruity flavor. Marjoram is so sweet it is used in perfume as well as baking and cooking. In the past, marjoram was employed as a strewing herb, incorporated in potpourris and sachets, and used to scent linen closets and hope chests. It is called knot marjoram because the flower buds are knots; like knots used as buttons on shirts.

Marjoram is considered a tender perennial and should not survive our winters but mine has lived for many years in my Virginia, zone 7 garden. I am sure it is because it is in full sun on a terraced area so it has very good drainage and warmth from the south side of the house. Marjoram grows like the Greek oregano. By fall the branches bow down with the weight of the flowers, also surrounded by insects. However, in the winter, the foliage is green, not purple, and I have never seen a baby marjoram pop up in the garden. 

Knot marjoram’s flower buds are “knots”

If you do not have a garden, these plants can be grown in containers for the summer. Make sure the container is in full sun and large enough with drainage holes. You may have to water more often than if they were in the ground.

In the kitchen, you can use fresh or dried foliage from these plants. The herb flavor is always stronger in dried leaves so use less of the dried than of the fresh leaves. These plants add flavor to yeast breads/rolls, savory scones with cheese, focaccia, garlic bread, egg dishes, bean dishes, tomato-based dishes, potatoes, cornbread/muffins, and corn or tomato soup. They pair well with thyme and/or lemon or olive oil or garlic and/or lemon. You can make a rub by mixing with other herbs to rub over chicken, turkey, or pork before roasting. You can also add to stuffing or dressing. The branches can be used to decorate a turkey platter or a side dish.

Try growing marjoram and oregano in your garden this summer. You will enjoy their flavor in your dishes and you will be able to support pollinators and beneficial insects in the garden. For more information on purchasing and growing herbs in the DC metro area, as well as herb cookbooks, click here. If you are interested in learning more about culinary herbs, join the Facebook group called Culinary Herbs and Spices or join the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America. 

Parsley: Easy to Grow Culinary Herb

parsley

parsley in January

Parsley is one of those easy to grow culinary herbs that adds beauty to your garden and flavor to your cooking. Here in Northern Virginia, parsley can stay green above ground in mild winters.

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 and develop seed). 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 also use the foliage for garnish for holiday dinners and plates of fruit. I have heard of folks using it in smoothies. 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!

Try growing parsley from seed this year to create your own parsley patch. Here is a list of more than 100 seed companies.  Or, you can always find a small plant in the spring in local garden centers and either plant in the ground or in a container.