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These are some of the herbs—and perhaps a few plants that don't quite fit that definition—that I like or find interesting. Only some of these plants are suitable for eating. Many are grown just for their scent or appearance, and a few are poisonous.
The pictures are for enjoyment, but they may also help you to identify something. The notes are just my own thoughts and observations. That said, I do hope you'll stay a while and enjoy this page.
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basil catmint catnip chinese mint chives comfrey dandelions feverfew garlic horseradish lemon balm marjoram mint nasturtium oregano parsley rosemary sage pineapple sage purslane savory stevia thyme vietnamese mint wormwood yarrow
Sweet basil is a fresh-looking plant with glossy leaves. There's a variant that has purple leaves and there's a somewhat different, smaller variety called bush basil. Definitely an annual, basil can be hard to get started. Although flies will give it a wide berth, snails love it and will completely remove a young plant overnight. Many herbs thrive in poor soil, but basil does not. Without rich soil and full sun it's unlikely to grow at all. Put it in when you're planting tomatoes and cucumbers—it's a great companion plant for either, and grows well with the same sort of soil preparation.
While it's especially good with tomatoes and in all tomato dishes, basil is also used in soups and salads and as a garnish for fish dishes.
Like all members of the mint family, basil eventually sends up untidy spikes of small flowers. The plant may last longer and look better if you cut these off—unless you're saving seed. You can allow seeding without worrying about its becoming a weed, because it doesn't self-sow nearly as readily or prolifically as some of its cousins.
Catmint is a lovely low-growing flower with soft blue-green leaves and a rather strong smell. It doesn't die right down in winter and the mauve flowers are present from late spring through to autumn. Dead woody stems are left after flowering, and need to be snapped off or cut. Bees love catmint and so do many cats and small dogs.
Catnip needs to be protected when the plant is small, because some cats will bite off the leaves or even pull up the whole plant. Once it's well-grown, though, it's great fun to watch puss's antics around the plant. Marmalade has been known to turn somersaults over it.
In summer, catnip has spikes of very small and rather uninteresting flowers. It's best to cut these off as soon as they appear, because the plant keeps its shape much better if they're not allowed to develop.
When I was offered this plant I felt that I had it already and was surprised to see it being sold as a herb. Nevertheless I bought it because it was a slow day at the market and the stall-holder was very anxious to make a sale. Also, my curiosity had been aroused.
On arriving home I compared the new potted plant with one that grows all over my garden, and as far as I could make out they are identical. I tried searching the Web for "Chinese Mint". Results were interesting. A plant very like the one I'd bought is called Chinese mint, but its description is different from that of the plant I'd bought or the look-alike in my garden. Both plants are all green, while the described herb plant has purple stems and is purplish on the underside of the leaves. My plant grows to a metre and a half, but the described herb grows only to 40 centimetres or so. Also, no mention was made of the herb's value as an "indicator plant"—a plant that droops dramatically if the ground becomes too dry.
I then realised that I do have the described herb in my garden. It's obviously related to the one I'd bought, but much more closely follows the descriptions I found on the Web. It has a prostrate habit and does not grow upwards above 40 centimetres. It's coarser and less sensitive to dryness. Its flowers, which grow on spikes like those of the other plant, are white rather than mauve.
My reading tells me that this plant is used in Vietnamese cooking, mostly as a wrapping for other ingredients—in the same way that grape-vine leaves are used in some Greek recipes.
Veronica, of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, has kindly supplied the information that the plant shown in the third picture is plectranthus ciliatus, commonly called spur flower. Thank you, Veronica.
Chives are great. They have a mild onion taste that's good in lots of different foods—mashed potatoes, sour cream and white sauces, for instance. For steaks and salads, there's a variety called garlic chives, too. When you want to use chives, you just snip off as much as you need and the plants aren't bothered by having their leaves shortened. They can be choked by more vigorous plants, though, so you need to weed back any encroaching ground cover to allow the chives some space. Like onions and garlic, chives are a good thing to grow close to rose bushes, because they keep the aphids away. Never plant them near any sort of beans, though. Beans just don't thrive in their company.
Chives can be grown from seed, but it's rather a lot of trouble, as you need to keep the seed-bed free from all weeds both before and after germination. Then, as soon as the seedlings appear, snails will be after them! The easiest way to grow chives is to buy some from a nursery or beg some from a friend. Plant the little clump into rich soil. New plants will be formed around the edges and after a while you can lift the clump, break it into several lots and replant. Just be sure to keep other plants cleared from around them, so that they have space to increase.
The taste of chives isn't as good if there are flowers on the plant, but chives in bloom are pretty. You just have to decide which is more important and remove the flowers if you think it necessary.
The photo of the chive flower head is by Lidy Verweel.
Comfrey is supposed to speed up the decomposition of compost, and in summer the large cool leaves can be laid over newly sown seeds to protect them from drying out. It can get out of hand, though—any piece of broken root will give rise to a new plant, and it's very easy to have comfrey sprouting up all over the garden.
Comfrey is a traditional wound dressing, but it's incongruous that while juice from the crushed leaves can sooth minor cuts and grazes, the plants themselves, if brushed against by bare legs, can cause considerable discomfort. The stems and leaves are covered in tiny prickles. For this reason it's a good idea to wear gloves if you need to pull up comfrey plants. If you do get prickled, it's said that the best treatment for the irritation is comfrey sap.
Some people say that comfrey is a good thing to feed to chooks that are going to be relocated or otherwise disturbed—apparently it has a calming effect.
Traditionally comfrey was known as "knitbone", and it does indeed contain agents that speed up the making of new cells to replace those lost or damaged.
Dandelions are related to lettuce, and it's hard to tell which is which when you're weeding amongst very young plants. Some people use dandelion leaves in salads—although I think they're horribly bitter—and swear by their health-giving properties. There are plenty of old-fashioned recipes for dandelion wine, but it might be a bit like stone soup—there are so many other ingredients that you'd succeed without using the dandelions at all. I suppose they're really just to give a distinctive flavour.
Caged birds are very happy to eat dandelion seeds. It's easiest if you pick the heads—with a good long stem attached—just before they're ready to puff out. Poke a head through the mesh and the stem through a few squares further down. The head will stay in position and the birds can pull the seeds out at their leisure.
Little children, of course, love to see how many breaths it takes to blow all the little parachuting seeds away from a dandelion puff. One little girl told me her daddy wouldn't allow this, because it makes weeds grow in the lawn. How sad! I have my own thoughts about grass lawns in Australia, and they're pretty negative.
Feverfew is also called "Golden Border". It is an annual that seeds very freely and can pop up all over the garden in midspring. It's quite a short plant and its ferny leaves and bright daisy flowers are very cheerful beside or amongst patches of green vegetables or along the edges of a path. I haven't found any plant that objects to its presence, and I don't think it's particularly attractive to garden pests.
The name seems to indicate that it has at some time been used as a home remedy, and I've heard people recommend some preparation made from it as a cure for migraine. A skilled herbalist would know about that—and be able to identify the plant accurately.
Garlic has been reputed to keep away the devil, assorted evil spirits and bubonic plague. A fair surmise is that the odour could keep people too far from the garlic eater or wearer for infection to happen! Nevertheless, there are those who still try to avert a chest infection by eating as much as a soup bowlful of chopped garlic—and swear that it works.
Of course you can buy “odourless garlic” tablets. Sounds a bit like fat-free cheese to me—takes the fun out of it altogether.
To be serious, there are many useful and protective substances to be found in garlic. Garlic is, indeed, good for you.
Without worrying about any of its positive effects, you can crush garlic over steaks, lard it into a leg of lamb before cooking, or crush lots and add it when you're making egg yolk and olive oil mayonnaise. Use that with a salad, or as a dip for cold parboiled vegies on a hot day. Totally evil! Just be sure that everyone has some though, and thus avoid the shun effect.
Garlic is a good garden pest repellent. Among the creatures that dislike it are ants, aphids, cabbage butterflies, mosquitoes, tomato worms and weevils. Bees, however, can often be seen gathering nectar from garlic flowers. I wonder what the apiarists do with the garlic flavoured honey?! A few garlic plants growing in a rose bed really do seem to keep aphids away, and the flowers, when they come, are unusual and quite pretty. Other plants that benefit from having garlic growing nearby are fruit trees and strawberries. Don't plant it near beans or peas, though; it'll stop them from growing well.
For specific problems, garlic sprays can be made up and used on plants that are suffering from insect attack. Sprays can be bought, too.
Horseradish is nice to grow, but preparing it could be a pain. The roots have to be grated out of doors, because the released oils sting eyes and nose. Vinegar has to be added at just the right moment and ... well, you can buy horseradish already nicely prepared.
As for growing it, it's easy and it looks fresh and healthy. It'll grow in any sunny spot and in most soils, although it prefers acid soil to limey. It's perrenial, so once you've got it established it's there for good. Horseradish increases from the root, so that you can break bits off and pot them up. Although it seems remarkably hardy, it doesn't take off and fill the garden. On the other hand, once it's in a spot, it isn't easy to remove it completely.
There's heaps of information, including the plant's very own resume, at this great horseradish site.
Lemon balm is a plant that can get horribly out of hand. It seeds freely, the seed is small and seems to be blown all over the garden in a very short time. Apart from that, it reproduces rather more sedately from underground stems. If you want to grow it, the trick is to faithfully remove the flower spikes whenever they appear. Then, if you want to pot a plant for a friend, just cut away a small part of the rootstock with a couple of green shoots showing. Keep the pot moist and in semishade until it's established.
Lemon balm has a lovely clean lemony smell and is supposed to be very soothing if used as a tea. Sprigs of tiny top leaves can be used to garnish iced drinks or for decorating any food where the lemon flavour works well. Dried, it's nice in pot-pourri.
If you keep chooks, lots of lemon balm in their yard may make bird-lice infestation less likely to happen. You can grow it right in the yard, or throw in cut-off flower spikes or whole plants. Sometimes, if you crush some leaves in your hand and rub the resultant oil on your skin it seems to keep mosquitoes away. Not always, though.
If you have space to grow only a few herbs, marjoram should be one of them. You can buy seeds, but they take ages to grow. It's better to buy a small plant or get a cutting or a piece from the outside of an established plant's root. Marjoram seems to grow equally well in sunshine and semishade, although the shaded patch will look fresher during hot months. It's quite nice in a hanging basket, and since it likes to be very well drained it copes with some summer dryness. Water it, but don't worry about it.
Marjoram was used in early medicines and as a strewing herb to make houses smell pleasant. It's one of the basics in “mixed herbs”, but if you have it growing the fresh leaves added to a stew or whatever have a fresher scent. They can also be added to salads or salad dressings, where crunched up dried leaves just don't have the same effect.
The pink-flowered variety is golden marjoram. Its leaves are more pointed, and the colour is lighter and slightly yellowish. The photograph of the bee on a head of white-flowered sweet marjoram is by Dean Slabak.
Mint—peppermint, spearmint, pennyroyal—there are literally hundreds of varieties of mint, besides which many plants that have quite different names—horseradish, balm and lavender, for instance—are members of the mint family. Every mint has a fairly noticeable smell, some delightful and some less so. Common mint has the typical fresh minty smell and taste. You can chew it, cook it with young green peas or new potatoes, make it into mint sauce or mint jelly for roast lamb, or float the smaller leaves on cold drinks.
Apple mint has a delicate flavour which does have an apple taste to it. The leaves are quite rounded and have a covering of downy hairs. Some apple mint has a white margin on the leaves. Apple mint is not as robust as some other varieties. It prefers some protection from hot sunshine; if it gets too much the leaves will burn.
Some varieties of mint, like the Eau de Cologne, are too sweetish and strong to go well with most foods, although they may be pleasant with particular drinks.
Mint is notorious for spreading. Given half a chance it'll have roots right through a small garden in no time flat. It seems that the most successful way of dealing with this problem is to plant it in a container, and then put the container into the ground. You need something reasonably deep, though. If it's in a pot less than 30 centimetres deep it'll just send a few stems out through the drainage holes and be on its way. This seems to apply whether it's sitting on the ground or sunken into it. So: a deep pot or else a pot that's sitting on concrete, a balcony or some other plant-unfriendly surface.
Nasturtiums are easily grown from seed. They aren't fussy about growing conditions, and actually seem to show more blooms where the soil is poor or depleted. In nitrogen rich soil the flowers are fewer and often hidden by vigorous leaf growth. Nasturtium seed comes in two kinds; the second, “globe” variety is supposed not to run.
Nasturtiums are good companion plants to fruit trees, all of the cabbage family, cucumbers, squash, zucchini and marrows, potatoes, tomatoes, radishes and roses. All parts of the plant are edible. The leaves taste a bit like watercress—some people call nasturtiums “Indian cress”— and you can chop them and put them into sandwiches or add them to green salads. The flowers can make a salad look special and inviting, and I'm told that the young seed pods can be pickled and used like capers.
Oregano is closely related to marjoram, but is more robust in growth and in flavour. It's strong enough for highly flavoured dishes where the more delicate taste and smell of marjoram might be lost, so ideal for really hearty spaghetti sauces, pizza and rich beef stews.
Historically oregano was used as an antiseptic and to treat sore throats, coughs and colds. Some modern herbalists still use it in the same way.
The leaves are a much duller green, often with a hint of purple on the undersides and brown or purple veins on young leaves. Stems are also purplish, and somewhat more brittle than those of marjoram.
Oregano seems to cope well with both summer and winter temperatures and with a certain amount of dryness. During winter mine has many potential new plants arising from prostrate stems around the main plant, while the older upright stems are looking tatty. A length of stem carrying two or three of these fresh young plants can be cut and potted up. They do need to be protected from frost until well established.
Parsley is a better source of vitamin C than orange juice, and, if you grow your own, a great deal less expensive. It's supposed to be cooling if chewed, and it's a good breath freshener. It's also probably the most often used garnish on or in all sorts of foods, making bland-looking dishes like scrambled eggs look a lot more interesting.
Parsley likes a good, well-drained soil, preferably in a place where it doesn't get the worst of the afternoon sun. Curly parsley is compact and makes an attractive border for a vegetable bed. If you allow one plant to go to seed it will self-sow and you can then scoop up the seedlings with a little soil and transfer them to a pot or another garden bed. The flat-leaved parsley is much older than the curly kind, and seems to germinate more readily. The flavour is a slightly different.
Interestingly, I've noticed that when curly parsley self-sows the new plants are all like the parent, but when the older, open type self-sows, a very small number of new plants are curly.
The family to which parsley belongs has an odd assortment of members. Carrots and parsnips, celery, coriander and aniseed—all good to eat—and a group of the deadliest plants on earth—the hemlocks. Many of these plants look almost identical. If you live where these plants grow wild, never assume that what looks edible is edible.
A herb? Gosh! I thought it was a weed. Comes up every summer and copes well with drought and with being walked on. Still, my neighbour saw it at a nursery: a tiny potted specimen for $10! So it's a recognised herb.
Investigation tells me that it's edible, both cooked and in salads. It's also recommended as a medication and has been used as such since ancient times. My neighbour, who regularly ate it as a cooked vegetable when she was a child in Holland, says that it an acquired taste, and that many people consider it slimey. It contains the same highly benificial ingredient as fish oil, and probably tastes one heck of a lot better! It's recommended for kidney and liver complaints and as a diuretic. It's also being used as a topical application to cure or inhibit facial wrinkles! Gosh!
Purslane is quite an attractive plant. It grows flat on the ground and has shiny succulent leaves. During summer it produces tiny yellow flowers which open for just a few hours and then close to get on with their seed producing role. If you pull out the flowering plant and leave it lying on a garden bed, the seeds will go on maturing and they'll be lying there, ready to germinate.
OK. Growing purslane. Seems to me that it grows anywhere and under any conditions—although it does seem to prefer my well-manured vegetable beds. To pass it on, you can pull the plant up as roughly as you like. It'll grow when replanted, even after a few hours bare-rooted.
Rosemary is said to be for remembrance—and it's great with roast lamb! This is a lovely bush to have growing, and the bees appreciate it, too.
Rosemary can be touchy. It likes to be well drained, but if its roots get really dry it's likely to die. I find that it's hard to get started, so it's best to buy a potted plant. If you do take cuttings, take several, as not every one will succeed. It likes full sun, but doesn't care to be exposed to fierce winds, so plant it where it has some shelter.
Rosemary is often described as “scruffy” or “straggly”. Pam Fisher's bush, (first picture) though, responds nicely to careful pruning.
Because of its pleasant smell, rosemary was used as incense by those ancients who couldn't afford more highly priced substances. It grows naturally around the Mediterranean and was sometimes used in religious ceremonies.
There's a prostrate form that you can plant at the top of a wall or high in a rockery.
If you'd like to know more about the cultivation and care of rosemary, try these excellent and comprehensive cultivation notes.
Sage is supposed to improve one's memory, and recent investigations have found that it does in fact contain an agent rather like the drugs that have been developed to slow down Alzheimer's disease. Maybe that's why some old cooks are so heavy-handed with it! I think that too much sage in a stuffing or a sauce can overwhelm the main flavour of the meal. Also, chewing great handfuls isn't a good idea—ridiculously large amounts are poisonous. Used in moderation, it can probably be beneficial, especially to older people. It's reputed, too, to be cooling and to control hot flushes.
The plant itself can be very attractive, with it's greyish-green leaves and mauve flower spikes. The bush grows to be about knee-high, and looks best if regularly pruned to maintain a compact shape. The flower spikes need to be cut off to encourage new ones to form.
You can grow sage from a cutting or buy a potted plant. Choose a sunny spot in your garden. Sage doesn't like acid soil, so it'll grow better if you've limed the area some time previously. Work in some sand, too, if you can, because it needs to be very well drained.
Leo Bremen recognised this plant as Salvia greggii, a plant native to south west Texas in the United States, and was kind enough to let me know. Thank you Leo!
OK. This particular salvia is a favourite of honey-eating birds. We have an eastern spinebill who visits it very regularly. My parrot loves to be given a flowery tip, from which she pulls the flowers one at a time. If you pull off one of the flowers, nip the white end with your teeth and then suck, you'll know why!
The plant is about a metre wide and a metre high. It is open and woody inside and is covered with fresh-looking green leaves and lots of flowers. About four times a year the flowers disappear for a short time, then flush again.
If a branch of this plant is in contact with the ground, it will take root, so an easy way to make a new plant is to ease a branch down and put a weight—such as a small rock or half a brick—onto it. Check it in a few weeks. When you're sure it's established itself, cut the branch and your new plant is ready for potting or putting into the garden.
This particularly attractive variety of sage has the same culinary uses and medicinal values as the more common variety. This well shaped specimen is from Eva's garden in Greece. Thank you for this lovely photo, Eva.
Savory is a pleasantly aromatic herb and can be used wherever you'd use thyme, marjoram or rosemary. It's recommended for inclusion in any meat dish, particularly poultry, where it can be added to stuffing. It's also sometimes used instead of sage, although the flavour is quite different. It is said to be useful for digestive disorders and to be a mild antiseptic.
This is winter savory. It differs from summer savory in that it is perennial, has white flowers, and is a little more woody. Summer savory has pinkish or mauve flowers and is an annual plant—it dies off in winter. Winter savory is supposed to form a small bush, but mine does not. It sprawls close to the ground, spreading slowly. It's nice in a hanging basket, quickly sending stems over the edges and downward.
I've read that winter savory, if crushed in the fingers and rubbed on an insect sting, will stop the pain immediately. I haven't had the opportunity to try this.
To get new plants, I've looked for places where stems have rooted themselves; I've had limited success taking woody cuttings that haven't formed roots. Tip cuttings take quite well, but need watching. They don't like to dry out, but neither do they like to be too wet.
Stevia is extraordinarily sweet, and often used as an alternative to sugar. It's useful for diabetics and other people with a serious need to avoid sugar. Checking around the Web I haven't found any adverse effects reported for it, although I have found bad reports on some other substitute sweeteners. Many Asian countries, notably Japan, approve stevia for use in low calorie products. Powders and liquids obtained from stevia are available.
For ordinary home use it's recommended that the leaves be finely chopped and used very sparingly. Alternatively, they can be thoroughly dried and then crushed to a powder. Stored in an air-tight jar, the powder should keep its sweetness indefinitely. It's also suggested that an unchopped leaf be stirred into a cup of tea or coffee and then removed. One would need to experiment to get the strength of the sweetness right!
I planted my stevia in a very large pot and expected it to form some sort of small bush. It didn't. It just extended its stems until they were sixty or more centimetres long, without any new stems arising. I pinned down a couple of the long stems; only one has taken root. Eight months later, though, small side stems are at last appearing. I feel sure that some of these will be suitable for stem cuttings in the spring. I now know that to make the plant bushy the stems should've been trimmed back to about thirty centimetres. I'll do that after I've taken my cuttings.
The potting mix for stevia needs to be loose and open so that it drains well. There should be no clay in the mix. It seems quite happy in moderately acid soil, and a good thick layer of compost or mulch helps to keep its roots cool. During the worst of summer, I positioned it so that it received only morning sunshine.
Thyme comes in many varieties. There's even a tiny, low-growing form that can be used as a lawn. The more familiar common thyme is easy to grow, a favourite seasoning, a delight to bees and a main ingredient of many mouthwashes, both traditional and modern commercial ones.
Although it's by no means a rampaging plant, thyme is very easy to grow. Wherever it touches the ground it will, if conditions are right, make a new plant, and a large plant can be taken up and divided. Putting a weight of some kind—a small rock, perhaps— on a branch where it touches the ground will encourage a new plant to form. Pot some of these up for a flat-dweller or for school fairs. Grow it along the edges of vegetable beds, in rockeries or as a lawn edging. Regular cutting back will keep it from becoming straggly.
Vietnamese mint is popular with people who enjoy Asian cooking. It tastes and smells very much like coriander—in fact, it is also called Vietnamese coriander— but it is hot. It is not related to either mint or coriander, by the way. It is used in salads and in cooked food, especially soups, stews and Vietnamese rolls.
Vietnamese mint is very easy to grow, provided that it gets plenty of water. After the plant I'd bought was well established, my neighbour remarked that it was very like a plant that we each had growing in our fish ponds. Investigation proved that it was indeed the same plant.
When I first bought my Vietnamese mint plant, it had bronze markings on the leaves. I chose to grow it in a shady situation, where it gets only morning sun. Quite soon, the plant became all green. The same is true of those we have growing in our fish ponds, which are also well shaded. I'm guessing that the lack of bright afternoon sunlight is the reason for the colour change, although it may, of course, be a different variety.
Vietnamese mint seems to like lots of manure and/or compost.
Here's a nasty one. This is wormwood, or absinthe. With its silvery-green foliage it's an attractive plant, and many insects are repelled or even killed by it. Indeed, it is very poisonous, but this doesn't seem to be known by quite everyone. I have a book printed in 1976 which recommends this plant as a remedy for various health problems, and I've seen more recent suggestions that it be used as some sort of medicine. As the name suggests, wormwood was long used as a cure for intestinal worms in people and animals. It was also used in the making of some alcoholic drinks, and it's now believed that regular use of these could either cause or exacerbate mental illness as well as having serious physical effects. It could well be, of course, that it was the alcohol, rather than the herb used to flavour it, that did the damage!
Like the mercury based teething powders that were given to babies until the 1950s, many “tried and true” traditional herbal preparations are downright dangerous. Always research thoroughly before trying unknown plants or following printed advice.
I like yarrow. It's pretty. The flowers come in shades of pink from palest to quite a strong colour. The leaves are feathery and often make a lovely rosette behind the flower head. It reproduces from underground stems, and I've been told that it'll take over quite quickly, but I haven't yet found this to be so.
Apparently yarrow is good for stopping bleeding and for helping wounds to heal, and there's a story associated with this. They say that Achilles used yarrow to dress the injuries of his men at Troy. I must've missed that bit. It's good to know that he spent some his time being compassionate.
If you need really solid information on a particular plant, type its name into Google—or Google with your own country's suffix when looking for information on growing it—there're heaps of authoritative herb sites all over the web. Some deal with the use of herbs in cooking and some give botanical details. You can also find “how to grow” help for different climates. If looking for their value as medicines, don't believe the first thing you read. Some herbs that've been in use for centuries—millenia, even—have been found to have some extremely unpleasant effects. Therefore, read half a dozen different sites, including at least one up-to-date scientific one, looking carefully for words such as “toxicity”.
Here are some sample searches. If you want a recipe, type marjoram cooking or marjoram recipe or marjoram "beef stew", for instance. If you want to grow it, try marjoram grow "north Queensland" or marjoram "cold climate". If you're after scientific facts, marjoram species or marjoram family should help.
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