Thursday, April 7, 2011

3.29 Everything Is An Herb (In Its Own Way)

Somewhere in a coat pocket I have a list of all kinds and descriptions plants that merit the title of herb. It’s a long list, but still a very partial one. An herb, according to one widely cited definition, is a plant “that is valued for flavor, scent, or other qualities.”
The Herb Society of America, presumably an expert on the subject, states that it is dedicated “to promoting herbs for use and delight.”
Does that mean that so long as a plant is grown consciously for “delight,” it can be considered an herb? If so, then if you planted it – unless you’re a masochist – it’s an herb. And your garden, whether you know it or not, has some call to be considered an herb garden.
This expansive definition is good news for those of us (and I am among them, pretty much always) looking for reasons to acquire some new and interesting plants. Basically, we don’t need a reason to do this, it’s kind of a steady-state condition, but it does get more extreme in late March, like the return of an old addiction. (O Cynara!, the poet cried, I am sick of an old passion!)
Anglers are lured and baited. Sailors shiver their timbers. Plant lovers go buy plants.
Those of us without an expansive knowledge of the Latin names of plants can learn from the expertise of Doveflower Cottage Designs. That list in my coat pocket, which I have now recovered, was provided by Doveflower’s master gardener Susan Leigh Anthony at a lecture we attended at a flower show.
Susan Leigh Anthony, who cited the Herb Society of America’s credo of “herbs for use and delight,” offered us a “big tent” approach to herb gardening. Come on in and invite your friends.
Here are the names, some common, Latin, of herbs chosen almost at random from Anthony’s long list. Herbs of low height: sage, miniature basils, santolina, comfrey-Hidcote blue. Annuals: nasturtium, prostrate rosemary, English daisy, nigella. Medium height: tarragon (French), anchusa, garden sage, anthemis tinctoria, lovage. Tall herbs: fennel (bronze), dill (annual), angelica-patrinia, valerian.
I for one truly appreciate a list of good names.
Some of the plants on her lists of herbs we have in our garden (or at least had last year) include: chamomile, lady’s mantle, catmint, lavender, parsley, alpine strawberry, oregano, ajuga, dianthus, germander, phlox, artemisia, beel balm, tarragon, basil, aliums, some roses, tall peonies, lilac, butterfly bush, and mint.
We’ve planted some of the annuals on her list too, with mixed success. I tried some nasturtiums late last summer, and found the remains of a dried orange flower under the melted snow. I’m a little surprised to find English daisy listed as an annual; I was under the impression that I had acquired a perennial. Maybe I shouldn’t be expecting back. And dill is something I have remind myself to put in every year.
Other names I welcome as opportunities for learning. What is santolina? Comfrey I remember, though I don’t remember what it looks like or what it was supposed to cure. There’s a “garden sage”? (Is that one of those little stone Buddhas?) Why is rosemary prostate? (It sounds slightly indecent.) Lovage is a lovely word, but I know nothing of thing itself. Valerian makes tea and cures stomach upsets, but what’s it like to grow it?
This inclusive approach to the green and charming universe of herbs puts to shame our tiny, segregated so-called “herb patch,” a modest affair surrounded by log-shaped extra lumber pieces, cut to a modest, chunky size. This patch has, judging by what I see so far this March, chives which come back every year, something that I believe is a garlic-leek, which is rather surprisingly back this year, and oregano, which also has come back every year reliably.
Oregano, or “joy of the mountain,” is one of what Anthony calls “the Mediterranean herbs,” which need sun and well-drained, though not necessarily rich soil. We had rosemary last year, which smells like pine, but I’m told to my surprise not to expect it back this year. Once again, I assumed perennial status. We’ve have tarragon, which has hung in there for a few years, but I don’t see it yet this year. We had some thyme, but it’s gone.
We have parsley – is that an herb? Isn’t it also a green? Does a popular folk song give it a special status? So far our parsley winters over and then throws down some new seed to keep the patch growing. I don’t know why we don’t have sage.
Here’s just a few – the few whose names I can remembers – of the dozens of attractive and remarkable plants Anthony’s slide-lecture introduced us to.
Daphne – Carol Mackie. There appear to be lots of varieties of this plant, all called Carol Mackie (there’s fame for you). Lots of starry pink flowers, some with variegated leaves, three feet high, flowering in May.
Viburnum. A plant with lots of shapes and floral patterns, and a variety called viburnum plicatum Summer Snowflake (quite enough name for anyone), blooms white at various months (depending on the variety), looks good as a tall background shrub, produces a late summer fruit – and smells good. I’m sold.
Fairy candles (Actaea racemosa), which have other-worldly, pointy flower spires of tall white blossoms that live up to their name. They’re partial to full shade, 4-6 feet high, bloom in midsummer, and like their soil kept moist.
Borage. It looks classical herb-like to me. Beautiful small blue flowers and fuzzy leaves. An annual, it self-seeds, blooms midsummer, grows 18-36 inches. Dead head it to keep blooming; attracts bees. I’ll put it on the list.
I am glad to be reminded that there’s plenty of unexplored territory. In a journey of a thousand miles I feel well on my way along the first half-dozen steps or so.
We’re looking forward to taking a few new ones this year, just as soon as the April Fool’s snowfall melts off.