Scented Geranium

60511Window boxes were supposedly invented in Venice to contain aromatic plants that repelled mosquitoes (and probably because garden space was so minimal in Venice). Hanging plants like nasturtium and ivy geranium are traditional window box plants because they do not obscure scenery or sunlight. Scented geraniums are also popular because they are be so strongly aromatic.

Scented geraniums are of the Pelargoniuim genus, so are related to ivy and common geraniums, but are a mix of a few different specie and hybrids. Their foliage can smell like rose, lemon, orange, apple, strawberry, ginger, mint or other herbs or spices. Specialty geranium growers may have nearly a hundred varieties to choose from, which is less than half of the known varieties.

Not many scented geraniums bloom with impressively colorful flowers. However, many have interestingly textured, colorful and lobed foliage that might be velvety or even raspy. The more compact varieties stay less than a foot tall, and spread laterally very slowly. Others have longer but limber stems that lay low as they spread like sloppy ground cover. A few stand upright as tall as five feet.

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Autumn Sage

50909Perhaps in the wild, it blooms in autumn. Where it gets watered in home gardens, even if watered only occasionally, autumn sage, Salvia greggii, blooms all through summer as well. If pruned back severely over winter, it starts to bloom even sooner in spring. The tiny flowers are red, rose, pink, peach, very pale yellow, lavender or white. Some poplar cultivars have bi-colored flowers.

Compact autumn sage that does not get much more than a foot tall is uncommon. Larger cultivars get four feet tall and broad, with more open growth. Most get about three feet high and a bit wider. Without severe winter pruning, stems can eventually get twiggy, with sparse foliage on the exterior. The tiny aromatic leaves are less than an inch long, and visually resemble oregano.

Even though it is not native to California, autumn sage is popular for native landscaping because it does not need much water. Just like native sages, it attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

California Bay

70823Just because California bay, Umbellularia californica, can be used like Grecian or sweet bay for culinary purposes does not necessarily mean that it should be. California bay has a stronger and much more pungent flavor and aroma. Some might suggest substituting less than half California bay for Grecian bay. However, even if the intensity is adjusted accordingly, the flavor might be off.

As the name suggests, California bay is native to California. However, because it is from rainier climates, it prefers a slight bit more water than it would get naturally in the drier parts of the local chaparral climate. It provides nice cooling shade in large landscapes, but is a bit too dark and messy for refined home gardens. The aromatic leaf litter can annoy delicate annuals and seedlings.

Well exposed trees can eventually get more than thirty feet tall and almost as broad. Forest trees that compete with other trees can get a hundred feet tall! Small trees can be shorn as hedges. If not watered too generously, the roots tend to be rather complaisant. However, old trees can eventually develop massively distended burl growths known as lignotubers at the bases of their trunks.

Coneflower

80704The native American coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, of the Midwestern prairies has been popular within its native range longer than anyone can remember, and has become more popular in the West as extracts of echinacea became a fad in herbal medicine several years ago. Modern garden varieties and cultivars have been bred and hybridized for larger and more colorful flowers.

Coneflower has developed from a sturdy but relatively simple prairie wildflower into a flashy and potentially garish perennial, with white, pink, red, orange, yellow, purplish pink or pale green daisy (composite) flowers as wide as three or even four inches. The fat and bristly rust-colored centers become more prominent as the outer petals (ray florets) fold downward to form a domed cone.

The sturdy upright stems can get taller than three feet and wider than two feet, although some garden varieties are more compact. The somewhat raspy basal foliage is full and fluffy, but becomes progressively sparser higher up the stems. Some rare cultivars bloom with double flowers. New growth replaces the old annually, and with plenty of sunlight, blooms through the warmth of summer.

Medicinal Herbs Versus Culinary Herbs

80704thumbThey are NOT the same thing! Many herbs can be useful for both culinary and medicinal applications, but the distinction between the two is very important. Culinary herbs are used to flavor foods. Medicinal herbs are used like pharmaceutical drugs; but they lack the main safety feature of standardization. That means that they are potentially toxic and seriously dangerous if used improperly!

Even standardized pharmaceutical grade herbal products that are very precisely portioned into specific doses that contain very specific rates of active ingredients have the potential to be toxic if misused, and are of course toxic to anyone who is allergic to what is being used. They must be regarded with the same sort of caution that is warranted by any other pharmaceutical medication.

Digitalis is a perfect example of a very toxic plant that is used medicinally. All parts of the plant are very poisonous! Digitalis is so toxic that it is no longer used directly as an nonstandardized and nonpharmaceutical medicinal herb. However, in a standardized pharmaceutical form, it is still sometimes prescribed for cardiac disorders. Many of us grow it just for elegantly tall flower spikes.

In our own home gardens, the strictly culinary herbs are relatively safe. Even those that can also be used medicinally are not likely used for culinary applications in quantities sufficient to be toxic. Some herbs that are used for herbal tea have more potential for toxicity, particularly if consumed regularly or excessively. Even seemingly innocuous chamomile tea, in excess, can cause nausea.

Herbs that are grown and used for medicinal applications warrant the most caution. The active ingredients as well as other chemicals in such herbs can not be accurately quantified, and are quite often variable. Doses that are measured as small volumes of plant parts might contain minimal traces of active ingredients, but could just as easily contain toxic rates. Herbalists recommend consulting with a physician prior to using any of the more potent of medicinal herbs, even if the herbs come from the garden.

Oregano

80627It is considered to be an Italian herb, but since it was popularized in America in the late 1940s, oregano, Origanum vulgare, has become more popular in Italian-American cuisine than it is in Italy. It is now the traditional ‘pizza herb’ for American style pizza. Oregano happens to be one of the few herbs that is preferred dried rather than fresh. Only foliage is used, either before or after bloom.

Prior to bloom, foliage is low to the ground, on wiry stems. Blooming stems stand vertically as tall as two feet, with more foliage and tiny purplish flowers that are not very flashy. The flavor of the foliage on the upright blooming stems is distinct from that of the prostrate vegetative stems. The opposite leaves are only about an inch long, or slightly longer. Flavor can be variable with weather.

Flavor is also variable by cultivar. Some are spicier than most. Some are more bitter. Some cultivars were marketed to be more visually appealing in the garden than flavorful in the kitchen. ‘Nana’ is a dwarf. ‘Aureum’ is variegated with yellow. The famously flavored ‘Greek Kaliteri’ has compact growth, with atypically thick and slightly fuzzy leaves that are dark on top and purplish underneath.

Herbs For Kitchen And Garden

80627thumbHerbs might be in our garden right now, whether we are aware of it or not. Trailing rosemary happens to be a popular and practical groundcover, and some varieties grow as low shrubbery. A few varieties of thyme also work as ground cover for small areas, or between stones. Various lavenders are popular low mounding shrubbery. Quite a few common landscape plants are also herbal.

It is important to be aware though, that some varieties of herbal plants are better for landscape applications, and others are better for herbal applications. All cultivars of rosemary can be used for culinary applications, but some happen to be grown specifically for that purpose because of superior flavor. Cultivars with the best flavor may not be as useful for groundcover or as low shrubbery.

The same goes for the lavenders. French lavender may be the best for culinary applications, but the various Spanish and English lavenders might be better options for landscape applications, cut flowers or for their aroma. California bay that grows wild as a big tree is actually a completely different genus than the shrubbier culinary Grecian bay, and can ruin a recipe if used as a substitute.

As if that were not complicated enough, once the preferred herbal plants are identified, it is important to know how to use them. Chive, cilantro, parsley, mint and most others are usually preferred fresh. Lavender and bay leaf are more often used dried. Rosemary, oregano and sage can be used fresh or dried, depending on the desired flavor. Almost any herb can be dried for convenience.

Drying herbs is convenient for those that are only available within certain seasons, even if they can be used fresh while in season too. For example, chamomile is not a foliar herb like most, but is unbloomed floral buds that must be harvested at a very specific time. They should be plump, but not completely open. Once harvested and dried, they are useful for herbal tea throughout the year.

Herbs can be flowers, seeds, bark or any part. Most are foliage of the family Lamiaceae.

Pot Marigold

70405Just before the weather gets warm enough for real marigolds, and after the weather starts to get too cool and rainy for them, pot marigold, Calendula officinalis, is at its best. It can bloom at any time of year, depending on when it gets planted, but prefers cool and humid spring and autumn weather. It is not so keen on frost in winter, or the arid warmth of summer that real marigolds enjoy.

They are just as versatile as real marigolds are, and work nicely in pots, but they are known as pot marigold because of their history as culinary herbs. They also have medicinal applications, and can bu used for dye. Mature plants do not often get bigger than a foot tall and wide, with somewhat coarse light green foliage. The two or three inch wide flowers are bright yellow or orange, and can sometimes be double.

Makrut Lime

80207Of all the weird citruses available, this is one of the strangest. Makrut lime, Citrus hystrix, is not grown for its ugly wrinkled fruit. The rind and the juice are only rarely used for culinary or medicinal purposes. The important part of makrut lime is the aromatic foliage, particularly the modified petiole ‘wings’ that look like leaves. Fresh or dried, they are popular in the cuisine of Southeast Asia.

Mature trees can eventually reach second story eaves, but are usually kept significantly lower. They are so shrubby that even large trees should have plenty of foliage within easy reach from the ground. Once a tree gets overgrown, it is not as easily pruned lower as some other citrus trees are. Pruning stimulates vigorously long and arching stems, rather than more desirable fluffy growth.

The winged petioles are almost as long and wide as the actual leaves are. In fact, they look just like the leaves, making them look like ‘double leaves’. Although the petiole wings separated from the petiole are supposedly the most aromatic parts, leaves are useful too. The hard fruits are about as big as golf balls, and are the same rich green as the foliage, until they ripen to a light yellow.

Herbs Add Spice To Life

80207thumbOut in deserts, where vegetation can be a scarce commodity, cacti, agaves and yuccas protect themselves from grazing animals with thorns, spines, caustic sap and distastefully textured foliage. None of these defense mechanisms is perfect. They only need to be better than what the competing specie are using. Many plants find that objectionable flavor and aroma work just fine for them.

The funny thing about the objectionable flavors and aromas that some plants use to discourage grazing animals from eating them, is that these same flavors and aromas are what make so many of them appealing to people. It is ironic that what was supposed to make them distasteful to some is what makes them tasty to others. Yet, it also gets us to perpetuate them in our home gardens.

Mint, thyme, lavender, rosemary and sage, which all happen to be in the same family, are culinary herbs that also work well in the landscape. The mints need the most watering, and containment if their innate invasiveness is a concern. Thymes need less water, and some are nicely aromatic ground cover for small areas. Lavenders and rosemaries can survive with minimal watering here.

Both rosemary and sage are popular for landscaping anyway. Rosemary is most commonly grown as a ground cover that cascades nicely over low retaining walls, but some cultivars are shrubby. Sages are extremely variable. Some are showier than they are useful in the kitchen, with elegant and colorful flower spikes. Others are too strongly aromatic to cook with, but are used as incense.

Fennel and chamomile are often grown in vegetable gardens rather than out in the more refined parts of the landscape because they can get somewhat awkward. Fennel has such nice feathery foliage at first, but if not harvested, it gets tall, and then yellows after bloom. Chamomile gets tall and open in bloom, and then no one wants to ruin it by harvesting all the flowers if it looks too good. Chives are easier to work with. They have so many leaves that no one misses a few taken for the kitchen.