The sage that is most popularly grown for herbal and culinary uses (Salvia officinalis) is originally from the Mediterranean region, so is right at home in much of California. Like the various lavenders and some of the other related herbs, it is a shrubby perennial that behaves like a woody shrub, but lives only a few years like some perennials. Lower stems can be layered (buried where they touch the ground so that they form roots and grow into new plants) to replace older plants before they die.
Modern cultivars are quite variable with purplish, pink, pale yellow or pale white coloration or variegation to new foliage, as well as lower growth habit. The original sage gets almost two feet tall and broad, with very aromatic gray foliage. The narrowly oblong leaves are nearly two and a half inches long and one inch wide. The flowers that bloom in late spring or summer are typically pale blue, but can be purple, pink or white.
Because of the unusually mild weather this past winter, many plants are waking up from winter dormancy early. The shrubby herbs like sage, rosemary, lavender and tarragon are already outfitted with fresh new foliage that will soon obscure the foliage that lingered through winter. Those that have not yet bloomed may do so sooner than expected.
New herb plants can be added to the garden any time now. Even if rain resumes (or actually ‘starts’), there should not be enough to cause new plants to rot, particularly since the warming weather will keep plants growing faster than the root rot that can kill them through cool and damp winter weather. Sage, tarragon, marjoram, mint and thyme are easier to grow from small plants. Dill, cilantro and basil are easier to grow from seed sown directly into the garden. Oregano, fennel and chives can be grown by either means.
Many of the woody herbs, like rosemary and the many varieties of lavender, are commonly used in landscaping, so can be found in even the most basic nurseries that do not feature a selection of other herbs. Because almost all herbs have sensitive root systems, they should be planted while small. The smaller 1 gallon plants are easier to grow (as well as less expensive) than the larger 5 gallon plants are. However, sweet bay is an exception that does not mind being planted as a 5 gallon or even larger tree where it needs to look mature now, even if only a few leaves get used in the kitchen. Low growing rosemary is a common ground cover. Upright varieties can be shorn into small hedges. Thyme makes a nice small scale ground cover between stepping stones, where it shares its fragrance when stepped on.
Chives, oregano, parsley, mint and thyme are not often marketed as common landscape stock, but are visually appealing enough to appear in the landscape. Herbs that are not so visually appealing can be planted in a separate herb garden, among vegetables in a vegetable garden, or simply out of the way. Basil, cilantro, tarragon, dill, sage and marjoram can be too unkempt at times. Basil and cilantro look good most of the time, but then get harvested in large enough quantities to leave bald spots. Fennel can be a striking foliage plant for a while as long as no one minds that it will eventually get harvested.
The native bay laurel should not be confused with the Grecian or sweet bay. Despite the similarities, the native bay laurel grows into a large tree. The foliage can be used as seasoning like Grecian bay, but has a very different and much more pungent flavor. It can often be found fresh in markets, labeled as Grecian or sweet bay, and has likely ruined all sorts of recipes.
Grecian or sweet bay, Laurus nobilis, stays much smaller much longer. It takes many years to grow to thirty feet tall, often with many trunks flaring out from the center. Trees that are nearly twice as tall are ancient. Because of slow growth, Grecian bay can be happy in large containers as long as it is pruned to stay proportionate to the confined root system.
The three or four inch long, and inch or so wide leaves of Grecian bay can be difficult to distinguish from those of bay laurel. The minor differences are that Grecian bay leaves have slightly undulate margins with a few small and sometimes barely perceptible serrations (teeth) that bay laurel lacks. The leaf apexes of Grecian bay leaves are typically a bit more blunt. For culinary purposes, it is important to be aware that dried leaves and fresh leaves have very different flavors.
It is as familiar for culinary application as it is for home gardens, even with its new name. Rosmarinus officinalis is now known as Salvia rosmarinus, but the common name is still just rosemary. Like many Mediterranean culinary herbs, it is a member of the Lamiaceae Family. Since it is native to Mediterranean regions, it is quite happy within local climates.
While many culinary cultivars of rosemary are shrubby or upright, the most popular home garden cultivars are trailing types. Trailing rosemary disperses its woody stems laterally, but can eventually get deeper than two feet. Shrubbier cultivars get at least twice as high in less time. The finely textured dark green foliage is evergreen and pungently aromatic.
Bloom is generally most profuse from late spring through the middle of summer, but may never really stop. It can continue in sparser sporadic phases whenever the weather gets warm, and even throughout the year. The tiny flowers are various shades of blue. Purple, white and pale pink bloom is very rare. Bloom is appealing to bees and other pollinators, including hummingbirds.
Vegetables grow mostly in designated vegetable gardens because they are not appealing enough for the rest of the landscape. Flowers for cutting might grow in designated cutting gardens, from which they are not missed after harvest. Culinary herbs can grow in herb gardens for the same reasons. Some might not be very pretty. After harvest, some might be too shabby for the landscape.
Of course, such perceptions are debatable. Home gardens are casual and customized. If Swiss chard, artichoke and other vegetables can grow in front yard landscapes, then culinary herbs can too. In fact, some already do. Rosemary, thyme, lavender and a few other culinary herbs happen to be popular for landscapes because they are so appealing and practical. There is a slight catch.
Culinary cultivars of herbs are distinct from landscape cultivars. Trailing rosemary is a landscape cultivar with sprawling growth that works well as a resilient ground cover. Another cultivar exhibits more sculptural upright growth. Both are well flavored. However, neither is as richly flavored as culinary cultivars of the same species. Yet, culinary cultivars are not so remarkable for landscaping.
Most of us are satisfied with landscape cultivars of rosemary for culinary application. Alternatively, culinary cultivars, which are rare in nurseries and landscapes, can adapt to landscape functions. Cultivars of culinary rosemary happen to make nice low and mounding hedging. Infrequent shearing or selective pruning does not constantly deprive it of too much of its more flavorful new foliage.
The same applies to several herbs that have both culinary and landscape applications. Compromise might be in order.
Incidentally, two culinary herbs, Grecian bay and bronze fennel, are presently quite trendy. Grecian bay or sweet bay (which is not California bay) is a very popular potted plant. In the ground, it can grow into a midsized tree. Bronze fennel is supposedly comparable to common fennel, but with sepia toned foliage. Chive, parsley and borage all work nicely with mixed perennials and annuals.
Vegetation management after several weeks of neglect has been . . . interesting. While we were unable to work, and during their most active growth of the year, weeds proliferated more than they had ever gotten away with before. As most get cut down by weed whackers, I pull those that mingled with desirable plants that weed whackers must avoid. It is a tedious process.
One of the more tedious of these projects, and perhaps the most tedious so far, required the removal of abundant weeds from a dense row of carpet roses. Fortunately, it was not as bad as I expected it to be. They young man who weeded this area during winter had done a remarkably thorough job, and eradicated most of the dreaded oxalis and tougher perennial grassy weeds.
The weeds that I pulled were big and impressive, but pulled out relatively easily. A few thistles were unpleasant to handle, but even they came out easily. Mock strawberry between some of the roses was still in good condition after the weeds that mingled with them were gone. I realize that I do not adequately appreciate all the weeding that happens here that I am not aware of.
Besides mock strawberry, another species that gets to stay in parts of the area that it spreads into is some sort of oregano. It seems to be common Italian oregano, but also seems to develop leaves that are slightly larger than they should be. It is too docile to be a problem for the roses, but occupies space that would otherwise be taken by weeds. Besides, it is nice to have around.
Even oregano needs to be managed sometimes. Quite a bit of it got pulled from the roses along with the weeds. I suppose it must be dried now.
Chopped dried rose hips can be purchased from a supermarket in town that stocks an impressive variety of useful bulk herbs. They are used as a dietary supplement and remedy for several minor ailments. Although most of the copious vitamin C they contain while fresh is ruined by drying and storage, they are still popularly used as a remedy or preventative for colds and flu.
It would be reasonable to assume that the rose hips that are available in markets would be from a species that has been cultivated and developed for a few centuries. After all, rose hips have been used as an herbal supplement for a very long time. Surprisingly, those that are available in the local market here are from the common and native California wild rose, Rosa californica.
That means that those that grow wild on the outskirts of the landscapes here produce the same rose hips that can be purchased in markets. There are only a few others species of wild rose that grow wild in California, and even fewer that are endemic locally. Those in the picture were actually planted into a landscape composed of natives, but are thought to be Rosa californica.
I normally leave these rose hips for the birds; but because the birds take all my cotoneaster berries, I am not too worried bout them getting enough to eat. I left the rose hips that are pretty where they can be seen, but took quite a few that were out of view on the backside of a riparian thicket of rose bramble. I do not yet know what to do with them, but will figure that out later.
Once dried, these rose hips will be easily pulverized into coarse and seedy ‘grounds’ that can be added to blends of herbal tea.
Window 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.
There are only four seasons in which to grow herbs, but herbs are used for all sorts of seasonings. Most herbs are aromatic evergreen foliage. Some might be flowers, flower buds, stems, bark, seeds, roots or really any plant part. Those with the strongest flavors might be classified as spices. Herbs are used for culinary purposes. Many might be used medicinally. Some just smell pretty.
Most herbs are best fresh, like mint, chive, cilantro and parsley. Bay leaf and lavender are herbs that are more commonly used dried rather than fresh. Sage, rosemary and oregano can be used either dried or fresh, depending on the desired effect. Yet, for many of us, dried herbs are used merely because of convenience. They are available when their fresh versions are out of season.
Many gardening texts suggest that herbs that need to be dried should be collected and dried about now. That is true in the sense that most happen to be ready about now. Some might have been better earlier in the year. A few might need to mature a bit more. There are probably many that get collected and dried when it is convenient for us, or when overgrown plants need to be pruned.
Vegetative rosemary stems should be collected before they bloom again. Obviously, that might not be right now. It blooms in random phases. The trick is to catch it between phases. Lavender flowers get collected as they finish bloom. Oregano is an odd one, since the vertical stems with flower buds on top get cut for drying while the sprawling growth on the ground is good for fresh use.
Because rosemary is available throughout the year, it is not often dried. Even while in full bloom, there is plenty of foliage to go around. When it gets dried, it is probably because the dried flavor is preferred for a specific recipe. Other herbs are likely to be dried because they are not available during part of the year. Many herbs are annuals or perennials that die back through the winter. Drying the last bits of cilantro may not seem like a good idea now, but might be useful in winter.
They 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.