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.


Herbs Are For All Seasons

70823thumbThere 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.

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.


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.

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.