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Herbs are generally defined as green and leafy parts of plants used to give flavor to dishes in cooking, such as rosemary, sage, thyme and parsley. 

Many herbs are also potentially recognized as having medicinal properties.  Herbs are found both dried and fresh.  Fresh herbs are infinitely superior in flavor to the dried versions, though the obvious difficulty in some areas is that many leafy plants may die in winter.  This necessitates forms of preservation for later use.  Drying is the most popular, though many herbs can be chopped and frozen, frozen in water, frozen in oil or other fatty preparation such as butter.

I love herbs.  I love trying new ones, when I can find them.  And I most expecially love growing them.  I have had many varieties of basil plants (just a few photos of some I have grown, below), many varieties of thyme, from upright, white flowered thymus vulgaris, to more sprawling "Mother of Thyme" with pink flowers, to tiny creeping "Wooly Thyme" and at least 8 other varieties in between.  I have tried my hand at growing lesser used herbs like salad burnet and borage. I had a Bay tree (laurus nobilis) for years and years.  I have had many varieties of mint; spearmint, peppermint, apple mint, and even a low growing, tiny-leaved variety called "Corsican Mint."  Sage, variegated sage, pineapple sage.  I think you get the picture. 

Sage  - Salvia officinalis

Sage is a well known garden herb that also carries many health and healing claims. In ancient times it was thought to have powers of immortality, or at least longevity. The scientific name, salvia, means health, and the word sage has come to be synonymous with wisdom, though its origin is more likely the Latin salvare, meaning to cure, or be safe or well.

Sage is a hardy perennial with woody, squared stems, covered in down. There are many varieties of sage, and the plants grow from 1 to 3 feet in height. The long oval leaves are opposite, about 2 to 4 inches long. They look pebbly and puckered and are grayish green. The leaves are softly hairy or velvety and the edges are round toothed. They are at peak flavor just before the plant begins to flower. The flowers are tubular and pink, purple, blue or white, a little over a half inch long and grow in whorls of four to eight per stem.

Sage is easy to grow, needing full sun and well draining soil. It will come up year after year in most climates, though after 4 or more years the plant may become too woody and need to be replaced. The plant itself is quite decorative and is a great addition to any garden purely for its looks. The flowers of common sage are a striking lovely blue.
Sage's flavor is of camphor and balsam and is pleasantly bitter. It is a good partner for strongly flavored foods.

Although these days sage is more known for its culinary use, it is also well known as an herbal medicinal. Sage oil has antiseptic, astringent and irritant properties and is believed to be anhidrotic, or able to dry up body secretions such as perspiration. Sage used as a mouthwash or gargle is useful in treating sore throats and mouth irritations. Sage tea after a meal benefits digestion. It is known to help in the digestion of rich or fatty foods such as pork, and even sweets. While sage has many wonderful and healthful properties, it should not be taken in great quantity for any length of time.

The four most common varieties of sage found readily in plant nurseries are: Common Sage, Salvia officinalis, is the one found most commonly, with solid pale ashy green leaves. Variegated sage, Salvia o. Icterina has green leaves with a yellow to white border. Purple Sage, Salvia o. purpurea, has deeper purple veined and tinged leaves, and some varieties of purple sage have the underside of the leaf a paler pinkish color. Tri Colored Sage, Salvia o. Tricolor, has variegated leaves in cream, purple and green. Any of these are fine for use in cooking and are purely a matter of taste and esthetics.




Sage plant Common Sage Flowering
                Sage Plant                  |           Common Sage, Flowering


Three Varieties of Sage
Three Varieties of Sage
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Curry Leaf  - Murraya koenigii

Not to be confused with the European Curry Plant, Helichrysum italicum, Curry Leaves comes from the Curry Tree, Murraya koenigii. It is a tender, evergreen shrub reaching up to 20 feet tall in its native southwest Asian habitat.  It grows in the foothills of the Himalayas, southern India and Sri Lanka, and is cultivated in many Indian gardens. The leaves are a mid green in color and grow about 16 to 20 on each small stalk. The small, star shaped white flowers grow in clusters in summer, followed by edible, peppery tasting black berries.

It is best to use the leaves fresh; they have little flavor once dried. A handful of dried leaves are needed to take the place of just a few, if fresh. The leaves have the flavor of a curry dish, and lend this flavor where used, along with a slight citrus-like scent. The whole leaf stalk may be added to a dish and removed later. The leaves may be fried quickly at the beginning of cooking to release flavor into the oil being used. Curry leaves are an ingredient in Madras curry powder, and are often used in dishes with brown mustard seeds and dried red chiles.

Grow this plant as a small shrub outdoors in temperate climates, or in a container to bring indoors. This is a great way to keep curry leaves available for all your Indian and southwest Asian cooking. The small tree has elegant foliage and a unique aroma.  Botanically it is so closely related to citrus that it can serve as a rootstock for grafting lemon trees. The plant needs moist, rich soil and full sun to part shade and a temperate climate. It can be grown from seed or cuttings in summer.  Plants grown in cool areas or under too much cover tend to attract aphids, scale and red spider mites, so keep the plant in sun. The curry tree will be far smaller, if grown in a container.  If you are so fortunate as to find this plant, do try growing it.  The rewards of having this marvelous flavor at hand are great.



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Curry Leaf
Curry Leaf, above
Curry Leaf in Flower, below
Curry Leaf in flower

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Basil   - Ocimum basilicum

If I had to choose which herb I just could not live without, basil would be in the top two!  I love the flavor of basil, and in its fresh form it agrees with me, unlike the dried version. 

Basil is a very common herb, but there are many varieties, with varying flavors.  Basil has a rich and spicy, mildly peppery flavor, with a trace of mint and clove.

The most common, sweet basil, has large green leaves, growing on a large, upright plant, with white flowers.  There is also a very tiny plant, Globe Basil, with tiny leaves, and a compact round growing habit.  Some varieties have large, showy, ruffled leaves, and these come in both a green ruffled variety, as well as a dark purple ruffled variety.  There is Thai basil, upright and spare, with the leaves green but tinged with purple.  Purple Opal Basil is a beautiful specimen, with shinier deep purple-green leaves and beautiful purple flowers.  Of all these varieties mentioned, I have grown all of them at one time or another.  Many other varieties exist than these few.

Basil is one herb that should always be available for use in the kitchen.  It is fantastic with anything tomato based, whether fresh tomatoes, such as a Caprese Salad, to the most obvious, pasta sauce.  It can be added to poaching water for fish, chicken or vegetables.  It adds snap to any mild flavored vegetables, such as cauliflower, eggplant, carrots, cabbage, spinach.  Whole leaves can be tossed into a salad. 
If you can spare it, basil can make a beautiful addition to flower arrangements, with the many leaf varieties, and even the flower spikes.

Basil is easy to grow, but it is a very tender-leaved plant.  Basil likes heat!  Wait to plant outdoors until soil has warmed to at least 50 degrees.  Do not mulch until the soil has warmed up - those roots like to be warm!  To encourage leaf growth, prune the tops regularly.  Nip back the flower heads; they are persistent. 

The least hint of cold can completely wither sweet basil, or the ruffled varieties.  Some others are just slightly hardier-leaved, and will tolerate a few degrees colder before they also succumb.
 


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Sweet Basil
Sweet Basil - Ocimum basilicum

Purple Opal Basil
Purple Opal Basil

Thai Basil
Thai Basil

Purple Ruffles Basil
"Purple Ruffles" Basil

 

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Rosemary - Rosmarinus officinalis 

Rosemary is a tender perennial evergreen shrub whose ash-colored scaly bark and green, needlelike leaves give it an overall grayish green appearance.  Its flowers are a pale blue, about ½-inch long, and grow in clusters of two or three along the stem.  The leaves resemble needles about 1/3 to 1½-inch long and are thick and leathery with a dark green upper surface and white and hairy underneath. A prominent vein runs down the center of the leaf.  It is a pungent herb with a somewhat piney fragrance.  It is reliably hardy to 20 degrees (Zone 9).  If grown in more northern climes, it will need to be brought inside for the winter.

It is beautiful as a hedge, and can be trimmed in shape. Some cultivars can grow to 8 feet tall.  Upright strains bloom in early summer.  Prostrate rosemary grows, as the name suggests, flat against anything supportive.  It will creep along rocks, or hang down a wall.  Prostrate rosemary blooms more or less constantly throughout the summer. 

Rosemary needs excellent soil drainage.  If the soil is limey, rosemary may be a smaller and more aromatic plant.  To provide additional lime, add eggshells or potash.

Rosemary is a wonder flavoring, particullarly for lamb or pork.  Add sparingly to a wide range of meat dishes.  Use the stems of the upright varieties as skewers for barbecuing.  If fresh, trim one end to a point and skewer meats.  If dried, soak first for 15 minutes to prevent burning.  If barbecuing meats, a handful of the fresh rosemary sprigs can be placed directly ont the coals a couple minutes before the meat is done, for a wonderful last-minute flavor boost.  The fragrant smoke will flavor the meats.

Rosemary Sprig
Rosemary Sprig

Rosemary Flowers
Rosemary flowers, closeup: pale blue clusters, above
Prostrate Rosemary, below, flowering all season 


Prostrate Rosemary



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Borage - Borago officinalis 

Borage is an annual self seeding plant, borago officinalis, that bears many leafy, branched, hollow succulent stems covered with stiff white hairs. Its sprawling habit makes it difficult to contain as a decorative plant, but its delightful blue, star shaped flowers with their cone of prominent black anthers, are about 3/4 inch in diameter, and are certainly a decorative element.  The whole plant looks grayish green, due to the hairs on every surface.  Borage is native to Europe, Asia Minor, northern Europe and Africa and naturalized in Great Britain.  It is widely cultivated in North America.  Its habitat is sunny locations, including waste places and along roadsides. Borage attracts bees and wasps, so try to keep plants away from walking paths.

One of the ways in which borage brings joy is as a flavoring in foods.  It has a crisp cucumber flavor. The leaves can be eaten raw, steamed or sauteed like spinach.  The stems are also edible.  Peel, chop and use them like celery. Fresh borage flowers can be tossed into salads or used as a garnish.  They will turn pink on contact with vinegar or lemon juice. Candied, they make lovely decorations for pastries and dessert trays. 

Borage Flowers
Borage Flowers: photo at right courtesy of 
Diana Hromish, www.lunareye.net

The leaves and stems enhance cheese, fish, poultry, most vegetables, green salads, iced beverages, pickles and salad dressings. They blend well with dill, mint and garlic. If the fuzziness of the leaves is an objection, they can be used strictly for flavor, and then removed before serving. Borage loses all flavor when dried or frozen. It may be used to flavor vinegar.

Other culinary uses: heighten the flavor of cold cucumber soup, or other chilled vegetable soups. Add about 2 tablespoons of minced fresh borage to four cups of soup, and use the flowers as garnish. Add a handful of leaves and stems when making a chicken or fish stock. Make a strong tea by boiling the leaves and stems in water. Use the tea to replace some of the water in a recipe for lemon or strawberry fruit ice.


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Bay Leaves - Laurus nobilis 

The Bay Tree, also called Sweet Bay or Bay Laurel, is indigenous to the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, though it is now cultivated in many temperate climates.  It does not tolerate strong winds and very cold temperatures, so container growing is an alternative. In the wild, the tree can grow to 60 feet, though outside its natural growing area, it may not grow to more than 10 to 15 feet.  Container plants generally do not get more than about 5 feet tall, though this is more than adequate if growing for kitchen use.  The leaves maybe used either fresh or dried for culinary purposes. For crafts, the branches may be woven into wreaths while still supple and green, and will maintain shape when dry.  If not from plants sprayed with poisons, wreaths are great for use both as a decoration and as a handy place to grab a bay leaf when needed for cooking.

Bay leaves are key ingredients in many spice mixtures, such as the French bouquet garni, and some garam masala mixtures. The leaves themselves are very stiff, with a strong vein and stem. Remove leaves from a dish before serving, to prevent any choking hazard.  In making a garam masala, all the ingredients will be ground, so any vein or stem that has not been pulverized is easily removed.

Besides use in spice mixtures, use bay leaves in marinades, stock, soups, stews and gravies.  Also, use in potato or other creamed soups, pate, curries, game and poached fish liquid. Boiled in milk they will flavor custard and rice pudding. Cooks instinctively add bay leaves to Creole, French and Spanish cooking.  They are also an essential part of pickling spices. They are great used in combination with peppercorns, saffron, garlic, allspice, citrus, prepared and dry mustards.

Bay leaves are also said to relieve indigestion, relieve flatulence and stimulate the appetite. It is said that bay leaves deter kitchen insects. While there is no solid proof, many still keep a bay leaf in their flour bin, or rice and other dry staples.  While this may or not work, it is best to maintain a clean pantry so as not to invite pests. 

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Bay Leaves, fresh and dried
Bay Leaves, fresh and dried


Thyme - Thymus sp.
 

Native to the western Mediterranean, thyme is also widely cultivated. The most commonly encountered variety, Thymus vulgaris, is now found fresh on most cold produce shelves.  Thyme comes in multitudes of varieties, many of which are wonderfully suited for use in the kitchen.  It is a perennial, and will survive most winters, coming back year after year to beautify the garden and grace the table. It loves full sun and well drained soil. Some varieties are wonderful for framing walkways, releasing their warm, spicy fragrance when brushed, or for planting between edges of a raised bed. It is a beautiful ground cover. Thyme flowers profusely all summer and different varieties flower from white to pale pink and deep rose.  Multiple varieties planted together yield a beautiful bed. Those that lend themselves more to beautifying a garden bed are Wooly Thyme; its wooly leaves, giving it a grayish green look, and Creeping Thyme, similar in its creeping habit. These two grow absolutely flat to the ground and climb up the sides of rocks.

Thymus vulgaris will grow to be about a foot tall, with upright growth habit.  It has stiff and mostly straight stems, with leaves easily stripped to add to dishes being cooked.  Whole sprigs can also be dropped into a pot, and removed later, as with a bouquet garni.  The leaves of the thyme plant are tiny, with varying shapes or colors, depending on the variety.  Thymus vulgaris has tiny, darker green and more leathery leaves. Some types such as lemon thyme have variegated green and golden yellow leaves with a lemony scent and flavor. These are well suited to chicken or fish dishes. Broad leaf thyme, as the name implies, has wider and rounder leaves.  Nutmeg thyme is variegated and has a scent of nutmeg. Mother of Thyme has a softer look and a more sprawling habit.  The stems are far softer and the flowers are pink.  There are so many varieties; it is hard to name them all.
 

When thyme is growing in abundance, fresh bunches may be tossed onto coals on the grill for the last 5 minutes or so of grilling chicken or other meats.  The green plant will smoke, giving the wonderful fragrance and flavor to the grilled meat.  As a medicinal, thyme leaves can be simmered gently for 2 to 3 minutes and strained.  The liquid may be consumed as a digestive tonic.  With added honey it is said to be excellent for coughs.  Thyme has natural antiseptic qualities and has long been an ingredient in cleaning products, mouthwashes, antiseptic creams and massage oils.  Find a sunny spot in the garden to plant and enjoy.

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Thymus vulgaris

Thyme: thymus vulgaris, above
Closeup of tiny Thyme flowers, below

Thyme Flowers





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