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«Perennial Herbs Charles Voigt Although many favorite culinary herbs are quick-growing annuals, there are also many perennial types, which can fill an ...»

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Perennial Herbs

Charles Voigt

Although many favorite culinary herbs are quick-growing annuals, there are also many perennial

types, which can fill an herb garden with great scents and taste for years to come. Here are a few to


Common Perennials

Chives, Allium schoenoprasm, is a member of the onion family that grows easily from seed. There will be

some variability in leaf thickness and flower head size among seedlings, but this is usually acceptable. If

extremely uniform plants are needed, individual clumps of the plants can be separated into individual plants, which will form identical clumps of their own.

Chives is normally harvested by snipping off leaves at their base, then chopping them into or onto whatever dish is being prepared. Snipping hand-held small bunches with kitchen scissors works quite well. The flavor is similar to onion, but more subtle. The flower heads are very popular edible flower garnishes on dishes which have the leaves chopped as an ingredient. If flowers are to be eaten with the dish, individual florets need to be snipped from the inflorescence. Chives is a pretty dependable perennial that only needs division every 2-4 years to keep growth vigorous.

Garlic Chives, Allium tuberosum, is another member of the onion family that has flat leaves like leek and garlic. The flavor is very much like garlic and the tops are harvested like regular chives. Garlic chives has white flowers and grows taller than chives. It can become weedy if allowed to mature seed in the garden.

French Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus sativa, is the queen of all herbs, and is most famous in French cuisine, but in fact is used throughout the world for its licorice-like flavor with the mild bite. It is often used to negate the "fishy" character of seafood dishes.

French tarragon does not form viable seeds, in fact, it rarely blooms under Midwest conditions.

Seeds of "tarragon" will always be a disappointment as they will produce rank, mostly tasteless plants of Russian tarragon. Plants can be divided or stem tip cuttings rooted to form new plants. The plant forms numerous rhizomes in the fall, which can be separated and used to create an abundance of new plants the next spring. There are also specialists who make these divisions and sell the small plants, which quickly mature into usable size in the garden.

Repeated harvest of this herb over the season keeps the plants branching out, producing new tender shoots. Fresh tarragon is very much preferable to dried, since much of the character is lost in the drying process. Some sources describe dried tarragon as "little better than hay". For this reason, the plants make a dependable supply of fresh product throughout the season. It is normal in the fall for the plants to go into a dormancy. Potted plants on balconies may actually appear to die. Many of them get thrown out, when they are only resting.

While tarragon is sometimes listed as winter tender, it should withstand -30 degrees Fahrenheit if the crowns are given excellent drainage. What causes winterkill most often is soggy conditions. Once established in the ground, tarragon will produce very well, asking only to be divided regularly to avoid overcrowding.

Garlic, Allium sativum sativum and Allium sativum ophioscorodon, is another member of the onion family that is commonly sold as a vegetable, though its usage is like that of an herb. Its health benefits are becoming so well known, that it might as well be considered here as an herb. While garlic is a perennial, it needs annual division and replanting to produce the bulbs that are common on the market. Several types are available, both with and without topsets. Elephant garlic is not really a garlic at all, but a type of leek that forms a pungent bulb which tastes and resembles the garlic bulb.

For bulb culture, dry bulbs are normally divided into cloves and planted about 6-8 weeks before the ground freezes in the fall, somewhere around the first two weeks of October in the northern half of the state. Plants will root in and begin to sprout before cold weather. In the first thaw of spring, the plants will be off and growing luxuriantly. Bulbing occurs in June, and bulbs can be dug when the tops start to yellow. In the Midwest, tops cannot usually be allowed to completely dry in the field, due to unpredictable moisture in the soil, which may begin to rot the delicate papery wrappers on the bulbs.

Bulbs can be braided or bunched and hung in a dry, dark, airy place to complete drying. They then usually keep for months.

An interesting recent development is the culture of garlic in the form of scallions. Topsets or small cloves are planted fairly thickly in a row and the green plants dug, cleaned, and bunched like green onions. The whole plant, tops and all, is then chopped into dishes for flavor.

Mint, Mentha spp., is an herb which comes in a wide variety of flavors. While most mints can be started from seed, the best and truest flavors come from vegetatively propagated plants. Care should be taken to get propagating material from sources clean of Verticillium, the number one disease pest of mints. Mint is an invasive plant which should be planted in enclosed areas, or where its spread can be controlled.

Peppermint, spearmint, orange mint, apple mint, and a host of other types are available. All are popular in teas and for flavoring. Plants produce spreading lateral stems which are very aggressive propagation mechanisms.

Mint is used in cuisines around the world, with each one having a local variety of choice. Mint is a universal sign of welcome, and a cup of steaming mint tea is often served to visitors. In the American southeast, people living in isolated cabins would plant mint next to the front door. Then, when company was seen coming, from across the “holler”, youngsters were sent to brush the mint with a broom to release the fragrance and cover any unpleasant smells on the air.

Oregano, Origanum spp., is a strong-flavored herb in the mint family. Common Origanum vulgare seeds produce plants that are almost useless in the kitchen. They form rank, rather tasteless plants which produce purplish pink flower heads which are attractive in dried arrangements and in the garden, but are culinary disasters.

True Greek Oregano seeds can be obtained, but care must be exercised because the common variety is sometimes sold as "Greek". Even given the right strain, there is variability between plants sufficient to make it necessary to propagate the most desirable plants by stem tip cuttings, which root rather easily. A good oregano will “bite back” when a leaf is chewed, having a very pungent flavor.

Unfortunately, the poor quality common oregano is more dependably hardy than the really tasty one.

As with other herbs, cutting to slow or reduce flowering keeps production moving through the season. Oregano dries easily when cut and hung as described for other herbs. Some cultivars, such as ‘Kent Beauty’ have been selected as flowering plants, rather than for their great flavor.

Sage, Salvia officinalis, is the one perennial herb that comes readily from large, easy-to-handle seeds, and produces a very acceptable herb product. The flavor, so associated with poultry stuffing, has other uses as well. Once established, the plants live a long time with only an annual spring pruning necessary, in addition to regular harvesting.

Sage makes attractive silvery gray plants which can easily be worked into landscapes in a variety of ways. There are also several varieties of vegetatively propagated sages available. ‘Tricolor’ is striped with green, red, and white. ‘Golden’ has green leaves edged in attractive yellow. ‘Purple’ has leaves with an overall purple glow. None of these colored varieties is as hardy as the common green sort, unfortunately.

Sage makes beautiful flowers, which can be of use in the landscape, but for best herb production, severe spring pruning will discourage most flower production. Harvest can begin when leaves begin to mature in late spring and can continue into fall. Plants should not be cut back too severely in late fall, since this can threaten their winter survival.

Thyme, Thymus spp., is a low-growing subshrub in the mint family, Lamiaceae. There are literally hundreds of varieties of thyme, some culinary, others decorative. For culinary purposes, either French or English will be the most agreeable with common recipes. Seed grown thymes may also make acceptable plants, but individual seed sources should be evaluated. For the classic varieties, cuttings are preferable, and root with surprising ease.

Most of the thymes will survive winter in Illinois pretty well. Adequate snow cover will improve winter survival. Most spread out and form dense mats that benefit from annual spring mowing to stimulate lush new growth. New plantings should be started every few years to avoid encroachment from perennial weeds. Thyme mixes well with other herbs in cooking, and its creeping form makes it a rock garden and edging favorite in the garden. In spring most varieties produce a stunning floral display.

Tender Perennials Bay Laurel, Laurus nobilis, is a small tree from the Mediterranean area. It is somewhat difficult to propagate, either by seeds or cuttings, so buying started plants from a good source usually works best.

Since it is not winter hardy over much of the U.S., it should be planted in a pot, so that it can be brought inside to survive the winter. Bay will survive fairly well in a cool, bright location, where it will not freeze but will go dormant. As you ready it for the outside in spring, acclimate it to full sun again gradually, so the broad leaves do not sunburn. Once acclimated, it will withstand the hottest location, such as a patio, lending a Mediterranean feel.

The plant can be pruned as a single-trunk tree, or as a multi-stemmed shrub. In most homes, the constraints of size probably dictate the latter. After a long season outdoors, the plant can be pruned back to decrease its size and to harvest the fresh, pungent leaves. Although they dry easily and will store fairly well in a glass jar, out of the sunlight, the flavor of fresh bay is infinitely more complex than that of the dried. Fresh leaves can be stored in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator for two or more weeks. Try making a simple syrup infused with fresh bay leaves, which is good over ice cream or other desserts.

Lemon Verbena, Aloysia triphylla, has an intense flavor of sweet lemon zest, without the bitter aftertaste. The specific epithet refers to the common occurrence of three leaves at a node for this plant.

This is fairly unique in the plant world. The plant has somewhat yellow-green, lanceolate leaves. Since it is not winter hardy, it should be potted in a fairly light medium to make hauling it inside and back out easier. Unlike some evergreen tender perennials, Lemon Verbena tends to be deciduous, losing all or most of its leaves as the days shorten in late fall into winter. Do not despair, they will return in the lengthening days of late February into March. Many a plant has been discarded as “dead” during this winter dormancy.

When the plant is actively growing, cuttings root easily, and new plants are quick to grow into new specimens. Since individual plants differ in leaf production, cuttings should be taken from a very leafy parent plant. A large plant kept near the kitchen will allow the harvest of tender branch tips and leaves, which are bruised, then used to flavor pitchers of ice water. Leaves can also be used fresh or dried to make a refreshing tisane.

Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, is a tender perennial, which is probably not dependably hardy in any part of Illinois. Although there is only one species, there are a variety of types, from upright to prostrate, with flower colors from the standard blues to white or pink. The plants propagate easily from stem tip cuttings and make very acceptable plants in one season. If the plants can be overwintered in a bright house or greenhouse, they will quickly grow into magnificent specimens. It is not an easy plant to coax through the winter, however, particularly in a warm, dry room. A bright spot in a cool garage or porch area that will not freeze, probably gives the best chance of survival. Making friends with someone with greenhouse facilities can also be effective.

There are varieties of rosemary which can be started from seed, but like so many other perennial herbs, these will vary in type and flavor fairly widely. Rosemary is used sparingly for an accent in a variety of dishes. The flavor is vaguely like pine, but with some other complex undertones. Woody, straight stems can be used as shish kebob skewers for a flavorful treat. When shopping for a culinary rosemary plant, look for one that smells like it would taste good, not one that reminds you of a Christmas tree.

Sweet Marjoram, Origanum majorana, is the last of the tender perennial herbs for this discussion.

Actually, sweet marjoram is a perennial in the Deep South, but it normally winter kills in the Upper Midwest, and is treated as an annual. It grows easily from seed, though the seed and seedlings are fairly fine. Care should be taken to get the seedlings thinned while small. Once established, sweet marjoram is a hardy little plant. Because it works so well as an annual plant, it is probably not worth the effort to try to overwinter this herb.

Like so many of the other herbs, marjoram should be harvested regularly to keep flowering and seeding to a minimum. Sweet marjoram is used in a variety of ways; with eggs, meat, stuffing, and soup.

If there is a sweet, almost perfume-like tastiness to some dish, sweet marjoram is often the mystery ingredient.

More Unusual Perennials Anise Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, is a fragrant, 3 to 4 foot plant in the mint family. It has showy, short, purple flower spikes, which are ambrosial to bees and butterflies. The fragrance is a blend of anise and mint, with anise predominating. It is a native prairie plant, which is a self-seeding, short-lived perennial, hardy to Zone 5.

A layer of young, tender leaves can be baked into a favorite lasagna, for a new taste treat. Older leaves can be used fresh or dried in an herbal tisane. Flowers make a striking edible garnish, and are an asset in the garden and in flower arrangements.

Artemisia is a genus of over 400 species of plants in the Asteraceae family. Wormwood, Artemisia absinthiuum, is one of the best known of this large group. Tarragon, already discussed above, is another.

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