FAVORITE CULINARY HERBS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
Although today synthetic products are available to meet just about every need, before modern times herbs were an important aspect of everyday living. They were used for many functions including dyes, medicines, room deodorizers, and of course cooking. It is these culinary uses that most people think of when they think of herbs, and the most popular reason they are grown in home gardens.
Most herbs are herbaceous, having non-woody stems, and dying back to the ground each fall. Many herbs are perennial although some are annual. These may reseed, however, coming back the following year and so may give the false impression of being perennial. Most herbs need sun, heat, and a well-drained soil to grow best.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum), an annual, is one of the most popular herbs. It grows one to two feet high. You can pinch the white or purple flowers off to help make the plant branch. The different types of basils have various leaf sizes and colors, but generally the upright plants have purple or bright green leaves. The pungent fragrance enhances tomato sauces and dishes. Basil also can be made into a delicious pesto. One type of basil has a cute, small globe-shaped form with tiny leaves, which is an excellent choice to use along a path or to edge a bed.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is another of the all-time favorite cooking herbs. If you grow only one herb, make it this one. Parsleys are popular in pots indoors on kitchen windowsills. Technically a tender biennial, it is grown as annuals from slow to germinate seeds. Parsley is the popular garnish that garnishes plates in many restaurants and can be used in salads, soups, and other dishes. It also makes a nice edging to beds with some selections having ruffled or curled leaves.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) also makes the top three of favorite annual herbs. It is used as a flavoring and, of course, in pickles. Both the seeds and the feathery leaves are used for flavoring. This is a tall herb, growing two to four feet high, depending on selection. It could be used in the middle of borders for a fine texture.
Of the perennial herbs, a couple of tender ones with woody stems also are popular. Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) has thick, aromatic, evergreen leaves. It makes an attractive container plant to overwinter indoors if room. The leaves can be dried and used to flavor soups, stews, and sauces. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) can be kept outdoors in summer in large pots, then brought indoors in winter into a bright yet cool location. It can be used not only as an aromatic, but also in cooking for sauces, soups, teas, and for flavoring lamb.
Mints (Mentha) are among the most common perennial herbs and should be sited with care as the roots are quite aggressive. To avoid this problem, plant in containers, keep well watered, and repot often to keep plants vigorous. Peppermint and spearmint are the most popular, but you also can plant other flavors such as apple and lemon mints. Mints are used medicinally, as well as in cooking to flavor tea, jelly, salads, candy, ice cream, and beverages.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are familiar to most gardeners. They resemble and smell like small onion plants and can be chopped and used to flavor salads, soups, and egg dishes. The pinkish purple flowers are attractive, especially if grown in a row along a walk, but make sure you cut off these flowers right after bloom. If you allow them to go to seed, you will have chives everywhere and forever!
Thyme (Thymus) is the other main perennial herb that should be included in a culinary garden. Being a very low groundcover plant, thyme is suitable for rock gardens, planting between stones in walks and patios, and even for growing in low-mown lawns. There are many species and selections, some more ornamental than others either in flowers or foliage. Strongly scented thymes are used to flavor meats or in soups.
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