By Joyce Driemeyer
Last month this column suggested the colorful beauty of prairie herbs for a naturalized site or for the perennial border. These were all native plants with a use (historic or present) whose inflorescence’s or seeds are beloved by birds, bees and butterflies.
As you know, herbs are simply plants with a use. Most people are increasingly familiar with culinary herbs, but growing them to provide a fresh garden source is doubly rewarding. Now is a good time to think about what annual herbs to include in your garden or in containers.
Sun and good drainage are the only prerequisites for success. Early spring color can be provided by violas, calendula (known as pot marigold, though no relation to our new world marigold (Tagetes spp.) and nasturtiums. These can all be purchased as plants in nurseries.
More about the colorful calendula. It is Herb of the Year for 2008 and is not only colorful with many new cultivars appearing, but has had a long, extremely rich history of use for thousands of years. The botanical name is Calendula officinalis. Anytime you see the species “officinalis” associated with a plant name, it means it has a medicinal history. Indeed, the flower petals have been used to treat all kinds of skin ailments and infection preventives in the past. For our purposes, however, the fresh petals are a source of flavor and bright yellow/orange color for salads, rice dishes, and sauces. The leaves can also be added to salads for a tangy taste. One drawback in our climate: calendula does not love our hot summers.
The nasturtium is another colorful addition to pots or the garden. There is a lovely form with variegated foliage. When I lived in Boston, I first saw vining nasturtiums hanging from the interior balconies of the Isabella Stuart Gardener Museum in winter. Nasturtiums also enjoy cool weather. Both the flowers and foliage are edible and can adorn a dish.
There is still time to grow some annuals from seed. The selection of basil varieties increases every year. I still love the dwarf “Spicy Globe” and the purple basil’s for coloring and flavoring vinegars. There are also lemon basil, Thai basil, large-leafed Italian basil, and many more too numerous to mention. If you are devoted to cilantro or coriander, it is easy to grow from seed. By all means grow dill from seed; it is best seeded directly into the garden, since it is tap rooted and does not transplant well. Try the fern leaf dill. It only gets about 18″ tall and can be seeded all summer for a continued crop.
One annual I would not do without is sweet marjoram. It is a flavor enhancer that I personally use in every thing – soups, stews, seafood and vegetables.
Two more herbs to try are summer savory and stevia. Summer savory, the green bean herb, isn’t terribly attractive – it sprawls, but can be kept clipped – but it is tasty and dries well for winter use, if stored in a glass container. By all means try stevia, which has intensely sweet-tasting leaves. One tiny leaf will sweeten a cup of tea and there are no calories! It is great for diabetics and those on no-sugar diets. The plant is tidy with attractive tiny white flowers. It would make a great pot plant.
One tall beautiful plant to grow in the back of the border is pineapple sage. It does not come into bloom until very late summer with its red flowers, which are loved by the hummingbirds. There is also an attractive form with chartreuse colored foliage – so striking with the red flowers.
Joyce Driemeyer says she’s semi-retired after more than 25 years as a professional landscape designer. She is a Master Gardener, and volunteers, lectures and conducts classes at Missouri Botanical Garden, and has actively served in both the St Louis Herb Society and The Herb Society of America.