French tarragon Artemisia dracunculus is one of the trickiest herbs to grow, but also one of the most rewarding. It’s anise-like flavour is clean, subtle and delightful, while also being penetrating; a little goes a long way. It has smooth narrow bright green leaves on stalks that grow from a spreading roostock. Growing to about 40 cm, it rarely flowers, and never sets viable seed. Read more
by Penny Woodward
Statuesque angelica (Angelica archangelica) is a native of North and Eastern Europe to central Asia and Greenland. I love its large fresh green leaves that add a tropical lushness to my garden and it’s huge soccer ball sized, lime green flower heads. It is a fast growing biennial herb to more than 2 m when it flowers. In the first year angelica grows as a large clump with hollow, ribbed stems that are produced from a strong taproot and large soft matt green leaves. In spring of the second year, a hollow stem grows from the centre of the plant; this is topped by one or more large rounded flower heads, the flowers are followed by ribbed seeds. Glossy angelica (Angelica pachycarpa) has glossy leaves, is smaller growing and is a useful ornamental plant. Read more
Dill, Anethum graveolens, is a delightful tall annual herb that grows to about 1 m from a taproot, with a single stem and many feathery blue-green leaves and branches. These are topped by groups of umbrella-shaped flower heads made up of small yellow flowers. The flowers are followed by flat, oval, brown seeds, which self-sow readily if left on the plant. Dill is probably one of the oldest medicinal herbs. It was used by the Egyptians before 3000 BC. The name dill is found in several old European languages, reflecting its widespread use, but its derivation is unclear. In medieval times, dill developed a reputation for protecting anyone who carried it against witches. It was a common ingredient in potions and spells and English country brides would wear a sprig of dill on their wedding day, while in Germany, a bride would put dill and salt in her shoes to bring her good luck. By the beginning of the seventeenth century dill was grown in many countries all over the world because it was known as ‘a gallant expeller of wind’. Read more
The old Spanish saying, ‘He has as many virtues as betony’ reflects the once wide-ranging uses of this attractive plant. Betony (Stachys officinalis) is a tough and versatile herb that grows as a compact clump of pebbly, dark green leaves. From this clump grow stalks with pairs of opposite smaller leaves. In summer, towards the top, whorls of reddish-purple flowers occur, just above the leaf pairs, with a dense group of flowers at the top of the spike. There are also cultivars with white flowers and various shades of pink.
Most books will tell you that betony does best in full-sun but I find it thrives in dappled shade, in a humus-rich, sandy loam soil with some moisture. It doesn’t do well in an open position in our hot dry summers but it does cope well with my heavier slightly acid soil. Generally, betony does best in cool temperate regions where it will tolerate temperatures down to -25°C, but it will also grow in the sub-tropics and mountainous regions of the tropics.
It can be grown from fresh seed sown in autumn, although this can take several weeks to germinate, but is most easily grown by dividing an existing clump in spring or autumn then replanting into a pot or straight back into the garden. The only other care plants need is to cut back the dead flower heads and any old growth in autumn and protect new growth from slugs and snails in spring. Read more
Tisanes or herb teas have been in vogue in southern Europe since Roman times. The fictional detective Hercule Poirot often needed a tisane after a particularly trying day. Today herb teas are increasing in popularity with the recognition of the harmful effects of too much coffee and ordinary tea. But aren’t herb teas expensive and don’t they taste awful? Not true! Especially if you grow your own, and can experiment with different combinations. Fresh or freshly dried leaves and flowers taste much better than the often musty plant material of questionable content and origin found in shops. Recent research by New York City high school students using simple DNA techniques, found that several herbal teas contain ingredients not listed on the pack. So if you grow and use your own, at least you can be certain about what you are drinking. Read more
Little known and used winter savory Satureja montana comes into its own in winter. As the days draw in and cold nights become more frequent, its warm spicy fragrance and taste enhances the flavour of slow cooked soups and stews. It grows as a small woody shrub with tiny dark green, opposite leaves and white flowers that grow in the leaf axils towards the ends of the somewhat sprawling branches. There is also a prostrate variety that has coarser leaves, larger white flowers and is much lower growing, but is otherwise similar. Other varieties have pink flowers. It is easily grown from seed or cuttings, or by detaching rooted pieces and replanting. This is best done in spring, but is usually also successful in autumn. Keep the plants neat by trimming back after flowering. Winter savory is in the same family (Lamiaceae) as thyme and rosemary and likes similar growing conditions. In other words a well-drained sandy loam soil and an open, sunny position. But I have found them to be tough little plants that thrive in a variety of positions as long as they do not stay wet for long periods. Read more
Sweet bay (Laurus nobilis ) was seen by the old herbalists as a virtuous tree which “resisteth witchcraft very potently”. The Greeks dedicated it to Apollo, the sun god. The Delphic priestesses, oracles of Apollo, held bay leaves between their lips as they made prophesies. In Greek and Roman cultures victors, heroes, academics and artistic figures were rewarded with a wreath or crown of bay leaves. This gave rise to the terms ‘baccalaureate’ and ‘poet laureate’. Read more