Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), a native of the Mediterranean, is a woody shrub which can grow to a height of 1 m. It has short, tough leaves densely bunched on the stems, and pale blue flowers in winter. There are several cultivars including ‘Tuscan blue’ and ‘Blue lagoon’, which are dwarf forms with dark-blue flowers; ‘Roseus’ with pink flowers; ‘Albus’ with white flowers; ‘Aureus’, which has leaves speckled with yellow; and ‘Prostratus’, a prostrate form. Most rosemaries can be grown from seed sown in spring and all grow well from cuttings taken in spring or summer. Rosemary likes a sunny, well-drained position with a slightly alkaline soil. It can be slow growing at first, but will need to be pruned regularly after the first two years. The prostrate and dwarf varieties are excellent for rockeries or hanging baskets. Harvest rosemary whenever it is needed.
Nothing can compare with the first fresh sprig of basil picked in spring and if you haven’t already planted your basil, now is the time to put it in. It’s hard to believe that such a deliciously aromatic herb could have such a contradictory lineage. Basil is native to tropical and subtropical regions of Asia, Africa and Central and South America, but the main centre of diversity appears to be Africa. It has been cultivated for more than 4000 years. The sixteenth century English herbalist, John Gerard, believed that basil would stimulate the heart and ‘taketh away melancholy and maketh a man merry and glad’ but early Greek and Roman physicians said that it would only grow well if it were planted ‘amid vile shouts and curses’. In the language of flowers, basil means hatred, but it can also signify goodness and love. 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
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