July 21, 2018 10:06:06 PM
Is a herb a herb, even if you don't use it as one?
In an attempt to demystify a slough of simple, durable garden plants that are dauntingly lumped under one leaky umbrella by garden writers and plant societies, I insist that you don't have to grow herbs as such to enjoy them.
My garden includes dozens of in-ground and potted plants listed in books as herbs, but unless I actually use them herbally, I just see them as fun plants. They are mostly shapely, colorful, aromatic creatures that can double or triple as cut flowers, wildflowers, pollinator attractors and any number of other non-herb uses.
Let me clarify: In general, herbs are plants that produce natural compounds which can be used in small amounts for flavoring food, repelling pests, dyeing cloth, creating fragrances, or can be taken advantage of for medicinal or even spiritual use. Not to parse a point too finely, but spices are usually ground up seeds, bark, roots and the like. Hard-core herb experts can quickly complicate things. A lot.
Main point I'm trying to make is that a lot of lovely herbs are overlooked as regular garden beauties because novice gardeners are sometimes intimidated, thinking they need a herb garden and special knowledge or skills. Not so.
By the way, is herb only 'erb? Tomato/to-mah-to, doesn't matter really unless you are trying to intimidate someone with finesse. I mean, it's got an h, like history, home and Herbie, which English gardeners pronounce while the French do not; the Herb Society of America says either/i-ther is perfectly fine. Only way you are incorrect is when you correct others.
Nothing wrong, mind you, with having a dedicated herb garden; I lecture to herb societies coast to coast and always mention a few in my other talks. There are fascinating history, lore and techniques for growing and using valuable herbal plants, and the folks who study them are usually quite interesting gardeners.
But just as bicycles aren't transportation except when ridden, castor bean isn't poisonous unless you eat it, willow trees aren't medicinal until someone makes aspirin from its bark, and mint isn't tea until steeped.
Rosemary is a fantastic upright or cascading shrub with pretty blue flowers and fragrant foliage. But until I skewer shish-kebab on its stem or chop its leaves into pasta sauce it isn't a herb. My rosemary shrub sprawls across my front walk, forcing whoever comes that way to brush through it; anyone who's reluctant to brush through it is not someone I particularly want on my porch.
Ditto for my beautiful basils, some of which I cook with but others I grow just for the pretty leaves and flower spikes. I have green kinds, dark purple ones and a variegated one; but I use only two of them as culinary herbs. In fact, my African Blue basil tastes so strong I don't know if anyone can cook with it at all -- but what a great hummingbird plant!
Some of my favorite garden plants, including iris, purple coneflower, artemisia, native horsetail, yarrow and monarda can be used as medicinal herbs, but since I don't use them that way I just call them "plants."
On the other hand, I cook a fair bit in my tiny cottage's kitchen, and can't imagine not popping outside for fresh, home-grown basil, oregano, rosemary, garlic, chives, ginger and hot peppers for cooking. They easily make the leap from being pretty yard plants to favorite culinary herbs.
Herbs, 'erbs, whatever. Some are lovable, dependable garden plants no matter what you call them or how you use them. Or not.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the "Gestalt Gardener" on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]