I first began to notice herbs back in 1976. I was in Grade 9 and had some seriously long hair and a friend called JT, who decided to try smoking the entire contents of his mom’s spice cupboard.
Every day he came to school with a little baggy of dried oregano, basil or parsley that he rolled and smoked at lunch.
He finally settled on the dried parsley flakes as they were the most economical to buy and provided what he called an instant high, although most of us had our doubts.
It was a short-lived fad, as JT reeked so badly after smoking his parsley that no girl would get within 10 feet of him, and the fairer sex turned out to be more important than his imagined herbal high.
This brings us to 2012, which is hopefully a more enlightened time, when most of us prefer to eat, rather than smoke our parsley.
Herbs have been enjoying a bit of renaissance of late, with the ‘grow your own edibles’ trend in full swing. Most of the time when I get people asking for advice in regards to them, they simply want to know which ones taste best. While personal preferences come into play here, there are certain herbs which have remained popular over the years.
• For rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), the intense essential oils and larger leaves of both ‘Rex’ and ‘Gorizia’ make these exceptional choices, although both are somewhat tender. ‘Arp’ (a terribly unappetising cultivar name) is the most cold-hardy rosemary, while ‘Tuscan Blue’ has a nice balance of flavour and reliability – which is why I have a small containerized topiary of the latter on my back deck. It is one of the three secret ingredients for my homemade meatballs, which also includes freshly ground pork (instead of beef) and grated Romano cheese.
• Thyme lovers tend to gravitate towards the traditional English thyme (Thymus vulgaris), although ‘Tabor,’ or Oregano thyme, is quickly gaining popularity. For seafood lovers, nothing beats a little fresh Lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus) and ‘Silver Queen’ is a nice variegated form that doubles as an evergreen ornamental.
• With mint, it gets a little more complicated, as there are so many possible uses, but here is a quick rundown of the flavour favourites: for general cooking (eg. leg of lamb) use ‘English’ (Mentha spicata ‘English’); for mint tea use ‘Moroccan’ (Mentha spicata ‘Moroccan’); for Mohitos use ‘Mohito’ (Mentha x villosa); for fruit salads, use ‘Orange’ (Mentha aquatica ‘Citrata’); and for dessert garnishes, use ‘Chocolate’ mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate’).
• The sages (Salvia officinalis) also double as ornamentals with ‘Icterina’ (gold-edged) and ‘Tricolor’ (purple, white and green) being the nicest of these. ‘Growers Friend’ is by far the best culinary form, while the purple-tinted ‘Purpurascens’ provides a nice balance of colour and flavour.
Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) is a tender plant with edible leaves and red flowers that can be added to fruit salads or iced teas. Most people seem to prefer Greek (Origanum vulgare hirtum) or ‘Hot & Spicy’ oregano, but there are also some nice variegated or gold-leaved forms (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’) that double as herbs. The best culinary parsley is the Italian, while Curled makes a better looking garnish.
• For something a little different, try parcel, which tastes like a combination of parsley and celery.
And for smoking, drive to Chilliwack and see if you can’t find a guy named JT for a little advice.
I’ve uploaded a new story – Where have the ’70s Gone – to my blog at www.soulofagardener.wordpress.com and you can find more herbs at www.mikesgardentop5plants.wordpress.com.
Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (firstname.lastname@example.org).