|North Texas Herb Hit Parade
By Marian Buchanan,
Dallas County Master Gardener
The following list, is an herbal hit parade of sorts, may guide you in selecting some of the top herbs for Texas. The criteria for including each one was based on general availability, ease of propagation and growing, usefulness, and appearance in the garden or container. Assuming that good horticultural practices are followed—well-drained soil amended with organic matter, adequate sunlight and air circulation, careful watering, correct planting time for the region—these herbs can thrive throughout the state.
Basil: Ocimum spp. Unlike many transplanted Texans, basil loves to spend the summers here. Most basils are warm season annuals, easily grown from seed once the soil and weather have warmed in late spring. Simply press the seeds firmly into contact with the prepared soil—don’t bury them-- and keep them moist. Small plants can be purchased or grown from tip cuttings, too. Frequent light harvesting, even when the plants are small, will prevent basils from going to seed too quickly. Mulching and regular watering will keep them going through the meanest hot spells. Sweet basil, O. basilicum, familiar for its well-rounded flavor, is a must with vine-ripened tomatoes. Other varieties worth looking for include: lemon basil (O. b. citriodorum), ‘Cinnamon’ basil, ‘Licorice’ basil, ‘Thai’ basil, purple leaved basils, and any of the mini-basils which are excellent for edging and containers. Since basils will cross-pollinate, their offspring may be quite variable if several varieties are grown close to each other.
Chives: Allium schoenaprasum. The delicate onion flavor is indispensable in the kitchen, and the small, clumping plants are pretty in a border. Lavender flowers (also edible) add a nice touch, too. Transplants are widely available at garden centers, since chives grow rather slowly from seed. Healthy clumps can be thinned from a neighbor’s garden. Garlic chives, Allium tuberosum, are more rambunctious in the garden and more pungent in the kitchen. The leaves are flat, not hollow like those of onion chives, and white flowers appear mid-summer. Both onion and garlic chives are hardy herbaceous perennials.
Cilantro: Coriandrum sativum. A cool season annual, cilantro is easily grown from seed planted in early spring or, even better, early fall. It will typically survive winter and will produce large, leafy plants before going to seed as the weather warms up. The dried seeds, known as coriander, have a citrus flavor—very different from the pungent, grassy taste of the fresh leaf. Varieties touted as slow to bolt are available, but planting cilantro at the proper time is even more essential for achieving a generous harvest.
Dill: Anethum graveolens. An annual easily grown from seed, dill performs best in the cooler weather of spring and fall, often-surviving winters in mild regions. Unless the ripening seed heads are collected, it will re-seed abundantly. Both the seeds and the leaves (known as dill weed) are used in cooking, although each has a different flavor. Common dill may reach 4 feet or more. The cultivars ‘Fernleaf’ and ‘Dukat’ are shorter and more suitable for containers. ‘Bouquet’ dill is known for its very large flower heads and seed production.
Mint: Mentha spp. Easily propagated from divisions or cuttings, most mints are so vigorous that they must be contained to keep them from overrunning the garden. Growing mint from seed may not produce exactly the plant you expected, since they hybridize readily. Trim them often to induce new growth and prevent blooming. Choosing which of the many varieties of mint to grow is a matter of personal preference, but for cooking purposes, one of the spearmints (Mentha spicata) is typically used. You may find ‘Curly’, ‘Crispata’, or ‘Kentucky Colonel’ at your garden center. You may also find that virtually identical plants have different names at other shops. Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is more often used for teas, since the flavor is often too strong for cooking. Common names will continue to confuse you, but look for ‘Blackstem’, ‘Candymint’, or ‘Chocolate Mint. As time goes by, you will want to add others to your collection—perhaps ‘Ginger mint’, Red Stemmed Apple Mint ‘Madalene Hill’, Lavender mint, ‘Eau de Cologne’, and on and on. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), a close cousin to the mints and a lovely one for teas, is the original “no brainer” herb for beginners.
Oregano: Origanum spp. While horticulturists debate the names and characteristics of this large family of mostly perennial herbs, home gardeners have a simpler task—they follow their noses to the pizza herb. Their search will often end with a Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum), a milder Italian oregano (O. x majoricum), or sweetly perfumed Marjoram (O. majorana.) The search might lead beyond the Origanum genus to one of the so-called Mexican oreganos: Poliomintha longiflora, a shrubby perennial with attractive pink blooms, or Lippia graveolens, a tender perennial with a touch of citrus flavor. Still another oregano mimic is Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus), a frost-tender relative of Swedish ivy.
Parsley: Petroselinum crispum. A biennial often grown as an annual, parsley performs best in the cooler seasons, often staying green all winter. As it begins to flower and set seed, the leaves become tough, sparse, and sharp tasting, and the plant is usually replaced. Parsley can be grown from seed, and its long germination time can be hastened if the seeds are pre-soaked, changing the water frequently. The familiar curly parsley (P. c. var. crispum) sports several varieties reputed to be doubly or triply curled—an ornamental feature worth noting. Flat-leaved parsley (P.c. var. neapolitanum), also known as Italian parsley, is often preferred for cooking. By planting in both the spring and the fall, a continuous crop of tender leaves is assured (if enough has been planted to share with the parsley worm-- that beautiful green, black and yellow larva of the Black Swallowtail butterfly.)
Rosemary: Rosmarinus officinalis. Handsome both in the garden or containers and indispensable in the kitchen, rosemary is one of the best-loved herbs of all time. Since it is slow to grow from seed, propagation by cuttings or purchased transplants is preferred. Rosemary exhibits two basic growth forms: upright shrubs and prostrate, or creeping semi-woody plants. The creeping types are less winter hardy, less desirable in the kitchen, but beautiful as a ground cover, hanging basket or topiary. Mature upright Rosemaries may reach 5 or 6 feet in both height and spread, to the surprise of beginning gardeners, who never allot enough space for it. The varieties ‘Arp’, ‘Hill Hardy’, ‘Tuscan Blue’, and ‘Gorizia’ are often winter-hardy in Texas gardens, but sudden hard freezes, drying winds and soggy soil may occasionally prove fatal.
Scented Geraniums: Pelargonium spp. This large family of tender perennials offers a wide range of scent, flavor, texture, leaf shape and color for the beginning herb grower. Although the blooms are not typically showy, the plants are attractive in containers or grown as annuals in beds and borders. Large leaved varieties, such as fuzzy peppermint (P. tomentosum) will flourish in part shade. Small leaved types—Nutmeg or ‘Old Spice”—can tolerate more sun. Most are easily propagated from tip cuttings. Garden centers may offer half a dozen different ones, although specialty catalogues can tempt you with more than 100 choices! Rose scented, lemon and peppermint geraniums might be used in cooking and teas.
Thyme: Thymus spp. In spite of their tiny leaves and small stature, the thymes assert themselves in the garden and the kitchen. With hundreds of varieties and hybrids, thymes are often propagated by cuttings, divisions or layering to get “true” types. Frequently found in the kitchen are common thyme (T. vulgaris) and its variants, such as narrow leaved French; lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus); and broad-leaved thyme (T. pulegioides.) Low growing thymes (just an inch or two in height) can be used as ornamentals. Most thymes are hardy perennials if given excellent drainage, air circulation and plenty of sun.
Okay, okay. The story doesn’t end here. If you have already had success growing the top 10, consider these “also-rans.” They may be less familiar to you, or a bit more difficult to grow, but the challenge will do you good.
Bay: Laurus nobilis. A nice container plant, sweet bay needs protection from hot afternoon sun and harsh winter weather. It is difficult to propagate from cuttings, and fresh seeds are hard to come by, so purchased transplants are the best option. Bay is initially slow growing—be patient. Scale is a common pest—control with horticultural oil.
Fennel: Foeniculum vulgare. Common green fennel and its cousin bronze fennel (F. v.’Purpureum’) may be grown from seed planted in the spring or fall. Fennel often behaves like a short-lived perennial, but may leave “volunteers” to carry on. The annual fennel (F. v. var azoricum), sometimes called Florence fennel or finocchio, needs a long cool season to develop the large celery-like base. Both the leaf and seed of fennel have a sweet anise flavor—and butterflies think so, too. The plant is host to Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars.
Lavender: Lavandula spp. Undeniably cranky in hot, humid, poorly drained conditions, lavender is also subject to fungal diseases and “sudden wilts.” Growing it is the herb challenge of the Millenium. English lavenders, belonging to the species angustifolia, have the finest scent, but may need to be treated as annuals since they often perish in summer humidity. Newly available hybrids (L. x intermedia ‘Provence’, ‘Seal’, ‘Dutch’ and others) are gaining a following. The French lavenders (L. dentata) are hardy only in mild winters. And Spanish lavender (L. stoechas), which thrives in the South, smells a bit like camphor. Regardless of the variety selected—none is perfect in all situations—lavenders benefit from perfect drainage, good air circulation, and dry, sunny conditions. Propagate by cuttings in spring or early fall, layering, or purchase transplants. Mulching with gravel may reduce humidity around the base of the plant.
Lemon Verbena: Aloysia triphylla. Prone to whitefly and difficult to over winter, this tender perennial is not much to look at--spindly and sprawling--but what a heavenly flavor and aroma it has! Lemon verbena may be grown in a container for winter protection, but should not be over watered when dormant. Propagate from cuttings in spring or late summer.
Lemon Grass: Cymbopogon citratus. This aromatic tender perennial is gaining in popularity. Clumps can be easily divided and potted up for winter protection, or, in mild winter areas, the plant can be cut back and mulched. Wear long sleeves and gloves for this task, since the leaves are very sharp. The flavor is essential for many Southeast Asian dishes and delightful in the teapot.
Mexican Mint Marigold: Tagetes lucida. An attractive perennial, mint marigold will often remain green in mild winters. Its anise flavor is as welcome in the kitchen as are its gold flowers, which appear in the fall. Propagate by cuttings in spring or fall, divisions, or seed.
Sage: Salvia spp. The common garden sages (S. officinalis), so familiar in their role in holiday cooking, are difficult to grow in hot, humid conditions. These Mediterranean natives are sensitive to over watering and prone to fungal diseases. The cultivar ‘Berggarten’ has beautiful large pebbly leaves. On this side of the Atlantic, New World sages number in the hundreds, and are valuable ornamentals for every conceivable kind of growing condition: shade, bogs, deserts, high altitude. The tender perennial Pineapple Sage is one of the outstanding culinary New World sages. Most can be rooted from cuttings or layering.
Salad Burnet: Poterium sanguisorba. This small evergreen perennial is easily grown from seed. The mild flavor of cucumber and the tidy, mounding form please both cook and gardener alike.
Winter Savory: Satureja montana. This sturdy, small evergreen perennial, with its peppery bite, deserves to be better known, especially where jalapenos reign. Its flavor is reminiscent of thyme and marjoram. Propagate from seed, cuttings, divisions or layering.
All of the “Hit Parade” herbs are attractive ornamentals—well, with the exception of lemon verbena, which is an ugly duckling. But one sniff and you’re in love. All can be grown in containers or well-drained garden soil. Any or all of them can be a part of that perfect garden of your dreams—a garden that suits your needs and delights your senses.