I'm always startled when people I encounter at herb conferences look upon me as an old pro. I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface of herbal knowledge. It’s true that I started growing herbs more than twenty-five years ago and built my herb shop and gardens when they were a novelty instead of a mainstream enterprise. I used many herbs in my landscape business. Maybe because I travel and lecture extensively, some folks think I’m an expert, but I always try to explain that we’re all learning as we go along, regardless of years of experience.
These years have taught me a good bit about herbs. My own gardens include more than 400 kinds, in all categories, and I think I know a number of others fairly well, too. I have worked especially hard to learn about the native herbs that have a history of uses in this country and in my own region in particular. I recognize the plants and know their medicinal and culinary uses as well as some history and folklore about each one. I’ve put each herb in my gardens to use as well as many others that I haven’t grown myself.
Recently, however, I was brought up short. My friend Joe’s herb farm is surrounded by lush perennial beds and flowers, but behind those are the real working gardens, four acres of herbs he grows to supply several ethnic restaurants in St. Louis. There are about 100 kinds planted in beds about 10 by 30 feet, divided according to category and growing requirements. And I recognized only one of them.
For two hours, we walked the garden pathways as Joe picked leaves from this plant and that for me to smell and taste. Although I often could identify the family to which a plant belonged, the fragrances and flavors of Joe’s herbs were completely unfamiliar to me. Even when he told me their names, most escaped me in seconds; I wish I’d had a video camera along to record the names and appearance of each herb.
Joe pointed out curry trees, four-year-old woody shrubs, each 4 or 5 feet tall, growing in 7-gallon nursery pots lined up on benches in a shady area. They didn’t seem to belong to any plant family I know. Joe told me that he prunes the 3-inch-long leaves throughout the year. I tasted one—the flavor was of sweet, pungent curry with a hint of lime. “Amazing!” I said, unable to come up with a better description as my taste buds tingled and my mind switched into recipe-and-food gear.
We entered a low, narrow greenhouse. On this scorching August day, the greenhouse felt as steamy as a sauna. Water dripped from the clear plastic covering and quickly soaked our clothes. In the watery beds, I spotted the only plant I recognized during the entire tour. It was Vietnamese coriander (Polygonum odoratum), an herb I grow myself to flavor salsa during the summer, when true cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) has quit growing.
I keep my own Vietnamese coriander in a raised bed next to the Sicilian oregano, but it’s never thrived there; now I know why. Joe told me that the herb is native to bogs and swamps and likes very high heat and humidity. He harvests about 6 pounds of it each week for his restaurant customers and could sell more if he had the space to grow it.
We walked by Cambodian mint, Indian mint, Cuban basil and dozens of other plants that were new to me. The herbs evoked a food frenzy in my mind. Some flavors seemed to cry out for shrimp, pineapple, hot peppers and a dash of lemon juice. Others sparked a vision of rice and papaya steamed with green bananas and coconut. Just thinking about these dishes was luscious.
Joe grows many citrus-flavored plants; rich basils with pungent, spicy flavors; and mints with sweet, tangy overtones; but I saw no sage, parsley, chives or tarragon. I did find some unusual rosemary, some zesty thyme, as well as other herbs that I can’t even describe.
Joe collects plants and seeds from around the world in his quest to bring authentic herb flavors to his Indian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Thai and Cuban restaurant customers. He knows food and the herbs that make it exciting, and he has developed a worldwide perspective and taken care to give each plant optimum growing conditions.
My visit to Joe’s garden was humbling. He showed me herbs I had never heard of, let me taste flavors I could not have imagined, and showed me brand-new ways to grow herbs. Energized by the experience, I went home and yanked out several plants that I don’t use to make room for other, more interesting ones. Once again, I’m reminded that no matter how much we learn about herbs, we can only scratch the surface.
Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.