The pleasure of an herb garden grows with every new plant that finds a home there. I’m continually surprised by the variety of herbs available today, by mail order and in local garden centers. The many promising plants introduced in recent years can contribute much to garden design, with innovations in foliage colors, flower hue or subtle distinctions of scent. Some new varieties feature different growth habits that are variations on a theme — more vigorous or more compact, for instance — for some of our favorite herbs. Below are some plants I’ve discovered recently that are worth checking out.
Agastache 'Apricot Sprite'
This new plant, a relative of anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), is a compact grower, reaching about 2 feet. Its flowers are reddish-apricot with a long blooming season (late July to heavy frost). The edible flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies and lend a minty taste to salads. The leaves also are fragrant with a hint of peppermint. The plant does best in full sun with good drainage.
Laurus Nobilis 'Sunspot'
A slower-growing cultivar of sweet bay, this plant has attractive randomly gold-variegated leaves; its color is especially pronounced in spring and fall. Although harder to find, ‘Sunspot’ has the unusual, attractive feature of developing long red lines along mature wood in the summertime and can reach 4 to 6 feet in three to four years. Its culinary uses are the same as regular sweet bay. To preserve the beautiful variegation, diligently remove any branches that revert to green. Plant this bay in well-drained soil with shelter from frost and cold.
Melissa Offinalis 'Compacta'
Lemon balm is known for its abundant (sometimes troublesome) reseeding — a problem this cultivar handily solves. ‘Compacta’ doesn’t flower and therefore doesn’t set seed, but its dark-green leaves offer the same delicious lemon fragrance found in the rest of the family. This low-growing evergreen plant, which comes from a breeder in Scotland, reaches about 12 inches, with a compact growth habit that makes it ideal for containers or small garden areas. Like its larger counterpart, ‘Compacta’ is fairly hardy and prefers moist soil.
Shade to part sun
This plant, related to the common culinary basil (O. basilicum), was discovered in Mexico several years ago. It has dark-green, somewhat serrated foliage with an unusual scent, more like that of green peppers than the familiar sweet basil, which makes it less useful in the kitchen but interesting nonetheless. The scent and flavor will send your nose and tastebuds wondering, and you’ll find it an outstanding addition to dishes like salsa, soup and anything else you imagine might be improved by a slight green pepper kick. Growing to about 2 feet, it has terminal spikes of tiny purple flowers. It sets seed in my Oregon greenhouse, and it appears to be a short-lived perennial. This unusual herb would be a good container plant, especially in the warmer climates of the United States. (For more on this herb, see “Herb to Know” on Page 52.)
By no means new, but surely a promising addition to your landscape, this herb has long, dark-green leaves with pronounced blood-red veining. It is a hardy evergreen plant that makes an upright clump of showy foliage about 12 inches tall, reminiscent of Swiss chard. It flowers in June and July, producing panicles of tiny pinkish to white flowers. Unless you want to collect seed, encourage more foliage production by cutting back the flowers when they appear. The new leaves have a spinach flavor and may be used in salad, and the older, tougher leaves make an attractive garnish. Full sun can scorch and toughen the leaves, so keep this plant in partial sun with moist soil.
Symphytum Uplandicum 'Axminster Gold'
For a bold accent in the herb garden, try this new comfrey, ‘Axminster Gold’. Originated in England, this cultivar is more vigorous than the silver variegated form (S. ¥uplandicum ‘Variegatum’), producing huge, narrow green leaves with large margins of brilliant gold. This elegant, dominating landscape plant forms a large, dense mound, eventually reaching a height of 5 feet. In May, it flowers on 2- to 3-foot flower stems with blue, bell-shaped flowers. Give it a bit of shade, as the leaves tend to burn in full sun. It prefers a rich, somewhat moist soil. This hardy perennial has deep roots, so be mindful where you plant it. If it becomes too vigorous, cut back the plant severely, which also will renew its gold variegation. As with other comfreys, it will die back to the ground and go dormant in winter. The best means of propagation is with stem cuttings because plant division may result in both green and variegated plants.
A spectacular departure from common ginger (Z. officinale), this plant, whose species has not yet been identified, has chocolate brown foliage. A clumping plant about 12 inches tall, it is lovely when backlit, when the sun brings out a reddish tone from the brown leaves. This is definitely an exciting new container plant for warmer climates. As with other gingers, it needs warm temperatures and humid air, with well-drained soil to keep the rhizomes from rotting.
Andrew Van Hevelingen is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion and enjoys writing, photography and gardening at his Newberg, Oregon, home.