An herb garden is generally a peaceful place of muted colors, a sea of soft purples and mauves, whites and grays. But sometimes a silly splash of color is just what’s needed to brighten a dark corner, welcome guests at the entryway or bring a smile to the face of anyone strolling by.
Some gardeners turn up their noses at the mere thought of orange, which they regard as gaudy and somehow low-class. But one look at a color wheel makes an obvious point about the color orange — it is the perfect foil for the more sedate blues and purples. When used together, these two color families sing. Try a spot of reddish-orange or an orangey yellow next to the blue-purple flowers of salvia, hyssop or lamb’s-ears, or among the deep bronze of a ‘Blackie’ sweet potato vine, or as a bright accent in front of a blue-flowered clematis. The orange adds energy and pop as it draws the eye to the colors and textures that surround it.
Three herbs that abundantly display this cheerful hue are calendula, nasturtium and sunflowers — all annuals that can be grown and enjoyed for a summer, then replaced with something else if the gardener gets tired of their gaudy joy. All can be grown from seed, which makes them easy and inexpensive to use in this way. They are relatively carefree, and once established they require little of the gardener beyond occasional watering, weeding and a dollop of fertilizer to fuel their rapid growth and energetic flowering. If grown in containers, they can lend a colorful presence wherever they’re needed. All three are also useful plants, for those who want to harvest more than just happiness from a garden.
These three herbs have very distinctive personalities.
Calendula, the Grandma
Calendula (Calendula officinalis), also known as pot marigold, is like an old-fashioned, dependable grandma. A hard worker in the garden or in a container, it blooms heavily and continuously from spring through frost. This reliability of bloom accounts for its name: The ancient Romans called it “calendula” because it was in flower on the “calends,” or new moon, of every month. Calendula was considered the first marigold (although that more familiar garden flower is now classed as a Tagetes).
A member of the aster family, calendula has perky ray flowers that stand up and cheer, borne singly atop 18- to 24-inch stems covered with fine hairs. Modern calendulas come in the range of flower color from pale yellow (‘Lemon’) to deep gold (‘Chrysantha’) and brilliant orange (such as ‘Orange Prince’ and ‘Bon Bon Orange’); doubled forms are also available, as is one with variegated foliage.
Calendula easily can be grown from seed, either scattered in the garden in early spring or started indoors under lights in containers, moving the seedlings to larger containers or outdoors when frost danger has passed, planting or thinning them to about 8 to 10 inches apart, in a full-sun location with good drainage. This is a hardy annual and will continue to bloom late into the season, with little care
beyond occasional weeding and regular watering. It reseeds in the garden but not generally in a troublesome way; regular deadheading of the flowers will discourage this, if desired.
The part of the plant most commonly harvested is the flower petals. Cut the flower heads, then pluck off the petals and lay them out on paper towels until dry; then store them in an airtight container away from light and heat. The flowers are edible but are used in the kitchen more for their confetti color than for their taste; toss them into salads and breads, or use them as an inexpensive substitute for saffron in rice dishes. The flowers dry well for dried arrangements and can be added to potpourris for color. They also are used as dye plants, yielding yellow for wool.
The ancients used calendula for numerous things, from scorpion bites to finding fairies, and the plant was used in Civil War times to heal wounds. Today we know that it does, indeed, heal wounds, minor cuts and abrasions, and relieve sunburn, bee stings, even ulcers when consumed in a tea. An infusion of the petals can be used as a wash, or the petals can be dried and ground and used as a poultice or incorporated into salves and ointments.
Nasturtium, the Showgirl
If calendula is the old-fashioned workhorse, nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) is a showgirl in the garden. The lovely, funnel-shaped blossoms with spurs are set off beautifully by the five-sided or kidney-shaped, dark green leaves. The flowers come in many shades, from bright orange, scarlet and rich yellow to deep mahogany. Nasturtium varieties come in bushy and vining forms. This plant does very nicely when grown in a container or hanging basket.
This South American native was brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, and from there it spread to England, where it was popular as a garden plant and culinary herb among the Elizabethans, who called it yellow lark’s heel. It is also known as Indian cress. Eventually it came back across the Atlantic to claim a place in American hearts. Nasturtium is a steady bloomer from early spring to first frost.
Nasturtiums are easy to grow from seed sown in a sunny, well-drained spot outdoors or in containers in early spring, then thinned to about 7 to 9 inches apart. The bush types grow to about 1 foot, and twice as wide, and the vines can reach 6 feet in a season. Among the many hybrids and cultivars worth searching out are the jewel-toned ‘Empress of India’; the yellow doubled ‘Golden Gleam’; the compact ‘Salmon Baby’; a luscious ‘Peach Melba’, whose flowers are blotched with cream at the throat; and canary creeper (T. peregrinum), a vining nasturtium with lovely yellow flowers.
Both the flowers and the leaves have a peppery taste and can be tossed in salads. The flowers make a beautiful garnish and can be stuffed with a cream cheese mixture for appetizers.
The plant hasn’t been used much medicinally, but some gardeners believe it to be a good companion plant to repel certain insects from vegetables and roses. The familiar garden nasturtium, now classified in the Tropaeolum genus, is kin to watercress (Nasturtium officinale).
Sunflower, the Tomboy
Let’s call the sunflower (Helianthus annuus) our garden tomboy. It is universally recognized even among non-gardeners, as its image has been widely adopted for marketing purposes to signify summer cheeriness and whimsy. In the garden, it delivers the same message, with many different types to choose from. While some purists may not consider it an “herb,” its nutritious seeds, bright colors and sunny disposition can earn it a place in any garden.
The common sunflower can tower to 8 feet or more by the summer’s end, drooping its head from the weight of its large ray flowers, so it is often planted as a backdrop or along a fence, with other plants in front to hide the coarse foliage. Many cultivated varieties offer more compact stature (some sturdy dwarfs even small enough for container gardens), as well as broad color variation, from sunniest yellow to bright orange and light cream. The coppery double ‘Autumn Beauty’ grows to about 3 feet. ‘Italian White’, which can reach about 4 feet, has creamy ray flowers with a dark center.
Varieties grown primarily for their oil-rich seeds include ‘Peredovik’, ‘Progress’ and ‘Rostov’.
To grow sunflowers, sow the seed in a full-sun location in the garden in early spring, when the soil has warmed, covering them to a depth of an inch or so. Keep them watered regularly, and once they sprout, thin to space them about 8 to 10 inches apart. Or follow the instructions on the seed packet for the type of sunflowers you have. One way to grow them is to sow the seeds with those of morning glory vines, which can scramble up the stalks and add pretty blue flowers to the mix.
Birds and bees love sunflowers, and when the seeds form in the mature flower head, the heads can be harvested whole to use as bird feed or left to stand for visiting birds. If you want to harvest the seeds for yourself, you might want to cover the seed-filled flower heads with netting to protect them, as they are tempting targets for hungry, marauding birds.
Dr. James A. Duke, a world authority on the uses of healing herbs and author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale Press, 1997), notes sunflower seeds’ activity for a number of conditions. For example, the seeds contain pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties similar to ibuprofen, making them effective for arthritis relief; they are one of the best sources of phenylalanine, a chemical involved in pain control. They also have the highest known percentage, among all the foods in his database, of the amino acid arginine, which is a natural booster for men with low sperm count. Useful, indeed!
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion and longtime herb gardener, is a freelance writer and editor living in Las Vegas, Nevada.