Three Great Must-haves for This Year’s Garden

Herbs to Know

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Rick Wetherbee

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CAT THYME
Teucrium marum
Hardy to Zone 9

More commonly seen in rock gardens than in herb gardens, cat thyme (Teucrium marum), might look like plain old, upright silver thyme at first glance, but your cat might think this fuzzy herb is a garden of earthly delight. Cat thyme belongs to the mint family (Labiatae), as does thyme. Cat thyme looks like a hairy, upright silver thyme, but actually it is in the germander genus, which consists of more than 300 species.

Native to the Balearic Islands of the western Mediterranean area and one island off the northwest coast of what is now Serbia, cat thyme has naturalized throughout Spain and southern Europe, where it is known under many names: marum, herba mari veri, herb mastich, and herbe aux chats. This last common name and its English equivalent, cat thyme, refers to its ability to attract cats, much like catnip (Nepeta cataria).

Cat thyme achieves its cat appeal through different chemical compounds than those in catnip. The crushed leaves emit a strong fragrance suggestive of mint and camphor. My own cat, Ember, disdains catnip but will aggressively seek out cat thyme. He typically chews the tips of the branches, but some cats will roll on the plant and can damage it severely because the plant is so twiggy and brittle. I frequently advise customers with cats to protect the plant with chicken wire or to place it in a hanging basket out of paw’s reach.

THE PLANT

Cat thyme is an evergreen perennial shrub with slender stems that are covered with small, oval leaves about 3/8 inch long. A soft, white fuzz covers the upper side of the leaf; the underside has a duller, gray-green pubescence, a combination that gives the impression of the plant being enveloped in a fine silvery mist. The lovely, deep carmine-pink flowers are densely packed on short 3- to 5-inch flower spikes. Blooming from July through September, the flowers open characteristically on one side of the plant only. (I have never had a plant produce seed. Propagation is from cuttings.)

This small mounding shrub typically grows from 8 to 18 inches tall, depending on the climate, and is wider than it is tall. In all but the mildest climates, cat thyme needs protection from winter cold; put it in a protected spot and mulch it heavily. At temperatures below about 20 degrees, cat thyme is susceptible to winter kill.

This is definitely a drought-tolerant plant that doesn’t like high humidity. Good drainage is essential as well as a full sun exposure. While it prefers a chalky, lime soil, it does well in my acidic soil with an amendment of gritty sand for better drainage.

Historically, cat thyme was used as a gallbladder tonic or stomach aid. Also, crushing its aromatic leaves can prompt sneezing, so it was added to herbal snuffs and other remedies for the “disorders of the mind.” The leaves taste bitter, followed by a sensation of heat.

Cat thyme plants are available from Sunnyboy Gardens, 3314 Earlysville Rd., Earlysville, VA 22936; (888) 431-0006; www.SunnyboyGardens.com.

One of today’s most popular culinary herbs, Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is highly aromatic because it is so rich in volatile oils. Some of these oils are so predominant that they form basil chemotypes, which become the name of cultivars: for example, ‘Anise’ basil, with methyl chavicol dominating its fragrance, ‘Cinnamon’ basil with methyl cinnamate, ‘Clove’ basil with eugenol and ‘Lemon’ basil with citral.

In a parade of basils, I enjoy a relative newcomer: lime basil (O. americanum). There is some confusion among experts as to whether this is a true species or a natural hybrid of O. basilicum, and it is often mislabeled in the commercial trade, appearing under various cultivar names. Other basil types generally grouped under the O. americanum species include ‘Lemon’, ‘Spicy’ and the camphorous ‘Hoary’ basils. Lime basil was developed by isolating basils that have a distinct lime — not lemon — fragrance. It breeds true from seed, which is not typical of other hybrids.

Because of its citral component, lime basil does well in fish sauces and marinades, as a garnish for iced tea and in vinegars.

THE PLANT

An annual easily grown from seed, lime basil grows 12 to 24 inches tall with a compact growth habit. It is quite similar to ‘Lemon’ basil in appearance but with smaller and slightly darker green leaves and white flowers.

Requiring full sun, this plant thrives in heat, provided it gets adequate water. It will be set back if grown or transplanted outside too early in the growing season; night temperatures should be above 50 degrees before it is planted outside.

Although slower growing in comparison to the more vigorous sweet basil cultivars, I get two or three harvests during the growing season. Don’t start harvesting before the plant has at least three pair of leaves. Prune just above the oldest pair of leaves, which will generate branching from the leaf axils. Also, encourage more leaf production by avoiding letting the plant flower.

Lime basil seeds are available from Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 Old Salem Rd., NE, Albany, OR 97321; (800) 422-3985; www.NicholsGardenNursery.com and Thompson and Morgan Seeds, P.O. Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08524; (800) 274-7333; www.Thompson-M­organ.com.

LAVENDER ‘GROS BLEU’
Lavandula ¥intermedia ‘Gros Bleu’
Hardy to Zone 5

This group of lavender hybrids originally was grown in France in the late 1940s, where it was commonly called Tête Carrée, which means square head. It was eventually named ‘Gros Bleu’ — French for “big blue” — because it is a tall grower with large, deep-blue flowers on short spikes. A newer, different-looking version of this cultivar has been introduced to the Pacific Northwest via a grower in Sault, France. It is one of the darkest purple-flowered cultivars being grown and has long, branched flower stems.

The plant has a good fragrance and its flowers are great for fresh bouquets, lavender wands, potpourri and dried bouquets. Because of its darker flower color, this new lavandin may rival ‘Fat Spike Grosso’ in commercial use if it is found to have as high a quality of essential oil.

Dark-purple, woolly calyces and dark-violet flowers make ‘Gros Bleu’ lavender spectacular.

THE PLANT

Lavandula ¥‘Gros Bleu’ is a robust and erect grower that develops into a dense mound similar to but slightly larger than ‘Fat Spike Grosso.’ It has greenish gray foliage with flower stems 20 to 24 inches long with lateral branching. What is spectacular about this plant is the very dark-purple, woolly calyces (suggestive of ‘Hidcote’ lavender) accompanied by dark-violet corollas or flowers. These appear on slender, tapered flower spikes that are 4 inches or longer. Flowering begins around mid- to late July to August. To date, I haven’t seen any significant rebloom as ‘Fat Spike Grosso’ sometimes has.

I’ve grown this cultivar for three years now and it has proven as hardy as any of my other lavandins.

Full sun and good drainage is required for optimal growth and flower production.

As with any lavandin, this cultivar is sterile and propagation is by vegetative means only.


Andrew Van Hevelingen is a professional herb grower and frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. He enjoys writing, photography and gardening at his Newberg, Oregon, home.