I am fortunate to live in an area with a long growing season, and many of my herbs are green most of the winter. Thyme, for instance, is green and harvestable almost all year around. So, too, are sage, winter onion, and even rosemary when the winter is especially mild. Yet like most gardeners, I work to prolong the season a bit more.
Eventually though, the hard freezes do come, killing all but the hardiest of plants, and I go into mourning for the loss of vegetation. Friends try to cheer me, but I like green in my garden all year long. I like blooming flowers and fluttering butterflies and all the sights and smells of the warm season. Winter to me is just the space between two green seasons, and if I were a bear, I would probably hibernate to get through the brown-gray-black season.
I console and distract myself with reading about gardens and looking over slides of gardens that I’ve visited on summer lecture trips. I enjoy memorizing the seed catalogs, page by page, learning about new plant releases, choosing plants to grow that I haven’t tried before, and planning new plantings. I take great pleasure from cooking up new dishes with the bounty of herbs I’ve harvested and processed during the previous summer. All these activities are pleasant, but I never stop missing the green of the warmer season.
By winter’s first seriously icy blast, I really miss the lushness of the garden. I begin to crave green and annually buy a bucket of green porch paint, saving it for a warm day of painting outside in a pitiful attempt to turn a bit of the world back to green again. And I indulge in an activity that many people probably would consider a bit odd: I go about tasting dead plants from my winter herb garden.
It is not something I plan ahead of time. One crisp, cold, sunny day, I feel that I just have to get outside, and automatically I start munching dead sticks and leaves as I wander along the garden pathways. I stop beside frozen chocolate mint, pick a few leaves, and pop them into my mouth. With an icy coating that hides a still-green leaf inside, they are preserved and perfect—a vision of summer through a windowpane of ice. The minty flavor of the ice is also perfect.
Sometimes the heavy fog from the nearby lake moves in during the night and freezes, leaving the garden, fences, trees, barn, and bell tower looking like a set from a fantasyland movie. With every object covered in delicate fringe, the world is ethereal, more a dream than a place. Then I like to pick the lacy-edged leaves of sage very carefully and let the sage-flavored frost slowly dissolve in my mouth. Tiny fog-frozen frost crystals overlying the deep red of rose hips have only a hint of flavor but satisfy the palate nonetheless. Dead basil stems, now white, hold a burst of flavor in the frost as well as in the fiber as they warm in my mouth. The frosty edges on the sprigs of thyme are delicious and full of the flavor, while the frost from dead pineapple sage stems is more subtle. Eating the frost or ice—not the herb—is the goal: whatever remains of the plants’ fragrant oils flavors the crystals that have formed on the leaves.
When I walk in my garden or woods, even in winter, I nearly always have my hand pruners in my hip pocket. With them, I cut large, dead mint stems left standing in the moist areas of the pasture and strip away the remaining leaves. I cut the stems into 6-inch pieces and carry them along, chewing on one as I walk. Back inside, I dry the rest of the stems and keep them on hand for use when guests come. They make perfect stirrers for hot chocolate, lending just the right hint of mint flavor.
Hidden inside the stems and leaves of the deadest of garden herbs is still a reminder of what has been and what will be again. As I savor them, I can’t help but think ahead to early spring and the seasonal treat of tasting the dew from new blossoms and leaves. Tasting dead plants is weird, I admit, but the true nature of the herb is still there, and I gain enthusiasm for the coming year in every twig, leaf, and brown, dead stem. And as the icy flavors melt on my tongue, I feel renewal and hope. The hints of fragrances and flavors still reside in the garden, remnants of the past, heralds of the future.
Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.