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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion and
longtime herb gardener, is a freelance writer and editor living in
Las Vegas, Nevada.