Visitors who know I grow herbs are often surprised to discover that I don’t have a traditional herb garden. I have no neatly defined area divided into geometric beds with clipped edgings. My herbs are dispersed throughout the garden. Parsley, dill, basil, and other culinary herbs mix with the vegetables while lavender, sage, bee balm, and agastaches bloom in the flower beds. There’s mint by the brook, thyme for a lawn, and potted herbs on the porch and deck. My favorite herbs, though—the ones I’m most eager to point out and recommend—are the herbal shrubs and trees that surround our property and form the framework of every bed and border.
I love the woody herbs year-round but especially from October through May, when the tops of the perennial herbaceous herbs have died down to the ground and annuals are long gone. When bee balm and basil are just a memory here in Connecticut, herbal shrubs and trees—even deciduous ones, but especially the evergreen kinds—add size, shape, color, and texture to my garden. Several of the woody herbs bloom and leaf out in spring before any herbaceous perennials amount to much. Some have glorious foliage or bright berries in fall.
When I look at an herbal shrub, I see more than just a pretty bush—I see a story, a connection, a heritage, an opportunity. Although their usefulness is often overlooked or forgotten today, their leaves, bark, fruits, wood, roots, and sap have provided seasonings for food and beverages, fragrances, dyes, gums and resins, soothing and stimulating teas, a variety of medicinal compounds, and raw materials for basketry and other crafts. Even if you never actually harvest anything from your herbal shrubs, knowing that they could be used makes them more interesting and valuable, I think, than shrubs that are merely decorative.
Scores of shrubs have herbal connections. There are candidates for all climates and growing conditions, ranging in height from creeping ground covers to tall trees. For this article, I’ll skip roses, boxwood, rosemary, bay, and many other traditional favorites to concentrate on some less familiar herbal shrubs.
Except where noted, the plants described below are hardy to Zone 4 and grow well across the northern United States. Most are native to eastern North America and were widely used by both Native Americans and European settlers.
Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) spreads slowly by its vivid yellow underground rhizomes. Tea brewed from the rhizomes was a traditional remedy for colds, liver and menstrual disorders, and other ailments. Large doses can be toxic, so use care if you use this plant at all.
As a garden plant, yellowroot is subtle but gratifying. It forms a patch of upright, unbranched stems, each about as thick as a pencil and 2 to 3 feet tall. In midspring, sprays of tiny, starlike purple flowers dangle from the tops of the stems, soon followed by tufts of glossy compound leaves that remind me of flat-leaved parsley. The foliage stays lovely all summer, then turns yellow or maroon in fall and lingers through November. Yellowroot prefers part shade and moist soil and grows well on the north or east side of a building in places where sweet cicely or lovage would thrive.
Wintergreen, checkerberry, or teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) gets only a few inches tall and spreads just a few inches a year, but on a suitable site it lives for decades and eventually forms a wonderful patch. Tuck one plant in a special place, or space several a foot apart and they’ll gradually converge into a beautiful ground cover. Wintergreen needs moist, well-drained soil, sun or part shade, and open air overhead. Don’t let adjacent plants shade it too much or flop over onto it. I’ve seen unusually dense carpets along roadsides where annual mowing keeps tall grasses and weeds under control so that the wintergreen gets plenty of light. (Mowing also makes it branch more than it normally would.)
Smooth, glossy, aromatic leaves are wintergreen’s most conspicuous feature. They’re a rich green in summer. From fall to spring, some but not all of the leaves turn garnet, producing a checkered effect. Small, bell-like white flowers in early summer are followed by pulpy, pea-sized red berries that ripen in fall. Tea brewed from the berries or leaves was a traditional home remedy for colds and headaches, and a poultice made from the leaves was used to relieve sore muscles.
Bearberry, or kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), follows the contour of the land as it interminably creeps along, climbing over rocks in the mountains, clinging to sandy banks at the beach, covering broad areas with its gnarly, red-barked twigs and glossy little evergreen leaves. Found wild in both the eastern and western United States, this adaptable shrub prefers sun or part shade and grows in almost any well-drained soil. If you have a place where thyme grows well, bearberry would probably thrive there.
Plants just sit for a year or so after planting but then take off and expand 1 to 2 feet in all directions annually. If a plant reaches too far, just prune it back or lift the errant stems and point them in another direction. Occasional foot traffic doesn’t hurt the pliable stems; in fact, it stimulates rooting by pressing the stems against the soil.
Cultivars and several unnamed varieties differ in leaf size and shape, habit (some forms are totally prostrate while others have slightly arched stems), and winter color (a few kinds stay dark green all year, but most turn maroon, garnet, or bronze in cold weather). Small, urn-shaped pale pink or white flowers appear in spring. The berries, about the same size as wintergreen berries, ripen to red in fall and usually hang on the stems all winter. They’re edible, but even the birds ignore them if other food is available.
Native Americans used to dry bearberry leaves and mix them with tobacco for smoking, and they brewed tea from the leaves to treat urinary tract disorders.
Nineteenth-century Shaker herbalists sometimes substituted the leaves of lingonberry, or mountain cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. minus), for bearberry leaves. Native to Arctic and alpine regions, this low-growing shrub prefers cool summers and can’t take extreme heat. If spruce, fir, and birch trees do well in your area, give lingonberry a try.
A site with full or part sun and moist, acid soil is best. Unless your soil is already moist and acidic, work some peat moss into it before planting and mulch the plants with pine needles or bark chips. Lingonberry spreads by underground runners, expanding a few inches every year in all directions and forming a bushy clump or patch of upright stems 4 to 8 inches tall. Its shiny little leaves stay bright green all winter. Dense clusters of tiny, pale pink bell-shaped flowers in late spring are followed by 1/2-inch scarlet berries.
In Scandinavia and Canada, lingonberries are prized for use in jams and sauces, but I think they’re too tart and leave them to look at. The birds shun them, too, and so the display lasts all winter.
Large cranberry (V. macrocarpon) produces the berries we eat at Thanksgiving. The fruit has been widely used to treat and prevent urinary tract infections. This fine-textured shrub forms a tangled, 6-inch-tall mat of wiry stems lined with narrow, glossy leaves that are deep green in summer and dark garnet red, or bronze in winter. The solitary, nodding pink flowers are about half an inch long. The four lobes of the corolla are bent backward, and the stamens protrude like a crane’s beak: hence, the name cranberry. Even young plants bloom profusely and bear a surprising number of glossy, bright red berries, which appear comically oversized compared to the stems and leaves. The berries last all winter; they look and taste almost as fresh in April as they did in October.
Cranberries are grown commercially in bogs, but the plants also grow well in moist garden soil amended with plenty of peat moss; water them regularly during dry spells. Full sun is best, but part sun may be better where summer temperatures reach into the 90s. A single plant can spread 2 to 3 feet wide in just a few years and bear a cup of berries each fall. If you have space and a suitable site, a patch of cranberries makes an unusual, colorful, and productive ground cover.
Salicin from the bark of white willow (Salix alba) was a forerunner of aspirin. Tea brewed from fresh or dried twigs of white willow, native to northern Europe, and other willows has long been used as a folk remedy for headaches and fevers and an antiseptic wash for cuts and sores. Remarkably, willow twig tea also aids rooting of shrub cuttings. The twigs, or withes, are excellent for basketry; making wattle fencing, trellises, and rustic furniture; as well as dyeing wool in shades of brown and tan.
A plant this useful belongs in every herb garden. Willows are pretty, too, and easy to grow. The only problem is deciding which kind to plant, as many species have both herbal and ornamental value. If you have room for only one willow, I’d recommend either S. alba ‘Chermesina’, whose slender young twigs turn bright coral red in winter, or S. alba var. vitellina, with gleaming golden orange twigs.
Choose a site in full sun with average or moist soil. Both these willows can reach tree size but look better (and fit better in a small yard) if you promote fresh, young growth by cutting all the stems off at ground level every year in early spring just as the leaf buds swell. Treated this way, your shrub will grow 6 to 8 feet tall by midsummer, forming a clump of vigorous twigs that look bold and dramatic all winter.
Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is the source of commercial witch-hazel extract; homemade preparations of the leaves and bark are common folk remedies for itchy, sore, or inflamed skin. To make your own extract, gather some twigs in late winter or early spring, peel off the bark (it’s easy to peel and has a fresh, clean smell), and soak it in rubbing alcohol or vodka for a few weeks, then strain the liquid.
Witch hazel has other uses, too. Many dowsers who “witch” for water wells choose a forked stick of witch hazel stem for their divining rod, and a craftswoman I know carves exquisite, early-American-style whisk brooms from the wood.
Common witch hazel typically has multiple trunks with smooth gray bark. The large, scalloped leaves are medium green in summer and turn a lovely soft yellow in fall, about the same time as the small, ferny, sweet-scented gold flowers appear. This species may grow as tall as 25 feet, but don’t avoid it for lack of space. It grows slowly, and if it gets too big, you can prune it back or even cut it down and let it resprout from the base. It adapts to almost any soil and tolerates dense shade but forms a much fuller and more shapely specimen when sited in full or part sun.
Ozark, or vernal, witch hazel (H. vernalis) has similar herbal properties and similar foliage, but it grows more slowly and doesn’t get as tall. Its flowers, smaller and duller in color but equally sweet-smelling, bloom in late winter or early spring. Blooming twigs of both species last for days in a vase, and their perfume can freshen even the stuffiest room.
Bayberry and wax myrtle
The American Elder is one of the choicest of our native shrubs, and is such a familiar figure in northern fields and by northern roadsides that its beauty passes unnoticed, and the plant is foolishly and ruthlessly cut down even when no use is made of the land so despoiled. It marks a great advance in the intellectual cultivation of the individual when he is able to appreciate the beauty of familiar things, and does not wish to destroy an object simply because it is well known.
Our Northern Shrubs, 1903
Years ago, I spent a November afternoon picking a few gallons of peppercorn-sized bayberries, hoping to make my own scented candles. Following directions from a book about colonial life, I put the berries in a big pot, covered them with water, and boiled them for an hour, expecting wax to float to the surface. Nothing happened. Even after days of simmering the pot on a woodstove, I never collected enough wax for even a birthday candle. So don’t ask me how to make bayberry candles, but do try growing this carefree, adaptable shrub.
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) forms a broad, irregular mound like a cumulus cloud that’s 5 to 8 feet tall and at least that wide. Its aromatic, glossy, oblong leaves, which are never blemished by pests or diseases, are rich green in summer, turn purple-bronze in fall, and remain on the bush until temperatures fall below zero. This shrub thrives in almost any soil, including barren sites where little else will grow, and tolerates sun or shade. It doesn’t leaf out until late spring, however, and spreads by suckers, characteristics that some may consider drawbacks.
Southern wax myrtle (M. cerifera) is hardy only to Zone 7 and is more treelike, growing as tall as 30 feet, with slender evergreen leaves and gray “bayberries”. (The fruit of both species is produced on female plants, and a male must be planted nearby for pollination.)
The fragrant leaves of both these species have been used as flavoring and in folk remedies. They are easily dried for use in potpourri.
The European elder (Sambucus nigra) was a favorite of the Druids and is associated with spirits and magic. The American elder (S. canadensis) is a similar shrub with a comparable inventory of uses, if less steeped in legend. The sweet-scented flowers, musky leaves, and bark of both species are used in folk remedies, skin and hair rinses, and as insect repellents. The easily hollowed, pith-filled stems and the hard, fine-grained wood are used in folk crafts. Elder flowers make delicate fritters and wine, and the small, dark purple-black ripe berries make rich wine and tasty pies. (Immature or raw berries and berries from red-fruited elders are poisonous.) Robins and other songbirds love all kinds of elderberries.
American elder is very easy to grow in most soils in sun or part shade. Its rapid growth and stout twigs with large compound leaves seem almost tropical. It can form a tree 15 feet tall but looks better if the older, branching stems are pruned out every spring, leaving the younger, unbranched stems to form a shrub 6 to 8 feet tall. Large, round clusters of creamy white flowers top every stem in June; by late summer, the stems arch under the weight of the ripening berries. ‘Adams’ is a readily available cultivar with especially large berries. Some ornamental cultivars of American and European elders have gold, purple, variegated, or dissected leaves.
Another closely matched pair of herbal shrubs, which, like elders, belong to the honeysuckle family, are American crampbark, high-bush cranberry, or cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) and its European cousin V. opulus. Tea brewed from the twig or root bark of either species is a traditional remedy for muscle or menstrual cramps. Bark tea from several other species of viburnum has similar properties.
Wild crampbark plants often get leggy and can grow 10 to 15 feet tall and wide, but the cultivars V. opulus ‘Compactum’ and V. trilobum ‘Compactum’, ‘Hahs’, or ‘Red Wing’ form bushy, rounded specimens 4 to 5 feet tall and wide. All these are excellent garden shrubs for cool climates.
Choose a site with average or moist soil in full or part sun. Crampbarks leaf out in early spring with maplelike leaves that may turn dark red-purple in fall. Lacy clusters of snow white flowers in May are followed by bright red, translucent berries, each containing a single flat seed. The berries are incredibly bitter but are said to become more palatable after several frosts. Birds eschew them, so they hang on the boughs all winter, sparkling like rubies in the sun.
Many conifers—pines, spruces, firs, cedars, junipers, and so on—have herbal uses. The fragrant needles, resin, and wood are used in home remedies, aromatherapy, and perfumes; as moth repellents; and in industry. Most conifers mature into trees too large for small modern gardens, so choose dwarf cultivars. These are more compact and shapely than seedling trees and often have prettier foliage in richer colors. Dwarf forms of balsam fir (Abies balsamea), Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), common juniper (Juniperus communis), eastern red cedar (J. virginiana), pines (Pinus spp.), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) are all good candidates for herb gardens.
One of the most popular conifers for cool climates is American arborvitae, or eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis). Much used in remedies by Native Americans as well as European settlers, arborvitae leaves contain the toxic compound thujone. I don’t use arborvitae medicinally, but I can’t walk by a plant without rubbing the leaves to release their pungent aroma. Some good dwarf cultivars are the broadly conical ‘Aurea’, with foliage that’s yellow-gold in summer and copper-bronze in winter; ‘Emerald’ (‘Smaragd’), which makes a slender cone of bright green foliage; ‘Hetz’s Midget’, a miniature, dark green globe that grows just 1 or 2 inches per year; and ‘Rheingold’, a cone of fluffy-looking copper-gold foliage. All make neat hedges or edgings that need little if any shearing. Unfortunately, deer devour them all. If deer are abundant in your area, look for cultivars of the western red cedar (T. plicata) instead. It’s relatively deer-proof, has glossy, fragrant foliage, and whole books have been written about its practical uses and human connections.
Buying herbal shrubs
Garden centers or local nurseries that stock herbal shrubs most likely will offer them in one- or five-gallon containers. If you order them by mail, you’ll probably get smaller plants, but smaller plants cost less, and they soon catch up with the big ones after a few years in the garden. Each of the plants mentioned in this article is available from one or more of the following suppliers:
Forestfarm, 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544; (541) 846-7269. Catalog $4.
Greer Gardens, 1280 Goodpasture Island Rd., Eugene, OR 97401-1794; (541)
686-8266; e-mail email@example.com. Catalog $3.
Miller Nurseries, 5060 W. Lake Rd., Canandaigua, NY 14424; (800) 836-9630. Catalog free.
Woodlanders, 1128 Colleton Ave., Aiken, SC 29801; (803) 648-7522. Catalog $2.
Rita Buchanan is the author of books on gardening, crafts, and herbs, including A Dyer’s Garden (Interweave Press, 1995) and The Shaker Herb and Garden Book (Houghton Mifflin, 1996). She lives in Winsted, Connecticut.