Anatomy of Creeping Plants

Creeping plants can provide luxurious beauty in your landscape and then be plucked to do double duty in the kitchen.

| June/July 2005

Most herbs grow as bushy little upright plants, but a few develop into ground-hugging carpets or ambitious growers that reach for the sky. Here two herb lovers share their fascination with trailing herbs and other useful creeping plants that like to grow outside the box.

Creeping Plants: Trailing Herbs

Maybe due to a dose of Scots-Irish heritage in my background, I love plants that pay huge dividends with thrifty effort on my part. This appreciation for economy of motion draws me irresistibly to the creeping and trailing herbs.

If you choose varieties carefully, the creepers can provide luxurious beauty in your landscape and then be plucked to do double duty in the kitchen or for crafts. For example, I planted sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) in a hard-to-tend shady area by my garage wall, and it filled the spot willingly with sharp green leaves that frame tiny white blossoms in May. I use fresh sprigs to flavor glasses of cold cider in the spring; later I dry great handfuls to add a vanilla scent to the cedar chips I use in my dog’s bed. In a spot of poor soil near my driveway, an ankle-high carpet of caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona) becomes a puddle of tiny pink blossoms in spring. From spring to fall, I use the sprigs to flavor stews and rice dishes, or sauté a few stems in butter to brush over steamed sweet corn.

Here I must confess that despite my devotion to creeping herbs, their modes of travel remain mysterious to me. Rose Marie Nichols McGee, co-owner of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon, explains that herbs may creep in different ways. Some, such as my sweet woodruff and creeping thyme, spread by sending out prostrate roots. “Where the root attaches to the ground, it sends up an upright leaf bud,” she says. Because it takes more of an herb’s energy to produce leaves than stems, creepers with longer stem segments spread faster. Those that send up shoots in close proximity, such as Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) and some creeping thymes, grow slower, but form a dense mat that’s perfect grown between pavers on a garden walk.

Instead of using wandering roots, a few herbs, such as trailing rosemary, root from ground-hugging branches. “If there’s plenty of moisture, the stems will root and send off shoots where they touch the soil,” Nichols McGee says. If the stem roots dry out, they simply stop growing. With or without stem roots to anchor them, trailing rosemary varieties such as ‘Huntington Carpet’ look luxurious draping over the sides of a hanging basket, or you can tie them to a frame of bent copper tubing for a decorative accent in the garden or a container. Other herbs that can be handled this way include ‘Kent Beauty’ oregano (Origanum rotundifolilum ‘Kent Beauty’), climbing nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and some types of mint (Mentha spp.).

Thymes are probably the most popular creeping herb, and for good reason. “They’re very adaptable plants as long as they have good drainage. They don’t have heavy water requirements and they’re easy to divide by the roots,” Nichols McGee says. Thymes prefer sun but can make do with as little as four hours a day, and most are hardy to Zone 5. “The top growth loves sun but the roots love to be cool, so you can slip the root beneath the moist soil of a paver,” Nichols McGee says. Then simply fill the crevices with sand.

Beyond thymes or creeping rosemary for well-drained sun, and sweet woodruff for moist shade, try letting wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) thread its way between large shrubs or trees. A native woody perennial hardy to Zone 4, with shiny, dark-green leaves that blush red in winter, wintergreen produces pinkish-white flowers first thing in spring, followed by red berries in autumn. It needs acidic soil and often does better in a woodland garden than an herb plot, but the year-round pleasure found in crushing the crisp leaves before adding them to juice or tea make wintergreen a valuable asset. —ROSE R. KENNEDY

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