Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners
CAPE BRETON ISLAND, Nova Scotia—I live for plants, so one would think summer’s waning should cast me down. To the contrary, it is an exhilarating time because my favorite herbs are at hand to make herbal confetti, a colorful and delicious mix of shredded fresh flowers and herbs that I use to embellish breakfast eggs, fried baby zucchini, soft cheese spread, and salads. I derive so much pleasure from preparing confetti that I think of it as a source of eternal youth and a good thing to do in my sixty-fourth year, especially when so much work awaits me on a late summer day.
The mixture varies according to its intended use but always includes nasturtium flowers in all their glorious colors: primrose, golden yellow, tangerine, orange, rose, fiery and mahogany red, scarlet. To a handful of those, I add leaves of sweet ‘Genovese’ and lettuce-leaf basils (for breakfast) or sprigs of salad burnet, ‘Fernleaf’ dill, and sweet marjoram for cheese spreads and salads. Then I roll the flowers and greenery tightly together and snip them into small pieces. Blended, they at once acquire a new identity, a versatile fresh flavoring.
When a family dropped in recently to pick up cheese and herb supplies and then stayed for an extended visit, I was mortified to discover that I had nothing to serve them. Inspired by the herbal muse who hovers around me, I excused myself briefly and returned with a handful of nasturtiums and herbs, which I quickly turned into herbal confetti. In no time, I mixed up a spread of homemade cottage cheese thinned with homemade mayonnaise, both always at hand for late-summer tomato breakfasts, and glasses of iced tea flavored with rhubarb juice and fresh sprigs of lemon balm and mint.
It didn’t take long for everyone to get into the spirit of an al fresco snack of matzos with confetti-topped cheese spread. The children were pressed into service to fetch more flowers and herbs and soon were adept at picking freshly opened, bug-free nasturtiums in a pleasing balance of designer colors. They enjoyed choosing the flowers, gathering a variety of herbs, making pretty piles of confetti on several small plates, restocking the crackers, and even mixing up more spread. I don’t think anyone could have asked for more pleasing refreshment on a hot summer day. It’s true that the nasturtiums were picked clean, but they needed a good trimming anyway.
It is an exhilarating time because my favorite herbs are at hand to make herbal confetti.
NEWBERG, Oregon—Plant collecting is an addiction. Many a time, I have read an article or a book and discovered a new herb that I simply must have. Many a time, that herb has remained elusive. Questions arise: Which plant friends are going to Europe or back East? Which nurseries will mail-order? Who has it and will trade a plant of a different herb for a start?
Often, I have to wait a few years to get the plant I desire, but every so often, a plant friend brings it to me. After that, I propagate it and spread it among my other plant friends for the pleasure of sharing it and increasing the likelihood of its survival.
Years ago, the late Gertrude Foster—“Bunny,” as she was known to her friends—offered me a plant of European mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). I was thrilled as I had often tried to start that herb from seed but had never succeeded.
When I got home, I promptly potted it up. Everything went well until midsummer, when the plant started to show stress: yellowing leaves, stunted growth, and finally dried leaves. It was gone. I put it outside on a bench and forgot about it.
As the weather began to cool, a sprig of new growth appeared on the mandrake and then a small crown of thick, glossy, dark green leaves. Now, after several seasons of growing this plant, I watch it go into summer dormancy like clockwork. (For those of you who have tried mandrake and failed, check those “dead” plants. Dump out the pot and see if the large, parsniplike root is firm, but don’t disturb it! According to folklore, because the root often resembled the human form, anyone attempting to dig it up for its purported aphrodisiac properties would be scared to death by its horrid shrieks.)
Another herb that disappears in the summer to reappear later is Japanese or Mioga ginger (Zingiber mioga). I have had it for eight years; the species is winter-hardy here and nearly evergreen. The plant grows to about 6 feet tall with hollow single canes bearing two ranks of leaves along their entire length. I discovered its pale yellow flower at the base of the plant one day while weeding and later read that it is pollinated by ground beetles. In early summer, the leaves yellow, and the stalk pales and flops, but in a few weeks, the plant comes back as green and strong as ever.
LANSING, New York—Some years ago, I sold fresh and dried flowers at the local farmers’ market. After gathering black-eyed Susan flowers (the wild Rudbeckia triloba), I would sit on the back porch steps and pull off the ray flowers (“petals”), saving the dark central cones to use in bouquets with dry, lacy garlic chive seed heads. Today, as a reminder of those days, masses of rudbeckias and garlic chives surround the back steps.
Every year, I think I’ll cut off the garlic chive flowers before they go to seed, but every year enough of them secretly spill their black seeds to keep the colony growing. It’s alarming—will they take over the farm? Perhaps they know that I wouldn’t wipe them out with a herbicide even if I could. In the first place, they’re growing around our well, and in the second place, they are both useful and beautiful. I cut their flat green blades to use in salads and soups, and their fragrant starry flowers provide a treat every summer for both the bees and me. Then, when the flowers finish, they leave those decorative filigreed umbels for winter bouquets. If only one could teach them restraint.
Another plant with starry white flowers, the sweet autumn clematis (formerly Clematis paniculata, now C. terniflora) is foaming gloriously all over the fence, up one corner of the big barn, and into a European linden, where it cascades like a waterfall. It’s even swarming over the big jungly bushes of Viburnum opulus in front of the barn. What a sight! And the fragrance!
About twenty years ago, a friend gave me my first cherished clematis vine. I saved two of its seedlings and planted them where they would grow over the rail fence by the driveway. Then, to further temper the corral look, I ordered more autumn clematis from a well-known plant nursery. The new vines grew fast and flowered abundantly but, alas, are neither as attractive nor as fragrant as my old vines. They even flower at a different time. Their leaves lack the pale green central spine of the early spring leaves of my clematis and are paler green and of less substance, the flowers are flimsier and have almost no scent, while the seed heads are less solid, less attractive, and fall away sooner.
I looked in all my books and found, in Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia, the following statement under “Clematis paniculata”: “Unfortunately, this very popular vine from Japan has become mixed in the American trade so that some of the plants sold under this name are actually C. dioscoreifolia, a vine now considered a separate species from Korea.” That would explain it. I’m saving all the seedlings of the original vine to give to friends.
ATLANTA, Georgia—Gardeners share many traits; some are admirable, others less so. One of the latter type is an inclination toward the Seven Deadly Sins of Gardening.
There’s a certain pride (or arrogance) involved with successful herb gardening. I’ve noticed that if I preface any herb name with “rare” or “dwarf,” my plant instantly becomes more desirable. Likewise, adding a cultivar name to the end of a Latin binomial seems to magnify the herb’s prestige: Mentha spicata ‘Kentucky Colonel’ instead of plain old spearmint or Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum Crispum’ rather than wild marjoram.
Envy rears its ugly head after garden tours and visits to friends’ gardens. What gardener hasn’t rushed home after seeing a great garden and proceeded to track down a source for that special flower or “rare” plant so admired there?
Avarice and greed appear constantly. I can never acquire enough scented geraniums; I always want more kinds of lavender.
Garden gluttony is another problem of mine. I confess that I always eat asparagus stalks raw, right in the garden, and only rarely bring any into the house. I also tend to gorge on sun-warmed blueberries straight off the plant instead of dutifully sharing them with my nearest and dearest.
Sloth and laziness generally take the form of procrastination in my garden, but I’ve taken a page from the book of a well-known Atlanta plantsman and author. The weeds obviously had the upper hand when we visited his garden (perhaps he’d been too busy writing). Completely ignoring poison ivy, briars, wild onions, nutgrass, and chickweed, he drew our attention to only the “rare” and extra-special treasures, a technique I find useful when showing folks around my garden.
Because plant lust is so common in Atlanta garden club circles, there’s an acknowledged slogan for it: “Admire and acquire.” Even the richest, most straitlaced members admit to keeping a plastic bag or two and some small clippers in their purses, “just in case something interesting comes up.” As for the trowel and bucket in my trunk, my personal slogan is, “Don’t leave home without it.”
Finally, it’s hard to feel anything but wrath toward the destruction wrought by pine voles, deer, and slugs. Ire and resentment overwhelm any tendency to turn the other cheek when my favorite angelica is gnawed out or the bark and young branches of my fragrant tea olive are hopelessly chewed.
We gardeners aren’t perfect, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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