ATLANTA, Georgia—The end of the old year and the beginning of the new one is a time of merrymaking to counteract the long nights of winter. In the Southeast, the weather is typically sweater weather, crisp and clear, though I remember several Christmases in the high 70s. The ground doesn’t really freeze here, and I confess throwing in some lycoris bulbs—a.k.a. naked ladies—in late January (after they were discounted) with no problems.
Herbs traditionally associated with the holiday season include bedstraw, sweet woodruff, rosemary, and holly. These are picked fresh from the garden and pinned on wreaths or used in kissing balls tied with red velvet ribbons. Our Lady’s-bedstraw (Galium verum) and sweet woodruff (G. odoratum) have aromatic leaves in whorls up the stems. Yellow or white clusters of tiny flowers ornament the plants in spring. Bedstraw was traditionally used to stuff mattresses, while sweet woodruff is used to flavor German May Wine. They are assumed to have been used in the Christ child’s manger and are therefore associated with Christmas. The red berries of holly (Ilex aquifolium) are protection against all evil. If a hardier holly grows in your part of the country, include it instead. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), the herb of remembrance, is sometimes in bloom by now, with beautiful blue flowers on the ends of the long, pine-scented branches.
Bedstraw and sweet woodruff are assumed to have been used in the Christ child’s manger.
Another way I like to use the traditional herbs is to steep them in various holiday beverages. Perhaps you will join me in serving this favorite for your merrymaking.
Geri’s Apricot Holiday Swizzle
Makes 1 gallon
2 cups fresh sweet woodruff leaves
4 cups (1 quart) strong tea
4 cups apricot nectar, chilled
1 teaspoon angostura bitters
Two 12-ounce cans frozen concentrated lemonade, thawed
6 cups (2 liters) ginger ale, chilled
2 cups peach brandy
3 cups vodka
Steep the sweet woodruff in the hot tea, covered. After 20 minutes, remove the herb by straining, and chill the tea. Mix all of the ingredients in a large punch bowl. I like to float an ice ring in the bowl that has peach slices, bedstraw, woodruff, and rosemary frozen in the ice.
LANSING, New York—Isn’t it wonderful to see culinary herbs among the fruits and vegetables in the supermarkets today? Either growing in small pots or fresh cut in plastic bags, there they are—Italian and curly parsleys, thyme, basil, chives, dill, marjoram, lemongrass, cilantro, sometimes even rosemary. In my part of the country this has come about only in the last decade or so. Before that, people either grew their own cooking herbs or bought them dry in small bottles—except curly parsley, which was always offered but mostly used only for garnishing. “Presentation,” the French call it.
The first time I ever saw fresh herbs in a grocery store was in the early 1960s when we were living in Italy, where what I believe was the first “supermercato” opened in Florence. I was pleased, almost touched, to see that in the poultry department, each chicken wrapped in cellophane had a large sprig of fresh rosemary pressed against its breast. “Ah!” I thought, “Only in Europe!” But now such things are common here in America. The other day, in a restaurant that works toward “presentation,” I was served a crab salad surrounded by greens, and in the middle, standing upright from the crab salad, was a large sprig of fresh rosemary. I wasn’t interested in eating the rosemary sprig with the crab salad, but it showed the right spirit. I considered putting it in my pocket.
As I look out the window, watching the snow swirl about, I’m thinking, of course, of next spring’s gardening chores and projects. I’m working on a list titled “Spring Jobs, 2002.” 1. Move the shasta daisies to the back of the east border. 2. Put white Japanese iris where the shasta was. 3. Divide the Nepeta nervosa. (By the way, don’t you think N. nervosa the best of the lot? Such a sturdy, non-flopping little plant, and its flowers are such a good color). And so on.
But in addition to thinking ahead, I’m thinking back to last summer when I revisited one of my favorite gardens—the herb garden at Cornell University. It was looking better than ever with its wonderful plantings, stone walls, and small, stone-paved “rooms” here and there. Different sections of the garden are reserved for particular types of herbs—dye, medicinal, culinary, fragrant, and sacred—more categories than I can just now remember. Maps are provided, and every plant has its marker, so one can learn a lot while making a leisurely tour.
One of the greatest things about this garden is that its curator, Diane Miske, is not only a fine plantswoman, but an artist as well, combining colors and textures with great skill. I especially enjoyed what she does with black or wine-red foliage and lemon yellow or orange. Beneath a great lavender and gray explosion of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), for example, is a mass of ‘Purple Ruffles’ basil; a swath of silver spearmint (Mentha spicata ‘Silver’), which repeats the gray foliage and lavender blossoms of the Russian sage, backs clumps of purple-leaved Peruvian pepper. And plants with green leaves variegated with yellow pick up the color of yellow daisies in the background. Rough, nubbly leaves of that delightful 6-foot gray ‘Berggarten’ sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’) contrast with the smooth, silky foliage of nearby basils.
If you come to visit this garden, you’ll find many such delights, plus beautiful plant combinations in pots and containers. There are other gardens nearby as well.
Andy Van Hevelingen
NEWBERG, Oregon—While listening to the radio recently, I heard an old song that goes, “Lavender blue, dilly dilly, lavender green, when I am king, dilly dilly, you’ll be my queen.” The lyrics reminded me of a lavender called ‘Dilly Dilly’ that I saw in a local garden nursery. That may be a great name for a lavender cultivar, but it’s an imposter! I was given the same plant months earlier, and after observation and research (including the dependable Royal Horticultural Society’s Plant Finder directory), I figured out that the name is just a synonym for ‘Grosso’ lavandin (Lavandula ¥intermedia ‘Grosso’). Apparently, the name mix-up occurred in Australia, and the plant returned to England as a new cultivar and then spread to the United States.
Along with this plant I was given ‘Andreas’ lavender. I was not familiar with its name so I assumed it was a new Californian cultivar named for the San Andreas fault. I later found out it was originally from New Zealand. It is a cross between L. angustifolia and L. lanata that has a beautiful silver cast to its foliage and long velvety flower stems with dark flowers.
With New Year’s resolutions before me, I must make a clean breast of it, and confess to an error in lavender judgment. Earlier this year, I made some disparaging remarks about the new Madrid Series of Spanish lavender (L. stoechas). Now, I want to make amends and retract my statements about the lax growth of L. stoechas ‘Madrid White’. Although it has floppy growth habits in the greenhouse, it is a good compact upright grower in the field. Furthermore, it has noticeably larger and superior white flower bracts (the “rabbit ears”) than the typical white-flowered Spanish lavender. It bloomed continuously and abundantly throughout the summer and was easy to pick out in the lavender field.
The English lavender ‘DeLavande’ has a remarkably long blooming season.
I was also delighted with a local introduction by Rhonda Whetham (Forever Lavender) of ‘Caty Blanc’ lavender (also called ‘Cathy’s White’ or ‘White Grosso’). It is a lavandin she brought back from France that she named after her French friend, Caty. It grows like a ‘Grosso’ but has long white flower heads—at least two to three times longer than the typical white lavandin. It made lovely lavender wands— although no one knew it had white flowers inside rather than lavender ones!
And for those of you who have seen the English lavender ‘DeLavande’, I found it has a remarkably long blooming season, from June to August, and is very fragrant. I understand it can grow at altitudes to 4,000 feet above sea level and is used by French aromatherapists for its essential oil. It is propagated from seed and consequently variable in growth and flower. It is not just one specific cultivar but a genotype; I have about ten distinct types of ‘DeLavande’ lavender.
But enough talk of lavenders. Watch for an exciting new introduction of tricolor sage called ‘Mildred Faye’s Rainbow’ from a grower in Tenino, Washington. Instead of the three colors (gray, purple, and white) of the classic tricolor, this cultivar adds a variety of cream and pink colors. It will provide an exciting foliage contrast in the herb and perennial garden. It is named after an herb grower’s mother who recently passed away.