Gather inspiration for your spring garden with these uncommon treasures.
Since childhood, I’ve had a passion for exciting new herbs in my garden, exotic aromas and flavors in my cooking, and plenty of travel to see what other people are growing in their gardens.
As you might imagine, this quest has resulted in a repertoire that is rich and deep. Here are a few of my newer favorites, selected because they are showy, exotic or a complete treat for the senses.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri). Other names include brahmi and moneywort. It has been used as a medicinal herb to improve mental clarity and memory. (This plant is different from the flowering bacopa that is commonly grown in hanging baskets.) In India, it has been used traditionally as a remedy for the treatment of epilepsy and insanity. Herbalists have used it for swollen mucus membranes, bronchitis, diarrhea and rheumatism. Bacopa is a fast-growing succulent, an annual creeping herb found in wet places throughout the Indian subcontinent. Easy to grow in pots, it is hardy to Zone 8 and in colder climates can be grown outdoors as a summer annual.
Note: Bacopa is a restricted noxious weed in California. Check with your county extension office for regulations in your area.
‘Primadonna’ echinacea (Echinacea purpurea ‘Primadonna’). Echinacea grows across the Ozarks as a native plant. It’s tough, growing in rocky soil where not many other plants will grow. In midsummer, when the weather is hot and the days are long and contrary, 24- to 30-inch bloom spikes arise, the flowers unfurling into daisylike blossoms that stay in bloom for weeks. This impressive new series of echinacea from Germany has an abundance of large flowers and, like its native parents, has good heat and drought tolerance. ‘Primadonna’ attracts butterflies and is an excellent cut flower. You have the choice of deep rose and white ‘Primadonna’ echinacea, both of which will be stunning additions to your summer garden. Hardy to Zone 3.
‘Nectar’ hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis ‘Nectar’). This excellent new hyssop is hardy in Zones 3 through 9 and is easy to grow from seed. The plant’s highly fragrant flowers appear the first season if sown early and are excellent for cut flowers or dried arrangements. ‘Nectar’ is available in blue, rose and white, and you can grow all three colors in one bed for a delightful color combination. Like many hyssops, ‘Nectar’ attracts butterflies and is a tasty tea plant, as well.
‘Purple Volcano’ sage (Salvia lyrata ‘Purple Volcano’). This medicinal herb actually is known more for its impressive bronze-purple foliage, which contrasts beautifully with other textures and colors in the herb garden. You can grow it in a low border next to green or gray plants, or tucked in with dwarf basils or oreganos. The purple to bronze foliage is beautiful all season long. You may know the species as lyreleaf sage, but this cultivar is considerably more colorful and attractive. It will tolerate part shade and any standard garden soil. It’s hardy in Zones 5 to 8 and grows easily from seed.
‘Santa’ santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus ‘Santa’). I have an entire bed devoted to moth-repelling herbs and the bed contains several santolinas, as well as fern-leaf tansy and French marigolds. The santolinas hang over the rock walls of my raised beds and when they bloom they become a mass of yellow, button-size flowers that cover the entire plant, making a stunning display. The harvested santolina leaves, mixed with cedar shavings, bay leaves and other moth-repelling herbs, go into little packets to hang in the closet in winter. However, the santolinas I grow aren’t compact like the new ‘Santa’ and need an annual hard pruning to keep them where they belong. This new one is more uniform, and perfect for the top of rock walls where it will trail over a bit or for making low hedges about 12 inches tall. Hardy in Zones 6 to 8, this useful plant is easy to start from seed and its silvery gray-green leaves are attractive for a long season. Also sometimes called “lavender cotton,” although it is not related to either of those plants.
Za’tar (Origanum syriacum). Hardy in Zones 8 to 10. Bring this Middle Eastern native indoors for overwintering in colder climates. Za’tar is not only a plant, it is also the name of one of the world’s great seasoning blends, which contains that plant along with sumac, thyme and sesame seeds. You’ll find it in spice jars for sale in nearly every Middle Eastern grocery; za’tar gives traditional flavor to hummus, dips and soups. It is mixed with olive oil to make delicious pastes for the traditional flatbreads served with meals. Each region has its own version of za’tar. This traditional za’tar comes from the mountains of northern Israel where it is popular among both Arabs and Jews. The attractive grayish-green foliage has a spicy aroma and flavor that is intriguing. Easy to grow from seeds and well worth adding to your herb garden.
Chinese toon (Toona sinensis). Another name for this plant is Chinese cedar. This tree is a source for a valuable hardwood similar to mahogany, but at the seedling stage the fresh young leaves and shoots are edible. In China, it is regarded as a highly nutritious and popular aromatic vegetable that is excellent used in stir-fries, egg dishes, for pickling and as a good seasoning plant.?Its flavor is similar to that of onions, with rich aromatic overtones. In China, you will find it growing year-round in large, industrial greenhouses where growers harvest it regularly to sell in the markets. In Chinese medicine, practitioners use the tree’s bark to treat diarrhea, dysentery and flatulence. This herb is fairly easy to grow from seed and you can grow it in pots and clip it for continuous culinary harvests. It is hardy to Zone 5.
Herb Companion contributing editor Jim Long enjoys experimenting with new and unusual herbs in his Missouri Ozarks home.