Down to Earth: Earning Their Keep

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Illustration by Michael Eagleton
Lime Balm

Plants in my garden have to justify their existence. Like my animals, which earn their keep by producing something or protecting the territory, herbs have to prove to me that they are useful to merit space in my garden.

Lovage, for instance, barely pays its rent. To me, it tastes like the soapsuds left on an unrinsed drinking glass, and it is only marginally useful, such as when I am completely out of celery but determined to fix tuna salad for lunch. (The nearest grocery store is sixteen miles away, not a distance that I want to travel just for a stalk of celery.)

Lemon verbena, on the other hand, gets first-class accommodations in the first bed near the water faucet. Talk about versatility! Its leaves are great in iced tea, cheesecake, and lemon verbena pie or candied like candied violets. But that’s just part of the story: combined with rosemary, lavender, and mint and rubbed on my hands, it removes the fish smell after I’ve cleaned the catch of the day.

Rosemary pays not only its own keep but also that of such less-usefuls as germander, which offers a brief but pleasant burst of blooms but no other compelling current use that I’ve discovered. Tasty in many foods and fragrant in after-shave lotion, hair rinse, and shampoo, rosemary is one of my favorite herbs. It even cheers me in winter, giving off its delicious fragrance when I pet the leaves of my indoor plant.

Visitors sometimes bring me a new or favorite plant as a gift. My chocolate mint and Eau de Cologne mint both came to me that way. I label these gift plants with both the plant name and the giver’s name. You’ll find chocolate mint “Barbara”, hardy amaryllis “Helen Jane”, hosta “Vangie”, and many others in the garden, each one justifying its space by being a friendship plant as well as being useful, flavorful, or attractive.

My lime balm (presumably Melissa officinalis ‘Lime’) was a gift from some women who visited my garden several years back. One of them handed me a little pot with “lime balm” marked on one side. I thanked her and set it aside, assuming that the donor’s name was also on the pot. Some days later, I gently rubbed one of the leaves–wow! It really did smell like lime! I gave the plant a spot of its own in a sunny raised bed away from the other melissas, but I’m really sorry that I didn’t take the time to learn the name of the woman who gave it to me because it wasn’t marked on the pot, and so I wasn’t able to thank her or to put her name on my plant’s label. Lime balm has become one of my most favored herbs. It is good in all the ways that lemon balm is; in addition, it makes an outstanding cheesecake (especially when I make it with a chocolate crumb crust). Lime balm’s distinct lime fragrance always causes visitors to remark on it as we tour the herb beds, but when they ask where the plant is for sale, I have to answer that it isn’t widely available.

Plants like gomphrena fit most definitions of “herb”. The festively colored everlasting flowers are easy to grow, dry well for crafts, and lend themselves to colorful beds in the garden, but I sometimes wish that they also had some flavor or cured gout or scurvy or something.

Cockscomb is another borderline plant. I grow it for its brilliant red and pink seed heads, which I hang from the rafters of the shop for crafters to buy. I think the seeds were probably once used as a food crop, but today’s hybrids produce more fluff than seed. Although its blooms justify its space pretty well, still, I look for additional uses. Maybe stuffing for pillows?

Lemon basil seems to justify its space in the garden better than some of the other basils even though it is more work to keep the flower heads snipped out. (Left to its own devices, it will self-destruct right after setting seed.) Spicy Globe is a much better landscape basil, and African Blue basil blooms over a long period without setting seed, but lemon basil tastes best on a grill with fresh shrimp and makes a great pesto.

Plant choices are such a personal matter. Aztec sweet herb (Phyla scaberrima, formerly Lippia dulcis) is a welcome ground cover and novelty plant in one person’s garden, while it is a pest in another’s. Lovage soup and drinks with lovage-stem straws served on the veranda are a delight for some–but not for me. But that’s what makes each garden different and gives each gardener a unique perspective. As for mine, I’ll continue to require that my plants please me, earning their keep by delivering flavor or delight. Otherwise, there is always the compost heap, where most of the lovage is buried.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

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