Toronto, Ontario–It never ceases to amaze me how anything as apparently delicate as an herb actually can be so strong and resilient. At a time of year when the earth hasn’t yet warmed from winter’s chill and more timid plants remain well-hidden until warmer days signal safety, a variety of herbs are already greeting me from under last season’s dead foliage in our messy garden beds.
The chives invariably are first, poking spindly green shoots through the barely thawed earth. When I see chives (Allium schoenoprasum), I know spring is here — though the temperature outside might not yet feel precisely balmy. In years past, it would have been difficult to decide whether to harvest the lovely purple flowers to make chive vinegar, or leave them to add color to the landscape. Last year, however, I finally smartened up and added a few new plants throughout the yard. This year, I’m also adding white-flowered garlic chives (A. tuberosum) to the collection.
Almost as quick as the chives to emerge, yet far more surprising, is oregano (Origanum vulgare). Given its origins in a hot, dry climate — albeit in the mountains — I wonder what it thinks it’s doing coming up so early in our damp and icy Ontario spring. My plants are actually the offspring of a sprig that was brought here directly from Greece, and they produce many of their own offspring each year, seeding themselves everywhere from the lawn to the rock path. This wonderfully aromatic and flavorful oregano is a welcome sight during these cold and often gray days.
Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) also arrives early, though not so early that a decent-sized sprig can be harvested for the traditional May Bowl (spiced wine or punch served on May Day). I’ve heard that in damp areas, woodruff can become a rampant weed, but in the dry, deep shade under my numerous pine and spruce trees, it is the perfect groundcover. Every year it spreads a little more, adding beautiful foliage and subtle flowers to what would otherwise be a barren area. When dried, the leaves smell of vanilla and are a lovely addition to sachets and potpourri.
Lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina) also are coming to life. Clearing away the dense and sometimes matted foliage that’s accumulated since last autumn reveals new gray-green leaves. I first was attracted to lamb’s-ears by their velvety foliage, but they also produce spikes of pink flowers, which are irresistible to bees. My only concern is that the rapidly expanding lamb’s-ears patch might crowd out nearby plants.
One of my favorite spring herbs is the common violet (Viola odorata). I can’t resist the small purple flowers and their sweet, though elusive, scent. Violet flowers can be added to salads for color, or better yet, they can be candied and used to decorate cookies, cakes and muffins. Chocolate cupcakes never look more elegant than when festooned with a candied violet or two. As invasive as they can be, I’d definitely add violets to my flower beds — if they weren’t already well established in my lawn.
Would spring really be spring without the cheery yellow flowers of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)? As strange as it may seem to some, I would have to say that dandelions are my favorite early spring herb. The flowers please my heart when I see them — and my palate when they’re turned into syrup. Making the syrup has now become a yearly ritual; I enjoy it on ice cream, pancakes and even cereal. (Please see Page 24 for recipes and more information about the under-appreciated dandelion.) Dandelion leaves are one of the earliest greens of the season, and are tasty added raw to salads, or steamed and served drizzled with a little lemon juice and olive oil.
Dandelions symbolize hope for me, and hope is what we have here: The sun is shining, the earth is warming, the world is growing green again, and a full season of garden discoveries wait just outside my door.