As surely as the heavy, exhausted heads of fennel shower the fall garden with sweet seeds, the winter winds blow in a fresh crop of herb seed and plant catalogs. This year, their tempting pages contain a large crop of new herb introductions for the culinary, medicinal, and ornamental herb gardener. In some cases, these new herb seeds and plants are the result of worldwide prospecting, but a number of small companies continue to contribute their own introductions to the steady flow of new plant material to charm the gardener with fresh scents and pleasing forms. The catalogs this year feature fresh faces as well as familiar herbs that breeders have refined to produce better flavor or growth habits. The International Herb Association’s herb of the year, bee balm, is also represented with new varieties.
The new delights in garden catalogs remind me annually that there are few places outside the garden where giving in to temptation and self-indulgence is so acceptable and amply rewarded for such a small investment. Here’s a rundown, by no means exhaustive, of some catalogs that have interested me this year.
• The arrival each winter of Richters‘ catalog is new evidence that Conrad Richter loves traveling in search of herbs as much as did his late father, Otto. The catalog has always been a treasure trove of new, unusual, and hard-to-find herbs, and lately the pace of discovery has accelerated. West African basil (Ocimum gratissimum), from Ghana, is one such find. It’s a large-leaved species that is used throughout Africa to treat fevers, malaria, and diarrhea.
Richters’ program to improve old favorites of the herb garden has produced Profusion sorrel (Rumex ‘Sterile’), which is seedless and bears tender foliage over a longer period than other varieties; Elixir St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum ‘Medizinal’), with higher-than-normal levels of the antiviral hypericin, which Richter says has made it a subject for investigation as an AIDS treatment; and Profusion chives (Allium schoenoprasum ‘Sterile’), with abundant foliage and long-lasting edible flowers that form no seeds. The company has seed collection projects in Nepal, India, Ghana, and Mexico.
Richters searches abroad for improved varieties, many of which have been developed for field production and should provide home gardeners with higher yields and more flavor. Recent additions to the catalog include a German chamomile (Matricaria recutita ‘Bodegold’), a summer savory (Satureja hortensis ‘Aromata’), a garden sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Extrakta’), and a valerian (Valeriana officinalis ‘Anthos’).
A compact, mildew-resistant bee balm (Monarda ‘Petite Delight’) is a new introduction from Agriculture Canada. Only 10 to 12 inches high with showy pink flowers, it was developed by the Manitoba research station’s prolific monarda breeder, H. H. Marshall.
Gardeners who can’t get enough cilantro from their short-lived coriander plants may wish to try papalo (Porophyllum ruderale subsp. macrocephalum), a prolific, 6-foot-tall season-long producer of cilantro-flavored foliage. This Tex-Mex native belongs to the daisy family (Compositae) and has small purple flowers. Richters also offers seeds of the Australian tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), renowned for its antiseptic qualities. The plant grows 30 feet tall in its native habitat but is not winterhardy in most of the United States; Richter suggests growing it in a large pot and bringing it indoors in winter.
• With more than 1300 herbs listed in their mail-order catalog, Louise and Cy Hyde are just as fired up about herbs today as they were twenty-seven years ago when they started Well-Sweep Herb Farm. “You know me,” Cy Hyde says, “I’m always looking for the new and unusual.” Among his latest discoveries are two new French thymes (Thymus vulgaris cvs.) obtained from a German herb collector. Gray Hill is a compact plant that grows only 4 to 6 inches high and is distinguished by its tiny gray leaves; German French thyme is 8 to 10 inches high with a stiff, upright habit. Lemon caraway thyme (T. herba-barona ‘Lemon’) is a creeper like regular caraway thyme but has a lemon scent.
Louise Hyde is intrigued by the Vietnamese purple rice plant, or la cam (Peristrophe speciosa, formerly identified as Psiloesthes elongata), a bushy, semiupright tender perennial, 12 to 18 inches tall, with raspberry pink flowers and 1-inch-long, medium green leaves. Cooked rice or pasta turns purple when briefly soaked in water in which the leaves have been boiled. Purple rice plant grows well indoors because it requires little sun.
• Peter Borchard’s Companion Plants catalog offers a wide assortment of unusual herb seeds and plants. Highlights this year include a deep blue-flowered dwarf betony (Stachys officinalis ‘Nana’) that stands 8 to 10 inches tall and two ornamental sages, Salvia coccinea ‘Bicolor’ with white and pink flowers and S. c. ‘Alba’, a white-flowered variety. Both sages are tender perennials that grow 4 to 5 feet high.
• At Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, Fairman Jayne has come up with a different palette of ornamental sages. S. puberula ‘Yucca Do’, hardy to Zone 7, grows about 2 feet tall and wide; its magenta tubular flowers tipped with white are superb for cutting. S. guaranitica ‘Argentina Skies’ has dark green, arrow-shaped leaves and stands 3 feet tall; its pale blue flowers begin opening in midsummer and continue until frost. Jayne considers it a hardy perennial. Another unusual offering is Japanese turtlehead (Chelonopsis moschata), an 18-inch-tall tough and hardy perennial with showy pink tubular blooms.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa, formerly C. domestica var.aromatica) is a tropical Asian species that will survive outdoors in the United States only in the southernmost areas, but Jayne points out that it makes a good potted plant. Its pale green foliage is handsome in a sunny spot during the summer; the plant is dormant through the winter and into late spring. The yellow, pinky-sized rhizomes can be dried and powdered for use as a spice or dye.
• One of America’s oldest herb growers, Logee’s Greenhouses, continues to display its knack for coming up with new varieties. Four herbs with British breeding include Lavandula dentata ‘Lambkins’, a compact version of a familiar tender perennial lavender with heavily toothed, aromatic gray-green leaves and bullet-shaped white to pale lavender flower heads; Origanum ‘Barbara Tingey’, an ornamental oregano somewhat like O. ‘Kent Beauty’ with round, hairy leaves and highly decorative pink-tinted bracts; the catmint Nepeta x faassenii ‘Souvenir d’André Chaudron’, a hardy 3-foot perennial with deep lavender blue flowers that is not a kitty magnet; and Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Sissinghurst Blue’, a stiffly upright rosemary with pine-needle-narrow leaves that would be a fine addition to any herb collection.
• Flowers for drying are important at The Flowery Branch, and its owner, Dean Pailler, has scoured Europe for new and improved varieties. Dwarf winged everlasting (Ammobium alatum ‘Bikini’), a Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner with strong, uniform, 16-inch stems, may be hardy to Zone 7. Plants will rebloom after being cut to the ground and thus can be harvested several times. Silvery lemon everlasting (Helichrysum foetidum) is a 3-foot tender perennial with a marked curry scent and tight, bright lemon flowers. Limonium sinuatum ‘Forever’ is a prizewinning annual statice with strong 2-foot stems topped by large flower heads in a variety of colors. Also new for 1996 is a white-flowered borage (Borago officinalis ‘Alba’); except for flower color, it is identical to its blue-flowered counterpart.
• The Herbfarm is promoting a tuberous nasturtium (Tropaeolum tuberosum) native to the Andes that forms a 6- to 8-foot vine with edible leaves and red, yellow, and orange flowers. The irregularly shaped tuber can become as large as a small carrot and should be dug before frost; it may be stored in sawdust until ready to use. It may be sliced and pickled or eaten raw like a radish, which it resembles in flavor, according to owner Carrie Van Dyck. At the Herbfarm’s restaurant, the tubers are often sautéed and served with potatoes.
Among the medicinal plants on the Herbfarm’s 1996 list are two whose roots have traditionally been used as a tonic. Ashwaganda (Withania somniferum), a glossy-leaved, 18-inch-high plant from India, has decorative red berries and does well in semishade. Dang shen (Codonopsis pilosula) is a Chinese vine that grows 3 to 4 feet tall with support and is probably hardy in most of the United States, according to head grower Victoria Jahn.
• Goodwin Creek Garden’s 1996 catalog features two unusual lemon herbs to add to your collection. Satureja biflora is a ground-hugging, lemon-scented savory native to South Africa with small green leaves and tiny white flowers; it’s a tender perennial in most of the United States. Thymus ‘Lemon Frost’, a low-growing thyme with white flowers introduced by Andy Van Hevelingen, an Oregon herb grower and Herb Companion columnist, was a chance cross that appears to have Doone Valley thyme as one parent.
• Nichols Garden Nursery, whose catalog lists beer-making supplies, is known for its wide selection of hop roots. This year, owner Rose Marie Nichols McGee is offering a new hop variety, Humulus lupulus ‘Sunbeam Golden’, recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The cultivar’s aromatic cones are good in European-style pilsners, and its golden foliage and contrasting reddish stems are highly ornamental. McGee says that a single vine of this vigorous grower will cover a 10-foot arbor nicely. Although the tops die back to the ground in winter, the dry stems may be used as a wreath base. Unlike green-leaved varieties, Sunbeam Golden grows best in filtered light.
Nichols also offers rose geranium- scented bee balm (M. fistulosa x tetraploid), one of a group of monardas discovered in 1972 by H. H. Marshall of Agriculture Canada. This one is high in essential oils. It’s a hardy perennial with an open, airy habit, grows to 3 feet or taller, and over several years forms a large clump. Where summers are hot, the plant grows best in partial shade.
R. o. ‘Sawyer’s Selection’, a narrow-leaved, blue-flowered rosemary from England that is rarely grown in the United States, may grow to 8 feet where winters are mild. The nursery’s four-year-old plant is now 4 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter.
L. angustifolia ‘Betty’s Blue’ is a lavender that originated at Nichols Garden Nursery from a self-sown seedling “that wasn’t weeded,” according to McGee. It grew into a 20-inch-tall, softly mounded aromatic shrub topped with fat, dark blue buds. Another new lavender is Silver Frost (L. ‘Kathleen Elizabeth’), a chance cross that turned up among a group of Andy Van Hevelingen’s seedlings. The low mound of silver foliage is topped by 15-inch-long stems bearing 2-inch-long tight heads of dark flowers. The leaves hold better during the winter than those of most other lavenders.
• Oregon is becoming a hotbed for the production of new lavenders, and Donald Roberts of Premiere Botanicals is one of the state’s leading breeders. His L. angustifolia breeding program, begun in 1984, has produced the well-known cultivar ‘Sharon Roberts’ and, more recently, L. a. ‘Premiere’, an unusually erect lavender with striking, globe-shaped flower heads packed with bright lavender petals. Another Roberts introduction, L. a. ‘Buena Vista’, has flowers that sport subtle variations of lavender colors; they begin blooming later than other lavenders but continue to bloom all summer. L. a. ‘Sashay’, a dark-flowered, summer-blooming lavender, is better adapted to wet soils than most lavenders. Premiere Botanicals also markets a line of mints; Roberts has been a mint specialist both in academia and in business.
• Craig and Sue Dremann’s Redwood City Seed Company’s 1996 catalog is a “catalog of endangered cultivated plants”, which is a warning as much as it is an invitation. Redwood City, which began twenty-five years ago as an alternative seed company specializing in indigenous plant varieties from around the world, is the oldest such business in the United States. Since its founding, Craig Dremann says, half the plant varieties that the firm sold at the start are now no longer available.
Redwood City’s current catalog features two slow-bolting cilantros from Malaysia. Coriandrum sativum ‘Tian Ching’ is a fine-leaved coriander that grows 8 to 12 inches high before flowering. Dremann describes the second coriander, C. s. ‘Yen Sai’, as “the sweetest coriander I’ve ever tasted”; it takes longer to germinate but has a longer growing period before foliage production ceases and the plant goes to seed. Also on the sweet side is vanilla-scented sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata), a hardy perennial that grows 24 inches high and spreads by underground runners. The leaves have traditionally been used to make scented baskets and burned as incense. In Europe, the leaves or essential oil have been used to flavor vodka, candy, and tobacco.
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds has had a small inventory of culinary herb seeds for years, but this year the catalog boasts about forty varieties of medicinal herb seeds. Among these are pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa), a perennial native milkweed that grows 30 to 40 inches high and bears bright orange blooms attractive to butterflies, and Baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), a 1- to 2-foot perennial member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) with small, orchidlike purple flowers. Ten of these medicinal seed varieties are produced from organically grown plants, according to Janika Eckert of Johnny’s research and production department. Johnny’s is also a source for the new purple basil Osmin (O. ‘Osmin’), which resembles O. ‘Dark Opal’ but is exceptionally pure, according to Eckert, with less than 1 percent off-types.
• Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, known for its unusual and tasty European vegetable varieties, has recently begun to offer plants of varieties that can’t be grown from seeds. For 1996, the firm is adding some hard-to-find old favorites such as saffron crocus, lemongrass, lemon verbena, and African Blue Basil. A dwarf pineapple sage (S. elegans) may be one of the most adaptable of the new offerings; it is about half the size of the standard pineapple sage–only 2 to 3 feet tall at maturity. Its pineapple-scented leaves are heart-shaped and about 2 1/2 inches long. Bright red flower spikes come into bloom in summer and continue blooming through the fall, according to grower Craig Pierce of Briarwood Nursery in San Martin, California, who grows the sage for Shepherd’s. Both flowers and leaves are edible.
The Shepherd’s catalog, distinguished by a well-rounded collection of interesting basil seeds, has added a green-leaved, anise-flavored Thai basil (probably O. thyrsiflora) with an unusual reddish stem that bursts into a deep red cone-headed flower stalk. This fragrant culinary basil becomes strikingly ornamental as the lavender-and-white flower petals open. Plants are about 20 inches high at flowering, shorter than most other Thai basils on the market today. Another new offering is a narrow-leaved chive from Denmark, A. schoenoprasum ‘Fine Leaf’.
• Companion Plants, 7247 N. Coolville Ridge Rd., Athens, OH 45701. Catalog $3.
• Flowery Branch Seed Co., PO Box 1330, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Catalog $3.
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. Catalog $1.
• The Herbfarm, 32804 Issaquah-Fall City Rd., Fall City, WA 98024. Master plant list $3.50.
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Foss Hill Rd., Albion, ME 04910. Catalog free.
• Logee’s Greenhouses, 1441 North St., Danielson, CT 06239. Catalog $3 (refundable).
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321. Catalog free.
• Premiere Botanicals, 8801 Buena Vista Rd., Albany, OR 97321. Catalog free.
• Redwood City Seed Co., PO Box 26, Redwood City, CA 94064. Catalog $1.
• Richters, 357 Highway 47, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. Catalog free.
• Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, 316 Surrett Cove Rd., Leicester, NC 28748. Catalog $4 (refundable).
• Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790. Catalog free.
• Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Catalog $2.
Tom DeBaggio is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion and the author of Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting and Root (Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1994). He raises herbs in Arlington, Virginia, and is known for his collections of rosemary and lavender.