Mother Earth Living

Tired of the Same Old Plants?

The pleasure of an herb garden grows with every
new plant that finds a home there. I’m continually surprised by the
variety of herbs available today, by mail order and in local garden
centers. The many promising plants introduced in recent years can
contribute much to garden design, with innovations in foliage
colors, flower hue or subtle distinctions of scent. Some new
varieties feature different growth habits that are variations on a
theme — more vigorous or more compact, for instance — for some of
our favorite herbs. Below are some plants I’ve discovered recently
that are worth checking out.

Agastache ‘Apricot Sprite’

Zone 6

This new plant, a relative of anise hyssop (Agastache
foeniculum), is a compact grower, reaching about 2 feet. Its
flowers are reddish-apricot with a long blooming season (late July
to heavy frost). The edible flowers attract hummingbirds and
butterflies and lend a minty taste to salads. The leaves also are
fragrant with a hint of peppermint. The plant does best in full sun
with good drainage.

Laurus Nobilis ‘Sunspot’

Part sun
Zone 7

A slower-growing cultivar of sweet bay, this plant has
attractive randomly gold-variegated leaves; its color is especially
pronounced in spring and fall. Although harder to find, ‘Sunspot’
has the unusual, attractive feature of developing long red lines
along mature wood in the summertime and can reach 4 to 6 feet in
three to four years. Its culinary uses are the same as regular
sweet bay. To preserve the beautiful variegation, diligently remove
any branches that revert to green. Plant this bay in well-drained
soil with shelter from frost and cold.

Melissa Offinalis ‘Compacta’

Sun/part shade
Zone 6

Lemon balm is known for its abundant (sometimes troublesome)
reseeding — a problem this cultivar handily solves. ‘Compacta’
doesn’t flower and therefore doesn’t set seed, but its dark-green
leaves offer the same delicious lemon fragrance found in the rest
of the family. This low-growing evergreen plant, which comes from a
breeder in Scotland, reaches about 12 inches, with a compact growth
habit that makes it ideal for containers or small garden areas.
Like its larger counterpart, ‘Compacta’ is fairly hardy and prefers
moist soil.

Ocimum Selloi

Shade to part sun
Zone 9

This plant, related to the common culinary basil (O. basilicum),
was discovered in Mexico several years ago. It has dark-green,
somewhat serrated foliage with an unusual scent, more like that of
green peppers than the familiar sweet basil, which makes it less
useful in the kitchen but interesting nonetheless. The scent and
flavor will send your nose and tastebuds wondering, and you’ll find
it an outstanding addition to dishes like salsa, soup and anything
else you imagine might be improved by a slight green pepper kick.
Growing to about 2 feet, it has terminal spikes of tiny purple
flowers. It sets seed in my Oregon greenhouse, and it appears to be
a short-lived perennial. This unusual herb would be a good
container plant, especially in the warmer climates of the United
States. (For more on this herb, see “Herb to Know” on Page 52.)

Rumex Sanguineus

Sun/part shade
Zone 6

By no means new, but surely a promising addition to your
landscape, this herb has long, dark-green leaves with pronounced
blood-red veining. It is a hardy evergreen plant that makes an
upright clump of showy foliage about 12 inches tall, reminiscent of
Swiss chard. It flowers in June and July, producing panicles of
tiny pinkish to white flowers. Unless you want to collect seed,
encourage more foliage production by cutting back the flowers when
they appear. The new leaves have a spinach flavor and may be used
in salad, and the older, tougher leaves make an attractive garnish.
Full sun can scorch and toughen the leaves, so keep this plant in
partial sun with moist soil.

Symphytum Uplandicum ‘Axminster Gold’

Part shade
Zone 6

For a bold accent in the herb garden, try this new comfrey,
‘Axminster Gold’. Originated in England, this cultivar is more
vigorous than the silver variegated form (S. ¥uplandicum
‘Variegatum’), producing huge, narrow green leaves with large
margins of brilliant gold. This elegant, dominating landscape plant
forms a large, dense mound, eventually reaching a height of 5 feet.
In May, it flowers on 2- to 3-foot flower stems with blue,
bell-shaped flowers. Give it a bit of shade, as the leaves tend to
burn in full sun. It prefers a rich, somewhat moist soil. This
hardy perennial has deep roots, so be mindful where you plant it.
If it becomes too vigorous, cut back the plant severely, which also
will renew its gold variegation. As with other comfreys, it will
die back to the ground and go dormant in winter. The best means of
propagation is with stem cuttings because plant division may result
in both green and variegated plants.

Zingiber ‘Midnight’

Part sun
Zone 7

A spectacular departure from common ginger (Z. officinale), this
plant, whose species has not yet been identified, has chocolate
brown foliage. A clumping plant about 12 inches tall, it is lovely
when backlit, when the sun brings out a reddish tone from the brown
leaves. This is definitely an exciting new container plant for
warmer climates. As with other gingers, it needs warm temperatures
and humid air, with well-drained soil to keep the rhizomes from

Andrew Van Hevelingen is a frequent contributor to The Herb
Companion and enjoys writing, photography and gardening at his
Newberg, Oregon, home.

  • Published on Feb 1, 2004
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