An Expert Discovers New Herbs

| December/January 1998

  • Illustration by Michael Eagleton

I'm always startled when people I encounter at herb conferences look upon me as an old pro. I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface of herbal knowledge. It’s true that I started growing herbs more than twenty-five years ago and built my herb shop and gardens when they were a novelty instead of a mainstream enterprise. I used many herbs in my landscape business. Maybe because I travel and lecture extensively, some folks think I’m an expert, but I always try to explain that we’re all learning as we go along, regardless of years of experience.

These years have taught me a good bit about herbs. My own gardens include more than 400 kinds, in all categories, and I think I know a number of others fairly well, too. I have worked especially hard to learn about the native herbs that have a history of uses in this country and in my own region in particular. I recognize the plants and know their medicinal and culinary uses as well as some history and folklore about each one. I’ve put each herb in my gardens to use as well as many others that I haven’t grown myself.

Recently, however, I was brought up short. My friend Joe’s herb farm is surrounded by lush perennial beds and flowers, but behind those are the real working gardens, four acres of herbs he grows to supply several ethnic restaurants in St. Louis. There are about 100 kinds planted in beds about 10 by 30 feet, divided according to category and growing requirements. And I recognized only one of them.

For two hours, we walked the garden pathways as Joe picked leaves from this plant and that for me to smell and taste. Although I often could identify the family to which a plant belonged, the fragrances and flavors of Joe’s herbs were completely unfamiliar to me. Even when he told me their names, most escaped me in seconds; I wish I’d had a video camera along to record the names and appearance of each herb.

Joe pointed out curry trees, four-year-old woody shrubs, each 4 or 5 feet tall, growing in 7-gallon nursery pots lined up on benches in a shady area. They didn’t seem to belong to any plant family I know. Joe told me that he prunes the 3-inch-long leaves throughout the year. I tasted one—the flavor was of sweet, pungent curry with a hint of lime. “Amazing!” I said, unable to come up with a better description as my taste buds tingled and my mind switched into recipe-and-food gear.

We entered a low, narrow greenhouse. On this scorching August day, the greenhouse felt as steamy as a sauna. Water dripped from the clear plastic covering and quickly soaked our clothes. In the watery beds, I spotted the only plant I recognized during the entire tour. It was Vietnamese coriander (Polygonum odoratum), an herb I grow myself to flavor salsa during the summer, when true cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) has quit growing.

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