Down to Earth: Earning Their Keep

| April/May 1996

  • Lime Balm
    Illustration by Michael Eagleton

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.

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