Herb Gardening for Beginners

Identifying Unknown Herbs

| December/January 1998

  • Illustration by Gayle Ford

Question: We just moved to a new state and bought a house with a nice, big yard. The previous owners apparently loved plants, and I’m intrigued by one brick-edged bed that the Realtor pointed out as an herb garden. I’d like to restore it, but it’s sort of weedy, and I can’t tell what’s what, as none of the plants are labeled. How can I identify the herbs and learn what they’re good for?

Answer: The quickest solution might be to contact the previous owners, explain your interest and ask them to stop by and help you get started. They might be delighted to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. If that’s out of the question, you can still proceed.

Early spring is a great time to get started. First, buy a basic illustrated reference book. Next, visit garden centers and nurseries in your vicinity, looking for places that sell herb plants. Also make calls, ask around, and watch the local paper for news of specialty herb nurseries, public herb gardens, institutions that sponsor classes in herb ­gardening, or garden clubs or study groups devoted to herbs. Take a class, attend herb-related events, and join a club. You’ll meet folks who enjoy herbs and can share information and ideas with you.

Start poking around in the garden as soon as the weather is nice enough to work outdoors. Like a good detective, collect as many clues as possible to identify your mystery herbs. The main categories of evidence are smell, the overall size and appearance of the plants (including dead stalks left over from last year), and details such as the shape and color of the leaves. Later in the season, you’ll look at flowers, too.

Smell is very useful in identifying herbs. You can recognize such popular herbs as mint, lemon balm, chives, oregano, thyme, catnip, lavender and rosemary simply by rubbing and then smelling their leaves or stalks. Even if you can’t name them, plan to save any plants that smell good to you. Plants that don’t smell at all might be weeds; if you suspect that they are, pull them out now and throw them away. If you find a plant that really stinks, wait to throw it away until you’ve identified it. Be gentle in disturbing the garden’s soil; dormant herbs may lie beneath it, waiting until later in the spring to begin growing.

Next, compare your unknown plants to the photos in your reference book. Can you make a match? Check the written descriptions for more information about each herb’s looks, mature size, whether it stays evergreen or dies back in winter, and so on. Identifying herbs this way is tricky because plants often don’t look like their pictures: the photo may have been taken at a different season or may show a plant that’s younger or older than yours.

Still stumped? Pick a leafy stem from a plant that you’re trying to identify, take it to a nursery that sells herbs, and ask for help from the staff. You may be allowed to compare its fragrance and appearance to the plants you find there (nurseries are wary of potentially unhealthy plants being brought in). Trust smell over looks when making these side-by-side comparisons. The leaves of the potted herbs at the nursery may be larger or smaller, greener or yellower, than those on your sample, but if you find something that smells just like your herb, it’s probably the same kind of plant. Copy its name off the label so you won’t forget.

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