Green Patch: Grow Exotic-Tasting Herbs

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The peel of makrut lime is popular in Asian curries, but watch out: The juice is quite bitter.

Q. I want to expand my culinary herb garden with plants that will lend an exotic flavor in the kitchen. Which herbs do you recommend?

A. For herbs that excite the senses with a taste of the exotic, try lemongrass, lemon verbena, pineapple sage and makrut lime. Look for plants at select farmers’ markets, garden centers, specialty catalogs or online stores.

With the exception of lemongrass, these tropical-tasting herbs benefit from an occasional to frequent pruning of branch tips–in other words, snipping of fresh sprigs–to encourage more leaf production. Often grown as annuals, they are all marginally hardy, though they thrive in containers. You can overwinter them as potted plants indoors.

Makrut Lime (Citrus hystrix)

Native to Thailand, this small, shrubby tree bears green lime-sized, bumpy-skinned fruit. You need two genetically diverse plants for cross-pollination to ensure fruiting. Also known as Kaffir lime, although this term is best avoided because it is an Afrikaner slur.

Growing conditions: Best in full sun to light shade and moist, well-drained soil; protect from hard freezes. Zone 9.

Culinary tips: The juice is bitter, but the strongly flavored peel is sought after in many Asian dishes, especially curries. Use the intensely flavored leaves to
season broth, soups and stews as you would bay leaves, removing them before serving. Thinly slice tender leaves for use in salads, stir-fries and curries.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)

The grassy lime-green to bluish-green stalks of this 3- to 5-foot-tall tender perennial grow as densely tufted clumps.

Growing conditions: Best grown in full sun and rich, well-drained soil with ample moisture. Zone 9.

Culinary tips: The tough outer leaves lend a citrusy flavor to broths, soups and stews–just remove them before serving. Chop or mince the tender inner stalks and plump white bases and add to curries, stir-fries, salads, chicken, poultry or seafood dishes.

Lemon Verbena (Aloysia triphylla)

Perhaps no other herb can appease the true lemon lover like lemon verbena can. This deciduous woody shrub to bushy, tender perennial grows 3 to 5 feet in cooler climates; 10 to 15 feet tall in frost-free regions of the South.

Growing conditions: Prefers rich and moderately moist, well-drained soil in full sun. The roots can be hardy down to 20 degrees if heavily mulched and grown in a protected area. Zone 8.

Culinary tips: Use fresh or dried leaves in teas and beverages; salads and fruit dishes; salad dressings and marinades; and baked goods and desserts. Lemon verbena brightens the flavor of fish and chicken.

Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans)

This mostly herbaceous subshrub grows from 3 to 5 feet tall and features brilliant green, slightly hairy pineapple-scented leaves and red, trumpet-shaped flower spikes from summer until frost.  

Growing conditions: Plants thrive in full sun and rich, well-drained soil, but appreciate some shade in hot summer areas. Pineapple sage prefers more moisture and nitrogen than most other species of sage. Zone 9, but can be grown a zone or two lower if you cut back the plant in late fall and cover the soil with a thick layer of winter mulch.

Culinary tips: Use fresh or dried leaves with foods that are enhanced by the light tropical flavor of pineapple, such as fruit salads, jams and jellies–or to heighten the flavor of cheeses and desserts. 

Kris Wetherbee grows herbs in western Oregon. She is a contributing editor for The Herb Companion.

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