Pam Britt discusses her favorite Southern herbs, including a list and description of herbs that will grow best in the South.
Learn about the author's favorite Southern herbs and how they thrive in Southern climates.
Many herbs perform extremely well in our quirky Southern climate. Here in my corner of Zone 8 (Plymouth, North Carolina), the growing season lasts about 195 days; our last frost normally occurs about mid-April, and the first frost of fall comes sometime around the last of October. Wide fluctuations in winter temperature, and tremendous humidity in summer, can cause difficulties for herbs in our area. However, I’ve found the following herbs tough, tolerant, and dependable, and some are a little out of the ordinary, which can add interest to your garden. My favorite Southern herbs reach their peak of bloom late in the season when everything else has begun to fizzle out, and the appearance of those late bloomers is always welcome.
Sometimes called chaste tree because of the ancient reputation that eating its berries secured chastity, vitex (Vitex agnus-castus or V. negundo) is a deciduous tree that grows 10 to 15 feet high. It is fast-growing and relatively free of disease or pest problems, and because it takes well to pruning, it can be kept as a small tree or shrub. Its combination of leaf texture and fragrance are enough to make anyone fall for this tree, and it is spectacular when in bloom. Vitex is somewhat adaptable but prefers low to medium moisture, well-drained soil (especially to prevent winter injury), and full sun.
Every Southern gardener should grow purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Native Americans made more use of its medicinal qualities than we do today, but it’s a sturdy plant with bold character, and I grow it for its ornamental qualities. It is easy to care for, tolerant of heat and drought, and it grows 2 1/2 to 4 feet tall and blooms practically all season with rosy pink daisy-like flowers that are 3 to 4 inches across. Coneflowers do require some deadheading—or better still, cut the flowers and put them in arrangements—and division every three to four years. The plant does best in well drained, sandy, loamy soil and a sunny location.
The brilliant red flowers of this late-blooming sage (Salvia elegans) are a welcome sight in the fall. Pineapple sage is a shrubby perennial, relatively easy to grow although not very drought tolerant. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall, and its fruity-scented foliage actually smells like pineapple. In my area, it dies back in the winter but usually comes back. Besides its ornamental qualities, pineapple sage can be used as a garnish with desserts or in drinks and is popular as a potpourri herb.
Sometimes called herb myrtle or sweet myrtle, Myrtus communis is an interesting evergreen shrub with a sweet, spicy fragrance. Some gardeners protect myrtle in winter, but for the past few years, our winters have been mild, and the myrtle has come through without major setbacks. It does exceptionally well in containers, so it can easily be brought in for the winter and is a good choice for topiary. The leaves are a glossy dark green and can be used in cooking or potpourri. Flowers, which appear from midsummer to fall, are white to cream with yellow stamens, and can be eaten in salads. They are followed by small black berries that can be ground and used as a spice. The plant likes full sun, and well-drained soil is important. Pruning helps promote new growth and keeps the plant healthy and bushy.
When many plants have peaked and faded, the garden is graced with the star-shaped white flowers of garlic chives (Allium tuberosum). This is a tidy, evergreen plant, relatively maintenance-free except for deadheading, which should be done as the seeds turn from green to black—unless you desire a mass of garlic chives the following year. The plant can tolerate a variety of soil, moisture, and light conditions. For me, they have done well in dry, sandy soil under hot conditions, and in containers that received partial shade and moderately moist conditions. Garlic chives are also a nice addition to a number of foods, including herb butters and a sprinkle on meat just before it’s removed from the grill.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) grows well in the South and provides height, color, and an intriguing texture in the garden, bed, or border. The bronze-leaved variety is particularly attractive as a contrast to the many green herbs. This light, airy perennial grows quickly to 3 to 5 feet tall and begins producing golden yellow, flat-topped flower heads in midsummer. Fennel grows best with full sun and moderate moisture, and can tolerate hot, dry conditions. Well-drained soil is a must. The parsley worm, larva of the swallowtail butterfly, loves to snack on fennel, but pest and disease problems are otherwise minimal. The plant takes well to pruning but is easily shocked by root disturbance. If you do need to transplant it, cut it back when doing so, and it will come back; just be patient. All parts of the plant are edible
Evening primrose (Oenthera biennis) is often considered a wildflower, and its use in the landscape is more in naturalized areas, borders, or meadows than in the formal garden. It self-seeds readily, so you needn’t be concerned with planting new plants so much as with removing what you don’t need. Any necessary transplanting should be done early in the season. Plants vary in height from 2 to 4 feet, and may even reach 6 feet; early plants are usually taller. The 3-inch flowers are a clear, bright yellow and bloom all summer long, opening in the evening and closing in midmorning. Right about dusk, if you watch closely, you can actually see each shiny yellow petal flit open.
The perennial moonflower (Datura meteloides), also called angel’s trumpet, is a cousin to jimsonweed or thornapple, and is a real conversation piece. Although it is extremely poisonous, it is popular for its large, showy, trumpet-shaped white flowers, 4 inches across and 8 inches long, which open late in the day and face upward toward the sky. Their pleasing citrusy aroma is greatest if the plant is somewhat enclosed, against a wall or fence or in a corner. The flower lasts only a day or so, but is followed by many others, and after each bloom fades, a thorny pod forms which is loaded with seed. The large deep green leaves provide a handsome background for the beautiful white flowers. Moonflower is not hard to grow, but it needs plenty of space, reaching up to 4 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet across. It has been known to grow in sandy soil and full sun, but the blossoms seem to hold up better in partial shade. It poses little if any disease or pest problems and blooms all summer up until frost.
Pam Britt operates the herb nursery at Askew’s Farm in Plymouth, North Carolina.
• Learn more about growing herbs in the South: Southern Herb Gardening.
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