Miniature Herbs

| April/May 1993

Imagine a small child hunched motionless over a plant, peering through the foliage at a tiny bug as it treks over the shaded ground below. To a child, the tiniest variation in ­terrain becomes colossal as the bug traverses dirt clods large and small, a fallen twig, and seemingly impenetrable vegetation; even a miniature herb plant can appear ­gigantic.

Miniature herbs fascinate me. Like that child, I often find myself hunched over some tiny specimen, spellbound by the precision of nature’s scale, feeling as though I’m looking through a telescope the wrong way. I believe this fascination is my inspiration for growing miniature herbs; sometimes I think it’s a prerequisite, along with a little patience in locating the plants.

Finding Miniature Herbs

Miniature herbs can be elusive; not all herb nurseries stock them. Nurseries specializing in alpine or rock garden plants are often good sources. (The mail-order nurseries on page 54 carry a selection of the herbs mentioned here.) Be prepared to ask for these plants by their Latin names, because many have no common name or may not be listed by common name.

You’ll find miniature herbs in only a few public gardens, usually in a raised bed or rockery. The Edinburgh (Scotland) Botanical Garden’s excellent collection of Origanum species, noted for its dittany of Crete, is displayed in a rockery constructed conveniently at waist level. Most miniatures, however, are just too small to be fully appreciated or even viewed by a large audience. Because of the special attention needed to display them effectively, you’ll most likely find them in private gardens or an occasional herb nursery, often grouped in a trough or raised bed that’s separate from the main garden.

Your own collection of miniature herbs might begin with a specimen plant grown in a pot or container. That’s the way mine started. I took these garden misfits—those out of scale with the rest of the herb garden—and placed them in their own ­little world, creating lilliputian landscapes in broad terra-cotta planters. These have rewarded me and others with countless hours of enjoyment. Of course, not all of the miniature herbs mentioned here will stay in a terra-cotta planter; though small, some grow quite vigorously.

The Miniature Herbs

My first specimen was Blue Boy rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Blue Boy’). Its form is unique among the prostrate rosemaries because, although its branches are contorted like those of other prostrate forms, it is extremely compact and its small foliage is very dense along the branchlets. I had trouble placing it in the herb garden because it was so small—only 7 by 15 inches—that visitors and resident dogs frequently stepped on it. It’s less hardy than most other prostrate rosemary varieties, and it would die back every winter, perhaps because its dense foliage retains moisture and later freezes or is more susceptible to disease. My stock plants in the greenhouse always were superior in growth, health, and appearance. I heartily recommend this herb for growing indoors as a topiary or bonsai subject. With good blue flowers amid 1/2-inch-long needlelike leaves, it makes a beautiful specimen plant, and its ­culinary usefulness is a bonus.

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