New Herbs for Your 1996 Garden

Sow some dreams with this year’s catalog crop

| February/March 1996

  • Tuberous nasturtium
    Photograph by Carrie Van Dyck
  • Rose geranium–scented bee balm
    Photograph by Andy Van Hevelingen
  • Silver Frost lavender
    Photograph by Andy Van Hevelingen
  • Profusion Chives
    Photograph by David Cavagnaro
  • Forever Gold statice
    Photograph by Dean Pailler

  • West African basil
    Photograph courtesy of Richters

As surely as the heavy, exhausted heads of fennel shower the fall garden with sweet seeds, the winter winds blow in a fresh crop of herb seed and plant catalogs. This year, their tempting pages contain a large crop of new herb introductions for the culinary, medicinal, and ornamental herb gardener. In some cases, these new herb seeds and plants are the result of worldwide prospecting, but a number of small companies continue to contribute their own introductions to the steady flow of new plant material to charm the gardener with fresh scents and pleasing forms. The catalogs this year feature fresh faces as well as familiar herbs that breeders have refined to produce better flavor or growth habits. The International Herb Association’s herb of the year, bee balm, is also represented with new varieties.

The new delights in garden catalogs remind me annually that there are few places outside the garden where giving in to temptation and self-indulgence is so acceptable and amply rewarded for such a small investment. Here’s a rundown, by no means exhaustive, of some catalogs that have interested me this year.

• The arrival each winter of Richters’ catalog is new evidence that Conrad Richter loves traveling in search of herbs as much as did his late father, Otto. The catalog has always been a treasure trove of new, unusual, and hard-to-find herbs, and lately the pace of discovery has accelerated. West African basil (Ocimum gratissimum), from Ghana, is one such find. It’s a large-leaved species that is used throughout Africa to treat fevers, malaria, and diarrhea.

Richters’ program to improve old favorites of the herb garden has produced Profusion sorrel (Rumex ‘Sterile’), which is seedless and bears tender foliage over a longer period than other varieties; Elixir St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum ‘Medizinal’), with higher-than-normal levels of the antiviral hypericin, which Richter says has made it a subject for investigation as an AIDS treatment; and Profusion chives (Allium schoenoprasum ‘Sterile’), with abundant foliage and long-lasting edible flowers that form no seeds. The company has seed collection projects in Nepal, India, Ghana, and Mexico.

Richters searches abroad for improved varieties, many of which have been developed for field production and should provide home gardeners with higher yields and more flavor. Recent additions to the catalog include a German cham­omile (Matricaria recutita ‘Bodegold’), a summer savory (Satureja hortensis ‘Aromata’), a garden sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Extrakta’), and a valerian (Valeriana ­officinalis ‘Anthos’).

A compact, mildew-resistant bee balm (Monarda ‘Petite Delight’) is a new introduction from Agriculture Canada. Only 10 to 12 inches high with showy pink flowers, it was developed by the Manitoba research station’s prolific monarda breeder, H. H. Marshall.

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