Herbal Garden Plants and Shrubs

A dozen favorites of a Northern plant lover

| August/September 1998

  • Yellowroot in the fall
    Photography by Rita Buchanan
  • These tidy, yellow-gold shrubs are ‘Aureal’ American arborvitac.
  • Bearberry—the darker, lower-growing plant—­ mingles with lingonberry in the author’s garden.
  • Cranberries peek out from a pine-needle mulch.
  • On a cloudy day in early spring, the branches of this willow are still bare but colorful.
    Photography by Rita Buchanan
  • Witch hazel flowers, always a silly surprise
  • Bayberry
  • An elder in full fruit
    Photography by Rita Buchanan
  • This is crampbark, an elder relative.
  • ‘Emerald’ American arborvitae

Visitors who know I grow herbs are often surprised to discover that I don’t have a traditional herb garden. I have no neatly defined area divided into geometric beds with clipped edgings. My herbs are dispersed throughout the garden. Parsley, dill, basil, and other culinary herbs mix with the vegetables while lavender, sage, bee balm, and agastaches bloom in the flower beds. There’s mint by the brook, thyme for a lawn, and potted herbs on the porch and deck. My favorite herbs, though—the ones I’m most eager to point out and recommend—are the herbal shrubs and trees that surround our property and form the framework of every bed and border.

I love the woody herbs year-round but especially from October through May, when the tops of the perennial herbaceous herbs have died down to the ground and annuals are long gone. When bee balm and basil are just a memory here in Connecticut, herbal shrubs and trees—even deciduous ones, but especially the evergreen kinds—add size, shape, color, and texture to my garden. Several of the woody herbs bloom and leaf out in spring before any herbaceous perennials amount to much. Some have glorious foliage or bright berries in fall.

When I look at an herbal shrub, I see more than just a pretty bush—I see a story, a connection, a heritage, an opportunity. Although their usefulness is often overlooked or forgotten today, their leaves, bark, fruits, wood, roots, and sap have provided seasonings for food and beverages, fragrances, dyes, gums and resins, soothing and stimulating teas, a variety of medicinal compounds, and raw materials for basketry and other crafts. Even if you never actually harvest anything from your herbal shrubs, knowing that they could be used makes them more interesting and valuable, I think, than shrubs that are merely decorative.

Scores of shrubs have herbal connections. There are candidates for all climates and growing conditions, ranging in height from creeping ground covers to tall trees. For this article, I’ll skip roses, boxwood, rosemary, bay, and many other traditional favorites to concentrate on some less familiar herbal shrubs.

Except where noted, the plants described below are hardy to Zone 4 and grow well across the northern United States. Most are native to eastern North America and were widely used by both Native Americans and European settlers.


Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) spreads slowly by its vivid yellow underground rhizomes. Tea brewed from the rhizomes was a traditional remedy for colds, liver and menstrual disorders, and other ailments. Large doses can be toxic, so use care if you use this plant at all.

5/18/2015 2:16:48 PM

i like to grow harbs. coriander , rosemary fennel and many more.

5/18/2015 2:12:20 PM

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