Wednesday, April 9, 2014

12 Unique Herbs to Try in 2014 - Herb of the Week

In March 2010 I posted a list of five herbs to try in 2010 if you had not tried them before.  They were:
1.     Mexican oregano  (Lippia graveolens)
2.     Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
3.     Ezapote (Dyshania ambrosioides)
4.     Purple Ruffled Basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’)
5.     Tri-color Sage (Salvia officinalis ‘tri-color’)
To read the set of blogs on these great herbs visit my original blog on my website.

This year as I was looking for new plants I might want to try around a home, I strayed from the traditional herbs just a bit, but I thought you might enjoy the 12 unique and interesting plants I discovered on this journey.  If I knew of a grower that supplies these plants I have included it.  Some are more commonly available and should be at your local garden center.

#1 Arugula – Roquette (Eruca sativa) -- syn. E. vesicaria subsp. sativa or Brassica eruca L.)

This is actually an “old” herb gaining new life.  It is known by several sceintfic names including Eruca sativa, but also E. vesicaria subsp. sativa or Brassica eruca L. You can obtain the seed from non-hybrid heirloom seed companies and will often find it under the old name Rocket or Roquette rather than the more recently common arugula.  Thanks to the Food Network and other cooking programs it has regained some of its glory as a salad herb and I am happy to see it.  If you like mixed greens this is a great choice. Arugula can usually be harvested as early as 4 weeks after planting from seed.  The leaves of the Arugula plant add a tangy/peppery flavor to any meal and in addition to use in salads can be a green mixed with spinach for a base for saucy dishes instead of noodles, rice or pasta.

#2 Mandarin Twist Pot Marigold

Park Seed Company has a great new Calendula (Pot marigold) variety that I will be trying this year.  It is called Mandarin Twist Pot Marigold.  You can get 50 seeds for 1.95 which is a great price.  This will add a nice splash of color to a green herb landscape and you get all the medicinal benefits as well.  According to Parks, this is a compact but very well-branched and free-flowering variety with double blooms of deep, rich orange. They stand out brilliantly in any setting, and hold well in garden or vase. Blooming all summer and well into fall on easy-care, floriferous plants, these flowers are a joy!  Remember to give these pants room when planting as they can get 10 inches high and will spread to almost that wide.  Great in a container if you do not overcrowd them early in the season.

#3 Passion Flower 

This is a viney plant with the most glorious flowers.  I have been dying to grow it for several years, but it is not the best container plant and I just did not want to put it out in the production garden where I would never see it (I am at the production garden in the dark a lot.)  It is a climber and will work on a trellis along a sunny wall.  The plant has medicinal properties too.   You use the whole aerial portion.  Friends of mine have  tinctured the leaves and young stems, with some tendrils.  The fruit can be saved for tea and other flavorings.  I posted a blog on Passion flower back in April 2011.

#4 Hot lips red flowering sage (Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips')

This is more of an ornamental salvia rather than a culinary one, but what a great addition to the border or among the perennials. According to Dave’s Garden (an online source I go to for information on hardiness zones and proper names for plants)  the  common name is Autumn Sage scientific name Salvia x jamensis 'Hot Lips' a member of the Lamiaceae family.  However he recognized that a synonym exists calling it  Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips' (Hot Lips Little-leaf Sage) This was the name I first discovered it under and is usually how it is listed in plant catalogs.

Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips' originally located near the Chiapas area of Mexico and was introduced by Richard Turner of the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco, California. This is a very cool looking bi-color salvia bearing red tips and white lips. In the hotter months of summer it may have all red and all white flowers on the same plant due to warmer night temperatures, but when the night temperature drops in the fall the flowers will return to their bi-color state. Great for use in borders and beds.

Considered a wild (yet domesticated) this plant is was supposedly introduced to Richard Turner by his maid, who brought it from her home in Mexico. The fast-growing, 30" tall x 6' wide clump is adorned with stunning bicolor flowers with red tips and white lips...attractive to hummingbirds. When the nights warm in summer, the new flowers are all red with an occasional solid white one. As fall approaches, the flowers again will be bicolored red and white. Even if your school colors aren't red and white, this is truly a "must-have" salvia.  It is hardy in zone 8 to 11, so if you want to grow it in the Midwest, you will need to treat it as an annual (like Pineapple Sage.)

They love a hot, dry spot such as a concrete driveway/sidewalk/or south-facing slope. They can tolerate a bit of moisture, but keeping the soil wet will cause rot.  I found the best price for this plant at Santa Rosa Gardens in California, but I would make sure you talk to them before ordering if you live in the Midwest as a shipping time would be critical.

I have to admit that although I grow black stem peppermint and a fuzzy species of spearmint in my production garden but I have never been a fan of most mint plants, even the flavored ones like Chocolate Mint and Ginger Mint.  However this year I discovered an article by Jim Long discussing mints and discovered a hybridizer named Jim Westerfield from Freeeburg, Illinois (about 5 hours south of me near St. Louis.)   His hybrid mint plants are totally unique and the scents are worth experimenting with.  Here were two I think are worth checking into.

#5 Jim’s Candy Lemon Lime Mint 

A hybrid mint created by Jim Westerfield of Freeburg, Illinois.  This is a cross of lemon and lime mint that is the perfect flavor for me a lover of all things lemon! The leaf margins have a reddish tinge giving them a unique look for a mint. Hardy in zones 4 to 11 it is easy to grow and likes almost any soil. I like anything lemon, so this is at the top of my “to try” list for 2014. 

# 6 Italian Spice Mint 

Another hybrid of Jim Westerfield of Freeburg, IL this mint has hints of oregano and marjoram.  The craftsman says it reminds him of the spicy aroma of the Italian grocery store he worked in as a child.  A savory mint, this can be added to butter, roasted garlic and cream then tossed with angel hair pasta.  It is an excellent pasta seasoning and considered excellent in any Italian dish.  This one looks more like a traditional mint, making it a garden surprise for anyone who touches it as the mint scent is very faint.  Hardy in zones 4 to 11, like all mints it will do well in most soil types.  It does require full sun.

FYI you can get Jim Westerfield’s hybrid mints from and

#7 White Anise Hyssop (Agastache Foeniculum ‘snow spike’) has a has a white Anise hyssop called snow spike that is worth adding to your garden.  Anise Hyssop is a large showy herb with a great scent and wonderful ability to attract pollinators.  Bees, especially bumble bees love it.  I have always grown the traditional blue Anise hyssop, but when I was crafting a moon garden I decided this plant with white flowers would be a great accent in the silver leaf border I was creating.  Check it out yourself!

Agastache Foeniculum 'Snow Spike' has tall flower spikes that are full of white little flowers that bloom at different times. The white Anise Hyssop plant usually reaches 24 inches in height.  The licorice-like scent is soothing and refreshing in tea.  The flowers are very nice for cutting and adding to fresh flower arrangements. Growing Hyssop from seed is easy and rewarding. Anise Hyssop seeds can be directly started outdoors in a prepared seedbed. Press the herb seeds into the soil but do not cover them. The white Hyssop plant is not picky about the soil, but it does prefer to be in full sun to partial shade.

# 8 Nettle

Nettle is an under grown herb.  Although since it can cause contact dermatitis in its natural plant state, I understand why.  However, once cut and dried or cooked the sting is removed and the plant has many medicinal qualities.  The pretty white flowers of Devil's Nettle (Achillea var. m.) make it a pretty addition to an herb garden (avoid this if you have small children in your garden or skin sensitivities.)  I keep my nettle plants in a separate bed so that I am properly suited-up before harvesting.  It likes drier conditions so you can grow it in a rock garden. A tea made from this herb is useful for stomach ailments. The tea is also good for severe colds. Craft the tea by boiling 1 ounce of dried leaves with one pint of water and sweetening with honey. A hardy perennial for zones 5-10 you can easily grow this plant in the Midwest.  You can pick up the seeds for this plant at 

# 9 Sweet Annie (Artemisa annua

With the herb of the year being Artemesia, I had to put at least one Artemesia plant in my list.  Sweet Annie is an excellent multi use herb for all gardens. A graceful and sweetly fragrant annual with tall stems 4'-7' tall, with fine bright green ferny foliage. Though most often grown for fresh and dried arrangements and wreath making (it holds color and fragrance very well) it also makes a graceful accent in the back of a flowerbed or a pretty quick screen, especially behind other container plantings. "Sweet Annie" has a wide variety of uses both medicinal and for handcrafting and makes a nice addition to potpourri and sachets.

This is a tall ferny green plant that grows to over seven feet high and four feet wide in one year! Excellent for back borders or any area that you want to give a tropical look and feel. Sweet Annie has thick strong woody stems and branches out like a shrub. The flowers are tiny and olive green and can't really be seen unless you look hard. However Sweet Annie is grown for its foliage and mostly for its lovely aromatic scent which can fill the whole garden when the breeze rustles it branches. It has been used for centuries in its dried form in wreaths and other aroma projects.  Sweet Annie is one of the best natural air fresheners around. Have an aroma you want to get rid of? Just wave a sprig of Sweet Annie in the air and it freshens the whole area with a sweet appealing smell eliminating anything else. Don't use air fresheners with unknown chemical ingredients use a natural herb to do the work for you. The plant dries very well and the will last for years all you have to do is gently move a piece and the aroma bursts forth. It is excellent for use in wreaths and other aroma projects. 

#10 Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium)

This plant is a must for anyone suffering from migraine headaches. It will not cure migraines, but as long as the herb is taken regularly it will keep them from coming back as often. Feverfew inhibits blood clotting and is beneficial for persons with cardiovascular diseases. Take after consulting with a physician. Make a tea by boiling two teaspoons of dried leaves per cup of water and let steep for 15 minutes. This perennial plant hearty in zones 5 to 9 and will grow best in full sun.

I found this plant during my research into good herbs and plants to grow on the farm (we intend to have sheep and I was researching ways that having sheep could benefit my herb garden.)  Pasturing sheep on mint makes a manure that is very good for herbs by the way!  This plant popped up as a protein alternative for range animals.  I use it with my “Prairie Pile.”  I worked many years as a volunteer at a Prairie restoration and as a result I collected seeds (accidentally mostly) on my clothing.  I tossed all these into a compost mound on the corner of my herb garden property and now have an interesting pile of native prairie plants.  I added this one to the pile when I had a chance to get a live plant. 

#11 Wild Bergamot  or Wild Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)

This wildflower in the mint family (Lamiaceae) is widespread and abundant as a native plant in much of North America. It is perennial with bright lavender blooms and a spicy scent. Used by Native Americans to soothe bronchial complaints and ease colds.  Bees love it and are attracted to it.  It is an herbaceous perennial that grows from slender creeping rhizomes, thus commonly occurring in large clumps. The plants are typically up to 3 ft tall, with a few erect branches. Its leaves are about 2-3 in long, lance-shaped, and toothed. Its compact purple flower clusters are solitary at the ends of branches. Each cluster is about 1.5 in (4 cm) long, containing about 20–50 flowers. The light purple color of the flowers is a great foil to the traditional Bergamot which is deep red. Wild bergamot often grows in rich soils in dry fields, thickets, and clearings, usually on limy soil. The plants generally flower from June to September.

Monarda fistulosa ranges from Quebec to the Northwest Territories and British Columbia, south to Georgia and Texas.  My interest in it started because it is considered a medicinal plant by many Native Americans including the Menominee, the Ojibwe, and the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk). It was used most commonly to treat colds, and was frequently made into a tea.  Native who grow medicinal plants do rely on it  during the cold and flu season. The tea may be sweetened with honey, as it tends to be quite strong.

#12 Italian Everlasting  or Curry Plant (Helichrysum italicum

As the name suggests, the narrow, silvery-grey leaves of this splendid, dense, dwarf sub-shrub, growing to 2 feet tall by 3 feet wide, smell strongly of curry. 

Though the leaves are edible, it is really not used for cooking, rather for its ornamental appeal and the essential oil derived from the plant.   An easy to care for perennial that prefers poor soil and will thrive in rock gardens and xeriscapes. It is hardy only to zone 8 but is not considered  frost tender, so I think one could grow it in a container or a sheltered place and have it last well into the fall, but I would still treat it as an annual.  It features clusters of yellow blooms in Summer  that retain their color after picking and are used in dried flower arrangements.  The plant is the source for the famous Helichrysum Essential Oil. The plant produces an oil from its blossoms which are used for medicinal purposes. It is anti-inflammatory, fungicidal, and astringent. It soothes burns and raw chapped skin. It is used as a fixative in perfumes and has an intense fragrance.

Bonus Plant –

Illinois Bundle flower (Desmanthus illinoensis) Another good drought tolerant plant (can you tell I have not had the rain I wanted the last two growing seasons!?) This one prospers in meadows, roadsides, and tall grass prairie plantings. It produces fruit in the form of dark-brown clusters of pods. Due to it being high in protein, it is readily eaten by livestock and wildlife. Fixes high amounts of nitrogen in the soil and can rejuvenate worn-out soil. It also attracts bees, butterflies and birds.

Illinois bundleflower is rated by some authorities as our most important native legume and is included in range revegetation programs since the species is readily eaten by livestock. The seeds contain 38 percent protein on a dry weight basis, which compares favorably with soybeans.  Seeds are desirable for wild birds. The plant is considered a nutritious and palatable browse for wildlife.  Pawnee Indians used leaf tea as wash for itching. Hopi used seeds placed in eye for conjunctivitis.  A perennial growing to 3-6 ft. tall with cream colored flowers. Hardy to zone 5 this plant has fern-like foliage. To reduce moisture loss, the compound leaves fold together at night, and they close partially during hot sunny days During the morning and evening, when sunlight is less intense, the compound leaves orient themselves in the direction of the sun in order to maximize the reception of its light. 

You can get quality seed for this plant from Prairie Moon Nursery located in southwest Minnesota. They specialize in Prairie plants of the Midwest and originated here in Illinois!

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