Photo by Benée Curtis
• Latin name: Laurus nobilis
• Culinary tip: Bay leaves can be included in a bouquet garni for extra flavor and added to soups, stews, casseroles, and sauces. The leaves can also be added to pickling solutions, boiling water for shrimp, crab, and other seafood, and used in marinades for meat and fish. Remember the leaf is used for flavor only and should not be eaten.
• Growing tip: Sweet bay trees should be planted in well drained soil with generous amounts of compost. The trees can be kept smaller if grown in a container, which allows the gardener to bring the tree indoors or to a sheltered location during cold temperatures. Growing a bay tree from cuttings or air layering is the common form of propagation. Cuttings should be taken in late summer and set into a soil-less medium. Air layering requires the gardener to wound the tree, and pack it with sphagnum moss until roots form in the wound. The stem or branch can then be cut off and planted.
• Health Benefits: Bay is a powerful antioxidant. It is a traditional remedy for the symptoms of arthritis.
• Folklore: According to Greek mythology, when a beautiful river nymph named Daphne was trying to escape from the passionate Apollo, her father saved her by turning her into the first bay laurel tree. Forever after, Apollo wore a crown of her leaves to remember and honor her. The laurel wreath became a cultural symbol that we still recognize today. The title of “poet laureate” honors great poets and graduating students receive the baccalaureate degree.
In the Middle Ages, bay leaves were believed to repel witchcraft. Pots of bay were placed in front of doorways to thwart evil spells and curses. A bay tree nearby was also believed to prevent a house from being struck by lightning. People even swept their doorsteps of the footprints of unwanted guests, then rubbed them with bay laurel to prevent them from returning. On a romantic note, lovers would split a single bay leaf, each keeping half, as they vowed to remain faithful and to see each other again.
• Latin name: Foeniculum vulgare
• Culinary tip: Fennel is an aromatic herb. The fennel bulb is versatile, in that it can be shredded and added to salads, braised with meat, or pureed into soups. The stalks that resemble celery stalks also have culinary uses. Try them raw in green salads or cook them down like an onion for stir-fry or pasta.
• Growing tip: There are two methods of propagation for fennel. Plants may be divided, but this is not easy, and the results are unsatisfactory because fennel has a long tap root that does not like to be divided or moved. Planting fennel by seed is much easier. Seed can be sown as soon as the soil warms in the spring. Soaking your seeds for a day or two before sowing will ensure better germination. Keep the area moist until the seeds sprout and thin the fennel plants to 12 to 18 inches apart when they are 4 to 6 inches tall. Plants will begin flowering about 90 days after planting.
• Health Benefits: Fennel seeds are said to aid in digestion. Chew them after a meal or drink fennel seed tea.
• Folklore: Fennel played a crucial role in the ancient Greek’s understanding of how civilization began. When the Greek Titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to man, he hid the burning ember within the hollow stalk of a fennel plant.
Fennel’s Greek name is marathon, which means "grow thin" and reflects the belief that fennel suppresses the appetite. The town of Marathon, site of the famous battle between the Athenians and the Persians, means "place of fennel". After the battle, the Athenians used woven fennel stalks as a symbol of victory.
Later, British farmers rubbed the blades of their plows with a mixture of fennel seeds, soap, and salt believing this would strengthen the land and encourage better harvests. Fennel seeds were thrown at newlyweds instead of rice, also to encourage fertility.
Fennel was hung from the rafters in medieval homes to bring good luck and protect against the devil, witchcraft, and other evil influences. When inserted into keyholes, fennel seeds were thought to protect a dwelling from ghosts.
Flat Leaf Parsley
Photo by Susan Gail Wood
• Latin name: Anethum graveolens
• Culinary tip: Dill has an herbaceous flavor and is part of the celery family; every part of the dill plant is edible. Pairs well with fish, pickled vegetables, light salads, creamy dressing, and egg dishes. Best added at the end of cooking to maintain a stronger flavor.
• Growing tip: The best and easiest way to grow dill is directly from seeds. Dill planting is simply done by scattering the seeds in the desired location after the last frost, and lightly cover the seeds with soil. Water the area thoroughly. Dill grows best in full sun. It will grow happily in either poor or rich soil and in damp or dry conditions.
• Folklore: To the medieval mind, dill had the power to bring about good as well as evil. Witches, it was said, included dill in their magic brews, but luckily, a bunch of dill either worn or hung by the door would deflect any evil intentions. Even if a witch had cast a spell, drinking a special drink containing dill leaves would protect the intended victim. The dried seed heads were also hung above cradles to protect babies from harm.
Dill was also useful in romance. It was often added to love potions and aphrodisiacs to make them more effective, and German and Belgian brides could either wear dill on their gown or carry it in their bouquets to ensure happiness and good fortune in their marriage.
Photo by Benée Curtis
• Latin name: Origanum majorana
• Culinary tip: Marjoram is in the same family as oregano; it has a lighter flavor with citrus tones. Fresh marjoram is usually added at the end of cooking to keep its flavor. Dried marjoram is better with herb blends (sachet) braises, stews and in marinades. Either dry or fresh, cooking with marjoram is best suited to tomato dishes and pizza.
• Growing tip: Marjoram should be grown in areas receiving full sun and light, well-drained soil. Marjoram plants can be grown in containers indoors and treated as houseplants. Established plants require little care, other than occasional watering. Since marjoram is tolerant of drought, it makes an exceptional plant for beginner herb growers. It is hardy enough to basically care for itself. During mild weather, marjoram plants grown indoors can be taken outside and placed in a sunny area. Container-grown plants should be moved indoors or to a sheltered location when cold temperatures or frost is imminent
• Health Benefits: Marjoram contains three antioxidants (carvacrol, thymol, and ursolic acid). When combined with other herbs and spices it will boost the antioxidant powers of those herbs as well.
• Folklore: Since marjoram is a sub-species of oregano, it is hard, even today, to distinguish one from another. It is even harder to determine which legends and folktales apply to marjoram (Origanum majorana) and which ones apply to oregano (Origanum vulgare). Most likely, the stories and beliefs apply to both. Greek legend has it that marjoram/oregano, known as joy-of-the-mountain, developed its aroma when touched by Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Greeks also believed that if oregano or marjoram was growing on a grave it was a sign that the departed soul had found happiness. Wreaths of marjoram/oregano were used to crown newly married couples in ancient Greece and Rome and later in the Middle Ages to bring them love, honor and happiness.
"Huntington Blue" Prostrate Rosemary
Photo by Susan Gail Wood
Photo by Benée Curtis
Photo by Benée Curtis
Photo by Susan Gail Wood
• Latin name: Origanum vulgare
• Culinary tip: When cooking with oregano, it is the fresh herb that has the stronger flavor. Use a light touch when adding fresh to your recipes. Oregano is used in Greek salads, Italian cuisine and what would pizza be without it?
• Growing tip: Oregano is easy to grow, and propagating oregano from cuttings could not be simpler. When you take cuttings from oregano, use sharp scissors or pruning shears and cut stems 3 to 5 inches long. The cuts should be diagonal, and each should be just above a node (the point where a leaf grows or is about to emerge). Pinch leaves and buds from the lower two-thirds of the stem but leave at least two leaves at the top of the stem. Rooting oregano plants can take place any time between spring and fall, but you will have more luck in spring or early summer when the stems are soft and pliable.
• Health Benefits: Oregano is said to aid in fighting infection on many levels. Contains carvacrol and thymol which are antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, and anti-parasitic.
• Folklore: As mentioned in the section on marjoram, oregano and marjoram are so closely related that it is impossible to tell if folklore stories apply to oregano, marjoram, or both. Here are a few more legends that probably apply to both - In addition to marjoram/oregano’s association with Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, the herb is linked to the goddess Artemis, protector of childbirth. Artemis often was depicted wearing a crown of dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) and ancient Greek women also wore the wreaths during labor.
Aristotle once noticed that after a tortoise ate a snake it immediately ate some oregano. He assumed this prevented the creature from dying from the snake’s venom and recommended that oregano be used to treat other cases of poisoning.
And in the Middle Ages bunches of oregano/marjoram were hung over doorways to protect against evil spirits.
• Latin name: Lavandula
• Culinary tip: Lavender is native to the Mediterranean region and is a staple in French cuisine. The bud, stem and leaf can all be used in cooking and the flowers and leaves can be used fresh. Lavender is a complex herb with a floral fragrance. It can be used in sweet and savory dishes.
• Growing tip: Lavender can be started from either hardwood or softwood cuttings. Softwood cuttings are taken from the soft, pliable tips of new growth. Hardwood is thicker and resists bending. Regardless of the type, always cut healthy, straight stems for rooting. Fill a small pot with a commercial starting medium or a homemade mix of ½ vermiculite or perlite and ½ peat moss, with a little bark added to facilitate drainage. Lavender can root well without growth hormone. Stick the lower end of the cutting about 2 inches into the soil and firm the soil so that the cutting stands up straight. Cover with plastic to form a greenhouse-like environment for the cuttings. Softwood cuttings from lavender root in two to four weeks; hardwood cuttings take a little longer. Remove the plastic bag when the cutting has roots. Set the new plant in a sunny location and water it when the soil is dry, an inch or so below the surface. Feed the plant with one-quarter strength liquid plant fertilizer once a week. If you plan to keep the plant in a pot for more than two or three weeks, transplant it into a larger pot with regular potting soil that drains freely. Commercial potting soils have plenty of nutrients to maintain the plants without supplemental feedings.
• Health Benefits: Used for relaxation and sleep. Also used to treat topical bacterial and fungal infections.
• Folklore: Lavender, according to medieval legends, was infused with the divine smell of heaven when Mary hung her child’s swaddling clothes to dry on a lavender bush. Growing lavender is said to bring good luck to the gardener, and its fragrance is especially pleasing to the fairies - or at least, that is what’s said. When tucked under the pillows of young men, lavender might encourage them to ask for a lady’s hand in marriage and couples who place lavender flowers between their bedsheets will never fight. Bundles of lavender placed in the hands of women during childbirth were thought to bring courage and strength for a safe delivery.
Lavender was also believed to counteract the evil eye and was included in bonfires on St. John’s Day to help ward off evil spirits.
• Latin name: Salvia rosmarinus
• Culinary tip: Rosemary has floral flavors and pairs well with light or dark meat chicken. Chop and add to olive oil, try it drizzled over potatoes and vegetables. Rosemary also elevates savory breads.
• Growing tip: Rosemary has two very different growing habits, either upright or prostrate, with many varieties available in each form. Tuscan blue rosemary care is relatively easy. They can grow up to 7 feet tall and 2 feet wide. If you want to keep your plant more compact, you can prune it back heavily (by as much as ½) in the spring, after it has finished blooming. Tuscan blue rosemary hardiness is a little better than that of other rosemary varieties. It should be able to survive down to about 15°F.If you want to be sure your rosemary survives the winter, you should grow it as a container plant and bring it indoors for the cold months.
• Health Benefits: Stimulates the central nervous system and can improve both short-term and long-term memory. Rosemary is a powerful antioxidant, which decreases inflammation. A hair rinse using rosemary promotes hair growth.
• Folklore: From ancient Greece through the European Middle Ages, rosemary was thought to protect against evil spirits. Sprigs were placed under pillows or burned as incense to ward off evil demons and prevent bad dreams.
Another old belief is that rosemary would only grow in the garden of a righteous person. And if the herb grew with unusual vigor, it was common knowledge that the woman of the household was stronger than the man. A folktale puts it this way - “Where rosemary flourishes the lady rules” and warns husbands that damaging or destroying the rosemary will not change this fact.
As a symbol of fidelity, love, and abiding friendship, wreaths of rosemary were often worn by brides at the altar. Just in case, dried rosemary could also be hidden in the marital bed to promote faithfulness. As an added bonus, smelling rosemary frequently was said to help retain one’s youth.
The most famous legend tells how rosemary’s white flowers became blue. In the flight to Egypt, Mary threw her blue cloak on a rosemary bush when the Holy Family stopped to rest. Forever after, rosemary produced lovely sky-blue flowers in honor of the Virgin.
• Latin name: Thymus vulgaris
• Culinary tip: Fresh thyme dries quickly, is good in egg, bean, and vegetable dishes. It is a perfect herb for vegetarians to keep in their pantry.
• Growing tip: The flavor of the thyme plant benefits from active neglect. Growing thyme in poor soil with little water will actually cause the thyme to grow better, making thyme an excellent choice for xeriscaping or low water landscapes. Thyme is easy to divide. In the spring or fall, find a mature thyme plant. Use a spade to gently lift the clump of thyme up from the ground. Tear or cut a smaller clump of thyme from the main plant, making sure there is a root ball intact on the division. Replant the mother plant and plant the division where you would like to grow the thyme herb.
• Health Benefits: Thyme contains thymol, the most powerful of Nature’s antiseptics. Thymol is also found in Listerine mouthwash. Used to treat colds, coughs, and flu as well as bacterial infections.
• Folklore: According to Danish and German folklore, the best place to look for fairies is in a patch of wild thyme. Old English lore goes even further - collect thyme flowers from hillsides where fairies lived, rub the flowers on your eyelids, and you will be able to see the fairies.
Since the scent of thyme was thought to inspire bravery, medieval knights competing in tournaments wore scarves with thyme leaves sewn on them.
In the romance department, a sprig of thyme in the hair will make a person irresistible.
And in Victorian times, thyme was one of the herbs that was potted as a form of divination. Each pot was assigned the name of a desired lover and the plants that grew the fastest and the strongest would predict the love match.
• Latin name: mentha
• Culinary tip: There are several varieties of mint. Peppermint is often used to flavor candy and desserts, while spearmint is often found in teas, sauces, and jellies that are served with meat, as well as vegetables, like potatoes and carrots. Mint is also added to salads, stews, soups, and stuffing.
• Growing tip: Get everything ready before you take cuttings from mint, as the sprigs will wilt quickly. To take cuttings from mint, use sharp scissors or pruning shears to cut stems about 3 to 5 inches long. Remove at least two or three leaves from the lower part of the stem but leave the top leaves intact. New growth will appear at the nodes. The ideal time to grow mint from cuttings is when the plant is in full growth (late spring or early summer) before the plant begins to bloom. Be sure the plant is healthy and free of pests and disease.
• Health Benefits: Mint is well-known as a digestive aid. The menthol in this herb stimulates coldness receptors in the mucosa, making breathing easier. Mint is also used as an anti-anxiety herb. Topical application on the back of the neck and temples relieves a headache.
• Folklore: In Greek mythology, Minthe was a beautiful wood nymph who caught the eye of Hades, the god of the underworld. Hades’ wife Persephone became enraged with jealousy over her husband’s wandering eye and turned Minthe into a sprawling plant that would be constantly stepped upon by mortals. Hades could not undo the spell but did give Minthe a wonderfully sweet fragrance - it’s the lovely fresh scent she shares whenever her leaves are trampled upon.
• Latin name: Petroselinum crispum
• Culinary tip: Parsley is useful in many dishes or lovely as a garnish; try a handful in a smoothie.
• Growing tip: Start curly parsley from seed when temperatures warm outside. For an early crop, plant seeds indoors a few weeks before outside soil temperatures warm. Parsley is a low-maintenance plant needing sunlight, regular water, and occasional feeding. Harvest regularly to promote growth. It is a biennial plant, meaning it grows for two years. Leaves will likely become tough and bitter during the second year. Curly parsley is an easy-to-grow type of parsley with round curly leaves. The taste is stronger than that of the flat-leaf type and not too similar. Italian parsley requires temperate conditions. They do not perform well in extremely hot areas and are prone to freezing back in cold climates. Choose a sunny site in well-draining soil with plenty of organic amendment. If you are planting several plants together, allow at least 18 inches between them to prevent mildew from forming on the leaves..
• Health Benefits: Parsley is a known diuretic. Both the roots and leaves are used to treat problems of the urinary system and high blood pressure.
• Folklore: In ancient times, parsley was never eaten but was instead associated exclusively with death and funeral ceremonies. Parsley was scattered or planted over graves, and the saying, “to need only parsley” was a gentle way of saying someone had “one foot in the grave.”
It was even through death that parsley first appeared on earth. According to the Greek myth, an infant prince named Opheltes was left unattended by his nurse and died from a serpent’s bite. As the blood ran from the infant’s wound, parsley sprang forth from the blood-soaked earth.
And though the Romans did not eat this herb, they did wear garlands of parsley on their heads - during feasts to ward off intoxication and at weddings to protect against evil spirits. Parsley was also placed on their plates to protect the food from contamination or poison.
There is another tale in folklore that seeks to explain why parsley seeds have fairly low germination rates. According to the legend, each parsley seed goes to the Devil and back nine times before sprouting. The ungerminated seeds are the ones that the Devil keeps for himself. Parsley is sometimes called “The Devil’s Herb” for this reason.
In some areas, there were further claims that parsley would only grow if the woman were master of the household. And if a child asks, “Where did I come from?”, the local answer might have been “From the parsley bed”!
Photo by Benée Curtis
Photo by Catherine O'Brien
Photo by Benée Curtis
• Latin name: Salvia officinalis
• Culinary tip: Sage has a peppery flavored leaf and is used in British cuisine, found in cheese, and Thanksgiving stuffing. Try adding sage to white beans for hummus and fresh pasta dishes.
• Growing tip: Garden or common sage (Salvia officinalis) is the most common type of sage used for cooking. You can also make tea from the leaves. It is very hardy and bounces back in the spring even after a severely cold winter. Planting sage seeds requires patience, as sage seeds are slow to germinate. Scatter the seeds over seed starting soil and cover them with 1/8 inch of soil. Keep the soil damp but not soaked. Not all the seeds will germinate and the ones that do may take up to six weeks to germinate. To grow sage from cuttings, take softwood cuttings from a mature sage plant in the spring. Dip the cut tip of the cutting in rooting hormone, then insert into potting soil. Cover with clear plastic and keep in indirect sunlight until new growth appears on the cutting. At this time, you can plant the sage out into your garden.
• Health Benefits: Sage improves both memory and mood. It has positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol. Great for oral health and sore throats as it tightens, and tones swollen tissues.
• Folklore: In ancient Rome, anyone collecting sage was first required to clean their feet and then put on clean clothes. There was even a special knife which was used exclusively to harvest the sacred plant.
Later legends relate how a sage plant saved Mary and Jesus from Herod’s soldiers. The two were alone in the desert while Joseph searched for water. When Mary heard the hoofbeats of the approaching soldiers, she quickly searched for a place to hide with her baby. Her requests for help were turned down by the rose and the clove tree, but the sage blossomed so abundantly that the Mother and Child were safely hidden within. Sage was known thereafter as the plant that gives eternal life.
It was later said that writing a wish on a sage leaf, sleeping on it for three days, and then burying would make the wish come true.
But folklore warns against completely filling an area with sage - that would bring bad luck. Instead grow it along with other herbs and plants. Bad luck would also follow if someone planted sage in their own garden but could be avoided if a stranger could be found to do the planting.
The Herb Society of America - South Texas Unit
Photo by Benée Curtis