The final part of my Advent calendar of herbs.
Day 17 – Sweet cicely
Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is one of the prettiest perennial herbs in the garden. Its fern-like soft foliage appears in early spring just in time to team up with early rhubarb harvests. I use handfuls of leaves in a little water and freshly squeezed orange juice to barely cook rhubarb straight from the garden. I never add sugar as the sweet cicely foliage does the trick in reducing the sharp acidity of rhubarb. The foliage is also good in soups and stews. I think its delicate heads of white flowers are attractive, but it is best to cut them back and prevent it seeding.
I grow sweet cicely in the shadiest part of the garden, although it does seed itself around. If the new plant looks like it might be in a suitable place I will leave it to grow to maturity.
After flowering the leaves have less flavour and it produces large seedheads that turn black as they ripen. They taste of aniseed or liquorice and can be used as sweet substitutes, as they once were in Tudor times, but they may not be an instant hit. The roots are also useful boiled and then seasoned with oil and vinegar.
This hardy perennial has a height of 60-90cm (in flower). Sow seed in pots and keep over winter in a cold frame as seeds needs a cold start before it will germinate. Grow sweet cicely in well-drained poor soil, for best result, but it will grow in most soils. It can grow to make a large clump and you can divide it in spring.
This year I froze some foliage and will use it in muslin bags when I cook my first batch of rhubarb next year. If it isn’t in a muslin bag, the foliage will be hard to drain off. I am trying this since often it is quite late in spring when the foliage begins to show, and already there is early rhubarb.
Day 18 – Perilla
Here perilla is a hardy annual, with leaves that slightly resemble a stinging nettle. Be asssured it is not although some people have reported a skin allergy from touching the foliage. Perilla is often used to make a strong, dark block in an annual border. The taller red form can reach a height of 90cm. The leaves of Perilla frutescens var. crispa of red shiso are deeply cut on the margins and are often confused with the ‘ruffles’ basil.
I will be sowing a new crop in spring in the greenhouse in a heated propagator. By the time there is no more frost-danger I will have transplanted the seedlings and be ready to plant them out. They grow well in light, well-drained soil in full sun or light shade. They also do well in containers. They self sow and with protection can overwinter.
You can use the leaves to flavour and provide colour in salads and, if using the red shiso, to colour rice with a pinkish hue. The foliage is good in soups, stir-fried and omelettes.
Day 19 – Lemon Balm
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a hardy perennial although the golden form M. officinalis ‘All Gold’ may need some winter protection, with a bracken or other foliage mulch. The golden form will need protection from sun too, as it will scorch. Lemon balm grows to a height 60cm and has a reputation for being a bit of a thug as it self-seeds. I have used it happily as a ground cover in shady sites.
The golden or the variegated form is the more attractive ornamental plant, but all are good bee plants. I cut it back after flowering now to prevent it seeding all over the place. I usually harvest the foliage year round but there is a suggestion that the aroma is best as the flowers open in summer. The lemon flavour is fleeting so pick just as you want to use it. It is simple enough to dry but the loss of aroma means I prefer using it fresh. I use it to make a refreshing tea, to add lemony zest to soups, salads and fruit salads, as well as for fish and poultry. It is a useful substitute for lemon grass. In the bathroom it offers a citrus tang to a bath.
Day 20 – Lovage
Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is a hardy perennial with a height of up to 2m and a spread of up to 1m or more. It has both culinary and medicinal uses. Grow in rich, moist but well-drained soil in full sun or part shade, sow seed in autumn outside or in pots in a propagator in spring.
I use the young leaves in soups and salads. Lovage soup is one of those iconic dishes made with bunches of just unfurling lovage foliage. It has such a spicy flavour and is one the freshest, greenest of soups. The flavour of the leaves is better before flowering.
Day 21 – Basil
My constant refrain around this prince of herbs is ‘Oh, how I do love you.’ Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is possibly the herb I would have to have on a desert island. Its foliage is so aromatic, as are the flowers and I could use it in so many ways, especially if that desert island had a wonderful larder and grocery cupboard!
In the UK basil is usually pot grown, although I do always plant out mature seedlings into the raised beds. Depending on species, basil grows to a height of up to 45cm and spreads up to 30cm. In hot climates it grows to twice the size or more, in the ground. I sow seed in spring into modules or pots in a warm greenhouse or propagator and transplant the seedlings as soon as they large enough to handle.
Which basil to grow? Well I would say: “all of them”, but for huge leaves for salads I grow lettuce-leaf basil (O. basilicum ‘Napolitano’) with its large wavy leaves, for anything even remotely Italian but particularly good with pasta and rice and to pep up green salads.
For a powerful aroma punch in the smallest of leaves I grow bush basil (O. minimum), andGreek basil (O. minimum ‘Greek’). In Greece this is often the basil of choice for the back door or a window to keep flies away (a leaf rubbed on your skin is supposed to do the same for mosquitoes).
Then there is Thai basil (O. basilicum ‘Horapha’) with an aniseed flavour used in Thai and Indian cooking. Lemon basil (Ocimum x citriodorum) has a strong citrus flavour that goes especially well with fish, seafood and in fruit salads. An infusion of leaves makes a refreshing tisane. For a colour variant I grow purple basil (O. basilicum var. purpurascens ‘Dark Opal’). Its leaves have a stronger and spicier, almost clove-like scent.
‘African Blue’ is a perennial, woody basil that I absolutely love and which I manage to overwinter in the greenhouse regularly. I propagate new plants from cuttings that I root in water, as I do mint cuttings. It has a strong flavour and just brushing the leaves, even in winter, sends you off to a summer-time place.
And then there are the flowers of all the basils… just as versatile as the foliage and I use them for colour and flavour in so many ways including ice cream.
Pesto is my product of choice from all the basils that I grow… and I am looking forward to adding it to all sorts of dishes over the festive season, since I have bags of it frozen into ice-cube shapes…
Day 22- Lavender
As the days lengthen following the Winter Solstice my thoughts turn to another high summer herb delight, lavender (Lavandula species and cultivars). There are so many to choose from for differing aromas, flower forms and the way they grow.
Lavender is one of the most popular plants in the modern garden, as well as in the herb garden. An open sunny position in well-drained soil suits it well. I have not been particularly successful in sowing lavender. Instead I buy plants from herb nurseries and in particular from Downderry Nursery in Kent, where Dr Simon Charlesworth holds the Plant Heritage National Collection of Lavender. Here you can see lavender grown in seemingly endless rows, as well as ornamentally, such as in these huge woven baskets. This benchmark scientific collection, open from 3 May to 30 September (check specific times on website), is the place to visit to view a huge range of lavender (and rosemary).
Downderry is also a regular exhibitor at RHS Chelsea, Hampton Court and many other major flower shows. Definitely my go-to for lavender!
If you need a number of plants to make a hedge or to line a path, take the cuttings from one plant so that the hedge is more uniform. Cut back plants after flowering and for a neat shape, trim again in spring. Leaves are all very narrow and the flower spikes are usually shades of mauve/purple, pale or dark blue or pink, but white and even greenish bracts are possible. It is a culinary and medicinal herb, with strong flavours. I use it to make flavoured sugar for desserts and baking, to make ice cream and biscuits. But it is in the garden on a summer day that the flowers and foliage combine to offer such heady fragrance.
Susyn Andrews and Tim Upson (now RHS Head of Horticulture) are co-authors of The Genus Lavandula, published in 2004 by Kew. They focused on the worldwide importance of lavender as a garden plant and in the perfumery and aromatherapy industries. They covered 39 species, their hybrids and nearly 400 cultivars. It is the book to read to get seriously to grips with this fragrant favourite.
Day 23 – Juniper
Well, by this stage I am in need of a celebratory drink… and have you noticed how so many gins (many of which anyway owe their character to the sweet and spicy berries of the juniper) now are described as herbal, botanical or artisanal? I am a willing participant in all of this, enjoying the fresh flavours and imagining the harvesting and experimenting that goes on. We all have favourites I am sure… one that I am enjoying though has impeccable herby connections: Bramley & Gage of Thornbury, producers of 6 O’Clock gin created a limited edition this year, Jekka’s Edition, using botanicals straight from herb-grower Jekka McVicar’s nursery. Just down the road at Alveston, Jekka’s early morning harvests of lemon verbena, swiss mint, blackcurrant leaf and rose petals were transformed into a delicious gin, with stylish branding and graphics.
So many of our celebratory or special drinks have botanical pedigrees (actual ingredients are usually kept secret) including Chartreuse (130 herbs, plants and flowers), Benedictine (27 plants and spices), Kummel (caraway seed) and… well, you get the picture. Anyway, now, at the start of the lighter days following the Solstice, Jekka’s Edition is welcome. Jekka has been growing herbs for over 30 years, has a collection of over 650 culinary herb varieties and is the author of numerous books, designer of show herb gardens and real herb gardens.
Her latest book, A Pocketful of Herbs: An A-Z (£12.99, Bloomsbury Absolute), is due to be published in March 2018 and should romp away in the herb book charts, where sales of her Complete Book of Herbs are already legendary at over 1 million. And the cover illustration is that of her talented daughter, artist Hannah McVicar whom I have had the privilege of knowing from her teens. I am looking forward to reading the new book and reviewing it on the blog in due course. For now I am sipping a G&T and thinking of all the herby notes in it. It is six o’clock somewhere in the world!
Day 24 – Finale
And so it comes around to Christmas Eve and the end of my Bundle of Herbs a Day for Advent. I haven’t yet mentioned dill, chives, marjoram, hyssop, tarragon, box, and many more… saving some for the next time or for projects during 2019. We could talk about the wonderful presents you might make with herbs such as salts, sugars, oils, vinegars, butters, pot-pourri and much more… but there is one gift that you could give to yourself or to friends and that is a gift of membership to The Herb Society. You can follow the Society on Instagram (@theherbsocietyuk) or Facebook. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the past decade, and for the second time (I was also editor for several years in the 1990s) I have edited Herbs magazine for the Society. The picture below shows a magazine holder with some of a decade’s worth of magazines!
Now is the right moment to let you know that going forward I am going to concentrate on a series of books, magazine articles, editing The Horticulturist for the Chartered Institute of Horticulture, and will be lecturing abroad… and of course herbs are going to feature highly. It has been a joy to edit Herbs for the past ten years. I have met so many interesting people in the herb world and learned even more about using and growing herbs. As a member, I will be following The Herb Society closely as it embarks on its next decade and hope it goes from strength to strength.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the many contributors to Herbs magazine over the past ten years for their knowledgeable and interesting articles. I have enjoyed working with you all.
Presenting my Bundle of Herbs a Day for Advent has been a daily delight (and at times a logistical challenge!) and has helped me ride out the grey days of December. It has been great to have so many comments and reactions to my herb notes. For me there is always much to learn and more to enjoy about herbs, these flavoursome, really useful and ornamental plants. Now I will have to think of what to do next on Instagram and Facebook, but today I wish you all well and hope you have a very happy time over the festive season and I look forward to sharing more herb notes in 2019.