Summer Garden Herbs
Summer days begin with a trip to the garden for a handful (or basket full) of herbs to accompany breakfast, beverages, and the day. Here are some of my favorite herbs to grow for both culinary and medicinal purposes...
Korean Licorice Mint, Anise Hyssop & Fennel
(Agastache rugosa & A. foeniculum) Mint Family
& (Foeniculum vulgare) Parsley Family
Anise hyssop brightens many home gardens with its long-lasting purple spikes. The leaves and flowers taste like licorice and can be snipped into salad as easily as they can be turned into sweet tea. It is nearly identical to Korean mint, except that the latter has a mintier taste and grows taller. I prefer Korean licorice mint and find it has a more pleasant, mellow, fennel-honey scent and flavor. These beauties attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees. Though totally unrelated, fennel offers similar, brighter, sweeter flavor. It has a happy host for the Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar.
Medicinal Uses: The Agastaches are generally cooling and rich in antioxidants—perfect for a summertime sipper. They are soothing to the digestive system and the respiratory tract. Fennel really shines as a soothing and tasty antispasmodic for the lower digestive tract, helping within minutes for gas, pain and bloating. Fennel seeds are strongest, followed by the fronds and bulbs.
Growing Conditions: This perennial is low-fuss. It will grow in rich or poor soil in full sun to partial shade. Grow from seed, seedling, cutting, or root division. Harvest the top two thirds of the plant, just above a node, every few weeks. Anise hyssop rarely suffers from disease or pests. However, it may seed itself throughout your garden. After three years, it will die off, so keep some of the “babies” around. Fennel is generally grown as an annual (especially if you harvest the bulbs), though some varieties (like bronze) may come back if you don’t harvest their bulbs. Technically fennel is a perennial in zones 6-9. Both plants can reach 4 to 5 feet tall and will grow in any type of soil but will get more lush in nice, rich soil in full sun with average or below-average water.
Flavor Attributes: The Agastaches and fennel will lighten and sweeten any tea with its licorice flavor. It blends well with mints, chamomile, lemon balm, and rose petals. A cordial made with equal parts dry Korean licorice mint, fennel seeds, and star anise (with simple syrup and quality vodka) is *delicious*!
Try It As: Tea, soda, herbal honey, cordial, for cooking as a fresh or dry seasoning. Fennel makes a great vinegar for dressings, and bronze fennel vinegar is red.
(Ocimum sanctum) Mint Family
Conventional basil (O. basilicum) is a valued herbal plant, but I’m especially a fan of the purple-hued holy basil which has an aromatic, sweet taste and is revered in Ayurvedic medicine in India. It’s one of the few stress-relieving “adaptogens” that grows easily in the garden.
Medicinal Uses: Holy basil appears to modulate stress hormone output and help the body adapt to stress (“adaptogen”). In particular it may help lower cortisol, the stress hormone implicated in diabetes and abdominal weight gain. Holy basil makes a lovely tea for modest blood sugar control and to reduce carbohydrate cravings (great with jasmine green tea). The herb is calming and well-suited before meditation or a yoga class to promote a good mindset. It has many other uses, from colds and flu to ulcer protection to radiation protection. It’s a remarkable herb that is gaining ground in the U.S.
Growing Conditions: This herb thrives in a sunny location in well-drained rich soil. Basil species are well suited for containers, as seen throughout the Mediterranean neighborhoods, as well as in temples throughout Indian temples. Grow from seed, buy seedlings, or use a cutting. Harvest the top two thirds of the plant, just above a node, every few weeks. Basil will grow in all zones as an annual.Young basil plants are prone to “dampening off” due to fungus in wet soil. Water in the morning to help control this. I find holy basil to be more forgiving than conventional basil, though it will also not tolerate frost.
Tea Attributes: Enjoy basil on its own, with mints, lemon balm, or jasmine green tea.
Also Try: Herbal honey, fresh or dry tincture.
(Ocimum basilicum var thyrsiflora) Mint Family
I find a lot of inconsistency for Thai basil seedlings on the market. It’s easily mistaken for cinnamon basil, and I suspect that seed sources and garden centers often mismark. Both have green leaves and purple stems and flowers. In my mind, Thai bail is a more delicate, shorter basil with smaller leaves compared to the robust cinnamon basil. Cinnamon basil has more purple tinges to the leaves and a stronger cinnamon flavor; get gets bigger, taller, and has tougher leaves. Although you can substitute traditional Italian basil for Thai basil, cinnamon basil for Thai basil, and vice versa, I find they’re all quite different. Thai basil is the “secret” ingredient for really delicious Thai-inspired dishes including Thai Basil Fried Rice and tropical curries. It’s also delicious scrambled with eggs, hash browns, and turmeric. Fry the leaves a bit first in the oil before adding other ingredients. I’m less of a fan of cinnamon basil, but it’s very nice infused in cream/milk destined for ice cream or crème brulee, and it’s a lovely addition to garden bouquets.
Medicinal Uses: Although medicinal information for Thai basil is scarce, I imagine it’s similar to regular basil: loaded with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds and able to ward off infections while strengthening the body.
Growing Conditions: Grow like Holy basil and traditional basil (see below), but be sure to give some extra spacing for Thai basil. It’s smaller and less vigorous than many other garden herbs and basils, and it can easily get shaded out.
Flavor Attributes: I’m much more apt to use this for cooking than anything else. Its flavors combine well with hot peppers, onions, garlic, turmeric, coconut, and pineapple.
Try: Fresh, cooked, fried, frozen (vacuum or paste), vinegar (note purple basil varieties make magenta vinegar)…
(Monarda spp) Mint Family
True to its name, bee balm is a favorite amongst bees and hummingbirds thanks to its sweet nectar and bright red, pink and purple blooms. Bee balms great looks and low-maintenance care have earned it a place in many home gardens. However, few realize that the leaves and flowers make one of our best herbal teas, in spite of its other common names: Oswego tea and bergamont. wild or purple bergamont (M. fistulosa) and red bee balm (M. didyma) are the top tea favorites. Look for them in the perennial flower section of your nursery.
Medicinal Uses: Michael Moore instilled in me a love for thyme-y Monarda species. It makes a great tea or herbal honey for sore throats, colds and flues, etc. The warming, spicy quality may also stimulate the digestive system.
Growing Conditions: Bee balms prefer rich soil in full sun to partial shade. Water needs vary by species. Grow it by seeds, seedlings, or root division. Divide roots after three years. Harvest the top two thirds of the plant, just above a node, every few weeks. Powdery mildew can be a problem, but regular harvesting should keep it under control.
Tea Attributes: Bee balm became a popular beverage tea after the Boston Tea Party for its similarity to black tea. Some liken it to Earl Grey. Its citrus-oregano-thyme flavor will change slightly from mild to spicy depending on the species, variety, and climate. It blends well with mild, sweet mints like apple mint, pineapple mint, and spearmint.
Also Try: Herbal honey, fresh or dry tincture, steam.
(Melissa officinalis) Mint Family
Lemon balm masquerades as its relative Menthas until you rub its leaves to release its intense lemon fragrance. It is loved by bees and other winged pollinators as well as herbalists, who turn to the tea for a relaxing beverage.
Medicinal Uses: Lemon balm is easy to grow and multi-purpose. The citrus-y essential oil is believed to be a mild antidepressant. The herb is used for anxiety and insomnia. Its bitter aromatic properties make it great for digestion (particularly nervous indigestion). Topically, lemon balm is an antiviral herb for herpes including cold sores, gential herpes, chicken pox, and shingles. It appears to block cell receptor sites to prevent the virus from spreading and is best uses at the first sign of a flare-up.
Cautions: Theoretically may reduce thyroid, which is contraindicated for regular use with hypothyroid.
Growing Conditions: True to its mint genes, lemon balm is tolerant of most soil types, full sun to partial shade. You can purchase seedlings, grow it from seed, use a cutting, or root division. Harvest the top two thirds of the plant, just above a node, every few weeks. Lemon balm’s root runners can get invasive. Keep it container-bound or dig out the plant if it spreads too far. Also be sure to cut it back before it goes to seed to prevent rampant reseeding.
Tea Attributes: This herbs bright lemon flavor is prized by tea blenders; however, it is also slightly bitter. Mints, anise hyssop, tarragon, chamomile, and other lemony herbs like lemon verbena, lemon grass, and lemon thyme will all lighten lemon balm’s flavor.
Also Try: Fresh tincture, herbal honey, cordial with other lemon-y herbs. Dried lemon balm loses most of its flavor and properties within six months.
Lemon Verbena & Lemongrass
(Aloysia triphylla, syn A. citriodora) Verbena Family
(Cymbopogon citrates) Grass Families
These two delightful tender perennials bring tropical citrus flavor into the New England garden. You can grow it outdoors during the green season and then either harvest it all to plant anew in spring or bring it indoors before frost. Lemon verbena is deciduous, so it’ll lose it’s leaves in winter and look dead before putting forth new growth in spring. Their flavor surpasses our perennial lemon balm and lemon thyme, and they dry relatively well but will eventually lose their lemon flavor after six months to a year. Homegrown, dried herbs will taste significantly better than store-bought for this reason.
Medicinal Uses: Citrus scents have mild mood lifting and antidepressant properties. These plants also have a tendency to improve digestion. They are generally antioxidant and healing. The essential oils have bug-repellent and antimicrobial properties. But, generally they are used just for their good flavor.
Cautions: The citrus-y oils can upset sensitive tummies and may not agree with everyone.
Growing Conditions: These tropical plants do best in rich soil that is well watered with good drainage and reasonable sunlight. Too much sun (especially indoors) can be a problem for lemongrass.
Tea Attributes: The bright lemon flavor perks up almost any blend. Lemon verbena has a perfumey candy-like flavor and scent while lemongrass reminds me of fruit loops and the Thai curries in which it is so often used. It blends well with oat straw, green tea, and other mild flavors. Stevia, agave, sugar, or honey sweeten them nicely.
Also Try: Herbal honey, cordial. Freeze the thick stems of lemongrass for Thai recipes and dry (then snip into small pieces) the grassier tops for tea. Both herbs are delightful added to plain seltzer to make a posh herbal soda.
(Mentha spp) Mint Family
No tea garden is complete without at least one mint. Beyond peppermint (M. x piperita) and spearmint (M. spicata), consider species and variety with other subtle flavors including apple, pineapple, chocolate, orange, ginger, and lemon. Do be careful when planting mints as they can be aggressive spreaders.
Medicinal Uses: Peppermint is our primary medicinal mint. It is antispasmodic and useful for most digestive ailments—indigestion, gas, intestinal pain, boating, IBS, but NOT acid reflux (it can make this worse). Also helps to clear the sinuses and is a mild diaphoretic for fevers. Enteric-coated pills are particularly helpful for IBS and intestinal pain. Other mints are milder.
Cautions: Generally very safe, but peppermint can irritate acid reflux and ulcers.
Growing Conditions: Mints are readily available in nurseries and can also be grown from cuttings and root divisions. They do not grow well by seed—flavor will be lost. Mint grows in a variety of soils and conditions. Some species, including spearmint, thrive in damp soil. Harvest the top two thirds of the plant, just above a node, every few weeks. Help control mint from spreading by keeping it sparely watered. Also consider keeping it container-bound to control the roots. It may occasionally get powdery mildew, but this can be discouraged with regular harvesting.
Tea Attributes: Mint is the most recognized herbal tea. It blends well with other Mentha species and mint family relatives including anise hyssop, bee balm, lemon balm, basil, thyme, and rosemary. It also combines nicely with chamomile, rose petals, cinnamon or bland herbs like nettle and alfalfa.
Also Try: Tincture, cordial, steam.
(Calendula officinalis) Sunflower Family
This is one of our most ornamental garden herbs, and it’s also incredible multipurpose as food, medicine, and a topical remedy.
Medicinal Uses: Calendula is most famous as a skin care herb – when infused in water or oil and applied topically (as a poultice, bath, cream, salve…) it has a potent yet gentle soothing, healing effect. It’s the primary anti-itch and rash herb and cal also be used for hemorrhoids, cuts and scrapes, dry skin, conjunctivitis, baby skin issues, and more. The flowers are almost equally famous as a pot herb, hence the name Pot Marigold. The orange-yellow hued blooms have 100 times the carotenoids of a sweet potato by weight! You can add the mild-tasting petals fresh like confetti to almost anything or a handful of the whole blooms (slightly bitter) to soups and tea. Feeding calendula to chickens makes their yolk brighter orange-yellow. Calendula is lesser known but also very useful as a tincture or tea to move the lymph and assist with detoxification. The sticky resin is responsible for calendula’s topical and medicinal properties; the color for the nutritive.
Cautions: Generally very safe, but use caution if you have an allergy to daisy-family plants.
Growing Conditions: This annual will sometimes self seed (though it’s prone to mold that inhibits it) and is more often available as seed than seedling. Plant in spring or fall in good soil, full sun, with regular water. Clip the blossoms as needed – it simulates more growth, too. Happy calendula will bloom from June through November.
Tea Attributes: Vitamin-y and slightly bitter especially if using the middles of the flowers. Nice color for dry blends.
Try It As: Oil/salve/cream, bath/wash, soup, tea.
(Alchemilla mollis) Rose Family
Many gardeners prize lady’s mantle for its crinkly, dew-kissed foliage even more than its subtle golden flowers. Lady’s mantle is steeped in lore: Dewdrops collected from its leaves were believed to hold magical powers and keep women young.
Medicinal Uses: As its name suggests, lady’s mantle is an herb for the feminine reproductive organs. It is astringent and believed to tonify the uterus. It may also be used in formulas for boggy, irritated intestines. It is primarily used as a tea.
Cautions: Use with caution in pregnancy.
Growing Conditions: Lady’s mantle likes full sun to partial shade in dry or slightly moist soil. Grow this perennial from seed, seedling, or root division. Harvest the young leaves for tea. Lady’s mantle is low maintenance, but cut it back after it flowers to prevent if from reseeding all over the garden.
Tea Attributes: Lady’s mantle tea has a mild, astringent flavor that resembles Chinese tea. It blends well with mints, lemon balm, hibiscus flowers, and raspberry leaves.
(Rosa spp) Rose Family
There are hundreds of types of roses out there. While any unsprayed rose could theoretically be used medicinally, we generally turn to older and wild varieties, generally pink and fragrant. You’ll want an extremely fragrant rose if you’re harvesting buds and petals for flavorful tea. Harvest the hips from any rose that makes nice, fully formed hips with good flavor. Popular species include apothecary rose (R. gallica officinalis), dog rose (R. canina), cabbage rose (R. centifolia), Damask rose (R. damascena), or Japanese rose (R. rugosa), which has naturalized along the seacoast.
Medicinal Uses: Rose petals are used in tea mostly for their light, aromatic, and slightly astringent properties, which become more pleasantly fragrant with a longer steeping time. The astringency is helpful internally for bleeding, diarrhea, or boggy digestive tissue. Externally for aging, irritated, or inflamed skin. Rosehips are among the more universally-known herbal nutritives. Many vitamin C supplements include them as a source of extra vitamin C and bioflavanoids (and to look good to passers by—generally the amount of rosehips added to these supplements is minimal). The red fruits of many types of roses (Rugosa & Dog) are harvested in autumn, generally just after the first frost. Crushed and/or whole rosehips are also widely available in commerce by almost any store or supplier that sells loose tea herbs. It’ll give you a modest dose of vitamin C along with many other complementary flavanoids and antioxidants.
Cautions: Strain rosehips well; the little hairs and irritate the throat. If you’re harvesting your own, make sure the roses have not been sprayed with chemicals.
Growing Conditions: Roses have a reputation for being finicky perennials. R. rugosa is more hardy. Most of the roses mentioned will become shrubby over time. You’ll want to make sure they have good soil in a sunny or partially sunny spot, and be sure to prune regularly to enhance airflow and reduce disease.
Tea Attributes: Fragrant flowers and buds will give a pleasant flowerly taste to teas, especially if allowed to steep for 30 minutes or more. They blend well with mints, nettles, and other rose family astringents (red raspberry, lady’s mantle, etc.). Rosehips are sweet, tart, and fruity. They blend well with hibiscus, rooibos, and dried fruits.
Also Try: Syrup, honey, cordial. Delicious rose petals can be used as a garnish or candied.
(Centella asiatica) Parsley Family (debatably)
Even though this is one of my favorite medicinal herbs, which I grow easily most years, I rarely discuss it in gardening classes because it’s so difficult to find as a seedling (Warner River Organics is one of the few sources) and difficult to propagate from seed (which you’ll find at Horizon Herbs). Once you have a seedling, it grows easily with the right conditions – it is a tad fussy and wants to pretend its in India.
Medicinal Uses: Gotu kola is one of those “all that and a bag of chips” herbs. It’s a calm-energy adaptogen used for anxiety and stress that also acts as a nootropic and circulation enhancer to boost memory, focus, and brain function. It’s circulation-enhancing, capillary/vein-strengthening properties make it a useful cardiovascular tonic and remedy (topically and internally) for varicocities, varicose veins, hemorrhoids. It also improves collagen synthesis and wound repair (again, on contact and systemic – internal and/or external). And, you can eat it! Cooked, raw, powdered, in dishes with garlic and onions, in smoothies, as a leafy green akin to watercress.
Growing Conditions: This tender perennial hails from India in hot, moist climates with rich sludgy soil. It won’t survive our winters but can be grown as an annual or brought in as a potted plant. It prefers 100% compost, regular (ie: daily) watering, and part shade or dappled sun. It gets cranky in full sun, even indoors, with browning leaves and a loss of its happy green glow. You can grow it on the ground as a creeping groundcover or in pots (it looks a lot like ground ivy or Swedish ivy). Once you have it, it grows easily and will spread if given the space as a small creeping vine and via root division. It also puts out frequent seeds but they may not germinate and are unlikely to come back outside.
Flavor Attributes: The flavor ranges from seaweed-y salty and slightly bitter to pungent and celery-like (a food to which it is loosely related). In spite of its strong flavor that may not be loved by all, it’s easy to cover up in blends. You can mix it with any aromatic tasty herb in tea, toss it in soup broths, etc.
Try It As: Tea, food, broth, tincture, capsule, powder in smoothies etc.
(Sambucus nigra) Honeysuckle Family
This shrubby tree can be cultivated and found in the wild (our local American S. canadensis has recently been renamed as a subspecies of the European S. nigra rather than a separate species). The “Adams” cultivar does particularly well. Much medicine and lore sprouts from the elderberry, which is supposedly a favorite of the fairy king and queen. Across the pond, it’s considered bad luck to cut down an elder (or hawthorn, for that matter), lest you draw the fury of the fairies.
Medicinal Uses: Like most berries, the deep blue-black elderberries are rich with antioxidant pigments; however, it’s their antiviral activity that draws the most attention. Compounds in elder help block viruses (including the flu, cold, and herpes) from the cells, making it difficult for them to break into the body, spread, and wreak havoc. This is most useful as a preventative or the early onset of viral symptoms. The flowers have slight antihistamine action that can relieve both cold/flu and allergy symptoms, and they acts a diaphoretic (make you sweat) to help you break a fever and get over illness more quickly.
Cautions: Properly identified and prepared elder is very safe, even for the very young and very old. Elderberry contains cyanide-like compounds that can be nauseating and possibly toxic (this seems to be a bigger issue with wild American rather than cultivated European elder). Therefore, stick only to the flowers and ripe berries, dry (my preference) or cooked, although some people do eat fresh berries without issue. Because elder seeds cause nausea for sensitive people, you may prefer recipies in which you strain the out the berries (tea, syrup, tincture, cordial, oxymel) rather than eat them whole (pie, whole fruit spread). Don’t use the root, leaves, or stems internally, but you can use the leaves topically as an arnica substitute for bumps and bruises. Note that red elder (S. racemosa) berries and flowers are more toxic and nauseating than black elder and should not be used; however, it’s relatively easy to distinguish (different shape flower cluster, blooms and fruits 1+ month earlier, bright red berries, more common up north).
Growing Conditions: This is a robust shrub once it really takes hold. Key identifying features: opposite and divided leaves, flat-ish clusters of small creamy white flowers in June, dark blue-purple-black berries in September. Wild elderberry prefers damp partly shady spots with rich soil like drainage ditches along the road, damp edges of the yard, and alongside swamps and waterways. It’s easiest to find and identify when it blooms in June. Cultivated, it tolerates drier, sunnier spots. Birds loooove the berries, and you may have a hard time beating them to the harvest. In my yard, the moose and deer munch on whole branches, too.
Tea Attributes: Dried berries and flowers both work well in teas. Add the berries to formulas for immune health as well as red berry-antioxidant formulas. I personally enjoy the berries in a tea with hibiscus and schizandra berries (also good w/o schiz) and a good dollop of honey. The flowers are often blended with peppermint and other diaphoretics as a fever tea, which is particularly popular for kids since it’s gentle and tastes good.
Also Try: Syrup, oxymel, tincture, cordial… I love Darcey Blue’s elderberry syrup recipe (you can find it online). For an alcohol-free format, try elderberries and rosehips as an oxymel – quite delish! It does seem to lose potency and hue after a few months.