August 24, 2017

In the Realm of Herbs

Monarda didyma 'Jacob Cline' - Bee balm

Janine Pineo Photo | Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’ – Bee balm

• By Janine Pineo •

As the fuzzy leaves of my borage plants grew this summer, so did the question of whether I would eat any this time around.

I watched the little row of the annual Borago officinalis grow taller and wider, waiting for the buds to burst into their starry violet glory.

By late July, the first brilliant flowers were hanging with delirious bees, definitely the “herb of gladness” for them.

Still, I hesitated.

A few years ago I tried to eat borage. Despite claims that it has the flavor of cucumbers, I couldn’t get past that hairy-leaf-in-the-mouth feeling.

So I have decided yet again that it is no sin to grow an herb just because it’s pretty.

In the realm of herbs, I often feel like a neophyte, but I’ve learned not to let herbs and their lore intimidate. The rows of books and multitudes of magazine articles available on herbs are overwhelming, but a simple start can lead to colorful combinations in ornamental beds and vigorous plants in the vegetable garden.

Take, for instance, basil. The French call it the “herbe royale,” and in some catalogs, the list of basil varieties seems to go on and on.

The ancient Greeks made basil a popular herb, although it stood for hate and misfortune. Something may have been lost in the translation when it was exported to Italy where it became a sign of courtship.

Basil’s native lands are India and Southeast Asia, a good clue that basil loves the heat. In cold weather, the seeds won’t germinate nor will the plants grow much. Most basils reach 1 to 2 feet in height, but there are dwarf varieties and larger ones, too.

When I first decided to give herbs a try, I planted the basic Ocimum basilicum or sweet basil, which is THE basil to grow for complementing tomato sauces and making pesto. Basil also is touted as a great companion plant for tomatoes because it’s said to improve growth and the fruit’s flavor.

After establishing that I could grow basil successfully, I branched out to experiment with more than half a dozen types of basil commonly available.

Cinnamon basil — which resembles sweet basil — and lemon basil are true to their names in scent and flavor. Both make excellent potted plants, as do most basils, and during hot summer days, the fragrance radiates from them. Keeping pots near the back door is a nice way to have sweet smells nearby, and it makes for easy access.

Bigger is better for Basilico Mostruoso, an Italian mammoth-leaf basil, and Lettuce Leaf basil, both available from Pinetree Garden Seeds  Basilico Mostruoso has a strong licorice flavor. Its huge leaves, which grow up to 3 inches wide and 4 inches long, can be substituted in recipes that call for grape leaves. Lettuce Leaf basil originated in Japan, and while its flavor is lighter than that of Basilico Mostruoso, its leaves are as large as the Italian one.

I haven’t had great luck with the purple basils, which make striking ornamentals, but the Mexican basil in the garden this year is a start. Its spicy-scented leaves are smoother and darker than sweet basil, but the upper stems are tinged with purple.

The only way to maintain bushy basil plants is to pinch the tops off, leaving at least a pair or two of leaves. The tops can be used for cooking, dried, or chopped up and frozen.

While the lush foliage of a combination of basil varieties and colors would make a striking ornamental effect, an herb with a bit more zing is Monarda, also known as bee balm, bergamot and Oswego tea (because its leaves are used to make a hot drink).

Bee balm’s foliage can be mistaken for a weed in the spring, but come July, the plant’s ruffly, fluffy and fragrant flowers explode into color. It is then that the weedy leaves should be harvested for best flavor.

Unusual because it is a native American herb, bee balm spreads by underground stems, a sign of its mint family roots. To keep the plants from getting too crowded, it’s best to divide them every three years in the spring — I long for the day when my Cambridge Scarlet variety is overcrowded.

Besides smelling like a jar of honey, bee balm is a magnet for birds and bees. While plucking weeds from the perennial bed a few days ago, I was startled by a hum near my head. I glanced up and not 2 feet from my face a hummingbird hovered. We both waited to see who would make the first move — I was determined it wouldn’t be me — and suddenly the hummer dropped to the largest bee balm bloom and dipped its beak into several tubes around the flower. Then, with a dart in my direction, off it flew.

Such courage.

Of course, I could be that brave if I followed tradition: History has it that Roman soldiers put borage flowers in wine and drank it for courage.

That means being courageous enough to swallow them in the first place.

Maybe next year.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in August 1997.

2012 update: Be brave and try new herbs, that’s my motto. A friend and I just agreed that while we like the smell of tarragon, we don’t find the taste particularly appealing, but we’ll keep growing it. And you can never grow too many basils, by the way.