Although most people grow herbs for a purely utilitarian purpose, there are others who grow them simply because they are fascinated by the plants.
Certainly once you delve into their histories you are inclined to view them all with a more knowing eye, and you are likely to give garden room to any that can claim the historical fame of having once been useful if only to the Borgias.
For instance, on my herb bank grows an ever—though slowly—increasing colony of evergreen alkanet.
All the plants have been produced by one poor stray I found one day growing on the edge of a lane, and in danger of being crushed by farm carts once it grew to any useful size.
No other plants were growing near it but when I looked over the garden wall flanking the road I could see masses of them inside in a wild border.
I have a soft spot for most plants of the boraginaceae and so I brought this one home. For years it was solitary, but now there are many.
To me they symbolize the passing of winter, for it is one of the earliest true blue herbaceous flowers to bloom, larger and bluer than forget-me-nots and smaller than anchusa.
Alkanet was once used as a dye plant, but the one I grow seems to have been a substitute.
Geoffrey Grigson in his fascinating Englishmans Flora says that the name alkanet is a diminutive of the Spanish alcanna, which in turn comes from the Arabic al-henna, the henna plant, not the alkanet in this case but a small tree.
Laivsonia inermis. True alkanet is Alkanna tinctoria and it is its roots which contain the red dye for which it was —and is—valued. The flower in my garden is Pentaglottis sempervirens, the evergreen alkanet, which also has blue flowers and belongs to the same family as alkanna. It also yields a dye, used by cabinet makers for staining wood.
However, I grow it for its value us a pretty garden plant as well as for a little nostalgia. There are enough herbs, pretty, grand, unusual and just plain useful, to furnish a complete garden.
Should more be necessary, one could add to these the potpourri plants and others such as violets, jonquils, lily-of-the-valley, roses, lilies, all with sweet or memorable scents.
A most unusual and delightful garden would result. As we have seen, there are plants for lawns, for carpeting, for walls, hedges, for shade and sun, for ground cover and for containers. There are also those for water.
Here are some I would choose.
Aconite, Aconitum napellus
Not be little yellow first-flower-of-the-year, but the tall, stately, slightly sinister and virulently poisonous (should you eat it) monkshood. Its name came from the shape of the hooded flowers. Mine grow in the shade of trees.
Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatoria
A British wild plant once to be found all along the waysides and now becoming rarer. Tea made from its flowering tips makes an effective gargle. The stems are slender and studded with tiny yellow blooms.
Alexanders, Smyrnium olusatrum
Once used widely both as ‘a salad and as a pot herb, but superseded by celery whose taste it much resembles. In Britain it is found growing on sea cliffs.
It is raised in gardens from seed. Allspice, Calycanthus floridus, also called Carolina allspice. This is not the allspice of commerce which is a pepper, but a dainty shrub with fragrant wood, even more fragrant when dried and worth using for potpourri.
It is quite hardy and easy to grow although it does best with some protection, from a south facing wall for instance.
American liverwort, Hepatica triloba
Many varieties with pretty anemone-like flowers in white, pink and blue which appear early in the spring.
This is a fairly large genus composed mainly of annuals, herbaceous perennials and shrubs, aromatic or bitter. Some have already been mentioned and some are small enough to be grown in a rock garden.
- abrotanum, southernwood, can be used to make a low clipped hedge. The sub-shrub A. arborescens grows to nearly four feet.
- camphorata has a camphor-like pungency. A. lanata is beautifully downy. There are many others; enough in fact to form a collection of artemisias alone!
Autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale
Not really a crocus but meadow saffron, not the saffron used in the kitchen, which comes from the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus. However, colchicum corms were once used in medicine.
By including it in the garden, one ensures a crop of beautiful chalice-like blooms in autumn, rising from the ground naked of any leaves, hence called naked ladies.
The foliage follows in spring. The plant is very variable and there are some fine varieties in commerce. This a good plant to grow under trees in partial shade or in grass.
Bistort, Polygonum bistorta, snake weed
A delightful plant and one which can be left to get along on its own very well. The leaves are used for Cumberland Easter puddings along with nettle and black currant leaves, parsley, chives, barley, oatmeal, eggs and butter.
Black Cohosh, Cimicifuga racemosa
The name comes from cimex, a bug, and fugo, to drive away! Good shade plant. The leafy stem grows four to eight feet tall and bears long, branched racemes of scented, creamy-white flowers. It is said to be an antidote against rattlesnake bites.
Blood root, Sanguinaria canadensis
Called Indian paint because of Amer-Indians using the paint as a dye. All parts have a freely flowing orange sap. A good plant for siting under deciduous trees and in grass. It is low growing with beautiful white flowers.
Bog myrtle, Myrica gale
This plant has many common names, including candle berries, flea wood and sweet willow. It was once extremely common in days of early agriculture and undrained land and seems even to have been indispensable in some areas.
It was used before hops introduced for the purpose of flavoring beer. It was a dye plant, and was also used for kindling, bedding and as an insect repellant. It is a pretty, fragrant plant reminiscent of a tiny willow, with grey-green leaves and fragrant catkins in spring.
It needs acid, fairly moist soil. There are other myricas including bayberry, M. californica and wax myrtle, M. cerifera, producing wax from which candles are made which burn with a sweet fragrance.
Californian sassafras, Umbellularia californica
An aromatic tree somewhat similar to the bay in appearance, with clusters of yellowish flowers in spring. Slightly tender, so needs protection in severe winters. The foliage is an irritant to some people.
Greater Celandine, Chelidon-ium majus
A member of the poppy family, surprisingly perhaps. Called also devil’s milk and wart plant among many other folk names. The acrid, orange latex which oozes from the cut stem is applied to warts.
It was once used to take the mistiness away from the eye, but mixed with other ingredients for it is very sharp. A pretty plant for the wild or woodland garden where it will soon naturalize itself.
Lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, also known as pilewort
Probably more of this plant grows in my garden than any other. It is indigenous to the locality and I have allowed it to carpet great areas which in the spring are golden with the starry flowers.
They look as though each petal had been painted inside with nail varnish. By May there is no trace of the plants except for tiny tubers in the soil.
These are the ‘piles’ or figs which because of their resemblance to that particular disorder were used in medicine and potions for its cure—whether effectively or not I cannot say.
Comfrey, Symphytum officinale
A handsome plant well worthy of a place in gardens. There are both white and purple forms and varieties. The plant has also crossed with imported Caucasian species, resulting in some attractive hybrids. The plant was on a used as a ‘knit bone.’
Cowslip, Primula veris
Once a very common wild flower, but tending to disappear as methods of agriculture improve: Makes fine country wine.
A syrup made of its flowers was taken to soothe the nerves. Boiled together with lavender in ale it, was recommended as a cure for ‘the trembelynge hand.’ Seed takes a Iong time to germinate.
Dittany of Crete, Origanum dictamnus
A rather tender sub shrub, suitable for the rock garden. It needs protection from the winter damp as much as from the cold.
False dittany, Dictamnus albut, burning bush
A scented plant with peculiar properties. Gently rub a leaf and it will impart a scent of lemon, bruise it less tenderly and it will smell of balsam.
Wait until a warm, still, summer evening and hold a match over a plant and with luck, the vapor from the essential oil will ignite, hence the name burning bush.
Elder, Sambucus nigra
Once said to have the power to ward off witches. The flowers can be used to make tea, to flavor jellies with a muscat-grape flavor, to make ‘champagne’, ointment for burns and cream for skin, which it makes soft and silky.
Berries are used for wine and they can be used with other fruits such as blackberries and sloes in jams, jellies and pies. If you want birds to visit your garden, grow an elder or two.
Elecampane, Inula helenium
A tall, rather coarse plant best left to the wild garden where it will look quite striking with its great ‘sunflowers’. Was grown for its roots, which were candied and eaten to ease coughing and asthma.
‘Wine that is every where prepar’d with this root in Germany, and often drunk, wonderfully quickens the sight.’ (The Compleat Herbal, 1694)
Bruise the leaves occasionally for that evocative smell of childhood and cut and use the branches for long-lasting flower arrangements. Protect newly planted young trees with wire netting if there are rabbits in the district.
Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea
A wonderful plant for early summer. It likes acid soil so grow it with rhododendrons or in association with heathers, but do not let the seedlings smother them.
It has hundreds of folk names and is associated with fairies and magic. After centuries of superstition it was found to be of great benefit to medicine, especially in the treatment of heart disease.
Heartsease, Viola tricolor
Once found in all old gardens. It was used in pharmacy. It is a charming little flower and once it thrives, it will seed itself vigorously.
Hellebores, in variety
The roots have been used in medicine. They contain helleborin, a powerful poison. The flowers are beautiful and long lasting, blooming at a time when there are few others.
Hemp agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum
A tall herbaceous plant with crushed raspberries in cream-colored heads of flowers. Good for damp places or to grow near a stream. From it is made a tea to allay influenza.
Horehound, Marrubium vulgare
A good bee plant. Fresh horehound can be candied and it is also used in making ale. Was once used as a culinary herb but modem palates find its taste too strong.
Hound’s tongue, Cynoglossom officinale
A biennial, a pretty member of the borage family, but with a strange odor. Once used for many purposes, for burns, sores, and even, if worn in the shoes, to prevent dogs barking at you!
Houseleek, Sempervivum tectorum
Known also as St. Patrick’s cabbage and Welcome-home-hus-band – however – drunk-and-late -you-may-be; this plant has received more common names than all the other sempervivums put together.
It was said to be a magical plant which would project a house against lightning. Consequently it was also used for cooling burns, soothing ulcers and the like. In the garden it can be very variable. An attractive plant for the rock garden, for paving and for containers.
Incense plant, Humea elegans
A biennial usually grown as a greenhouse plant for its aromatic foliage, but it can be planted outdoors in summer where it must be strongly staked against winds because it is feathery and frail in spite of its height.
Indian ginger, Asarum canadense, also Canadian snake root
An unusual and hardy plant for the woodland garden, although it can be grown on some rock gardens. It has large leaves and solitary flowers. The root is aromatic, spicy and ginger-like to taste. Dried it has stimulative and carminative properties.
Insect powder plants, Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium and C. roseum
The first is a little yellow-eyed daisy and the other rose-red or flesh-colored. The flower heads should be picked as they are ready to open and dried.
They may then be ground to a powder and used as a safe insecticide, even on plants to be eaten such as lettuce. The powder can also be put into sachets and used to repel clothes moths.
Jacob’s ladder, Polemoniurri caeruleum
Once used to heal cuts, it is worth growing in a garden simply because it is so pretty. The stem is erect and grows as much as two and a half feet, with leaves so placed that they give the name ‘ladder’ to the plant. Flowers are blue, rarely white.
Jerusalem sage, Phlomis fruticosa
A handsome plant and one which figures importantly in my main silver border. The leaves are aromatic and can be used in potpourris. The seed heads are attractive and useful in flower arrangements.
Labrador tea, Ledum groenlandicum
A small, evergreen, upright shrub whose leaves are fragrant when bruised. Tea made from the leaves which have a spicy taste is recommended for easing coughs and dyspepsia.
Lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis
This is a must in any garden, herbal or general. The name comes from alkemelych, the Arabic name for the plant, and derived from the same root as alchemy, the little magical one.
Obviously it was once of great importance and today it is beloved especially by gardeners and flower arrangers. There are other species, all worth growing. I grow A. alpina in the foreground of my silver border. It is also a good and effective rock garden plant.
Lavender, lavendula species
There are many lavenders. Varieties that come to mind quickly in elude the pretty little dwarf Twickle Purple, which I grow. It has the best scent of all the dwarf-kinds and it is a good strong color.
Over the years it has made a thick little bush of some two feet in height. It makes a good dwarf hedge. There are others even dwarfer, including the pretty little pink lavender, L. spica nana rosea. L. spica has produced many varieties including alba, white, gigantea, usually sold as Grappenhall variety, the strongest growing variety, and Munstead Dwarf L. lanata is woolly with very fragrant flowers.
- stoechas is a little oddity, a shrub up to three feet tall with a peculiar inflorescence crowned with a cluster of bracts.
If a collection of lavenders appeals to you it is well worth searching nurseries, garden centers and gardens for unusual types, even if these vary only a little from the species. There are also other species, not all of them sweetly fragrant.
Linseed, Linum usitatissimum, common flax
Having once seen fields of flax in bloom, matching the summer skies above them, I am never likely to forget that this is one of the real blue flowers; pale, unlike the bolder blue of cornflowers, but well worth growing.
It is annual, and is easily raised from seed. It was once grown for its fibers from which linen was made, and for its oils and seeds, which were made into poultices and teas taken for coughs.
Lion’s tail, Agastache mexicana
A perennial with pleasantly aromatic soft grey-green leaves. The flowers, rose to crimson, grow in whorls. Another from the same family, A. anisata, is known also as the anise hyssop.
This grows to three feet, a few inches taller than lion’s tail. Its leaves are downy on the underside and scented of anise. The flowers are blue.
Licorice, Glycyrrhiza glabra
The sweet roots are the source of licorice. The plant grows from about three to four feet tall, is a perennial and a member of the pea family with pinnate leaves. Flowers are pale blue.
Lungwort, Pulmonaria officinalis
Also called, among other names, soldiers and sailors, because the flowers are ‘redcoats’ and ‘bluecoats’ together on the same plant. As its name indicates the plant was once used to aid pulmonary troubles.
With its prettily spotted, hairy leaves, the plant needs a soil which remains fairly moist at all times.
Mace, Achillea decolorans
This is not the mace of commerce. The scent of its leaves is said to resemble this spice and they are sometimes used to flavor certain soups and stews.
The flower heads are in corymbs, yellowish-white on stems about a foot tall. The leaves are both glabrous and toothed. There is a double variety. See also Yarrow.
Members of the hollyhock family once used for poultices, ointments and soothing syrups for coughs, among other things.
The common mallow, Malva sylvestris, produces round, flat discs of seeds which some country children call ‘cheeses.’
They taste rather like peanuts. The plants are somewhat coarse and need plenty of room. M. moschata is the musk mallow.
Although this plant has already been described, I cannot forbear to give a reminder that the golden form is really very beautiful. Planted at the edge of a sunny border and near a path it will spill over very prettily.
Mints. The collector can really go to town on mints. There are, for instance, many forms of hybrids between M. longi folia and M. rotundifolia, known as M. x alopecuroides, resembling a fox’s brush, a description which refers to the young flower stems, stout hairy spikes one and a half to two inches long and lengthening as they age.
There are also Japanese mint, M. arvensis piperascens, tall and downy and a source of menthol; M. citrata, with synonyms M. odorata and M. aquatica citrata, fragrantly lemon-scented; M. piperata, peppermint, with its varieties; M. pulegium, pennyroyal, a prostrate creeping variety with use as a carpeting plant which also has a variegated form known as Gibraltar mint; and yet others.
Motherwort, Leonwus cardiac
Extremely rare in the wild, so search for a plant among gardening friends or from a specialist herb nursery. It was respected during the Middle Ages as a plant to be used for women in difficult labor and for heart troubles.
It is decorative, a labiate, : it with uncharacteristic maple-like leaves. It produces spires of Kali, mauve-pink flowers.
Mountain tobacco, Arnica montana
Prettiest when growing in the mountains, but sometimes cui:e delightful on a rock garden.
Mullein, Verbascum thapsus
In addition to the further names of Aaron’s rod and Adam’s flannel, there are plenty more so you can take your pick. A handsome, woolly plant—so woolly in fact that the down was once collected and used for lamp wicks.
The fallow flowers stud the downy stem which grows about three feet tall. A delightful plant anywhere, but especially good for a silver border.
Myrtle, Myrtus communis
A pretty evergreen shrub with tiny leaves, but not quite hardy. It needs the shelter of a south wall and it will not thrive outdoors in cold areas. I have found it easy to raise from seed. There are varieties, including a variegated form.
Our lady’s milk thistle, Silybum marianum
The white splotches on the large prickly leaves are Mary’s milk according to an ancient belief. The plant was formerly grown for food, its roots boiled and used in soups and stews, the heads eaten like artichokes and the young leaves as salad. It was also considered a balm against melancholy.
Periwinkle, Vinca minor and V. major
Other names include sorcerer’s violet and all-heal, names that hint at the plant’s history. These are excellent plants for covering large areas of soil, but invasive if planted in borders. They are good also for binding the soil on a bank.
There are many varieties of V. minor, with flowers that differ in color from the species. Some are double. There are also variegated forms of both plants. Varieties are interesting enough to make a collection.
Poke weed, Phytolacca americana
Also pigeon berry and red ink plant. Handsome, but to me at least, sinister as poisonous plants so frequently are, although the young shoots have been used as pot herbs. It is the dark berries forming the long pokes’ which are poisonous.
Red-root, Ceanothus americiinus
Also known as New Jersey tea because the leaves were used as a substitute during the American war of independence.
It appears to have been a useful plant, providing dyes, gargles and cures for bronchitis and asthma. The new shoots are downy and the leaves have downy undersides.
Flowers are generously produced in panic les of grey-white, which with the leaves gives the plant an overall silvery appearance.
The R. officinalis has many var ieties, including one with white flowers, albiflorus or albus. R erectus also known as fastigiatus or pyramidalis, grows tall and erect, while humilis lives up to its name by spreading its branches in a low curtsey.
There is also a prostratus, which is known more correctly botanically as R. lavandulaceus, and is not quite hardy.
Of these I wish just to say that any spaces in your all-herb garden can be filled with any of the scented roses, either ‘wild’ by which I mean the species, or the old-fashioned cultivars. They also can be made to cover walls, paths and arbors.
Rue, Ruta graveolens
Herb of grace, including a lovely variegated form. This is one of my favorite scented plants, for not only does it furnish the garden so handsomely but it is also fine for flower arrangements.
Although it was once used as a tonic in the form of rue tea, as a stimulant and to dispel headaches in man and croup in poultry, there are some people who are fiercely allergic to the plant.
Sages, salvia species
I have already sung many praises to these plants. The common sage, S. officinalis, has many varieties, the most vividly colored of which is tricolor, in which plant you are actually likely to find more than three hues.
It seems to me that each time I wander around a garden center I find yet another form of decorative sage. S. rutilans, half-hardy, is the pineapple scented sage.
Samphire, Crithmum martimum
The generic name comes from krithe, barley, an allusion to the shape of its seed, while the common name originated from herbe de St. Pierre, the fisherman saint.
This is a sea cliff plant and not always easy to grow inland, although it has been done and in fact it was once a common kitchen garden plant. It is best to collect seed and sow it as soon as it is ripe.
Give the plant sun, warmth, a dry position, a well-drained soil and some protection in winter. Because the plant grew from rock it was once also used against kidney stones and other bladder complaints.
Samphire can be pickled, made into sauces with butter and cooked and eaten cold as a salad.
Self heal. Prunella vulgaris
The name gives a clue to its use, for it comes from brunella from the Gcrmmi inm German term for quinsy, so uprooted it and put it on the herb bank in a moist and shady spot, where it flourishes.
It can be a troublesome weed in a good lawn, but if you are searching for creeping plants that will make a non-grass lawn, this is one of them. The flowers are short-stemmed, whorled in spikes, usually purple but sometimes pink or white.
Soapwort, Saponaria officinalis, or Bouncing Bet
A laundry plant, from sapo, soap, once used to make a lather, now an ingredient in a solution in which old tapestries and fabrics can be cleaned and sometimes their colors restored. A pretty plant, but I have found it very invasive. It needs a space to itself.
Sweet flag, Acorus calamus
A plant which is fragrant in all its parts. Oelum calami is an oil extracted from its roots and used in perfumery. Best grown as a bog plant or in moist, loamy soil. There is a pleasant variegated form, variegatus, with cream and gold stripes.
Thorn apple. Datura stramonium
An annual often found naturalized. Its specific name proves its worth, for this plant renders stramonium, used in pharmacy.
It is a strange, almost macabre plant to study and has given rise to many myths, notably that to fall asleep in its shade was to invite death because you would be breathing in the poisons exhaled by the plant.
It has narcotic properties. The leaves are blended into a suitable mixture for igniting to make a vapor to relieve asthma.
Thymes, thymus species
There are so many of these that you could fill a garden with them. The plants are sometimes difficult to classify, a fact recognized and deplored by many botanists. There are many hybrids, not all of them recognized as such.
When bruised the various plants produce aromas which can be compared to those of lemon, camphor, turpentine, caraway and others.
Tree germander, Teucrium fruticans
A half-hardy shrub with silver-grey foliage, not unlike rosemary at first glance, particularly when it is in flower. Pleasantly scented.
Other teucriums are wall germander, T. chamaedrys and wood sage or sage-leaved germander, T. scorodonia. Cat thyme is T. marum.
Valerian, Valeriana officinalis
From valere, to be healthy. Also called all-heal. A common plant in the wild in Europe. The roots are edible, and dried they will attract a cat. Once these roots were used as a linen herb (their smell is like new leather and is called phu) no doubt because a nervine can be produced from them which is said to induce sleep.
Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens
Wintergreen or checker-berry, a pretty creeping or spicy decorative low-growing shrub not unlike the pernettya and needing the same lime-free soil. The white flowers are followed by red fruits.
Young leaves are nicely bronzed as well as fragrant. The fragrance may seem familiar to some, for oil of wintergreen is used to flavor some toothpastes as well as an ingredient in liniments.
Witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana.
The source of bay rum. From this plant also is made a lotion used for soothing the skin. The shrubs are fun in a garden because they bloom so early, the odd little yellow bloom tassels decorating the branches long before the leaves appear.
There are other species including the very fragrant H. japonica, which has given rise to many varieties.
Woad, Isatis tinctoria. Common dyer’s weed, a biennial which grows two to four feet tall. Worth growing simply because it s a relic of older days. Grow it in a mass to get clouds of yellow, honey-scented flowers with glaucous leaves. It will grow in any ordinary but good garden soil.
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
A mat-forming plant with pretty feathery leaves. It can be the despair of those who are proud of their lawns, but worth growing if you want a carpeting plant, and a good plant for borders if kept under strict control.
The wild species has white flowers, sometimes rose. The rosea varieties vary and have given rise to a good garden form, Cerise Queen. It was once principally a wound healer and considered powerful against evil.
Yerba buena, Micromeria cham-issonia
Also called M. dougiassi and Thymus chamissonis, one of the fragrant members of this genus. Among others are M. Corsica, with thyme-like flowers and oddly scented, with a fragrance hard to define or to describe, and M. piperella, sometimes called T. piperella, with a peppery scent attractive to cats. Not really wholly hardy.