Monday, March 05, 2007

I have had a bit of a ‘herby’ weekend this weekend, as is befitting the weekend leading up to ‘Herb Awareness Week.’ I spent Sunday morning tidying up my back flower border and planting a gift rose. The international nursery responsible for releasing ‘White Romance’ rose onto the market contacted me about my scepticism about it replacing ‘Iceberg’, and has given me a plant to trial.
I saw “White Romance” for the first time this spring and I think it is a fabulous rose. Whether it replaces “Iceberg” is another matter, but next summer I will report on how this very double, and very romantic-looking, rose has done in my garden.
I cleaned the rest of the garden up while I was at it, pulling out some of the free-seeding perennials that had got out of hand. This includes some hybrid marjoram, seedlings from Origanum ‘Rosenkuppel.’ I planted this about seven years ago and it has gradually spread through the southern end of the border. It is easy to pull out, and at this time of the year when if shows its lovely heads of flowers – white on some plants, pinkish mauve on others - so I haven’t worried too much about it spreading. If it gets too bad I just pluck some leaves to eat with tomatoes!
I had a crack at my corner of basil mint too. I planted this in a pot at the back door a few years ago, but it has really gone troppo and tried to take over everything – I should have known a mint would do that. I find the flavour and scent of this culinary herb too coarse for my taste (I love mint and basil so it seemed like a good ideaat the time of planting) and I wasn’t picking it and keeping it under control, so it has gone. Fortunately there are still plenty of herbs in the garden.
The Herb Federation of New Zealand has selected the International Herb of the Year, Lemon Balm, as their herb of the year too. This is a another member of the ubiquitous mint family although its genus name, Melissa, is derived from the Latin word for a bee. The specific name (officinalis) means “from the shops” so it has obviously been in commerce for a very long time.
As you might expect from a mint cousin, lemon balm is very hardy and makes a clump of stems up to a metre high. It is shallow rooted and, again like its cousins, spreads with creeping rhizomes. The leaves are deliciously scented with tangy lemon.
In late summer this plant covers its self with white flowers and they in turn are covered with bees.
Herbalists have used this plant for hundreds of years as a relaxant. It is said to be useful for calming a over-busy brain and has mild anti-bacterial properties. It is commonly used to make herbal teas, often in association with spearmint. The leaves are often crushed and spread on the skin as a mosquito repellent, and an essential oil derived form the plant is very popular in aromatherapy.
The other traditional European herb being highlighted this week is the golden daisy known to botanists as Taraxacum officinale. This has leaves in a rosette from the base, the leaves being jagged and hairless. Each individual flower is carried aloft on a hollow stem and is the brightest gold imaginable.
It is, of course, the dandelion.
Most of us would be scared to bring any more dandelions into the garden than were able to make their own way there, but in colder climes the dandelion is well-regarded as a salad green, especially in spring when the leaves are not quite so bitter. The roots are collected in autumn and dried and roasted to be used as a coffee substitute. The roots exude white latex that is commonly used to treat warts, topically. Herbalists swear that dandelion has good liver and kidney restorative powers.
I must confess that I am not converted to the use of dandelions – in fact I took a few out today when cleaning up the garden.
I also removed a specimen of one of their native herbs of the year – a koromiko. Regular readers will know that koromikos (Hebes) are among my favourite flowers so I would be reluctant to remove one, but it was one of the own seedlings that was shy at flowering and added nothing new colour-wise to my collection. Besides, I needed the room to plant the “White Romance.”
Koromiko has long been used my Maori as a cure for dysentery and diarrhoea – many pakeha use an infusion for this purpose too- and was an important ingredient of Mother Aubert’s patent medicines.
In most cases the best way to use koromiko is to collect the green unopened tips of a robustly growing plant and steep them in water. Crushed and bruised leaves can also be used as a poultice for a boil.
The other featured native herb is the manuka, Leptospermum scoparium. My back garden features a lovely variety of the ‘Electric Red’, which I limbed up this morning to allow the perennials underneath it to get some light. I’m feeling a little guilty now.
Most of us will be familiar with manuka oil and its many uses – mainly in the pure oil form or in soaps. It has proven antifungal and antibiotic properties, and manuka honey is widely regarded as having beneficial effects on the immune system.
All of these plants are easily grown – in some cases all too easily grown – so present no cultivation challenges. I suggest that they can just be planted in flower beds (except dandelion of course) and treated as part of the normal garden rather than as special herbal plants.

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