Culinary and Medicinal Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices are used to flavor many dishes, and without herbs, most food would be bland and uninteresting. The word “herb” refers to the herbaceous (leafy) part of a plant, while a “spice” is any other plant part like bark (cinnamon), seed (coriander) or root (horseradish).
Lifecycles of Herbs and Spices
Some herbs and spices are annual, while others are perennial. In many cases, the length of the lifecycle depends upon your climate. Annual herbs are either warm season or cool season and live for less than one year. Perennial herbs live for more than two years.
Annual Herbs and Spices
Warm season annual herbs and spices are planted in spring and live until the frost kills them. Warm season herbs include basil, borage, calendula, chamomile, chervil, chives, epazote and hibiscus (also called jamaica). Warm season annual spices are dill and poppy seeds. Cool season annual herbs like cilantro (the seeds are a spice called coriander) and parsley*, are planted in fall and live until hot weather kills them.
Some annual plants like epazote and calendula reseed themselves and you may not need to replant. However, you can save money by saving seeds, as long as the seed packet isn’t labeled a “hybrid.” A hybrid plant is one whose offspring seed won’t be the same as the parent. (Most herbs aren’t hybrids.)
*parsley and cilantro are considered biennial plants and are in the carrot family.
Perennial Herbs and Spices
Perennial herbs and spices can live for several years, although some are considered “tender perennials” and may not live long in cold climates. Perennial herbs include bay, fennel (leaf), horseradish, lavender, lemon balm, lemon grass, lemon verbena, lovage, mint**, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, summer and winter savory, tarragon and thyme. Perennial spices include caraway and fennel seeds.
**mints and lemon balm are invasive by both underground stem and seed. Plant in pots placed on cement to prevent plants from taking over your garden. Remove new plants that appear elsewhere in your garden and use for tea or mojitos.
Growing Herbs and Spices
Research the herb or spice plant you want to grow to find out how much sunlight and water the plant needs. For warm season annuals, you can start seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost date to save money. For cool season annuals plant seeds directly into the soil in late summer. Otherwise purchase plants in 6 packs or 4.” Perennials can be planted almost any time of the year.
Some herbs need regular water and prefer moisture, while others do well with less. Just remember, if you grow herbs from seeds or transplants, make sure to water plants regularly until they are established. This can take up to a month or longer. Some perennial herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, lemon grass, lemon verbena, lovage, sage and summer savory are drought tolerant once established. Drought tolerance means that plants can live for long periods in between watering. However, the plants must be deep watered. Make sure to read Watering (Gardening 101) to learn more.
Many perennial herbs become “leggy” or “scraggly” after a few years. Prune lightly to shape plants each year in late winter after the last frost date in your area. Use Victory Seeds to find out more. In some cases it may be necessary to replace the plants, especially if frost damage is great.
Which is Better, Fresh or Dried?
Herbs and spices are most potent when fresh rather than dry. Use fresh whenever possible, and dry for future use for when the herb or spice isn’t available. Many herbs can also be frozen, such as basil and parsley.
The best time to harvest herbs is before the plant sets flowers. To harvest spices that are seeds, wait until after bloom when the flower begins to set seed. Some seed pods burst open, so you may need to tie a paper bag over the seed pod before it opens. Fresh herbs are more potent than dried herbs, harvest when needed.
For more information on making your own teas, read my blog post Two Teas for your Tummy about my favorite herbs for soothing an upset stomach.