Piquant herbs add more than fragrance to Florida gardens

florida is blessed with two seasons instead of four: one long, comfortable cool spell, followed by tropical balminess. Each allows us to grow different crops. Many of us are exploring frugal, yet creative and healthful, ways to cook and eat. Why not use each six-month season to grow fresh, organic versions of expensive, often-bland, store-bought herbs?

I plant my cool-weather herbs early each October, just as the cool-down gets under way. These herbs include dill, anise, fennel, cilantro and short-lived perennials such as lavender, rue, parsley, chervil, caraway, hyssop and borage. I mention these because many Florida gardeners, especially newly arrived Northern transplants, plant them in spring, just as the tropical season is about to commence. This almost guarantees a failed harvest.

Luckily, some herbs (as well as some shrubs) glory in the humid heat and monsoon rains because they originated in subtropical and tropical regions. This allows us to devise our own "summer cuisine" year after year.

Basil, basil, basil! Thai, sweet, lettuce-leafed, holy, columnar (sold as "Lesbos"), Genovese, cinnamon . . . I love them all. Each brings a uniquely heady, minty piquancy to entrees, salads and teas, and they all love summer here as much as I do. Give them moist, rich fertile soil and full sun; you will have bundles of home-grown, organic basil that would cost a fortune if purchased limp and wilting at the store.

Lesbos is sterile and therefore must be grown from easy-to-root cuttings, but the rest grow easily from seeds scattered onto potting soil, barely covered, and kept damp. Transplant them to your veggie, herb and flower gardens when they are 3 inches tall, and water once. They are not fussy. Just snip the leaves as needed for pungent fresh pestos. Snip off flower spikes as soon as they appear. If basil flowers are allowed to set seeds, this annual will have an even shorter life span.

Star anise, essential to Indian cuisine, is rarely sold as a plant, but it grows easily from seeds taken from the star-shaped pods sold in cellophane bags at Indian and Asian stores. Both the seeds and the leaves are rich in oils that evoke fennel, anise and cinnamon, and can be used in entrees or brewed into lovely teas served hot or sweetened over ice on a steamy day.

This woody shrub, known botanically as Illicium iverum, can be grown as a standalone specimen, or in rows to make a hedge of living incense. Truly tropical, Star anise can be damaged by a hard frost, so gardeners in cold interior regions should be prepared to offer protection.

The very similar Florida native shrub, Illicium floridanum, is considered mildly toxic and should not be eaten. A hedge of it grows beside my bank on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. I love to snatch a leaf as a "scratch and sniff," then give it to my tellers there, who did not know what it is or didn't know it is a fragrant and very undemanding hedge plant.

A fun thing to do with either plant is to gather a few cups of leaves, let them dry in a cool, shady room till crisp, then stuff them into an old sock. Tie a knot to seal them in, and toss it beneath your car seat or in your underwear drawer for a super-frugal, all-natural potpourri.

Like the fresh scent of lemon? Then indulge yourself in two amazingly potent perennials: lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), a native of South America, and lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), which hails from Southeast Asia. Both are easy-to-grow perennials here (lemon balm seems to do better in cooler climates) and each offers unique uses. Lemongrass is a staple in Asian cuisine, but try stuffing a fresh handful into a teapot, add boiling water, let steep a few minutes, then strain for a delightful herbal tea or hair rinse.

In the landscape, the plant offers the graceful look of pampas grass. I like to cut a thick bundle, double it back on itself a couple of times, then close each end with a fat rubber band. Toss this homemade air freshener into your sock drawer or beneath your car seat, giving it a firm twist now and then to refresh that heady lemon aroma.

Many people feel that lemon verbena is the most truly lemony herb. Try tossing leaves into a salad, or atop seafood, or brewing them into a tea or hair rinse. Use the leaves fresh. Dried, they lose most of their oomph.

Rosemary, for remembrance. Perhaps the easiest and most reliable perennial herb to grow here is rosemary. Soggy soil and shade are its only real enemies. Grown in the ground or a large pot in full sun, it is undemanding about soil and is very rarely affected by diseases or bugs. I find those aromatic fresh sprigs indispensable when cooking chicken or salmon, or minced into hot, buttered boiled potatoes and tossed.

If you are one of those gardeners who says, "I can't root cuttings," try sticking 6-inch cuttings with the needles stripped off the lower half into damp soil or sand. Cover with a jar and set on the north side of your house or in the shade. Talk about a confidence builder! About the only way to fail rooting rosemary is to keep the soil soggy. Lightly damp is all it takes. Years ago I created a rosemary hedge for a landscape client in North Tampa. We kept it at about 3 feet in height. You will recognize its close relationship to lavender when the pastel lavender blooms form.

See why I love Florida? Our yards turn into living potpourris, spilling over with herbs that our Northern snow-shoveling friends can only dream of growing, sniffing and nibbling.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at johnastarnes@msn.com.

Piquant herbs add more than fragrance to Florida gardens 07/18/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2008 4:31am]

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