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Herbs From A to Z : Herbs are hard-working plants that can be used for flavor, fragrance and even as medicine


How about adding some hard-working herbs to the garden this fall? It's a good time to plant and they're easy enough to grow, the only trick is choosing a few truly useful herbs from the many that crowd nursery benches. From Anise to Zingiber (the edible ginger), there are a lot of things called herbs.

About 650 different kinds grow in Glenn Walker's Long Beach garden, where, as president of the Long Beach Herb Society, he's building a botanic garden of herbs in his back yard. (Of interest to balcony or patio gardeners, all are growing in containers.)

According to Walker, an herb is "any plant used for flavor, fragrance or medicine," so not all herbs are edible.

In fact, Shirley Kerins, who heads the Huntington Botanical Garden's large herb collection, is quick to warn that some herbs are quite poisonous if ingested, especially those with a medicinal background, like foxglove or helebore.

To help sort out the arcane (and maybe dangerous) from the useful, we asked several Southern California herb experts to list their favorites--the ones they use and like the most. As Kerins put it, "These are the herbs I'd want on that desert isle."

Herbs can be tucked here and there in the garden among other plants, grown in pots or in their own dedicated herb garden. When looking for a spot, keep in mind that most herbs like a very sunny location, and taste best if not watered too often. Keep traditional Mediterranean herbs, like rosemary and thyme, lean and on the dry side so the essential oils are not diluted.

Some herbs, such as basil and dill, are annuals that you must start anew every year in their season, while others are perennials, shrubs or even trees that become fairly permanent parts of the landscape.

Author and herbalist Norma Jean Lathrop begins her essential list with rosemary and lemon thyme. "Everyone should grow rosemary, if for no other reason than to amaze visitors from the East [where it is difficult to grow]," she said. Rosemary comes in all sorts of garden forms, from low, spreading ground-huggers, to stately upright shrubs such as 'Tuscan Blue.' She uses it and the bushy little lemon thyme in all sorts of dishes, but especially with chicken.

She also thinks everyone should be growing chives for the fresh leaves and pretty lavender-pink flowers, which she uses as a garnish. Chives may take a year or two to become established, but once they are, they flower heavily and are quite stunning in the garden.

She uses English lavender in potpourri and sachets as well as in cooking. Borage, prized for its pretty blue flowers, is another favorite. Her book, "Herbs, How to Select, Grow and Enjoy" (HP Books: $14.99), shows how to candy the edible flowers. Borage is an attractive three-foot-tall annual that self-sows every year (probably more than you'd like but seedlings are easy to pull out).

Without even thinking, Cristin Fusano, who teaches the potager class at Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar, names basil as her favorite fresh herb, but especially lemon and cinnamon-flavored basil.

Both are annuals that can be started from plants or seeds in April, and kept going for months "if you keep picking off the flowers." She's "fanatical" about pinching the plants back, right from the start, to keep them bushy and full of leaves.

Fusano uses the cinnamon-flavored basil in surprising ways, in shortbread-like cookies and in a delicious basil and lavender bread. She says lemon basil is best in pesto and for flavoring chicken, fish and barbecue.

Salad burnet and lovage are next on her list, and she says both are easy plants to grow year round. She strips the little leaflets off salad burnet and uses them in chicken salad and other salads and sandwiches. It has a "mild cucumber and nuts taste." The lovage tastes more like celery and she uses it in salads, soups and sandwiches. She prefers the smaller leaves that come in fall and winter.

Herb author Carole Saville, who is finishing a book called "Exotic Herbs" (to be published by Henry Holt), has a few less common herbs on her essential list. Perhaps her favorite is the true sweet marjoram ( Origanum majorana ), not what is commonly called hardy or Greek marjoram ( O. x majoricum ), or so-called pot marjoram. The true sweet marjorum, growing a little over a foot tall with grayish, felty leaves, is "literally sweet." She uses it in salad dressings and with chicken.

She uses Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida ) just like French, only in smaller quantities since it has a stronger anise taste. "The Mexican tarragon is in the garden long after the ephemeral French is gone," she adds. This wild marigold relative, growing to four feet tall, has pretty golden, marigold-like flowers in late fall and when it finishes, she cuts it to the ground for a fresh start.

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