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A Sense of Herbs

March 25, 2002

A Sense of Herbs

Dorry Baird Norris

240-420-5082

BIG AND BEAUTIFUL

March, 24 2002

753 words

BIG AND BEAUTIFUL

The Cornell University alma mater depicts the university as "reared against the arch of heaven, looking proudly down." It seems to me that our herb gardens also need dramatic plants that "rear against the arch of heaven" as a backdrop for smaller or less imposing herbs.

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Tall plants - these are over four feet - with herbal connections seem to fall into four categories. This week we'll talk about just two of those: clumps and spires. Next week, it will be towers and fountains.

Clumps are tall overall and spread gracefully, forming mounds. They may need to be staked to keep them from sprawling.

One of my favorite clumpers is the pink-flowered, vanilla-scented Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), a native to this area. It grows along roadsides in all its six-foot splendor. Native Americans used it to induce fever-breaking sweats and it was reputed to tone the reproductive system. Joe Pye is named after a famed, early American, Indian medicine man from New England who successfully used the plant to treat typhoid fever. It prefers full sun and a damp location and is a butterfly magnet.

Tangerine southernwood (Artemisia arbrotanum "Tangerine") has gray-green finely divided leaves. It is strongly aromatic like ordinary southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum), but taller. It is happy growing in poor soils. The dried leaves are sometimes used in sachets to repel fleas and moths.

Two monardas - Monarda fistulosa and a newer hybrid Monarda didyma "Little Marian" - are somewhat taller than the red monarda or bee balm to which we are accustomed. Monarda have a minty taste and a fragrance like the bergamot orange. Their lavender flowers are edible and the leaves make a refreshing tea. Hummingbirds will flock to both plants.

Spires rise lean and tall, often with a single flower stem. Some of these are biennials that grow in low clumps the first year, then send up one magnificent stalk (like a low church with an impressive gothic spire) the second year.

Many seem to possess an enduring appeal to children. Hollyhocks, milkweed and sunflowers are definitely play plants.

Generations of girls have discovered that the bell-shaped flowers of old-fashioned single hollyhock (Alcea rosea) blossoms make ideal doll skirts or elegant hats for larger dolls. The Chinese ate the flowers as a pot herb and the entire plant is an emollient, demulcent and diuretic. Hollyhocks grow best in protected corners of the garden out of the wind. Sow seeds now in a well drained, sunny location and you will have flowering plants next spring. Hollyhocks should be treated as biennials or short-lived perennials. They do re-seed nicely.

During World War II girls in my Scout troop were recruited to collect the pods of the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) so the silk could be used to replace kapok - no longer available from Asia - in life preservers. Both the tender roots and young seed pods of milkweed have been cooked as vegetables. The flowers have a sweet scent. Monarch butterflies will flock to a garden graced with milkweed or its shorter relation, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosum). Children use the silky down from the pods to line doll cradles while the dried pods themselves make cradles for teenie-weenie dolls.

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), the only annuals on our Big and Beautiful list, fascinate children and, if current gardening magazines are any indication, they are also experiencing a renaissance among adult gardeners. Their cheerful, gold faces follow the sun across the sky. The cut flowers make strikingly handsome bouquets, but don't put them on your best white tablecloth as their treasure chest of pollen may stain. The pollen can easily pass for gold dust among imaginative children. Leave a few of the stalks with their heads intact to attract birds and create spots of interest in the winter garden. Goldfinches and chickadees find them especially attractive.

The sunflower is an incredibly useful plant, producing edible seeds, oil and a seed butter that provided North American Indians with a much needed source of energy. The plants are shallow rooted and are heavy feeders and may quickly exhaust the soil. Sunflower seed shells dropped under bird feeders may contaminate the ground so that it may be difficult to grow anything in that area (but the seed may germinate for a whole new crop of plants).

Give these plants a chance in your herb garden. They'll create a welcome focal point and furnish your garden with butterflies - "nature's flying flowers."

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