The Herbs of Spring
The herbs of spring are a little like spring itself: somewhat tender of leaf, cool weather loving and appreciate an occasional shower. They are some of the earliest plants to appear and often fade away when the heat of summer arrives. Let me introduce you to some of them.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm has been cultivated as a bee plant for over 2000 years and as a result has acquired the common name “medicinal bee”. Honeybees seek out balm nectar and some beekeepers rub their hands and clothing with lemon balm to calm the colony. Bunches of lemon balm are put in empty hives to attract swarms and it is thought that the leaves contain the same terpenoids found in the glands of honeybees.
Arab physicians in the 1st century prescribed lemon balm to fight depression because of its sedative, relaxing properties. Fresh leaves brewed into a tea helps with nervous anxiety and tension headaches. It is also antiviral and antibacterial and can be applied externally for sores, skin irritations, bites and stings.
A hardy perennial that grows up to 18” in height, lemon balm has strongly lemon scented, rough textured, oval leaves. Grow it where it is protected from afternoon sun in fertile soil; supplemental water may be needed in the heat of summer. While normally well behaved, it has tendency to look ratty is mid-summer when its insignificant flowers appear; simply shear them off and it will quickly regain its attractive appearance.
Lemon balm is a member of the mint family so it will spread, but not at an alarming rate. Place it somewhere where it can wander. In any event, you will want to have plenty of lemon balm because it makes a lovely addition to the teapot; either on its own or mixed with other herbs. There is an old saying that is you drink a cup of lemon balm tea every day you will live to be one hundred years old.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
The name calendula comes from the Latin word “calendae”, meaning little calendar or clock. This refers to its habit of closing its petals at the end of the day (or on an overcast day). The Book of Secrets, written in 1560 by Albertus Magnus, says that wearing an amulet of calendula petals, a bay leaf and a wolf’s tooth will assure that only words of peace are spoken to the wearer.
Infused in oil, calendula is a soothing herb for irritated skin, eczema, insect bites and sunburn. It has anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antifungal properties. Calendula has been used for centuries to impart a yellow color to butter and cheese and has often been used as an inexpensive saffron substitute. Fresh calendula leaves are attractive in salads and impart a mild, spicy taste.
Also called pot marigold, calendula is an annual that grows to 12” in height and has hairy, slightly sticky simple leaves. Grow it in full sun and enjoy the daisy-like flowers in tones of yellow and orange that will bloom non-stop until the heat of summer arrives. The last few years, calendula has become available in garden centers, but it is very easily grown from seed scattered over soil that has been lightly raked. After blooming, shake the dry seed heads out for a return visit in the fall when the weather is more to their liking.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
There are few herbs that produce intense feelings of love-it or hate-it like cilantro. Those who love it claim its fresh taste enhances food; those who hate it claim it tastes like soap. The name is derived from “koros”, the Greek word for bedbug in reference to the fetid smell of the leaves.
The leaves and seeds of cilantro have digestive properties and stimulate appetite. In traditional Indian medicine decoctions of the seeds are eaten as a small pox preventive. Cilantro has also recently been considered helpful in lowering blood cholesterol levels.
Cilantro is an annual that grows up to 2’ tall with finely divided, pungent leaves. Grow it in fertile soil in a shady spot and water it occasionally. When the hot weather arrives it will bolt, but dropped seeds will most likely re-sprout in the cooler fall temperatures. Cilantro is easy to grow from seed and will quickly grow to usable size. Plant the seeds where you will want them to be because seedlings do not transplant well.
Cilantro is readily available in the market, but I find that large bunches have a tendency to rot in plastic bags. The best way to store cilantro is in a glass with a small amount of water in the refrigerator.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
There is only one month in the year (January and this year February) when chives don’t grow in my garden. Once you’ve grown them, you will reach for them often, always welcome when a mild onion flavor is appreciated. Chive flowers are delicious in salads, but a little goes a long way so break the florets apart.
There are two types of chives: onion chives have a round leaf blade, pink flowers and a mild onion flavor; garlic chives, have a flat leaf blade, white flowers and a stronger flavor. Garlic chives are prolific seeders and I would recommend you snip off the flowers to keep them from becoming invasive.
Chives are a hardy perennial, growing to 12” in height. The clumps of leaves grow from small underground bulbs. They require little effort to grow preferring rich soil, part shade and supplemental water in the heat of summer. Chives are one of the few herbs that are harvested close to the ground rather than snipping the tips; don’t remove more than one third of the plant at each snipping.
Chives are easily grown from seed and my preferred method is to sow several packets in flat. When the seedlings are a few inches high, I cut the flat into squares (like a sheet cake) and plant in the garden.
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Dill was a favorite herb used as a charm against witchcraft, and it was often burned to disperse thunder clouds and strong storms. The common name comes from the Saxon word “dillan”, which means lull, and even today an infusion of dill is given to soothe colicky babies.
Dill is an annual that grows to 2’ in height, when its umbels of yellow flowers are in bloom. A single stem supports aromatic, feathery leaves. It likes average garden soil, protection from afternoon sun, and occasional water. Plant seed in average garden soil in early spring or late fall in a location where it will remain because it doesn’t transplant well. If grown in poor, dry soil, it will bolt quickly.
Dill is the host plant for swallow tail butterfly larva. Plant plenty so there is enough for you and the butterflies.
Parsley (Petroselinum spp.)
Parsley is steeped in superstition. Transplanting it, giving it away, and picking it when in love, etc. foretells disaster. The Greeks associated it with death and funerals. Some said it flourished only where the mistress is master, others that it would only grow for the wicked.
Parsley is a hardy biennial, growing on a short, stout taproot to 18” in height. For vigorous growth, parsley needs fertile soil, adequate water and protection from hot afternoon sun. It is a heavy feeder, and appreciates a dose of organic fertilizer in early spring and again in mid-summer. Parsley will disappear in the heat of summer, but will often reappear in the fall.
There are two types, the curly leaved that is normally found as a garnish, and the smooth leaved that is called Italian parsley and said to be the most culinary important of the two. Intensely green, parsley is a nutritional powerhouse. One tablespoon supplies the daily minimum requirement of vitamins A and C. Infusions made from the leaves and roots have been used to treat jaundice and coughs. Although safe used as a culinary herb, parsley is toxic in excess.
Parsley seed is notoriously slow to germinate, sometimes taking as long as three weeks to sprout. It is said that it has to travel seven times to the devil and back and should be sown on Good Friday to outwit him. It sometimes helps to soak seed in water before sowing and firm the soil well after sowing.
I hope that you’ll consider growing some of the herbs of spring. They are well-behaved plants that can be added to your herb or vegetable garden, or simply tucked in the flower garden; and their fresh flavors are welcome at this time of year.