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8/22/2006

Three Exciting New Herbs to Grow

For State by State Gardening magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

If you drive through any small town across America you will find either, or both, Mexican and a variety of Asian restaurants. Where once it was only burgers and pizza, or fried chicken and mashed potatoes, now you have choices of Indian, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Guatemalan or Mexican restaurants.

Each of these ethnic foods have a different set of flavors, of traditional herbs that are used for seasoning. Where our grandma used only a few herbs - sage, rosemary, thyme, maybe some horseradish, foods today rely on a completely new set of flavors.

Even the "all you can eat" Chinese buffet, does not rely on parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme for its flavors.

There are lots of new and exciting plants coming in to the marketplace that are of interest to the home gardener. Eating habits have changed and when food fashions change and restaurants begin offering new flavors, gardeners want to grow those seasoning plants in their own gardens. What that means for gardeners is that we are developing a taste for interesting, new flavors that do not include the older, more ordinary European herbs we were used to. Instead, these flavorful ethnic foods rely on herbs such as curry leaf, cilantro, kaiffir lime leaf, lemongrass, cumin, cardamom, a vast range of basils, fiery peppers and herbs that grow in the water garden.

Nurseries and garden centers follow trends and begin offering plants their customers request. Ten years ago lots of garden centers weren't offering herbs at all and now just about all of them have a section on herbs, simply because their customers asked for those plants. Here are three new herbs you might like to grow this coming season, with sources for where to find them.

1 - Green Pepper Basil (Ocimum selloi). This very attractive and unusual herb was first collected by Dr. Dennis Breedlove in Chiapas, Mexico, a dozen or so years ago. Records of its use date back to the Aztecs, who used the plant for medicine as well as seasoning. Several characteristics makes this basil unique. First, it's a robust, dark green with shiny leaves and will withstand cooler temperatures than other basils. It blooms continuously throughout the summer and fall with attractive lavender to purple flower spikes, and unlike other basils, the blooming and seed setting do not stop leaf production. (Most basils require some pruning to keep up good leaf production).

Second, the flavor is a pleasant combination of both sweet, bell pepper, and spicy basil. It's delicious in a variety of dishes, including corn soup and stir fried dishes. As an added bonus, the plant is an attractive landscape or patio plant and holds up well in hot weather. From my experience in growing green pepper basil, it also doesn't easily cross with other basils. I generally grow about eight varieties together in my herb bed. This is a very good addition to your herb garden! Source (plants): Nichols Garden Nursery, 800-422-3985 and www.nicholsgardennursery.com.

2- Vietnamese Cilantro, also known as Vietnames coriander and Ra Rom (Polygonum odoratum). You either love cilantro or you hate it. Admittedly it's an acquired taste, but if you enjoy salsa and chips, or any number of Asian or Mexican foods, cilantro is a necessary ingredient and this is an excellent, and easy, cilantro to grow. The standard cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a cool season plant, thriving in weather that's too cool for growing most garden plants. Try and grow this standard cilantro between May and September in the South and you will fail, which is why this new herb is so important. It loves Southern summers! The hotter the weather, the more humidity, the happier this plant becomes. The flavor has a lemon, coriander, curry taste and fragrance. In its native Vietnam, it grows in the marshes and my friends who grow it commercially for the restaurant trade, grow it in low, hot, humid greenhouses all summer long.

Vietnamese cilantro requires full sun and lots of moisture. In fact, it will grow in a partially submerged pot at the edge of a water garden, or in regular garden soil if kept consistently damp. However, there is one caution about eating this herb. It's necessary to keep the plant harvested regularly as the young leaves and shoots have the best flavor. If you allow the plant to ramble, then when you taste the leaves, the flavor is quite different and not totally pleasant. Like most herbs, the more you harvest the plant, the better the flavor! Use the leaves of this plant in the same way you use any other variety of cilantro. I like it in a salsa of ripe peaches or mangoes, some lime juice, a jalapeno pepper chopped, a bit of green onion and two or three leaves of Vietnamese cilantro chopped. Mixed and served with chips, it's a great afternoon appetizer. Source (plants): Richters Herbs, 1-905-640-6677 and at www.richters.com.

3- Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) is another interesting new plant to grow. If you like to cook Asian dishes, there is no really good substitute for the flavor of this plant. Kaffir lime is a necessary ingredient in Tom Yum soup (meaning hot and sour) and Tom Kha Kai (Tom means soup, in Thai). It's a citrus and should be grown like any dwarf orange or lemon and is easily started from seed or cutting. Be prepared for thorns, like other citrus plants. Easily grown in containers indoors or on the patio, the desirable part of this plant are its shiny, dark green, hour-glass shaped leaves. In Thai dishes one or two leaves are simply torn up and dropped into a dish as it cooks, or in some recipes the leaf is rolled up tight and sliced very thin and added to Thai salads. The leaves have a very pleasant, lime fragrance and flavor. Give the plant full sun in summer and bring it indoors in winter. It's an easy and attractive plant for the patio. Source: Seed available from Baker Creek Seed, P.O. Box 70, Mansfield, MO 65704; 417-924-1222 or www.rareseeds.com, and plants from Nichols Garden Nursery, 800-422-3985 or www.nicholsgardennursery.com.

If you are an adventurous cook and like experimenting with new flavors, you will enjoy these new herbs and they will be an excellent addition to your herb garden.

Jim long has written over 20 books on herbs and gardening. You can find more plant information, recipes and views of his garden on his website at www.Longcreekherbs.com.

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