Heirloom Herbs

This column appears in the summer 2008 issue of The Heirloom Gardener magazine.
The Heirloom Herbalist
Copyright 2008, Jim Long

Heirloom Herbs

Herbs, unlike vegetables and fruits, have not changed a great deal over the centuries. The food crops, those plants which produce the bulk of our human diet, have been crossed, selected and hybridized, to produce larger yields or bigger fruits, many times at the loss of flavor.

The rose, which I consider first a fragrance and flavor herb, and second a landscape plant, is just one example of what happens when a plant is overly manipulated. This fragrant flowered plant which is used in many cultures of the world as a seasoning herb in ice cream, milk shakes, cakes and other desserts, has been hybridized to the point of being no more useful than plastic flowers. While it’s pretty in the landscape, the modern rose has lost almost all of its usefulness.

Recently I attended the Garden Writers of America annual conference in Oklahoma City, where several rose companies displayed their newest rose introductions for the garden writers to see. At one of the trade show booths I asked the rose grower what his roses tasted like and which ones had the best fragrance. He looked at me as if I’d just announced I’d married a Martian.

“Taste? You can’t eat a rose,” he said.

Of course I took the challenge, explaining I had written a book about that very subject. I sniffed the various roses on display and chose a pink one that had a hint of fragrance. I plucked a flower and ate it and suggested the rose grower do the same. With little fragrance, there was also not much flavor. While the roses were beautiful to look at, were continuous bloomers all season and didn’t require sprays or special care, they might as well have been artificial. Why grow a rose if it has no fragrance or flavor? Those are the very reasons the plant was domesticated in the first place, centuries ago!

The more standard herbs, those like rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, sage, hyssop and others, have not changed over time. Certainly a few varieties have been selected for specific reasons. ‘Hill Hardy’ rosemary, for example, came about as a seedling found growing on an old farmstead in Texas by Madalene Hill many years ago. It was a natural cross, or a seedling of one, that had shown some specific qualities of being extra-hardy in Texas, was found blooming in January with beautiful blue blossoms.

Oregano is another example of a plant that remains unchanged over time. There are many varieties of oregano, and most of the ones you will find for sale are named by the region where they were discovered. Origanum dictamus, commonly named “Dittany of Crete” comes from Crete, while Sicilian (O. x majoricum) is a cross of oregano and marjoram that was originally found growing in Sicily centuries ago. Origanum vulgare, a wild oregano that came first from Italy, likely transported by immigrants centuries ago, at some point crossed with O. hirtum and was found growing wild in the mountains of Greece and goes by the name of ‘Greek Mountain’ oregano.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) is an herb that is seldom used today, but was one of the important herbs in biblical times. You will find it referred to by Moses when he commanded the elders of Israel to take bundles of hyssop, dip them in the sacrificial lamb’s blood and sprinkle it upon the doors of their houses before Passover.

Hyssop was also used in preparations for cleansing rituals, as well as medicinally for sore throats and improving digestion. The plant remains just as it was two thousand years ago, possessing the same bitter oils that gave it the unique flavor and fragrance as in the distant past.

The Greeks and Romans spread many of the herbs from the Mediterranean in their travels and conquests. Later the trade between the so-called New World and the Old, saw plants being shipped between the continents, with European herbs being introduced into the Americas, and American herbs collected and sent back to Europe.

A large number of the hundreds of herbs grown today, are the basic, heirloom herbs that could be found centuries ago. Many of them have remained unchanged for a thousand years or more.
That means when you smell or taste the leaves from lemon verbena or lemongrass, you know that someone living centuries ago, smelled and tasted the exact things you are experiencing today. When a chef, writing in a cookbook in the 1700s included French tarragon in a recipe, you know you can reproduce that same dish, with the exact flavors he did, because French tarragon is an herb that is unchanged.

How do these herbs come down to us in this unchanged state? Many, like French tarragon, rosemary, thyme and others, are propagated almost exclusively by cuttings. Starts of those plants would have been brought to this country as cuttings or dug plants from Europe and passed along from one generation to the next. Some, like peppermint and French tarragon do not produce seed and must be propagated by division or cutting.

It’s satisfying to know, I think, when you taste lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus), Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens), garden sage (Salvia officinalis) or any of a thousand other herbs, that their flavors remain unchanged throughout the centuries. Nearly all of them taste and smell exactly the way they did a millennia ago and are true heirlooms of the plant world.

Questions and comments always welcome through Jim’s website: www.LongCreekHerbs.com.