THE EXCITING WORLD OF HERBS
No garden is complete without herbs! In general, they are easy-to-grow and quite happy in poor, gravelly soils. There can never be substitution for freshness, and there's no doubt that fine cuisine and fresh herbs are synonymous. Besides adding gourmet delicacy to meals, herbs serve as insect repellents in your garden, add color to your life and are your password to self-reliant health.
The definitions of the word “herb” are numerous, and each hobby or profession seems to have its own. Naturopaths and doctors define herbs as plants with medicinal benefits. Chefs favor culinary usefulness. Botanists prefer a measurable, objective definition concerning a plants inability to produce woody tissue. The list goes on. In its own way, each definition is correct. My own definition is an attempt to summarize the various definitions instead of differentiating between them. For me, simply, herbs are important plants. Each individual or profession is entitled to bestow the title “herb” to the plants they designate important.
Modern life rarely affords the time to really use more than a small number of herbs. The field of herbs is so large and so varied that unfocused exploration quickly becomes overwhelming and confusing. The most efficient method to approach the world of herbs is to decide first what is important and then search for the appropriate herbs.
One of the things I noticed when studying American Indian uses of herbs was that almost every plant important to the Blackfeet Indians in Montana was used to treat sore throats. Although it can be argued that numerous plants posses constituents that soothe sore throats, a more important conclusion is that the Blackfeet had many sore throats. The Blackfeet had a need, and then found plants that filled that need.
Several years ago I met Proccopio, an Italian student studying in St. Louis. Proccopio explained arugula made him sick. Much to my surprise, he went on to explain how the hippest of all new gourmet herbs in America was a stomach medicine back in Italy. His grandmother always cooked an awful, arugula gruel for youngsters whenever stomach aches attacked. Nausea and arugula were indelibly etched together in Proccopio's mind. “In this lifetime anyway,” he explained, “arugula was not going to be a gourmet salad green.” I began to realize the historical use of a plant is tied to the needs of the culture using it. Obviously, the Italy of Proccopio's grandmother needed a stomach medicine more than a fancy, new, gourmet, salad green.
After researching and exploring the field of herbs for more than twenty five years, I finally learned to focus my herbal studies on a few, important herbs because I need them and use them, year after year. Following is a list of herbs most likely to be important to mountain and desert gardeners alike as well as hikers. I have grouped them according to primary use. Bolded herbs are available from Seeds Trust. Simply click to order. Email us with specific requests if not found in our catalog and we’ll help you find the herbs you want!
One of the most enjoyable ways to engage in the world of herbs is to drink herbal teas. Michael Tierra, in his book entitled The Way of Herbs, describes “the art of simpling” as a way of introducing a diversity of new plants into human diets as a simple way to maintain a higher level of health. The easiest way to do this is to drink herbal teas. Some of the following herbs can be used also in large or concentrated doses to cure specific ailments. When enjoyed in moderation as herbal teas, they are generally considered harmless and delicious.
anise hyssop (P) Agastache foeniculum
Use abundant amounts of these sweet, licorice-flavored leaves in salads and teas! Also called Licorice Mint. Pink-lavender, 3-4" inflorescences on 3' tall plants. Flowers last a good portion of the summer. Prefers full sun. Provide well-drained soil and moderate water. Plant seeds in flats, or after soil reaches 65°F.
chamomile (A) Matricaria recutia
Chamomile tea has been used for centuries to calm nerves and upset stomachs. It remains steadfastly a favorite! Insect repellent and fungicidal spray can be made by soaking flower tops in water for a few days. Use this solution to prevent “damping off” of new seedlings. Produces an abundance of small, daisy-like flowers on 2-3' stems. Prefers full sun. Provide well-drained soil, and consistent water. Plant seeds near surface in spring as soon as ground can be worked.
clover, red (P) Trifolium pratense
Soft-pink flowers bounce on a thick carpet of deep-green leaves. Versatile ground cover doubles as soil conditioner. Dried flowers make a wonderful, mineral-rich herbal tea sometimes used for blood purification. Easy-to-grow. 1-2' tall. Provide partial-to-full sun. Tolerates the widest range of soils, including clay. Drought-tolerant, yet consistent watering is necessary for best results. Plant seeds anytime. Can be invasive, and should not be used in a mix.
lemon balm (P) Melissa officinalis
Fresh, lemony flavor and fragrance--a wondrous addition for the cold-mountain garden. Use in teas, salads or oriental recipes. Forms tight, bright-green clumps that seldom reach above 2' tall. Provide partial-to-full sun. Prefers well-drained, moist, rich soil. Plant seeds in flats, or directly in garden after soil reaches 60° F.
sawtooth mt. mint (P) Agastache urticifolia
This beautiful wildflower has large, pink, aromatic inflorescence. Dried flowers and leaves make the best herbal teal we've tasted. Easy to grow. 3' tall. Prefers full sun. Provide well-drained soil. Drought-tolerant, yet prefers regular watering. Plant seeds in fall, or cold stratify.
Just whispering the words “fresh herbs” makes our mouths water! Every kitchen should have bountiful quantities of the following delicious herbs to “spice up” any dish.
basil (A) Ocimum basilicum
Aromatic member of mint family. One of the most popular of all culinary herbs. Use in salads, soups and, of course, for pesto! 12-18" tall. Pinch back for summer-long pleasure. Prefers full sun. Provide well-drained, rich loamy soil. Plant seeds in flats 4-6 weeks early, or after soil reaches 70°F.
borage (A) Borago officinalis
Brighten your garden and your summer cuisine with these beautiful, purple-blue, star-shaped flowers. Dress up iced teas, salads, cold soups and fruit plates with the cucumber-flavored blossoms and young, tender leaves! Historically, borage was used medicinally to reduce fevers and “brighten ones spirits”. Prefers full sun. Provide well-drained soil, and moderate water. Plant seeds in spring after last heavy frost. Difficult to transplant because of taproot.
chives (P) Allium schoenoprasum
We can't imagine ever being without the delicious, fresh, delicate-onion flavor of these thin leaves in our salads, soups, eggs and on our Idaho baked potatoes! The handsome, pink flower globes on summer-green, 12" stalks provide yet another source of long-lasting cut flowers. Whole blossoms or petals separated are creative additions to salads. Provide full sun. Prefers well-drained, rich soil, and moderate water. Plant seeds thickly in flats, or directly in early spring garden.
cilantro (A) Coriandrum sativum
Add one of our most favorite herbs to omelets, soups and salads! Indispensable for Chinese, Thai and Southwest cooking. Produces white, lacy flowers. 2' tall. Also called Chinese Parsley or Coriander. One of the easiest herbs to grow! Provide partial-to-full sun, well-drained, rich soil and consistent watering. Plant seeds after soil reaches 55° F.
dill (A) Anethum graveolens
Garnish cucumber salads, cold summer soups or freshly baked mountain trout with the lacy, pale gray-green leaves of this most popular herb! It is easy-to-grow for foliage as well as seeds. 2-3' tall. Yellow, umbel-shaped flowers appear in late summer. Provide full sun. Prefers well-drained, slightly-acidic soil. Dill demands plenty of moisture if it is to sustain growth. Plant seeds in flats, and transplant as soon as first real leaves form; or plant directly in 70° F. garden soil. Often reseeds once established.
garlic chives (A) Allium tuberosum
Accent your salads and brighten stir-fry cooking year-round with fresh garlic flavor. Easy to grow in pots indoors in the winter. Resembles regular chives in appearance, except its leaves are shiny and flat instead of round and hollow. Also called Chinese Leeks. Provide full sun but tolerates partial shade. Provide well-drained, rich soil and consistent water. Plant seeds in clumps as soon as ground can be worked in spring.
oregano, true greek (P) Origanum sp.
Taste the best strain of any oregano we grow in any climate! A truly exciting flavor. Pinkish-white flowers decorate this herb that doubles as a perfect ground cover. 12-18" tall. Provide full sun. Prefers well-drained soil, and plenty of moisture. Plant seeds in flats, or wait until soil reaches 65° F. Mulch heavily if left to winter in extreme cold; or pot indoors for winter use.
parsley, Italian (plainleaf) (B) Petroselinum crispum
A hardy biennial that will survive mountain winters and provide early spring greens. Try moving several plants indoors to a sunny window sill for a winter long supply of fresh parsley. Because of its strong flavor, plainleaf is the preferred type of parsley for cooking. Try fresh in salads. 2-3' tall. Flat, glossy, dark-green leaves. Provide full sun. Prefers rich, well-drained soil, and plenty of moisture. Plant seeds in flats 6-8 weeks early or when soil reaches 40° F. Soak seeds overnight to hasten germination. Keep moist for 3-week germination period.
sage (P) Salvia officinalis
Add silver-green leaves to meats, poultry, stuffing, sauces and gravies! 1-2' tall bushes. Medicinally, it was used as a wash for sore throats. Provide full sun. Prefers well-drained, slightly alkaline soil. Mulch heavily if winter temperatures dip below -20°F. Plant seeds in flats, 6-8 weeks early or when soil reaches 65° F.
sorrel, sheep (P) Rumex acetocella
This delicious, mountain edible sports midsummer flower stalks loaded with red-winged fruits and is a showy addition to any garden. Arrow-head shaped leaves live up to the sorrel name with their crisp, delicious, lemony flavor. 4-6" tall. Prefers full sun. Plant fresh seeds in fall or early spring.
thyme (P) Thymus vulgaris
Also called German, English or Winter Thyme. One of the most popular culinary herbs. An aromatic, short, creeping plant with a long history of medicinal use. Thyme oil is antiseptic; and thyme tea is mineral-rich, antispasmodic and a diuretic. Provide full sun. Prefers well-drained, rich soil. Plant seeds in flats, 6-8 weeks early or when soil reaches 70° F.
Herbs should never be used for food or medicine unless positively identified by an expert. Our descriptions are not prescriptions or suggestions for the use of plants as food or medicine. They are merely a listing of the historical uses of some of the important herbs that can be grown successfully at all altitudes depending on your region.
arnica (P) Arnica cordifolia
Used externally for centuries to treat sore muscles. Potentially poisonous if swallowed. Large, yellow, daisy-like flower framed by two opposite, soft, green, heart-shaped leaves. Excellent border plant. 12" tall. Prefers partial shade found under mature fir and pine, but will tolerate full sun. Provide well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Plant seeds in fall, or cold stratify. Does not transplant well.
avens (P) Geum macrophyllum
Produces a few, yellow, rose-like flowers at the end of 2-3' stems. Medicinally, the root of avens has been used to make a tea which calms the intestinal tract and helps to cure dysentery. Prefers partial-to-full-sun. Provide rich, well-drained soil and keep moist until blossoms drop in late summer. Plant seeds in late summer. Plant seeds in fall, or cold stratify. Does not transplant well.
calendula (A) Calendula officinalis
Bright, orange-yellow flowers to color your landscape all summer! Will stand guard against a number of insects including asparagus beetle and tomato worm. Add the delicious petals to salads and soups. Also use flowers for medicinal teas or to make textile dyes. Prefers full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. Provide well-drained soil, and moderate water. Also called Pot Marigold as it will grow year-round in pots! Plant seeds in spring after soil reaches 60° F.
dock, yellow (P) Rumex crispus
This medicinal plant is found world-wide. Yellow dock root has been used for everything from stomach-aches to blood disorders. Yellow flowers turn into the familiar brick-red seed stalks of late-fall, early winter. Seldom reaches over 3' in height. Requires full sun and loamy soil. Water moderately until midsummer when it can be left to dry.
echinacea (P) Echinacea angustifolia
Generally recognized as the most antibiotic species of echinacea. Showy, nodding, purple petals lay back from protruding orange cones. Prefers full sun. Likes well-drained soil but tolerates a wide variety, including clay. Drought-tolerant once established. Plant seeds in fall or put in refrigerator for cold treatment for at least 30 days. Plant near the surface, as the seeds need light to germinate.
mountain gentian (P) Gentiana affinis
Alpinists around the world recognize gentian as one of the most beautiful, little blue flowers. Used for centuries as a stomach medicine. 6" tall. Provide partial-to-full sun. Prefers well-drained soil and plenty of moisture until blossoms drop. Plant seeds in fall or put in refrigerator for cold treatment for at least 60 days.
gumweed (P) Grindelia sp.
Distinctly gummy yellow daisies on 2-3" shrubs. Mostly found in the disturbed areas along roads. Grindelia is an official drug plant in European medicine. Herbal tea has been prescribed for bronchitis and as a stomach tonic. Provide full sun and well-drained, disturbed soil. Drought resistant once established. Plant seeds in fall or early spring or propagate from cuttings.
healall (P) Prunella vulgaris
Small member of the mint family that frequents the semi-shady meadows of the Mountain West. Small lavender flowers. Medicinally, healall has been used for mild fevers and sore throats to mention a few. Requires partially shady locations with moist, rich and loamy soil. Keep damp. Plant seeds in fall or early spring or start from rooted cuttings. Self seeds into groundcovers.
mullein (B) Verbascum thapsus
Tall spikes of mullein with bright, yellow flowers are common throughout the West in disturbed soils. Mullein has been an important medicinal plant, containing constituents useful to help lung, gland and skin disorders. Mullein flower oil has been used as a cure for ear infections. Prefers full sun and well-drained, marginal soil. Drought-tolerant. Plant seeds in fall or early spring.
onion, wild (P) Allium sp.
No garden should be without this elegant, edible flower! Delicate, pink umbels on single stalks have delicious, light sweet flavor. Separate the blossoms and use in salads, or sprinkle on grilled foods! Abundant at all altitudes. Easy-to-grow. 3-10" tall. Prefers full sun. Provide well-drained, sandy loam. Water moderately until blossoms dry. Plant seeds in fall, or cold stratify.
oregon grape (P) Berberis repens
A fine ground cover with shiny, evergreen leaves. Clumps of yellow flowers yield edible, but sour, blue grapes. Oregon grape has been called one of the most important, medicinal plants in the Mountain West. It contains the yellow alkaloid “berberine” which has been used for everything from eye drops to blood purifiers. Tolerates partial shade to full sun. Provide a rich, well-drained soil. Water moderately. Plant seeds in fall or early spring. Rooted cuttings can be used, but Oregon grape does not transplant after established.
plantain (P) Plantago major
A miracle of a little plant that grows in moist, marginal soil all over the world. When steamed, the young leaves are a vitamin-rich pot-herb. Fresh, they have been known to help everything from stomach ulcers to insect bites. Tolerates partial-to-full sun and marginal-to-rich soil. Keep moist for best results. Plant seeds in fall.
sheperd's purse (A) Capsella bursa-pastoris
Recognized by its heart-shaped seed pods. The fresh plant is an herbal source for acetylcholine which facilitates nerve transmission. Tolerates partial-to-full sun, and a wide range of soils. Keep lightly watered. Plant seeds anytime.
skullcap (P) Scutellaria nana
These rather small, mint family plants often hide their showy purple flowers under sagebrush or chokecherry. Tincture of the fresh plant or tea from the root is said to be one of our region's surest remedies for nervous system troubles. Tolerates partial-to-full sun. Prefers rich and moist yet well-drained soil. Plant seeds in fall or early spring.
valerian (B) Valeriana officinalis
This beautiful, large, plant has white flowers. 6' tall. The original source of the drug, Vallium. A tea or tincture made from Valerian's roots is said to be a powerful sedative. Provide partial-to-full sun. Prefers well-drained moist soil. Plant seeds in flats, 6-8 weeks early or when soil reaches 60° F.
yarrow (P) Achillea millefolium
Small white flowers top lacy, fern-like foliage. Perfect for dried flower arrangements. There is new evidence that this magical plant has been used medicinally for more than 60,000 years! Placed directly on a cut or scrape, Yarrow will help blood clot. Its Latin name is derived from Achilles, the Greek warrior who reportedly used this plant on the battlefield of Troy. Easy-to-grow. Prefers full sun. Likes well-drained, slightly alkaline soil. Drought resistant once established. Plant seeds in early spring. May be invasive.
catnip (P) Nepeta cateria
Delight your cats, or discourage mice by planting a border of this mint family member around your garden. Relax with a cup of catnip tea (in herbal medicine, catnip flowers and leaves have been labeled antispasmodic and nervine.) A spray made from fresh catnip repels many insects including flea beetles. Sometimes the grayish-green foliage reaches 5' tall. Provide partial-to-full sun, and moderate watering. Will tolerate poor soils, if sandy or well-drained. Plant seeds in flats, or after soil reaches 60° F.
moleplant (B) Euphorbia lathyris
Planted every 20" around a garden, the symmetrical, light-green foliage forms a natural boundary above ground, while below ground, volatile oils in the roots ward off destructive garden rodents. 12" tall. Provide full sun. Prefers well-drained soil and plenty of moisture. Requires warm soil temperatures (70°F. and above) for germination.
pyrethrum (P) Chrysanthemum coccineum
Bright, daisy-like flowers with pink petals! Our garden wouldn't be without this beautiful and valuable flower! Soak dried flowers for several days in warm water to acquire a powerful insecticide. (Also called “Painted Daisy”.) Winter-hardy to -20°F. Prefers full sun. Requires moderate water. Provide well-drained soil. Plant seeds in spring, as soon as soil is warm.
wormwood (P) Artemesia absinthium
Wormwood's attractive, 2' clumps of feathery, silver leaves have a pungent smell that will repel dogs, cats and insects from your garden. It is one of the main ingredients in vermouth. It has a long, medicinal history as a vermifuge (a substance that repels worms). Provide full or partial sun. Prefers well-drained loam. May be invasive in wet areas.
In order to ensure maximum potency, dried herbs should be stored no longer than one year. Once an individual decides which herbs are important and useful to keep for use in the home, an annual harvesting schedule should be developed. Annual harvesting will result in a fresh and potent supply of your important herbs. The act of interfacing with nature or your garden to harvest fresh herbs each year at the proper time can become an important health ritual in itself.
Roots are best harvested in spring or fall when upper portion of the plant is dormant. Morning is the preferred time of day before the morning dew evaporates. Leaves are best harvested before a plant has flowered. This is especially true of mint family plants. Flowers are most potent in the bud stage, before opening.
Although herbs should be dried completely before storage, heat should never be used. Keep your herbs cool and dark when drying them as well as for storage. Plastic bags are permeable. Long-term storage in refrigerators or freezers should be in glass jars. Allow the jars to warm to room temperature before opening. Otherwise, moisture will condense on inside of the jar.
TEAS - TINCTURES - SALVES
Herbal teas are probably the easiest and most popular method for preparing herbs. Roots, bark and stems from herbs are traditionally prepared in a type of tea known as a “decoction”. Flowers, buds and leaves are prepared in a type of tea known as an “infusion”. Decoctions are prepared by adding the herb directly to water and then boiling for up to 20 minutes. Infusions are the result of soaking herbs in water that has boiled but is now being allowed to cool. Both decoctions and infusions should be covered during this process to prevent the escape of volatile oils. Herbal teas can be stored in a refrigerator for several days.
Herbal tinctures are more concentrated and powerful than teas. Properly stored in dark glass bottles, they remain potent for as long as 5 years. One or two drops of tincture can substitute for a whole cup of tea. Prepare tinctures by completely filling a jar with fresh, dried herbs already ground into small pieces. Pour in enough 100 proof vodka to cover the herbs. Store in a warm place (70°F.) for 2 weeks. Shake occasionally. Filter mixture through cotton cloth or coffee filter. Eye dropper bottles are available at most pharmacies.
Herbal salves are easy to make and essential for natural skin care in cold, dry climates. Soak finely-chopped, fresh, skin-healing herbs in 90°F., virgin olive oil for 24 hours. Filter the oil through cotton cloth or coffee filter. For every 5 parts oil, melt in 1 part beeswax. Fine tune firmness by taking out tablespoons of the mixture and putting them in the freezer for a few minutes. Add more beeswax if mixture is too soft.
GUIDELINES FOR STUDYING HERBS
Do not prescribe herbs to anyone unless you are a physician licensed to do so. The listings in this publication are not a prescription or suggestion for the use of plants as food or medicine. They list some of the historical uses of some of the important herbs we have grown successfully above 5,000 ft. in the Mountain West.
Herbs should never be used for food or medicine unless positively identified by an expert. Learn to identify plants yourself. See “How to Identify Plants” by H. D. Harrington.
Try the herbs yourself. Generally the best time to do so is in the morning or after a fast when your body is more sensitive. Only pass on information obtained from your own experience.
Learn medical descriptions of what herbs do to your body.
If you are thinking about digging native herbs in the wild, remember that wild plants rarely survive transplanting to domestic gardens. Start with seeds or cuttings. Be sensitive.
As a whole, herbs are easy to grow and tolerant of most disease and insect problems. Most of the herbs listed in this brochure prefer full sun, well-drained soil and occasional water. They can be grown indoors in southern windows or in pots and window boxes.
A good potting soil should be used for all potted plants, indoors or out. Regular garden soil is not an acceptable substitute. Daily watering in small containers destroys the structure of garden soil leaving it too compacted to allow necessary air exchange with roots. The result is yellow, sickly plants.
Provide plenty of light to avoid tall, leggy growth. Twenty watts of artificial light per square foot is sufficient if a southern window with direct sunlight is not available. Nutrient movement through tall, skinny stems is restricted. Short, stalky plants, the result of adequate light, are faster growing and more healthy.
If herbs are brought inside for use during the short days of winter, artificial light should be used in the higher latitudes to increase day length. Many herbs become dormant and dry unless the day length is maintained at a minimum level, 10 hours or so.
Extend your growing season by creating small, warm mini-climates. Choose or create well-protected, south-facing sites. Even a small angle of slope to the south can dramatically increase soil warmth. Surround warm season crops with large rocks or concrete walls that collect the sun's heat during the day and protect from frost at night. Tall-growing crops or permanent hedges will protect larger gardens and fields. Note an old Chinese saying: “Select proper site for garden and half the work is done.”
Many herbs, once established, are drought-resistant. However, it is mandatory to keep soil moist 3-4 weeks while germination takes place. Seeds must be kept moist during the fragile stage when they swell with water until the time when new little roots have grown deep enough to find soil moisture. Important: do NOT let seeds dry out! This may require watering 2 to 4 times each day. Sunny, hot, windy days and sandy soil conditions may require a short watering, as often as every hour. (Note: Most automatic sprinkler systems can be adjusted to this demand.) After herbs have been established, water according to instructions.
One of the more useful tricks for successful germination of native herbs is to “stratify” the seed. If you buy native herb seeds that need to be stratified, you might try planting them outside in early spring (March or early April). In high elevations, there may be six or more weeks of cold temperatures and damp ground. Sawtooth mountain mint and Colorado columbine both germinate exceptionally well using this method. You can stratify artificially if you live in a warmer climate or want to plant during summer months. Place seeds in moist compost, wrap securely in plastic and place in the refrigerator (not the freezer). Leave for 4-12 weeks.