The allure of herbs


Kathy Hawkins is crazy about summer basil. She grows it outside, inside, everywhere she can. She even keeps a pot of it on the kitchen counter, so all she has to do is pinch off the leaves, chop them up and sprinkle them on her luscious homegrown tomatoes.

With every pinch, there's a bonus. That heavenly basil fragrance fills her kitchen for hours.

"I absolutely love that smell," she says.

Hawkins, 46, is not an expert by any means, but she successfully grows lots of herbs every summer. And why not?

They're easy. They're fun. They smell great and look pretty. And all but the most exotic herbs are cheap -- $2 or so for a small pot -- and easy to find in garden centers or big-box stores.

Like many herb growers, Hawkins insists on super-fresh ingredients when she cooks, whether they're for cucumber salad from the garden or hot Mexican and Thai dishes.

But not everyone's a chef.

Lorraine Kiefer, who teaches classes on herbs, says some who grow their own want an herb garden "because it's charming, it's medieval, it's timeless. ... And because Martha Stewart has one."

There are health reasons, too, says Maureen Rogers, director of the Herb Growing and Marketing Network in Silver Spring, Pa.

"People want to use less salt, so they use fresh herbs in their cooking, and whether the American Medical Association wants to believe it or not, people are growing medicinal herbs and drying them themselves," she says. Things like Saint-John's-wort and black cohosh.

What, exactly, is an herb? Turns out it's "anything used for fragrance, or for culinary or medicinal purposes," according to the Herb Society of America. Mint, used as tea to settle the stomach, is probably the herb most widely used for medicinal purposes.

And herbs can be more than leafy things like parsley and basil. They can be trees, shrubs and vines, as well as ferns, mosses, algae, lichens and fungi.

So much for the esoteric. How about the fun?

Caroline Amidon is an avowed "herbie." She's past president of the Herb Society of America and co-author of a new book about scented geraniums, Pelargonium: 2006 Herb of the Year (Riversong Studios Ltd., $12). Considered an herb, this is the colorful cousin of the common garden geranium.

Amidon, 74, has a greenhouse full of pelargoniums, known for their fruity, spicy and pungent aromas. She loves to float down the aisles pinching the leaves to release their marvelous essences: peppermint, rose, lemon, coconut, black pepper, nutmeg, apple and many more.

"I grew a few about 15 years ago, and then it became an obsession," she says.

Amidon grows some herbs for cooking, and some to attract birds and butterflies, but it's the lovely pelargonium that transports her to another culinary level. She makes scented syrup to brush over baked fruit and poundcakes, scented sugars and flours, oils and butters, chocolate rose-scented souffles and lemon liqueurs.

"It's wonderful," she says.

Lots of things we gardeners do are more about impulse and emotion than reason. So it is with mint and me.

I spent many happy hours as a child exploring the woods and meadows near my home, an idea that would make parents today apoplectic. But those were sweeter days, and my adventures were exciting and absorbing.

On one such trek, I came upon an overgrown field and was literally stopped in my tracks by a cool, clean fragrance coming from a patch of plants. I scooped them up, roots and all, and raced home to show my mother.

"That's mint," she said of my treasure.

We planted it in a flower bed outside the kitchen, and it soon became a staple of her home-brewed iced tea. As the years passed, it also jumped from our tiny bed to the larger yard. It was unstoppable.

The family long ago moved from that house. And Mom has switched to iced-tea mixes with mint and lemon added in. But on a recent visit to a garden center, that smell stopped me once again.

I ended up, impulsively, buying Mom a pot of mint. When I gave it to her, we both recalled the iced tea she used to make -- with the crushed mint leaves.

I can smell it steeping even now. You can't get iced tea like that anymore, we agreed.

"You'd better plant the mint on the side of the house," she instructed. "It can't harm anything there."


Virginia A. Smith writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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