"Remember rosemary - and other perennial herbs"

These herbs are attractive and useful
Sunday, 25 April 2021     

Prostrate form of rosemary

Our delightful local greengrocer was handing out sprigs of rosemary yesterday to customers, for wearing on Anzac Day as a traditional gesture of remembrance and commemoration. In literature and folklore, rosemary is attributed with the power to strengthen memory, but the plant also has particular significance for Australians on Anzac Day, as it is found growing wild on the Gallipoli peninsula.

The sprigs set my mind thinking about the value of rosemary in our gardens as well as our kitchens. It is a woody shrub (ht 1-1.2 m) that lasts for a number of years in Sydney, unlike many of the annual or biennial herbs we grow in our gardens such as parsley, basil and coriander. Hailing from the Mediterranean, it requires sun, good drainage and a dryish soil to do well. It has pale blue flowers in spring. Its leaves are fine, aromatic needles and it has plenty of uses in the kitchen, having a particular affinity with lamb. The shrub can get a bit leggy so regular light pruning (particularly after flowering) will keep it looking shapely, rather than a savage pruning once in a blue moon: from which it may not recover! It can be used to form a decorative low hedge or grown as a small standard. It can be grown in a container - especially the more compact varieties, such as the cultivar 'Prostratus', pictured at the start of the blog.

There are other robust herbs from the Mediterranean that mostly last for a good few years in our climate, and they make suitable companions in the garden to rosemary in a well-drained, sunny spot. Thymus vulgaris is one, the commonest form of culinary thyme: it is an evergreen, frost-hardy sub-shrub, and forms a low, spreading cushion, with tiny, highly scented leaves (ht 15-30 cm). Minute white or purple flowers appear in spring. It can be grown in a pot. It needs little pruning if sprigs are regularly harvested for use in the kitchen. There are many cultivars and hybrids, including Thymus x citriodorus, the lemon-scented thyme, a hybrid of Thymus vulgaris with Thymus pulegioides. In classic English gardens, thyme lawns were often a feature, using many different species and cultivars to form a beautiful tapestry-like carpet. Thyme can also be used as an edging plant alongside a path.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare, ht to 30 cm) is another Mediterranean perennial herb that does well in Sydney and is useful in the kitchen as well as in the garden. It is a mound-forming plant that makes itself very much at home, spreading beyond its original appointed patch. You need to be fairly ruthless in reining it in every so often. The gold-leaf version is a very attractive plant in its own right, particularly in spring, when its foliage has an almost incandescent glow. It is just as edible as its green-leafed cousin, useful in Italian recipes and salads. It's a great soil-holding groundcover in poor soil and also looks effective spilling over retaining walls. I cut back the foliage hard when it becomes tatty in autumn. I also grow Origanum syriacum, known as wild za'atar, a traditional herb in Middle Eastern cooking. It has heart-shaped, grey-green leaves. It doesn't seem to spread as much as Oregano vulgate.

Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) is a shrubby herb (ht to 75 cm) from the Mediterranean growing to about 75 cm high. It has aromatic, downy, grey-green oval leaves used in many recipes, and spires of pretty bluish-mauve flowers in spring and summer. It needs a sunny position and very good drainage. It doesn't tend to last more than a season or two in Sydney, as it doesn't like our summer humidity. However, by chance I found that cuttings will strike if grown in a glass of water on a windowsill in late summer. The rooted cuttings can then be potted on into potting mix and ultimately the plant put into the garden to take the place of an ageing specimen, rather than having to buy a new one every year. I have never had luck striking them in normal propagating mix. I use the same method to propagate rosemary! There are a couple of lovely cultivars: 'Tricolor' has green, cream and beetroot-red leaves, 'Icterina' has gold and green leaves and 'Purpurascens' has grey-green leaves that have a gorgeous purplish hue. In my experience, they aren't very successful in Sydney and they tend to die off fairly quickly. They may last longer if grown in a pot. They grow best in cool inland areas.

All these herbs belong to the Lamiaceae family of plants. Their flowers are small but very attractive to beneficial insects, including bees and hoverflies. They are useful plants to fill those hot, dry spots in the garden as well as being invaluable in cooking.

 Reader Comments

1/4  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 April 2021

I just wanted to give a heads up to your readers that the plant of the week Heliotropium is toxic to dogs so dig it up if you notice your dog nibbling on the leaves. Thank so much, Kerrie. I didn't know this and will add a note to the plant description. Deirdre

2/4  Leveena - 2099 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 April 2021

Hi Deidre. My rosemary of 4 years has suddenly turned up its toes! It is about 3ft across and 3ft high, and appears to have 'dried out' over a week. It has a few small sprigs alive, but I have never seen one do this. Any ideas? The sprigs have literally dried out from top to bottom, with the leaves intact. What a shame that has happened. Did you receive all that rain about a month ago? I've heard that a lot of plants like this, that need good drainage, have died in the past few weeks. I think all the water was just too much for them. Normally, rosemary lasts for quite a few years. That would be my gues for what caused it. Deirdre

3/4  Leveena - 2099 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 April 2021

Ah yes-I had quite a few of my plants suffer as a result of the rain-the Rosemary is so tough it just didnt occur to me it would be affected as well . Thanks! Looks like I may get a new one & plant in a really free draining spot.

4/4  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Informative blog, as usual, thank you, Deirdre. My large plant of rosemary, in the garden for ten plus years, succumbed to the torrential rain we experienced a few weeks ago. The root of it was enormous. Just last week, the smaller plant also died. I did manage to take cuttings of both, so hope some will survive.

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