Herbs are the way a canny cook turns the food of poverty (pasta, potatoes, backyard eggs) into a dish to make a chef weep. A scatter of coriander straight from the garden, a handful of tarragon, saffron harvested from the backyard ...
... unless your herbs go and die on you, which tends to happen if you don't have time to water the coriander daily, weed the tarragon, or make sure nothing is shading the saffron plants.
The following herbs are delicious, decorative and indestructible. Drive a 10-tonne truck over them and they'll spring back a week later. Possibly. I have to admit I haven't tested the 10-tonne truck assumption. But I do have faith in these herbs.
Vietnamese mint (Polygonum odoratum)
We have this spilling over a pot by the front door, pointed green leaves lightly marked with deep red, ready to grab for salads, stir fries, baked fish and just about any dish cooked in coconut milk. It's not a true mint, but has a minty fresh fragrance. It grows best in dappled shade with masses of water, but will tolerate full shade, full sun, and no watering at all until you remember to give it some. It's knocked back by severe frost, but give it a few weeks of heat and something to drink and it'll revive. Use the young leaves and give the older, tougher ones and stems to the chooks or compost.
Warning: this can become a weed. It's a small leafy herb with bright green leaves, but can look straggly in droughts. Chop it down or mow it and new lime-green leaves will spring up. It has a fragrant lemon scent, though not as lemony as say, a lemon, or lemon grass or lemon verbena. There is a hint of bitterness in it. Lemon balm survives full sun to dappled shade, and dies back after severe frost but recovers with warm weather.
Young lemon balm leaves are delicious in salad sandwiches and a few can be added to give a faint lemon tang to salads. Old leaves are tough and too many overpower a salad. Lemon balm leaves are excellent crushed in a fruit drink or frozen in ice blocks and added to cold water, pineapple or apple juice or ginger ale on a hot day. You can make a herbal tea with them, but the undertaste means the other lemon herbs are better for the tea pot.
This is the herbal tea as far as I'm concerned, with possibly some sliced fresh ginger added. Lemon verbena is a small, deciduous shrub with pointed fragrant leaves strongly lemon-scented. It needs well-drained soil and prefers full sun, though it tolerates semi-shade, drought and neglect. I grow a rambling rose through mine, which seems to please both plants. Lemon verbena can be added to digestive liqueurs - I sometimes make one with verbena leaves, black peppermint, dried orange zest, fresh chamomile flowers (not dried) and a little ginger, plus sweetener and the alcohol of your choice.
If you want a drought survivor, look for aloe vera, a thick-leafed succulent, up to 60 centimetres tall, with tapering, green-grey, serrated leaves and yellow tubular flowers about three centimetres long. There are several other aloe plants around - look for the yellow flowers to make sure it's true aloe vera.
Aloe vera does need dry, well-drained soil - it will soon die in wet soil. It won't tolerate severe frost, and humidity among tall, damp grass, but seems extremely happy in a hanging basket over paving.
The gel is used as a soothing cream for sunburns and rashes. Cut a leaf and squeeze the jelly on dry skin, eczema, minor burns and rashes. The pain will be immediately relieved, and the gel will speed up healing. n.b. Use the clear gel, not the greenish sap.
The bay tree is a gorgeous dark green tree, slow-growing to about eight metres, with aromatic leaves that stay fragrant after drying. Plant it and ignore it, except for picking leaves whenever you are creating a bouquet garni or béchamel sauce.
The subtle fragrance of bay leaves is one of the differences between a good lasagna and a great one. Use the leaves fresh or dried and, although the fresh leaves are more pungent, dried leaves are usually preferred. I like to pick whole branches and leave them to dry above the stove or doorway. According to Culpepper: "Neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning will hurt a man where a bay tree is." So far I have no reason to doubt this.
Chicory's long green leaves and a tall spike of blue flowers through most of summer are a pretty addition to a flower or vegie garden. It tolerates semi-shade but grows best in sunlight and deep moist soil for root growth, but will survive almost anywhere. Both the leaves and roots of chicory are used - the leaves in salads and the roots in coffee substitutes or added to give a rich bitter flavour to genuine coffee (or even baked like parsnip). Leaves are best in spring - they can be bitter in hot weather. Bitter leaves can be blanched - covered in mulch or straw for 10 days - or you can place an old fruit box over the growing plant.
Fennel is a tall, wiry leafed plant with umbels of small yellow flowers and a very strong aniseed scent. Tough specimens often line country roads, but make sure you don't pick hemlock instead. It looks similar but can leave you severely dead.
Fennel is a perennial, but F vulgare, or Florence fennel, is usually grown as an annual for its tender swollen bulbs. They grow tough and far too strongly flavoured as they grow older. A bronze-leafed variety is also available. Like most widespread weeds, fennel tolerates almost any conditions, but if you want a tender, sweet, swollen base it is best grown in moist, slightly alkaline, fertile, well-drained soil in full sun. Snip off any seed heads, unless you want to save the seed, to stop fennel spreading over all of your garden and half of your neighbourhood. This will also help keep the leaves and base tender.
Fennel seeds can be added to curry powder or used in chutneys and pickles. The swollen base can be sliced or grated and used raw in salads, or simmered in a little chicken stock or cream, or cooked in butter or olive oil.
I have run out of room, so can't add garlic chives (I grow them around the vegie garden to help keep the grass out), or apple mint (which is mild and minty and furry, and again, will go wild unless subjected to severe discipline), or marjoram, or a dozen others.
But every one of them is a never-say-die plant, and delicious.
This week I am:
- Eating the few cherries the possums and fruit bats have left us. We (human, birds, possums, fruit bats) are still guzzling mulberries, loquats, shadbush berries, loganberries, strawberries and preparing to race each other for the apricots
- Picking the first red and yellow striped gladioli that mean "holidays are near"
- Planting more corn seed, as well as more carrots, watermelons and pumpkins, because for some reason none of the pumpkin or watermelon varieties I planted a few weeks ago germinated. Next season I'll go back to planting from at least three seed sources so I can tell if they are dud seeds or a dud gardener
- Wondering if this will be one of the years we have ripe tomatoes and cucumbers for Christmas
- Wishing I had planted 20 times as many pea seeds as for the first time ever we actually have a (tiny) pea crop. I may even try sweet peas this autumn. 2020 has had its challenges but it is also the first year I have beaten the wallabies and got a crop of peas
- Pulling weeds. Mulching, growing anti-weed covers and other sneaky techniques are not enough to get rid of all the weed seeds blown in by bushfire winds onto drought-bare soil ...