Herbal varieties

No not that kind of herb.

So if you’re lucky enough to live in an area that has a wide selection at your local garden center- or even if you’re working from seeds, or cuttings or a plant your neighbor gave you, what variety of herb or veggie you plant matters for a few reasons. I’m focusing on herbs today.

Where you are matters, as certain types of herb/veg do better in one type of climate over another. Where you are within a certain zone matters too, its not just San Francisco that has micro-climates. Herbs can be very particular about climate, soil, water- so herbs that supposedly do well in one place, that are even sold in one place, might not do well in the ground or a raised bed rather than a pot. Take culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), the usual variety of sage you find in a pot for sale at your grocery store. Fine in a pot indoors for me- but it’s never done well out back, no matter if it’s in a pot or in a raised bed. Gets all scraggly and while it doesn’t die it doesn’t really grow either. But this sage:

Has always done great in my garden. I had one plant like 15 years ago just in the depleted dirt that grew like nuts, even survived a transplant to a better bed, lived like 7 years. Had a second one in the old bed that didn’t survive the transplant to the new bed that also did well… until the failed transplant. This is plant number 3, well positioned to last another 7 or more years. It’s called “Berggarten” sage, and it’s a much more hearty variety than the thinner leaf culinary sage variety. Funny thing is- its still Salvia officinalis, just a specific named cultivar.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is also an herb that’s never done well in my garden. Genovese basil- nope. Purple basil- nope. Thai basil? Nope. It gets all wilt-y after a week and doesn’t survive the transplant into a bed. Now in the future I know to either start those varieties by seed or keep it in the pot I get it in- but I really wanted a basil in my full sun herb bed. Solution? This guy:

Which as you can see is doing really really really well.

This is African Blue Basil. It’s a sterile hybrid between African Basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum) and Purple Basil. Also known as bush basil it is an indestructible juggernaut of a plant. I’d seriously consider it as a border type plant for a yard situation. The only thing that can really kill it is the one two punch of poor soil and a bad frost (this happened once almost 7 years ago, I have learned since then.) It’ll become a perennial if you baby it enough. The greatest thing is- despite the fact that it’s sterile, the flowers still attract bees- native bees in fact, not just European honey bees. It also tastes great, makes good pesto and sauces- and most importantly, doesn’t die the second a breeze hits it.

The other reason variety matters is taste. Not all varieties taste the same- in fact some herbs are called one thing colloquially but scientifically are another thing entirely. Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa)  is a good example of this. Culinary Tarragon is also known as French Tarragon, and odds are any recipe you have that calls for tarragon calls for this. There are two other varieties however, Russian Tarragon which is tarragon, but a more wild variety; and Mexican Tarragon (Tagetes lucida) Which is a totally different species, and native to the new world. Now Mexican Tarragon is nice, and has been used historically as a Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa replacement, but I personally don’t think the flavor is as strong as actual tarragon.

This is French Tarragon and I had to wait for my local garden center to get it in, as they only had Russian Tarragon in for a long while. This is a totally subjective choice of course. You can have the exact opposite problem as me, and prefer one of the other tarragons- and have to wait on them. But it does go to show that variety is important, and one kind of herb, even if it’s technically the same species as with the sages- won’t necessarily perform the same in your garden- or on the plate.


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