Herbs And Names
Common names may change, but Latin, or botanical names almost always remain constant. Many gardeners balk at Latin names, finding them tongue-twisting and intimidating. And, in truth, they are often unnecessary. A vegetable gardener may grow fine carrots and tomatoes and never learn the Latin words.
Many vegetables and flowers bred from natural species have been worked on by horticulturists, so the common English name may suffice. Herbs, by contrast are often unimproved" species, plants as God made 'em, growing in our gardens just as they exist in the wild-and under the same names. Besides being a sure means of identification, Latin names link us with gardeners everywhere and through the ages.
A botanical name often tells us something about a plant: where it grows, who discovered it and a word of description about its stature, leaf shape, color and such. Since English is rooted in part in Latin, similarities crop up, and you can often puzzle out the information. All mints, for example, are Mentha. There is M. aquatica, which grows in or near water. M. rotundifolia has "rotunder"-rounder-foliage than most, while its variegata form is mottled green and white. M. spicata, spearmint, has spiked, or spear-shaped, leaves. M. piperita is peppermint, while M. citrata is citrus or orange mint. It would be a good guess, too, that menthol - the cooling, soothing ingredient in pain balms and throat lozenges - is derived from mint.
Each plant is identified from its broadest family connection down to its most specific individual name. All plants have a Latin name of at least two parts: first name genus, second name species. Southernwood is Artemisia abrotanum, a species within the genus Artemisia, named for Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. Within this genus are about 200 other species, including tarragon (A. dracunculus). Curiously, dracunculus means little dragon, perhaps in reference to tarragon's sharp bite.
Extending the botanical name-tree, every genus and all its species belong to a larger plant family. The family connection is based on shared characteristics. Artemisias are one branch of the family Compositae-the composite, or daisy, family-all of which have flowers made up, or composed, of a number of small flowers forming a central disk. At first glance, you may not see the family resemblance between sunflowers, the grandest of the composites, and artemisias. Sunflowers clearly show their individual disk flowers, packed together by the hundreds in an interwoven spiral arrangement surrounded by yellow rays. But you'd need a magnifying glass to see the tiny flowers that compose the insignificant ray less disks of most artemisias. Once you twig to a family's defining trait, though, you begin to recognize its various members. Whether they are as small as chamomile blossoms or as big as sunflowers, all variations on the daisy form are composites.
Although herbs are found in every plant family, three families are notably rich in useful aromatics. Name four herbs off the top of your head. How about parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme? Three out of the four belong to the family Labiatae, a name that comes from the Latin word for lips. All family members are characterized by flowers that resemble little open mouths with the lower lip extended. The sheer number of herbs under the Labiatae family banner-different genera (plural of genus) and many species within each-is astonishing. Counted among the labiates are all mints, thymes, oreganos, savories and sages-and there are more than 750 sages, or salvias, worldwide- as well as anise-hyssop, basil, bergamot, catnip, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, rosemary and more. No other family encompasses so many herbs. Besides lipped flowers, labiates are known by the shape of their flower stalks, which are square in cross section rather than round.
Second place for most plants in the herbal landscape goes to the family Umbelliferae. The Latin sounds like umbrella, and members of the family typically send up umbels-flattish clusters of small flowers arrayed at the ends of thin stems that radiate out from the top of a stalk-like an umbrella's spokes at the end of its handle. Given this description, you can mentally begin to gather herbs into the Umbelliferae family: angelica, anise, celery, chervil, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, lovage, parsley and sweet cicely. Virtually all the umbels concentrate flavor not only in their leaves but also in their seeds, many of which are used as seasonings.
The third important herbal family is Compositae. Herbs in this family don't jump out at you. There are few familiar flavoring leaves, but there are a number of medicinals - anthemis, artemisias, Echinacea, feverfew, yarrow.
As might be expected, the onion genus Allium (part of the Amaryllidaceae family) includes some pungent culinary herbs: chives, Egyptian onions, garlic, scallions and shallots. For the rest, herbs fall into a grab bag of families. The poppy family, Papaveraceae, holds the opium poppy, innocuous when its seeds are gathered for baking, important in medicine as the source of morphine. In the mallow family, Malvaceae, there are several old-time medicinals. Musk mallow (Malva moschata), for instance, is a settlers' garden flower that now decorates the roadsides and jumps back into our gardens, where its pale pink or white blossoms, like small hibiscus, are always welcome. Roses, which belong to the Rosaceae family, have always been loved for their fragrance, and the powdered roots of Florentine iris (Iridaceae family) yield a fixative that helps hold the scent of roses in potpourri. It is probably safe to say that every plant family has at least one species which could be called a herb.
It is also helpful to know a herb's origin before welcoming it into your garden (whether it is from the frozen North or the mild Mediterranean, from mountains or low-lands) and, more specifically, its local habitat (sun or shade, dry soil or streamside). The nearer you can duplicate a plant's native environment, the better the results.
Is a new herb hardy or tender, annual, biennial or perennial? Hardy and tender refer to a plant's ability to withstand cold, ranging anywhere from a light frost to a hard freeze or a full-blown, five-month Northern winter. Plants that shrivel at a breath of frost are, understandably, termed tender. Tender annuals grow only during the frost-free months. Tender perennials-bay, ginger, lemon verbena, pineapple sage, rosemary and scented geranium are the most familiar-may spend the summer outside but, like some people, need to winter indoors. These herbs are perfect for large, portable pots.
Annual herbs never see more than one summer. Everything they must do- sprout, grow, flower and seed-is accomplished in a single season. But like perennials, annuals may be tender, half-hardy or hardy. Sweet basil, the best-known tender annual, withers at a mere hint of frost and sits still even during cool spells. Coriander withstands light frost but perishes if frozen. Chervil, at the hardy end of the annual spectrum, thaws out from a hard freeze and grows on despite cold.
Each spring, a gardener must start most annual herbs anew from either seed or nursery plants. But certain annuals see to their stay in the garden by sowing hardy seeds in late summer and reappearing with the robins in May. At Lark whistle, self-sowers include three of the best culinary herbs: dill, chervil and coriander. Chamomile comes up on its own, and a handful of colorful herbs-borage, calendula, painted sage and blue annual woodruff-also volunteer to decorate corners of the vegetable garden every year. Some perennials, too, self-sow, creating either pleasant surprises-more mats of creeping thyme between the paving stones, more foxgloves among the roses-or extra work weeding out a forest of lovage seedlings or well anchored lemon balm.
Perennial herbs are best grouped together with other permanent plants, part of a garden picture that can be refined over the seasons. From a practical standpoint, it is easier to carry out rounds of maintenance-weeding, top-dressing, cutting back-if perennials are contained in beds and borders. When some thought is given to relative heights, neighboring plants and the overall effect of flower colors and foliage texture, the end result will be a garden that reflects the tastes and imagination of its maker.