By Joyce Comingore
'Tis the seasoning to be growing for the holidays, as I still hum "Scarborough Fair." Frankly, I'm no Simon or Garfunkel, but this song comes from a 16th century English folk song, and the herbs, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme have been around even longer.
In the University of Florida's circular 570 on "Herbs in the Florida Garden," former professor James Stephens wrote, "Herbs are plants which are grown for the special flavor and aroma of their various parts. They are used mainly to season, enrich or otherwise improve the taste or smell of certain foods. Since they are not primary dishes, they are not classified as vegetables. However, due to similarity of their growth habits and cultural requirements, herbs are often included with vegetables for discussion." Well said!
Many northern herbs can be grown in south Florida, but they need a different timing, sunlight, and habits. We definitely have a longer cool weather growing period if plants need to be treated as annuals.
Parsley was a biennial, but sage, rosemary and thyme are perennials. Parsley was not a seasoning, but more a garnish or addition to food. Sage, rosemary and thyme are primarily seasonings. Also, they can all be started from cuttings as well as seeds. Rosemary grows well in the sun all year long even in our muggy summers. Parsley and thyme need deep shade in our summers. The sun takes on a whole new meaning in Florida. It is directly overhead in summer, causing need for some shade or filtered light. In the winter, the sun is lower and casts longer shadows, so sunny spots become shady, which means a slower growth, but growth does happen.
When fertilizing in the winter, the University of Florida use to recommend none in order to give plants a dormancy; but realizing some of our best growing time down here is winter, they now recommend high potash (P) or potassium along with moderate minor elements. Do not eliminate nitrogen (N), but reduce it. Some exceptions are for woody ornamentals, like hibiscus, causing it to send out tender new growth that would then freeze and create a die-back. Research shows plants with good nutrients in their systems resist and tolerate the cold better. We never really need much phosphate (P) because it is present in our soil and doesn't leach out. Fertilizer goes by N-P-K amounts.
Sage's binomial name is salvia officinalis, belonging to the lamiaciae, mint family. Native to the Mediterranean regions, it arrived in America and Thomas Jefferson's gardens in the early 18th century. Like most herbs, it started as a medicinal remedy. The Latin name for sage is, "to heal." Even today sage is considered a valuable medicinal herb. We now use sage for dressings, particularly Thanksgiving, and to season sausages.
There are several cultivars other than the grey green, long- leafed culinary variety - purple leaf, tricolor, variegated, pineapple and more. Pineapple sage can grow well here all year long, but the other sages struggle through the hot, muggy summers. Regular sage dries and freezes well, but pineapple sage doesn't. You can freeze its bloom heads in ice cubes and add them to make a refreshing drink. Sage's woody shapes should be pruned often to give them form. Chop it and knead it into biscuit dough, and cook it up for great biscuits.
Rosemary, rosmarinus officinalis, also in the lamiaceae (mint) family, which also comes from the Mediter-ranean region, derives its name from the Latin "rosmarinus," meaning "dew of the sea." Since it tolerates some drought, it is considered easy to grow for beginning gardeners. Often shaped into topiary trees, it is available right now in cone tree shapes for Christmas. There are two types - upright and trailing rosemary. Long revered for its proclaimed improving memory powers, it is used as a symbol of remembrance in weddings and funerals. The three basics of rosemary survival are- lots of sun, good drainage (not overly wet), and good air circulation. It seems to thrive on neglect. It is not a heavy feeder. I love to stuff a roasting hen with quartered onions, celery stalks, and sprigs of rosemary.
Thyme, thymus vulgaris, is also a Mediterranean offspring and a member of the mint family. Ancient Egyptians used it for embalming; Greeks used it in their baths and burned it in their temples for a source of courage. A tiny leafed, low growing perennial shrub, thyme has many forms-from creeping to upright. Anyone can grow it in the cooler months, but through our rainy summers, it gets very bedraggled. Hang on, it can recover again in cooler weather where it can take deep shade. It needs and thrives on use. Snip it often and always leave at least one-half to one third of its foliage.
In the summer, our rainy season, it needs a dry sunny spot. Thyme retains its flavor when dried better than most other herbs, and it is slow to release its flavor, so add it early when cooking. For fresh use, its flavor is best just before it blooms. Because it is considered the very nearly perfect useful herb, there is a general rule about adding herbs in cooking - when in doubt use thyme.
A special holiday gift for your cooking friends is a basket of fresh herbs with a bright red bow. There are also gift sets of herbs and containers available at the market.
Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, a national board member of the American Hibiscus Society and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.