By Joan Jenkins
UCCE El Dorado County Master Gardener
Mediterranean herbs originated around the Mediterranean Sea in Greece, Italy, France, Spain and other lands with a warm sunny climate. They like the alkaline, fast draining soils with good mineral content common to the area. They also prefer full sun, meaning a minimum of six hours per day, and easily withstand all day sun. They’re great in the drought-tolerant garden as they require infrequent watering. Little or no fertilizer is needed since the herbs are not used to rich soil, and will suffer from applications of too much fertilizer.
Mediterranean herbs are small, bear seeds and are flavorful and aromatic. They are sometimes used for medicinal purposes. Most develop woody stems given sufficient growing time and may die back at the end of fall, but will come back in spring in many climates. The most common and best known Mediterranean herbs are lavender, rosemary, oregano or marjoram, sage and thyme.
They have many uses, especially in cooking around the world. Both their leaves and seeds are often used in cooking. Although most herbs are perennials (grow all year) they can be grown as annuals in areas where they do not survive the winter. Prior to the advent of modern medicine, they were frequently grown for their curative qualities and are still widely used today in many cultures, including the United States. Some herbs are grown for their fragrances, though not all have a pleasing scent, and many attract bees, butterflies and other wildlife. Herbs are also used in crafts and valued as cut flowers.
Lavender is a popular herb also grown as a landscape plant. It grows to about 2 feet tall and is used in fragrances, cosmetics and cooking. Protection from the winter air is advisable in the coldest climates. Rosemary reaches 1 to 6 feet tall, depending on the variety. It’s easily propagated through cuttings but its seeds are hard to germinate. Culinary lavender’s most popular use in cooking is with lamb and other meats.
Oregano is a smaller growing herb only about 12 to 24 inches tall. Although marjoram is sold separately in nurseries and grocery stores, it is another variety of oregano. Both are used in cooking or as ornamental plants. Marjoram is smaller at about 8 to 12 inches tall. Either will fill a planting bed rapidly and can be dried and stored for the kitchen.
There are many types of edible sage including purple, golden and pineapple. Yes, pineapple sage really does smell like pineapple. Rub the leaves and sniff — makes you think of the tropics! It has bright red flowers that somehow seem not to match the pineapple scent. Other sages have a more earthy scent and are not as tall or shrub-like as the pineapple variety. Typically about 18 to 24 inches, they can survive some cold winters and continue to flourish in the spring.
Thyme also has several common varieties, including lemon, creeping and wooly. All are compact and short at only 12 inches tall maximum. Lemon thyme is used in cooking while wooly thyme is often used between stepping stones since it will remain quite low to the ground and smells wonderful when stepped on. Thyme should be pruned several times a year in hot summer areas, with the last pruning about 45 to 60 days before the first frost, to prevent new growth from dying back.
Try planting a few herbs and see how much you enjoy them in your garden and in the kitchen!
Master Gardeners conduct free classes on most Saturdays in Placerville. Master Gardeners are also available to answer home gardening questions Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, by calling (530) 621-5512. Walk-ins are welcome at our office, located at 311 Fair Lane in Placerville. For more information about our public education classes and activities, go to our Master Gardener website at ucanr.edu/sites/EDC_Master_Gardeners/. Sign up to receive our online notices and e-newsletter at ucanr.edu/mgenews/. You can also find us on Facebook.