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Lisa M. Rose is an herbalist and forager who has worked as a community herbalist for five years. Her book, “Midwest Foraging,” will be published in May. For more information, visit burdockandrose.com.

Herbs & wildflowers
Native plants can be used in cooking and healing —
or just to add beauty to your home or garden.
By Lisa M. Rose
Photography by Johnny Quirin

The farm-to-table movement is pushing the creativity of chefs and home cooks to incorporate more herbs into their culinary gardens. And imagine this — your own spice rack and herbal apothecary filled with herbs gathered from your garden, the farmers market, and even field hedgerows and woodlands that you can turn to for culinary innovation or everyday wellness.

There are many places a beginning gardener can turn to for herbal garden inspiration.

Many national garden retailers mail out seed catalogs. A couple of good ones that offer a wide variety of hybrids, heirloom and non-GMO seeds are Johnny’s Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com) and Seeds of Change (seedsofchange.com). Perusing these catalogs can get the creative juices flowing and even encourage wary gardeners to try starting seeds indoors for springtime planting.

Local greenhouses also are excellent places to find inspiration for your garden plan. West Michigan is home to a large horticulture industry and boasts an abundance of wholesale and retail greenhouses. In the Greater Grand Rapids area, there are many favorite greenhouses open in early spring where a gardener can stroll and shop for spring transplants, as well as gain expert advice from staff on growing tips.

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park features Michigan Farm Garden, a historic farm garden with a demonstration herb garden that includes perennial and annual herbs common to the 1930’s era. Herbs included are hyssop, lovage, tarragon, Roman chamomile, winter savory, garden thyme, lemon thyme, Greek oregano, garlic chives, dill fennel, sweet marjoram, German chamomile, summer savory, caraway, bay laurel and rosemary.

 

Z Farms sells dozens of fresh herb varieties at Fulton Street Farmers Market.

Blandford Nature Center is another place for gardeners to get inspiration — and get their hands dirty. Blandford features a community garden and a community supported agriculture, or CSA, program for members. Here, gardeners can interact and learn about plants from each other in a unique hands-on way.

Both Meijer Gardens and Blandford offer ongoing classes to the public throughout the season on local food and gardening for continued learning.

Don’t forget online sources. On Pinterest you can create garden design boards and collect herbal recipes for your seasonal harvest.

Farmers markets are good sources of locally grown herbs. Shoppers can peruse the aisles for fresh fruits and vegetables while picking up herbs for their gardens. It’s a great way for the gardener to make that personal connection to the farmer who grows their herbs.

Favorite kitchen herbs
Connie Hanson of Grand Shire Herb Farm, located between Sand Lake and Cedar Springs, is one of those farmers market vendors, offering more than 100 varieties of herbs at the Fulton Street Farmers Market each spring.

Hanson loves the classic kitchen culinary herbs, including such bestsellers as basil, rosemary and cilantro. She also suggests gardeners take a walk on the wild side by planting lemon or lime basil or even cinnamon basil.

“Lemon and lime basil have a vibrant taste that goes well in salads, salsas, as a topping for pizza, and in a variety of appetizers,” says Hanson. “Cinnamon basil truly has a cinnamon taste to it. It makes a wonderful tea and is also nice used for a simple syrup.”

Hanson likes to plant herbs based not only on flavor or ease of growing, but also for their aesthetic. For example, she chooses herbs with variegated leaves to achieve a wonderful texture and contrast among the plantings she puts in containers. Good examples are pineapple mint and Pesto Perpetuo basil. She also uses dark-colored herbs for color and contrast.

“The so called ‘black’ herbs, which are actually dark purple, give not only color and contrast but are felt to be higher in antioxidant and antibacterial qualities,” she says.

For these, Hanson likes the varieties Opal basil, Red Rubin basil and perilla, an herb in the mint family.

Kitchen herbs can be easily integrated into your current garden space or can be grown in containers on the patio and the windowsill if you are an apartment dweller or lack growing space. Even when it’s cold outside, many herbal containers will survive indoors with the proper care.


Horticulturalists tend the herb garden at Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

Preserving your harvest
While there are many ways to preserve the herbal harvest, one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways is to dry the herbs for later use.

Throughout the growing season, many herbs and wildflowers can be bundled and then hung indoors to dry. To dry plant material for a soothing aromatic tea blend, individual leaves and flowers can be dried on screens in a dry space.

Be sure to harvest the plants after the morning dew has evaporated. Before storing the dried herbs in glass jars, check that they are fully dry. If the herbs are not thoroughly dry before storing, there is a high likelihood the material will mold in the container.

Always label and date the jars as you put up your herbal harvest.

Wild plants for food and medicine
The next big trend in food and gardening is the resurgence of relying on wild plants and wildflowers for food and herbal remedies.

Foraging for wild, edible plants is becoming increasingly popular as people become aware of the importance of wild plants in our local ecosystem.

If you choose to forage for wild plants, be sure to learn about plant sustainability, basic botany and safe ways to harvest wild plants.

One safe and easy way to start using wild and native plants is to cultivate stands of native plants in your own garden.

“Native plants are important because they provide important habitat for many native animal and insect species,” says Ed McKee, horticultural manager at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

“Generally, a native plant will require less intervention and input from human hands once established. This means that less water, less fertilizers and less pesticides, if any, will need to be used over time. Also, natives require less attention as they mature, and they create an aesthetic in the garden second to none.”

Where to start with incorporating wild plants in the garden? Learning how to work with native, wild and edible plants is as easy as learning about cultivated garden plants. In fact, many common, native perennial garden plants are useful in the home apothecary or have uses as a culinary herb — we just have lost the tradition of using them.

Native wildflowers enhance a garden
Consider incorporating such native wildflowers as echinacea, bee balm or yarrow into your herbal garden plan. These plants are all bee-friendly and can be used in cooking and in herbal medicines.

Many of these plants are available as transplants at local greenhouses, farms and farmers markets, so pick up a few along with your basic kitchen herbs. Nothing could be more ecologically friendly.

Here are three that many naturopaths, western herbalists and acupuncturists believe have healing powers.

Bee balm: Monarda is a genus of showy, mint-family plants that love full sun and rich soils. Monarda varieties aren’t spreading mints; rather they are clumping perennials with gorgeous blossoms that range in color from pink to red to purple.

In the kitchen, the leaves and flowers can be used as a culinary herb similar to oregano and to make an aromatic herbal tea for colds, flu and stuffy sinus ailments. Monarda also can be used as an herbal salve for skin infections.

Echinacea: This common wildflower is a must-have for every herbal garden. Not only is echinacea a plant that both butterflies and honey bees love, but its roots, leaves and flowers can all be used as an herbal remedy for septic infections and as a immune system stimulant to help cope with colds and flu.

Echinacea can be used as a tea (fresh or dry), a topical wound wash or a plant extract. Like monarda, echinacea is a low-maintenance perennial that loves full sun and rich soils.

The blossoms of hybrid varieties come in a range of colors, from light green to white to pink to dark purple.

Yarrow: The bright whites and yellows of yarrow can be added to an herbal garden not just for its beauty, but for its herbal powers, as well. Yarrow’s astringency has the ability to staunch bleeding (a must-have for those interested in herbal first-aid). Its bitterness can soothe an upset stomach, and its ability as an immune system stimulant — like echinacea — can assist in easing colds and flu.

Yarrow can be used as a tea (fresh or dry leaves and flowers), a salve or a plant extract. Yarrow is a low-maintenance perennial, and prefers rich, well-drained soil and full sun. GR

 
   
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