Hardy Herbs that Often Survive our Winters – and Spice Up or Calm Down the Gardener or Cook
By Judy Funderburk, Extension Master Gardener
Note: This is one of a series of short articles featuring herbs grown in the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden at the Glencarlyn Branch Library in Arlington County, Virginia.
Here in the midst of winter we invite you to learn more about rosemary and lavender – their backgrounds, growth habits, and needs; their culinary, fragrance, and medicinal uses. Both herbs are ingredients for food or drink served as “tastes” at our annual AutumnFest celebration in mid-September. Rosemary Herbed Pecans and Lavender Pound Cake taste-tested recipes are included below.
Visitors to the Library Garden often question whether they are looking at rosemary or lavender. At first glance, these two plants look very similar. Each has gray-green needle-like foliage, sturdy branching, and a woody base. But on closer observation and the encouragement to “rub your fingers along the leaves,” their particularity becomes clear. Rosemary’s scent is more resinous, lavender’s more sweet. The rosemary plant’s leaves tinge more toward green, those of lavender are softer and tinge more toward gray. Read further to learn more about these herbal plants and their gifts to us in winter and throughout the year.
Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis
We’ve all heard it said, “Rosemary for Remembrance” and at the turn of the year, that is indeed what we often do. But rosemary is capable of so much more!
First some background: Most Web sites claim rosemary to be hardy from zones 8 to 10. However, we have found it to be hardy in Northern Virginia (Zone 7a) if planted in well-drained light soil where it gets at least six hours of sun. Cultivars such as Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Arp’ and ‘Hardy Hill’ are more reliably hardy than others. Severely low temperatures together with slow-draining soils will certainly test your rosemary plant’s hardiness! Missouri Botanical Garden asserts, “Wet, poorly-drained soils in winter are usually fatal.” This holds true for plants grown outside and in. In fact, overwintering rosemary indoors is extremely difficult. It is very susceptible to powdery mildew, root rot, white flies and spider mites.
Native to the dry hillsides of Europe’s southern coast above the Mediterranean and to western Asia, rosemary’s “genus name comes from the Latin words ros (dew) and marinus (sea), meaning dew of the sea, in probable reference to the ability of this plant to thrive well in (rocky) coastal areas.” (Rosmarinus officinalis, MBG)
Rosemary’s gray-green needle-like leaves are evergreen and highly fragrant. The plant is extremely drought tolerant once established. It flowers on last year’s growth, usually shades of blue and more occasionally white. Branches may be harvested from mature plants for use in cooking, making medicinal teas, a richly scented hair rinse, or placing between pages of books to deter moths and silverfish. Its essential oil is used to scent soaps and lotions. It is also touted as a remedy for headaches, depression, and rheumatism. According to Deni Brown’s Encyclopedia of Herbs, “Greek scholars wore garlands of rosemary when they were taking their examinations to improve their memory and concentration.”
Recipe: Rosemary Herbed Pecans
from Anna Belousovitch, adapted by Judy Funderburk
¼ cup unsalted butter or ¼ cup canola or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt (or a bit more to taste)
4 + teaspoons finely chopped dried rosemary [I pulse the dried rosemary in my small herb grinder till quite fine.]
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon dried basil (crush a bit with fingers)
4 cups pecan halves (one pound)
1 teaspoon grated lemon or orange rind (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- In large glass bowl, microwave butter just till melted. No need to microwave if using oil.
- Add rosemary, basil, salt, cayenne, lemon or orange peel if using. Stir well.
- Pour in the 4 cups of pecans, mixing very well until all surfaces are coated.
- Spread pecans in a single layer in a shallow baking pan – cookie sheet with sides works well.
- Bake about ½ hour, stirring 2-3 times (I stir 3 times, after 10 minutes each time, but depending on your oven you may need to do it less. Just make sure the pecans don’t burn.)
These can be eaten warm or cool. When cool place in Ziploc bag or a tightly covered container. Stores for a month or more. Rosemary Herbed Pecans also make a delightful hostess gift for any occasion. If made with oil, they are perfect for friends who are vegan, paleo, Whole30, etc.
Warning: These pecans are so delicious that your family will be asking for more.
Note: I cut whole branches from my larger rosemary plants and hang them upside down in the basement to dry. Then when I have time, I pull the needle-like leaves off each stem and branch, put small amounts into my dedicated spice grinder, and grind until quite fine. Store extra ground rosemary in a glass jar until needed. It can be added to butter for veggies or rubbed into a piece of chicken.
Lavender, Lavendula angustifolia
Aromatic and semi-evergreen, lavender is loved by most gardeners. Its fragrant purple flower spikes and gray-green leaves add texture, color and scent from spring through fall. Two different varieties are featured in the Library Garden, one in the fragrance and one in the medicinal section. L. angustifolia yields a richly scented oil used in aromatherapy and high-quality perfumes. Many varieties of lavender exist (47 species). It is known to be one of the most popular medicinal herbs since ancient times. More recently it is being recommended to teachers and pet owners for its ability to calm hyperactive children and anxious animals.
Lavender derives its name from the Latin lavare, to wash, and was often added to water when washing clothes or sheets. Today it is more often added to the bath both for its fragrance and calming effect. Lavender flowers grown in the Library Garden are collected in summer and dried for the potpourri provided at AutumnFest for attendees to make their own scented herbal sachets.
Often called English lavender, Lavendula angustifolia is in fact not native to England, but derives primarily from the Mediterranean region. It was reportedly named English lavender because of its ability to grow well in the English climate. Like rosemary, it needs well-drained neutral to alkaline soil in an open sunny location. Once established, it is very drought tolerant. Lavender plants should not be cut back in spring until after new growth appears. The Complete Medicinal Herbal recommends a new (to me) medicinal use – applying undiluted essential oil to insect bites and stings. English lavender is more often used as a culinary herb than other varieties (Lavandula angustifolia, MBG). Fragrant purple flower spikes standing above its soft gray green foliage, plus its multiple uses, make this plant a lovely addition to any garden.
Recipe: Lavender Pound Cake
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoons dried lavender
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup milk
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two loaf pans
- Mix flour, baking soda and salt in medium bowl. Pulse 1/2 cup of the sugar with the lavender in a food processor until lavender is ground.
- In a large bowl, beat butter, lavender-flavored sugar, remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar and vanilla until fluffy, 3 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. In another small bowl, combine sour cream and milk.
- On low speed, alternately beat the flour mixture and the sour cream mixture into the butter/lavender sugar/egg mixture in 3 additions, beginning and ending with flour. Divide into two pans.
- Bake at 350 for 55 minutes or until tester comes out clean. Cool on rack 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans and let cool completely.
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon dried lavender
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
- Microwave water and lavender for 30 seconds on High power.
- Let stand 5 minutes. Strain out lavender flowers and discard.
- Once cake is cool, whisk together 4 teaspoons of the lavender water and the confectioner’s sugar. Drizzle over both loaves. Slice and serve.
- Brown, D. (2003). Encyclopedia of herbs and their uses. London: Dorling Kindersley.
- Griffin, J. (2008). Mother Nature’s Herbal: A Complete Guide for Experiencing the Beauty, Knowledge & Synergy of Everything That Grows (2nd ed.). Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
- Lavandula angustifolia. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2018, from http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=281393&isprofile=0&. Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG).
- Ody, P. (1993). The complete medicinal herbal: a practical guide to the healing properties of herbs, with more than 250 remedies for common ailments. London: Dorling Kindersley.
- Rosmarinus officinalis. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2018, from http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=b968. Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG).