On a spring day in May eight years ago, I browsed through the herb section of a local nursery reading the plant labels -- Dittany of Crete, Clary Sage, Angelica, names evoking images of ancient Greece, wisdom, and angels.
Quietly I chanted the botanical names -- Origanum dictamnus, Salvia sclarea, Angelica archangelica -- as Latin incantations of power and healing. I squeezed the leaves reveling in their texture and fragrance. Scented geraniums filled the air with citronella, rose, coconut and lemon. Rosemary, thyme, sages, and lavender conjured up images of Mediterranean sea cliffs and pastoral France.
Traditionally we think of herbs sequestered in a corner of our vegetable garden, in highly formalized settings with strict geometric proportions, or near the back kitchen door, ready for a quick pinch to put in salads or a sauce. My first herb garden began as the kitchen door variety in its own bed off the back porch. The next year, I had to dismantle part of this garden to make room for a porch extension, and some of the herbs moved out into my perennial borders. This fortuitous move led to an appreciation for the striking ornamental beauty of herbs, in addition to their aromatic and therapeutic value.
Hollyhocks, yarrow, columbine, lady's mantle, marigold, geranium, St. John's Wort, and hens and chicks, grown for their medicinal or psychic value, are also lovely plants in the garden. Hen's and chicks, or house leeks, are a common groundcover in Colorado. The botanical name, sempervivum, is derived from the Latin semper (always) and vivus (alive), alluding to its evergreen nature. This ancient herb, believed to provide insurance against fire and lightning has an obvious value in lightning prone Colorado. I grow them strictly for their tough, resilient beauty as a dependable ground cover. My husband, on the other hand, says that since we have not been struck by lightning, they are clearly performing their beneficial meteorological function, and we need more of them as he fills yet another garden bed with the little dears.
Basil makes fabulous pesto, freshens tomato sauce, and infuses extra virgin olive oil with the haunting flavors of summers in Provence. I grew basil African Blue in my flower garden last summer because the purple stems and olive green and purple leaves mixed so well with the mauve flowers of verbena Buenos Aires, another heat-loving annual. When African Blue basil bloomed in mid-July, covered with long purple flower spikes, I knew this plant was a candidate for the elite flower bed. No longer relegated to the corner vegetable garden, African Blue basil is an ornamental beauty that takes center stage.
Garden Angelica is a robust, biennial herb I've grown in my shade garden. These plants used to be called herba angelica (angel's plant) because they were thought to have heavenly powers against diseases. Angelica gigas, Korean angelica, is one of my favorite plants, a beauty in the perennial border. It blooms the second year from seed, but the wait is worth it. The broad leaves unfurl on deep reddish purple stems, and each day a new show awaits as the umbels, also deep reddish purple, unfold to become five-inch flowers. Place this large, dramatic plant where you can enjoy the show as it unfolds daily from mid-August to September when the seed heads form. Plant in compost-amended soil which does not dry out for too long, and remember to save the seed to start your own plants next year.
The best way to know a plant is to grow it in your garden and observe how it responds to you and your garden site. Some will be happy way beyond your initial expectations and require annual removals to the compost pile. However, a plant's exuberant lust for life should not spell its demise, but a more intelligent placement by the gardener. More than once I've moved mints, costamary, and bee balm out to tougher conditions in my open meadow that challenge their growth rates through less water and leaner soil. Given ample room to roam, the stand of apple mint near the studio is one of my garden's crowning glories, and provides our bees' favorite nectar in July when it blooms.
"Beauty for its own sake" drives most of my gardening efforts, but having lots of fresh mint for summer teas, or picking a branch to inhale and clear my head, is a secondary bonus of growing these ornamental plants throughout the gardens.
And of course, we haven't been struck by lightning yet.