Natural Life Magazine

The Herb Garden
The joy of growing and using herbs

From Chives to Chervil
by Rachel McLeod

From chives and chervil – the ones that are first to be used fresh in the spring – to calendula, which is still flowering in November.

I have written often in this column about chervil, the bright green delicate parsley-like herb which is used to blend and enhance flavours in cooking and in salads. Easy to grow, if left alone in a semi shady, slightly damp spot with lots of humus, it will look after itself, seeding down each summer and providing a harvest of green leaves spring and fall. It dries very easily, keeping its bright green color and can be used fresh or dried all year in soups, salads and especially in a “fines herbes” mix for enhancing flavors.

Nor do chives (Allium schoenoprasum) need much introduction except perhaps to remind readers that it is not only the green leaves of chives which are so useful to us but also the purple flowers which make a delicious vinegar.

Many years ago when I started making the Kiln Farm Herb Garden I discovered that there are at least two different kinds of the ordinary purple chives. They are very similar but two different sizes. One is about 15 cm tall with small purple heads; the other grows about 30 cm high and has larger flower heads, which can be used successfully for dried arrangements if cut early. It was another ten years before I discovered that the large one has a white form too, which can be quite attractive if the purple and white are grown together.

Each year when I was conducting groups around the herb garden we would stop to decide which of the plants had the best taste. It seemed that very early in the season the smaller chives were the tastiest but as spring changed to summer the larger one, which actually flowers a little later, seemed to have the best flavor. Of course still later in the season (August) the oriental or garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) has the best flavour of all.

Although chives are easy to grow and propagate, they do like a humus-rich soil and plenty of water. Clumps should be divided every three or four years and when harvesting chives it is best only to cut about one third of the plant – or about five cm of the leaves – at a time so as not to weaken the plant.

Chives cannot be dried successfully at home; the commercial dried chives are freeze dried. For winter use they can be chopped and frozen in ice cube containers. Alternatively, the vinegar made from the flower heads will provide the flavor in dressings or marinades.

In spring after the chives have flowered, there is another purple, strongly aromatic herb which is one of my favorites for low edging or rocky places. This is catmint (Nepeta mussini or N. faassenii) a close relative of its larger and not as attractive wild herb catnip (Nepeta cataria). The Nepeta mussini, although loved by cats, is not used as a herb except for its ornamental value in the herb garden where it will make lovely mats of velvety grey foliage, looking fresh all summer if clipped after flowering.

Catnip, on the other hand, is a much taller plant and is harvested especially for catnip mice or for stuffing scratching posts for the family cat. Also, it is an old herbal remedy when made into a soothing tea which relieves pain and tension. Catmint is easy to grow and on limestone soils will re-seed itself and become a weed, especially if there are no cats to roll on it. It should be harvested or cut down or pulled before flowering to prevent an invasion of your garden.

Calendula or Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) is one of the happiest herbs. Its bright orange color is always cheerful and the flower opens with the sun and then closes at sunset or on cloudy days. The Romans observed that in Italy the plant was in flower almost every calendar month and from this came its botanical Latin name Calendula. Officinalis always means that it has official medical qualities and in the case of calendula these are beneficial effects on the arteries and veins – so much so that Arabs used to feed them to their ponies to help increase their speed.

It is the petals of the flowers which are medicinally the strongest part of the plant and these are easily collected and can be used fresh or dried in teas, salads or soups. It is best to pull them off the green receptacle at the top of the flowering stem as this can taste bitter and even cause some irritation. The flowers are also used in salves and complexion creams. Such a salve was in general use for healing wounds in both the American Civil War and the First World War and now the complexion creams may even help to smooth out the wrinkles acquired from age or exposure to the sun and wind.

Calendula is easy to grow and there is a great choice of different hybrids in colors, ranging from peach to a deep orange all with fully double heads. Seeds sown outside in the spring will start flowering in late July or August and will probably still be in sporadic flower in November. It self seeds freely but the flowers from the seedlings will be mostly single orange daisies rather than the full double of the hybrid parents. I have been happy to find that it will grow in my garden in part shade. This is probably because it really does not like hot dry weather, which makes the plant prone to infestation by aphids.

Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in 1974.


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