The Herb Garden
The Joy of Growing and Using Herbs:
Juniper and Jacob's Ladder
by Rachel McLeod
When I planted my first silver and gray bed of herbs, more than 20 years ago
now, I was back to the books and soon discovered that the silver and grays
needed a dark background to be really effective; the most successful plantings
were in front of tall dark yew hedges. This was not really possible in our herb
garden so I looked around for other dark evergreen trees and found the solution
in a blue columnar juniper. It still stands in the silver and gray bed
surrounded by plants such as artemesia, lamb’s ears and silver thyme – all
brilliant in contrast with the juniper.
Juniper is a very useful plant in the herb garden, where it adds texture and
color. As it is evergreen, the rich blue green of its foliage is attractive
throughout the year. It grows in a variety of forms, from the vertical that I
used, to the prostrate, creeping types such as Blue Rug and many intermediate
bushy shrubs. There is indeed a juniper for every situation. The flat ones are
particularly good as a ground cover if they are planted about 30 cms apart.
The foliage of junipers is very aromatic. A lovely, clean, resinous scent
arises if you brush against them or are weeding around them. The berry or “cone”
is even more aromatic than the foliage and this is the part used for its oil and
for flavoring. The berries take two to three years to mature. They are green in
their first year or two but will turn blue then black when they are ripe. They
are usually harvested in the autumn of the second or third year.
They are used for culinary and medicinal purposes and are especially good
used as a seasoning for fish, game, venison and sauerkraut. The fruit collected
from Mediterranean countries is more flavorful than that from northern countries
such as Sweden or Scotland. Usually they are bought in packets showing their
origin. They can be added in a marinade or a stock so that the flavor will
permeate the meat before cooking.
Medicinally, juniper is a very useful herb. For problems with the urinary
tract, it has a diuretic effect. It is also used for arthritis and rheumatism,
to stimulate digestion and to dispel mucus and relieve coughs and bronchitis. It
is usually taken as a tea made from the berries. However, it should not be used
on a long-term regular basis as prolonged use might irritate the kidneys.
Finally, one of the most important uses of juniper is hardly in the medicinal
realm but certainly fulfils the definition of a herb being a plant useful to
humankind. Juniper berries are the source of the flavor of gin. The name gin is
derived from the French for juniper...jenever and genievre. Gin as an
alcoholic drink has been made since before the 17th century. Initially, it was a
harmful drink but the process of redistillation has removed the harmful
characteristics. Now British and American gins are made from a colorless and
tasteless neutral spirit which is then redistilled with juniper berries and
possibly other flavorings such as angelica, coriander, fennel, caraway or anise
to name a few; each maker has his secret recipe in which herbs play an important
This seems like a good opportunity to write about a delightful plant often
seen in gardens – Jacob’s Ladder. Polemonium caeruleum and P. reptans
are both candidates for the herb garden. The plant gets its name from the
ladder-like formation of its leaves, which grow up the stem like rungs on a
ladder. Both plants have lovely sky blue flowers in the spring. P. reptans is
the earliest and makes a small clump with a mass of blue flowers only about 12
cms high. Then it disappears for the season, hopefully to return the following
year. But as it is a short-lived perennial, one can never be certain. Also I
have not yet been able to find viable seed and it has never self-seeded in my
garden. In spite of that drawback, it is one of the loveliest spring flowers and
a wonderful companion to the early bulbs.
P. caeruleum is later to flower and much taller, up to a metre high.
It will grow in semi-shade and has either blue or white flowers. Instead of
disappearing after flowering like its cousin, it retains fresh green foliage all
summer making a handsome clump even without flowers.
Both plants were listed as a herbal medicine until the nineteenth century,
when they fell out of use. P. caeruleum was also called Greek valerian
because of the similarity of its leaves to those of valerian but the similarity
ends with the leaves. Culpepper says it is “useful in malignant fevers and
pestilential distempers; it helps in nervous complaints, headaches, trembling,
palpitations of the heart, vapors etc.”.
The root of P. reptans was used as an astringent and for fevers,
coughs and colds and is still listed in modern books but it would be sad to dig
up such a pretty plant for its roots when other remedies are available.
There are other Jacob’s ladders on the market, in particular a variegated
form of P. caeruleum which is very handsome and rather difficult to find.
Also a variety with apricot flowers which I have grown from seed and now in its
third year is making an attractive clump. All these polemoniums are
attractive additions to the herb garden or any garden area and though they are
not now in use they are valid additions to a herb collection if only for their
historical value and their beauty.
Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in