Help me find cool, weird, rare edible herbs for my garden
June 11, 2024 7:08 AM   Subscribe

I have installed a new herb garden in my US Midwestern yard this year and I am looking for suggestions on interesting perennial edible herbs to add to it beyond the obvious culinary classics (rosemary, sage, thyme, etc.). What should I grow?

I already grow the Simon and Garfunkel herbs. In my new herb garden space, I want to add a wide variety of perennial edible herbs that are visually interesting, historically interesting, ecologically interesting, culinarily interesting, weird, rare, obscure, unexpected, and/or just plain fun.

Growing conditions: My area was just rezoned this year by the USDA to 7a (previously was 6b). My new, in-ground, large herb garden space has both full sun and part sun areas. The soil in my yard is Mississippi Valley clay of the type you can literally make bricks out of, but I am open to amending it in spots as necessary to facilitate plant survival. The moisture conditions are moderate, with decent drainage.

For this particular new garden space, I am looking for suggestions for perennial edible herbs that will reliably come back in my climate. (I do also grow annual herbs, but annuals are not what I'm looking to plant in this space.)

I have already planted, in this new spot or elsewhere in my garden: oregano, sweet hardy marjoram, common sage, Berggarten sage, purple sage, blue sage, Arp rosemary, Munstead lavender, winter savory, creeping thyme, English thyme, chives, garlic chives, hyssop, anise hyssop, Korean hyssop, lovage, santolina, wild bergamot, catnip, peppermint, slender mountain mint, common mountain mint, nodding wild onion, and fall glade onion.
posted by BlueJae to Home & Garden (39 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Looks like it may be just outside your USDA range, but Pineapple Sage is pretty cool. It smells just like a pineapple!

This page
says it is a zone 8, but "Some gardeners in Zone 7 are able to keep these herbs alive from year to year by diligently applying mulch before winter sets in."

PS: Wow, what an amazing garden! I can't believe the variety you've got. I'd love to see photos.
posted by hydra77 at 7:25 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]

chervil (see: St. Basil soup from 12 Months of Monastery Soups - it contains no basil)

leaf celery / Chinese celery - takes instant ramen to the next level, gives that celery flavor without the troubling mushy crunchy dealio

tulsi - makes a lovely tisane. Prominent in ayurvedic medicine, although I've never tried that use. Smells interesting and lovely. In the mint family, easy to grow.
posted by amtho at 7:26 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]

Tarragon is a bush-like perennial herb, but it gets a bit floppy - mine is about 2 foot by 2 foot right now. I’m in zone 5, and it comes back every year.
posted by Maarika at 7:40 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]

You already have a great collection but maybe chocolate mint, curry plant, meadowsweet, bay leaf, sorrel.
posted by rongorongo at 7:59 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Truelove Seeds and Southern Exposure are my favorite sources of heirloom and culturally specific herbs.

In my newly 8A garden, I've grown and used:
- epazote, a Latin American herb that's a key component of my taco seasoning mix. More of a self-seeding annual than a perennial per se, and wants more drainage than unamended clay will give it, so I've got mine in a pot.
- za'atar a.k.a. Lebanese thyme, which is related to oregano and is a component in za'atar spice blends used in a lot of Middle Eastern / Mediterranean dishes.
- hyssop and anise hyssop, which are different plants but both have a licorice-y flavor that's good for sweetening herbal tea blends.
- hibiscus a.k.a. roselle, also great for herbal tea blends or as an iced tea if you like tart flavors.
- Mexican tarragon, which can sub for French tarragon.
- borage , which I grew mostly as a trap crop but the flowers are edible. (Note that it's toxic to dogs.)
- shiso a.k.a. perilla a.k.a. lá tía tô, which goes great in sushi and salads. It's a mint , so maybe keep it in a pot.
posted by fifthpocket at 8:12 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]

posted by Dashy at 8:13 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]

Seconding bay leaf. And if you’ve got the room, a small sassafras tree would be fun. I grew up chewing the early leaves in the spring and making teas from the twigs, too.

(Your garden sounds gorgeous!)
posted by minervous at 8:15 AM on June 11

Graveyard moss! I'm growing it now and find it delicious.
posted by tiny frying pan at 8:27 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Not quite an herb: nasturtium. Especially if you have a place for them to sprawl at will to bloom.

It took me several years to get shiso/perilla to grow, I finally succeeded with the Korean perilla from Kitazawa, which generally has a collection worth perusing.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:29 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

I came in to second sorrel. It's absolutely fantastic in salad, and sorrel soup is divine. Red-veined sorrel is also really pretty in the garden, but common sorrel makes a better looking soup.
posted by OrangeDisk at 8:29 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

posted by Sublimity at 8:39 AM on June 11

Careful with sorrel—some varieties can be EXTREMELY invasive.
posted by lovableiago at 8:52 AM on June 11

My rue and yarrow have come back at least twice now. Yarrow is good for tea and rue is... cautiously edible. I have a few medieval recipes that call for it in herb pancakes. I'm 6a-b and these are in planters, because our soil is all backfill.
posted by cobaltnine at 9:14 AM on June 11

You can grow saffron and also have sweet crocuses.
Sweet woodruff is a pretty ground cover that grows in shade.
Poppies. Mine have done best from nursery plants.
Strawberry and raspberry leaves are used in tea.
The bees do love the bee balm.
posted by theora55 at 9:32 AM on June 11

shiso/perilla - it’s an annual in your climate, but it’s supposed to reliably self-seed. There are a few different kinds including green and purple varieties. Good as a wrap around grilled meats or chopped in salads.

lemon balm - it’s a mint, smells great, and can be used as a tisane

lemon thyme - it’s variegated so it’s an extra cute type of thyme and it smells amazing
posted by A Blue Moon at 9:56 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

There are lots of popular greens/herbs in Korean cuisine, some that are wild foraged and others that are cultivated. Aster scabra and stringy stonecrop (!!! I didn't know this is a stonecrop! Also called graveyard moss as mentioned by tiny frying pan above) are great in bibimbap or alone.

p.s. I thought that perilla was a perennial given how abundantly it's reproduced itself in pots on my balcony this year, but it apparently just had fun with seed dispersal (it went from one pot to three pots). It apparently is an annual?? I got my starter plant at the Korean grocery store and it thrived. On preview: yes it's GREAT at self seeding.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:58 AM on June 11

Following this for my own herby ideas :-)

What about motherwort? I like it in a comforting hot tea with 1/3 motherwort, 2/3 mint, and honey to taste.

Wasabi, maybe? (I was also going to say shiso because it's delicious, but realized it's an annual.)
posted by cnidaria at 10:02 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

If you've got the room for a bush/small tree: Sumac
posted by hydra77 at 10:14 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Strictly Medicinal has interesting things — some need pretty specific propagation, but they often sell starts also.
posted by clew at 10:19 AM on June 11

Lemon verbena makes delicious tea.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 10:33 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]

Kkaennip! Also known as perilla and (incorrectly) as sesame leaves, it's a staple vegetable in Korean cooking and is essential if you're eating Korean barbecue the traditional way, wrapping the grilled meat in kkaennip and lettuce with a dab of ssamjang sauce. The flavor is reminiscent of a cross between basil and fennel, IMO.

It can also be used on its own – this recipe for soy-marinated perilla leaves is one of my favorites.

It's easy to grow and quite pretty when in full leaf. If you let it go to seed, you can either harvest and use the seeds yourself, or leave them for the birds.
posted by Lexica at 10:46 AM on June 11

I've just finished drying a batch of lemon balm Melissa officinalis leaves for infusions.
Asterids Chamomile Chamaemelum nobile and feverfew Tanacetum parthenium are other infusible shrubs. Tarragon Artemisia dracunculus is great in salads - or anywhere; as is arugula / roquette / rocket Eruca sativa.
It impossible to kill "nasturtium" = monk's cress Tropaeolum majus so although technically an annual, it comes back year after year. Not to be confused with unrelated Nasturtium officinale.
posted by BobTheScientist at 10:57 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you'd find these in the US (but I'm often surprised with what I do find in US nurseries).

Tetragonia implexicoma nz spinach, half-hardy perennial in colder areas. Attractivce read stems and a useful spinach-like plant.

Sonchus kirkii (also in link above), also Sonchus oleraceus. Rauriki or Pūhā, sow thistle (traditional Māori foods and medicinal drugs page), large edible leaves, a large perennial with soft leaves and yellow aster flowers. I haven't grow it yet but hope to.
posted by unearthed at 11:42 AM on June 11

When I asked this question of friends a few years ago, they recommended epazote. As fifthpocket notes, it's not a true perennial, but I think mine grew for three seasons and may have continued if I had tended it a bit more.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:02 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Grow rue! Rue is also known as herb of grace. It's a beautiful plant with a blue cast to the leaves and tiny yellow flowers. Quite pretty, and many people don't recognize it. Latin: Ruta Graveolens

Horehound is fun, as is licorice. Lemon grass smells heavenly.

There are many different sages, and you should plant both Mediterranean (Greek) oregano and Mexican (common) oregano, as they have different flavors.

Don't forget the chives! So pretty when they bloom in the spring, and so prolific that you can use them hard. Save a goodly amount of space for two special annuals: basil and dill. So good.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:07 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

I'm in 6b (previously zoned 6a) and quite a few years into the same project with many of your and subsequently mentioned plants, in addition to the usual annual herbs. Not mentioned yet:

- herb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) - There are "bronze" selections if you want some color variation. Put it near the lovage and where it won't cast shade because they both get gigantic (6' x 3') about now. Lovely for an anise note in salads and enormously prolific compared to the other herbs with anise notes.
- salad burnet - (Sanguisorba minor) - Tastes like cucumber so makes another nice salad greens addition - and unlike cucumbery borage is dependably perennial for me. Makes pretty but eventually floppy and untidy flower spikes.
- catmint - (Nepeta, various) - worth a head-to-head comparison if you live with cats.
- walking onions - (Allium × proliferum) if the onions you mention are something you're interested in, these might also be your speed.

Not perennial for me in 6b:
- French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
- chervil - behaves as a biennial, not enough self-seeding to persist, much to my sadness
- rosemary, not even Arp or Hill Hardy, unfortunately - my MIL in 7a says "with overwintering rosemary, you have two choices: you can bring it inside and kill it, or leave it outside and kill it." Living in CA I saw specimens as big as a car, sigh.
- lemon verbena sometimes comes back and sometimes doesn't, apparently depending on whether I assume it's not and buy a plant to replace it
- Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens)

You mention peppermint but not spearmint/garden mint, which seems like a big oversight culinarily. I think it's worth trolling around online nurseries for flavored mints (pineapple, apple and orange mints in addition to the already-mentioned chocolate) and thyme varietals. (Like sages, not all thymes are culinary.) Already-mentioned lemon thyme is absolutely a must. There are a lot of those mints and thymes out there and while you're not likely to love all of them, you'll probably find a favorite or two.

And for the love of everything, consider putting the mints and the badly-behaved sharp-elbows mint-family plants like catnip, marjoram, oregano, and lemon balm in large containers or be prepared to pull runners in perpetuity. Lemon balm marches at night, I tell you. I promise if you dig them up they'll be fine.

The culinary sages are technically perennial, but they're short-lived ones and you will probably find they peter out a couple or several years in, depending on how intensively you tend them.

Lovage is best when the leaves are new - it gets ranker the bigger it gets, and it does get very big. Cutting celery stays a more reasonable size, doesn't go as rank.

I do think you're likely to find that some of your selections will fuss about the unamended soil, or will want less water than their neighbors (looking at you Berggarten sage and tarragon), or you'll have a lot of them and their flavor isn't as great as their profusion (winter savory, completely different than summer, true hyssop, great flowers though!) but it's all a discovery process.

You're getting some mentions of plants that won't take the lowest temps in 7a, so do check zones. Rue is worth cautioning you again on safety.
posted by jocelmeow at 7:00 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]

If you cook Indian cuisine, a Kari leaf plant would be very useful. If you cook Thai cuisine, a Thai Lime plant would also be a good idea.
posted by conrad53 at 8:49 PM on June 11

Quite an herb garden already!

Angelica (of various species) is the one idea I had that hasn't been suggested so far.

Szechuan peppercorn, if a smallish tree is in bounds.
posted by away for regrooving at 9:27 PM on June 11

Okay, I got one, but you'd have to bring it in in the winter: a bay laurel tree. I bought a small one (a variety that stays small) a few years ago, and it made it through one or two winters outside, but then did not make it this year. I left it outside in zone 8b. I also had a few other things die this year, so it might have been neglect, or the big ice storm that hit in January and lingered for a week.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:53 PM on June 11

Consider Loveage (celery-like but more flavorful), Stevia for teas, both Greek and Mexican oregano (different plants and different tastes), and Thai basil. Seconding epasote, especially if you make beans a lot (they're good for preventing gas).
posted by answergrape at 8:42 AM on June 12

Rue is gorgeous, reliable, self seeds and takes transplanting well, and is a host for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars: there's three already on my plants! I also use the flowers and foliage as filler for cut flower bouquets.
posted by lydhre at 9:11 AM on June 12

Surprised no one has recommended so-called Cuban Oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus), which is perennial but you'll have to bring a cutting inside each winter. It's semi-succulent, in the mint family, looks like a fleshier coleus, and has a delightful oregano + minty flavor. (Worth noting, it's not Cuban nor is it oregano.) Cuttings root readily in water or soil, so it'll just be a houseplant by a sunny window for a few months every winter. Easiest acquired as a cutting rather than a seed - from Etsy or the like, if you don't know anyone who has it as a plant. There are variegated forms that are less flavorful -- I would recommend avoiding those.
posted by the_arbiter at 1:01 PM on June 12

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the suggestions so far. A quick note on mint family plants: I have grown them before and I am well aware of their aggressive tendencies. I'm prepared to either make good choices with mints or accept the consequences of my bad ones. I do appreciate the warnings of course because if I didn't already know it would be a potentially unpleasant surprise!

Also shiso/perilla while delicious is considered invasive (in the ecological sense) in my state, Missouri. Just sharing that info for potential readers from my area so they can avoid accidentally contributing to the problem.
posted by BlueJae at 6:07 AM on June 13

Mod note: [btw, this delightful post and thread have been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog! 🪴]
posted by taz (staff) at 3:42 AM on June 18

You said you were interested in interesting plants so I suggest growing Lunaria. It blooms early, and soon becomes a beautiful decorative seed stalk. I rub the seed pods to flake off the shell, collect the seeds, and reveal the glossimer paper inside, which reminds me of the moon, and the moonlight. I think of this flower as having pretend magical powers. They are easy to harvest and process and turn into a quick bouquet you can keep yourself or give someone else. And if you don't like them, they are very easy to weed out.
posted by rebent at 10:36 PM on June 18

Comfrey has many traditional uses, and it has deep deep roots that bring up minerals from the subsoil, making it good in compost or as a mulch. It is now known to cause liver disease though so maybe don't go nuts on the tea and salad and just stick to external use. Also it is very, very vigorous so don't let it get away, with those deep roots it is hard to eradicate where it is established.

You could also have a crack at horseradish. Again, deep roots and hard to eradicate. I would advise cutting the bottom out of a large tin (eg an olive oil tin) and embedding it in the soil, then planting inside the tin.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:41 AM on June 19

Oh also traditionally rhubarb was considered a medicinal herb, before sugar become cheap and plentiful in Europe. Stewed with sugar it is a bit of a controversial dessert but I love it. It also is quite attractive I think and a large plant compared to many other herbs.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:47 AM on June 19

Egyptian walking onions! I have no affiliation with that site, but I did buy mine from them.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:00 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

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