Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Herbs - Valued For Many Reasons
In recent years, interest in herbs has grown dramatically, through increased travel and communication, and greater interest in health and environment. The multi-cultural diversity of modern society coupled with expanding international trade has created a greater awareness and interest in herbs. Botanically, an herb is described as a small, seed bearing plant with fleshy rather than woody parts. Practically, the term herb applies to a wide range of plants that are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, industrial uses, pesticidal properties, and coloring materials.
Herbs play a greater role in our lives than most of use realize. Both horticulture and the science of botany began with the study of herbs. The earliest gardens were herb gardens and the first botanical gardens were established as teaching laboratories to educate medical students about drug plants. Herbs have changed the course of history. The quest for herbs and spices by European mariners lead to the exploration and colonization of vast areas of the world. Wars have been fought over the sources of these once strategic substances. Many modern medicines, including aspirin, oral contraceptives, steroids, pain killers, and cancer fighting compounds such as vincristine and vinblastine are derived from or where first isolated from herbs. Unprecedented levels of crime and untold misery still surrounds the traffic in opium and coca derivatives.
Herbs make all the difference to foods. The cuisine of a region is characterized much more by the herbs employed than by the staples prepared. All herbs have distinctive aromas and flavors that display subtle changes according to the food or combination of foods with which they are combined. Herbs add color as well as flavor. Soups appear much more appetizing when sprinkled with chopped parsley or chives. Red and yellow from natural colorants, such as saffron, turmeric, annatto and paprika provides visual as well gustatory stimulation when incorporated into food. There are also unseen benefits in adding herbs and spices to food. They increase the vitamin and mineral content and aid in digestion. In warm regions, eating hot spices, such as chili, ginger and pepper, raises the metabolic rate, increasing perspiration and effectively cooling the body.
Herbs are easily grown in the garden. They are particularly well suited to small areas, since most of the popular culinary herbs take up little space and only a few plants will provide plenty for the average household. As with all plants, good soil conditions are conducive to optimum production. The pH should range between 6.0 - 7.0. Soils should be well drained, loose and lightly amended with organic matter, such as manure or compost. Herbs do best under moderate levels of fertility, too rich a soil will produce weak poorly flavored herbs that are subject to disease problems. Most herbs thrive in full sun. Adequate irrigation is most important while establishing new plantings. Once established most herbs will perform best with light watering as needed. As with fertility, over watering will result in less flavorful herbs.
Most of the annual and biennial herbs are grown from seed. Use of transplants will result in quicker production. Some such as marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage and thyme are best propagated from cuttings. Basil, catnip, chives, coriander, dill, ginger, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, summer savory and thyme are a few of the herbs that are easily produced in our area. For more information on growing individual herbs contact the Hendry County Extension Office. Since herbs take up little space they are particularly suited for container gardening.
For best results, herbs should be pruned regularly throughout the season. Pruning or pinching will result in fuller, more compact plants. The pinched tips may be saved for use in the kitchen. Herbs tend to be fairly pest resistant, but are occasionally attached by aphids, white flies, mites, and other pests. These can be controlled by removing the infested portion or by using soap or oil sprays.
For best flavor, harvest your herbs just as they begin to bloom; very young or old herbs tend to have less flavor. Herbs are best cut early in the morning after the dew has dried. Freshly cut herbs can be used directly in cooking or preserved for future use.
To store herbs for more than a few days, they can either be dried or frozen. Freezing is quick and easy way to preserve many herbs. Once thawed, however they tend to be limp and unattractive and are best used in cooking. Herbs may be dried by air drying - the time honored method or oven dried. To oven dry herbs, set the oven at 90 - 110 degrees and spread the herbs out on cookie sheets to dry. Most will dry over night. To air dry, hang herbs in loose bundles away from sunlight in a dry well ventilated room. Depending on the humidity they will take a few days to a few weeks to dry properly. Good luck and good gardening.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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