18 indispensable herbs

Our guide to growing and cooking with basic and gourmet herbs

Thyme

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Thyme

(Thymus vulgaris)

Heavily scented leaves are used to season fish, shellfish, poultry stuffing, soups, or vegetables. Perennial; to 1 foot tall. Zones 1–24.

More: All about growing thyme

Basil

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Basil

(Ocimum basilicum)

Lends a sweet-spicy flavor to sauces and pesto. Annual; grows to 2 feet tall. All zones.

More: All about growing basil

Chives

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Chives

(Allium)

Green, grasslike, 12- to 24-inch-long spears form in clumps. Clusters of rose purple or white flowers in spring. Perennial. Zones 1-24, H1-H2.

More: All about growing chives

Cilantro

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Cilantro

(Coriandrum sativum)

Fresh leaves add flavor to salsa and guacamole. Annual; grows to 1½ feet tall. Shade in hottest climates. All zones.

More: How to grow cilantro

Oregano

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Oregano

(Origanum vulgare)

Fresh or dried leaves of this perennial add spice to Spanish and Italian dishes such as pizza and ravioli. Plant grows to 2½ feet tall. Zones 1–24.

More: All about growing oregano 

Parsley

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Parsley

(Petroselinum crispum neapolitanum)

Flat-leafed Italian parsley is more flavorful than the curly-leafed French variety. The plant grows 2 to 3 feet tall. All zones.

More: All about growing flat-leaf parsley

Sage

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Sage

(Salvia officinalis)

Musky, earthy leaves are staples in poultry stuffing, Italian meat dishes, and salads in the Middle East. The plant forms a mound 1 to 3 feet tall. Zones 2–24, H1, H2.

More: All about growing sage

Rosemary

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Rosemary

(Rosmarinus officinalis)

The aromatic leaves season meats, sauces, and soups. ‘Tuscan Blue’, a favorite of many chefs, grows to 7 feet tall. Zones 4–24, H1, H2.

More: All about growing rosemary

Sweet marjoram

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Sweet marjoram

(Origanum majorana)

Oval gray green leaves on 1- to 2-foot-tall plants. Milder and more floral than oregano. Perennial in zones 8-24; annual elsewhere.

More: All about growing sweet marjoram

Dill

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Dill

(Anethum graveolens)

Sprinkle its feathery leaves on grilled fish and in salads and sauces. An annual, dill grows to 4 feet tall. Zones 1–24.

More: All about growing dill

Mint

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Mint

(Mentha)

Peppermint and spearmint are favorites for flavoring teas, salads, soups, and cool drinks. Spreads fast by underground stems; grow it in pots. Perennial. All zones.

More: 6 great mints to grow

French tarragon

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

French tarragon

(Artemisia dracunculus)

Use fresh or dried leaves in salads and cooked dishes. A sprawling perennial, it grows 2 feet tall. Zones A1–A3, 2B–10, 14–24.

More: All about growing French tarragon

Chervil

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johnanna Silver

Chervil

(Anthriscus cerefolium)

Its leaves have a parsleylike flavor with overtones of anise flavor; tasty in soups or salads. Zones 1–24.

More: All about growing chervil

Lemongrass

Written by Johanna Silver

Lemongrass

(Cymbopogon citratus)

Pumps out grassy foliage with a strong lemon scent and is widely used in Southeast Asian dishes. Plant grows best in frost-free climates. Zones 12, 13, 16, 17, 23, 24, H1, H2

Hoja santa

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Hoja santa

(Piper auritum)

Pronounced “oh-ha sahn-ta,” meaning “sacred leaf.” When chopped, its leaves add zest to mole verde (green sauce) and tamales in Mexican cooking; the plant reaches 6 feet tall. Sunset climate zones 8, 9, 14–24.

Shiso

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Shiso

(Perilla frutescens)

Its leaves taste something like mint, something like cinnamon; they add zest to salads. Warm-season annual; grows 2 to 3 feet tall. All zones.

More: All about growing shiso

'Kieffer' lime

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

'Kieffer' lime

(Citrus hystrix)

Often sold as kaffir lime and used in Thai cooking, its leaves add zing to soups, salads, and stir-fries. Tree grows to 16 feet tall; protect from frost and wind. Zones 8, 9, 12–24, H1, H2.

More: All about growing 'kieffer' (or kaffir) lime

Epazote

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Epazote

(Chenopodium ambrosioides)

Leaves have an aroma of anise or fennel; use them fresh or dried to season black beans, tamales, and enchiladas. Perennial; to 2 feet tall. Zones 8, 9, 14–24; annual elsewhere.

More: All about growing epazote

Tips for a successful harvest

Written by Johanna Silver

Tips for a successful harvest

Soil. It should be fast draining; dig compost into garden beds before planting annual herbs. For herbs in containers, use potting soil.

Water. Give newly planted perennial herbs regular watering (once established, most tolerate some drought). Annual herbs such as basil need regular water throughout the growing season. Mint prefers slightly moist soil.

Fertilizer. Most herbs appreciate occasional supplemental feedings during the growing season; use an organic granular fertilizer. For ‘Kieffer’ lime, use a plant food formulated for citrus.

Harvest. For most: Snip fresh new growth as needed. For lemongrass: Cut off the thick, bulbous stems just above the crown (ground level); peel off outer sheath and use the bottom third of the stem in cooking.

Using herbs in the kitchen

Written by Johanna Silver

Using herbs in the kitchen

Because you can make only so much pesto, here are 5 new ways to use fresh-picked herbs.

Cocktail. For a zingy cocktail, mash mint leaves with minced ginger, lime juice, and ice. Add light rum, shake well, then strain into a cooler glass and top with ginger beer.

Soup. Add ‘Kieffer’ lime leaf and lemon basil to chicken and rice soup. Sprinkle with sliced chiles and fresh cilantro leaves for a Thai version of the classic.

Sandwich. Mix chervil, dill, and tarragon into mayonnaise with minced red onion and celery. Stir mixture into chopped roasted chicken and serve on toasted croissants.

Side. Fold chopped sage and blue cheese into mashed potatoes. Sprinkle with chopped toasted hazelnuts.

Main. Top a piece of snapper or black cod with salsa verde, cilantro, and epazote leaves. Wrap the seasoned fish in an hoja santa leaf and rub the outside with oil. Grill until fish feels firm. Serve with rice and beans.

Our favorite sources

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Johanna Silver

Our favorite sources

Mountain Valley Growers. An excellent site for organic seedlings, including 17 varieties of mint. mountainvalleygrowers.com

Kitazawa Seed Company. This company based in Oakland, California, specializes in Asian herbs and vegetable seeds, including five varie­ties of shiso. kitazawaseed.com

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. This source has earned a dedicated cult following for its more than 1,400 unusual seeds. rareseeds.com

Companion Plants. Sells seeds and plants of unusual herbs, including hoja santa. companionplants.com

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