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The Lonely Herbs

I could hear the hesitation in her voice and imagine the crinkle of her nose. It is a path I have gone down many times. It is a fate commonly dealt. Not quite as final as death and yet almost as devastating. Obscurity.

Many are worthy who never find fame. Hidden in the shadows of giants that rule, they frequent little-known establishments. Discovering the unfamiliar is like taking time to try the little bistro down the street from the Main Cafe, full of intrigue and satisfaction.

On this particular day I was suggesting Winter Savory to someone who had heard only of Summer Savory. As I counted off Winter Savory’s virtues I could envision the smile overtaking the mouth and knew it would be all right.

The Saturejas and the perennial Tagetes are two groups that are full of Cinderella plants waiting to be rescued and enjoyed.


Satureja means Savory. It is an ancient word that is simple and to the point. Savory is one of the great words that goes with almost everything good in life. If we are smart we savor as much as possible. It is the perfect word to describe these diminutive members of the herb world.

The most common and well-known Savory is Summer Savory (Satureja hortensis), a warm-weather annual that is best directly seeded into its permanent location. We prefer the durability and ease of perennials, or in this case, Winter Savory. It is a great mystery why Winter Savory is relatively unknown when for hundreds of years both Winter and Summer Savory have been grown and used, virtually side by side. Both have strong spicy flavor. Winter Savory is a one-foot, dark green, semi-woody, herbaceous perennial that is hardy from zones 5 to 11. Easy to grow, it makes an attractive border plant for any culinary herb garden. Plant where it can get about six hours of sun a day in soil that drains well.

Winter Savory’s growth cycle starts in early spring as it emerges from the ground with lush, flavorful, rapidly-growing stems. The longer these stems grow, the woodier they get.If left on the plant, they reach about 12 inches long and produce clouds of small white flowers. While attractive, this elongated flower branch is not very tasty. Supple sprigs that push up from the ground and new side shoots off the older woody stems are perfect for fresh or dried use. Older leaves along the arching woody branches should be left behind; they have more chance of unsightly damage from insects and weather and can become a bit like shoe leather. Removing older branches back to the ground a couple of times a year keeps the plant clean and open to the sun and air, and produces more lush growth.

Winter Savory can be used in any recipe calling for savory or Summer Savory. It is a great mixing herb that blends well with different culinary oreganos, thymes and basils and can be added to meat, poultry or fish. Its small leaves are the perfect complement to herb cheeses or as last-minute additions to sautés. Even though it has a strong flavor when fresh, it does not hold up well to prolonged stewing. Famous for making its mark on beans, dried Savory also perks up stuffing and can be mixed with Sage, Thyme, and Bay. Add to ground turkey or pork with Fennel Seed, Cayenne Pepper, and Thyme. Or add a pinch to Chicken Salad or hearty soup. There are very few dishes that a little Winter Savory won’t make better.

Winter Savory (Satureja montana) also has a lesser known creeping form called, what else, Creeping Winter Savory (Satureja montana ‘Illyrica’). This variety grows close to the ground, 6 inches tall, on trailing stems that are beautiful spilling over pots. It has a longer growing season which makes it a better choice for winter indoor growing. And, while not quite as savory as Summer or Winter Savory, it is still flavorful and worthwhile growing and using. It also benefits from periodic shearing of woody branches.

While Winter and Summer Savory are associated with Northern European cuisine, Pink Savory (Satureja thymbra) is a flavor found in Spain where it was introduced by the Moors who ruled the Iberian Peninsula from 800 to 1492. The Moors, Arabians from North Africa, brought the spice with them from Southern Asia. Pink Savory is an ingredient in the spice mix ‘Zatar’.

Zatar, like Curry, is a blend of herbs that varies by region. A combination often mentioned is Pink Savory, Conehead Thyme, and Syrian Oregano.

Rich, and somewhat sweet, Pink Savory, also called barrel sweetener, and makes a light and refreshing tea. It forms a stiff, open one foot globe of small, fragrant and slightly fuzzy foliage. Tiny pink flowers appear for several weeks in spring making it worthy of a spot in the perennial border. Success is nearly guaranteed by this plants tolerance for drought and it’s tenacious yet well mannered growth habit. An evergreen, Pink Savory’s appearance is maintained by shearing the flowers off after bloom and pruning any ragged, woody branches out in early spring when growth has resumed. It’s foliage and flowers may be used fresh or dried.

If Winter Savory and Pink Savory are obscure then Yerba Buena and Jamaican Mint Bush are almost extinct. Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii), was named after David Douglas, who visited California in 1823 when he was sent by the Horticultural Society of London to collect spieces that would grow outside in England. No other collector has more plants associated with their name than David Douglas. As a matter of fact, as I write I look out at an enormous Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii) that was surely alive, yet smaller, when Douglas named it.

David Douglas found Yerba Buena (the Good Herb) growing in San Francisco where the mint scented plant was and still is used as a remedy for nearly every malady. Yerba Buena tea is the Olde California version of ‘Chicken Soup’. Today, its medicinal value is often overlooked in favor of other plants that may be more effective. A herbaceous vine with 1 inch diameter, scalloped leaves and insignificant flowers, it thrives in cool moist conditions and is stunted when stressed by drought or hot direct sun. A shaded hanging patio pot would make an inviting home where Yerba Beuna could send out its long, drooping, fragrant branches.

Jamaican Mint Bush or Satureja viminea is a very minty savory with great possibilities. The small 1/2 to 1/4 inch oval, glossy, lime green foliage can match any spearmint for potency, and yet it is not saddled with Mint’s aggressive nature. Even though it is frost sensitive it grows quite vigorously in one season and can be moved indoors. It grows well in a pot and survives inside with good light.

Lemon Savory (Satureja biflora) is a small, under 1 foot , dainty bush with tiny leaves. Some say it is an annual and others say it is perennial. We aren’t sure. It will grow from year to year for us in the greenhouse, but quite reluctantly. Even though it is an interesting plant with many savory attributes, we would have to say that Lemon Thyme, and Lemon Verbena are easier to grow and just as, if not more, lemony.


Tagetes (Ta JEE teez) may sound unfamiliar but Marigold is no doubt known to all. Tagetes is the genus that includes the famous annual flowers that frame our borders and protect our tomatoes from nematodes. Fortunately, it also contains some beautiful and delicious perennials. Just as the lesser known Savories live in the shadow of Summer Savory, these other perennial Marigolds live in the shadow of their annual cousins.

Tagetes Lemmonii sometimes known as Lemmon’s marigold is a large ornamental shrub with a lemony smell and lots of single yellow marigold flowers. A profuse bloomer over a long season it is commonly used in warm climates as an addition to the perennial border or as an accent shrub along hot sunny walls. It’s bright green fern like foliage is wispy and soft and belies it’s tough arid heritage. Native to Southern Arizona it is quite possible it was discovered by J.G. Lemmon and his new bride Sara Plummer during their honeymoon around 1880. The Lemmons were responsible for numerous botanical finds mostly in the Sierra Nevada foothills where J. G. went to recover after fighting for the union in the Civil War. His wife and lifelong ‘botanical’ companion even had a genus named after her, Plummera.

Tagetes lucida has several common names and is growing in popularity with cooks. Known as Winter Tarragon, Spanish Tarragon or Mexican Mint Marigold this perennial marigold tastes of sweet licorice. It is a three to four foot tall herb with 3” long, dark green, narrow leaves. Sometimes it is touted as a good substitute for French Tarragon but it really is not spicy enough. An attractive plant with small gold flowers, it can be mixed with perennials where the coarse texture of the leaves sets off gray or fern-like foliage. The flowers appear late in fall and, where it is cold early, may never be seen. For more information on Tagetes lucida send for our Tarragon Trials newsletter where we compare it with French Tarragon.

Lying on a dusty shelf waiting for a thief in the night, Citrus Scented Marigold (Tagetes Nelsonii) is the rarest of gems. This ornamental and fragrant 3’ plant is a must have. Its stems are reddish and striking against the dark green leaves that are like your hand with fingers extended. It’s flowers also come late and are not often observed here. It is the stateliness of the plant and it’s fruity musk like scent that are impossible to ignore. Named for E.W. Nelson who discovered it in Chiapas, Mexico in 1895, we have never seen this plant for sale anywhere in our travels and have had it for so long are not sure where it came to us from.

All three of these perennial Tagetes are herbaceous here in zone 8. We lose them above ground with frost but find them stronger and larger the next spring. Not something we can say about any annual.