Monday, February 18, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/18/08)

The aroma of a freshly picked sage leaf is a great way to begin the day, and the taste of freshly picked chopped dill leaves in a paste of olive oil and garlic over a baked fillet of salmon is a great way to the end the day. Scent and taste are the gifts of an herb garden along with the sight of a variety of attractive plants growing in a garden of rocks. Although touted today as seasonings, herbs are still useful in medicine and for their aromas.

Many of the most popular herbs nowadays originate in the lands around Mediterranean Sea, and it’s important to remember their heritage when planting them in a garden. Generally, they like a well-drained, light, loamy, slightly alkaline soil and lots of sun, and they dislike the harsh climes of the Colorado Plateau. Several sunny hours and protection from winds will do quite nicely. This generally means that an herb garden will do best on the southside of the house and close to the house, like the kitchen door. Avoid those low places into which the cold likes to sink.

Dill, parsley, sage, chives, thyme, garlic, savory, marjoram, mint, basil, oregano, rosemary, fennel, and tarragon are most of the herbs found in a backyard herb garden amongst the rocks. Happily, in Flagstaff we have plenty of rocks in all kinds of colors, textures, and shapes to help retain the warmth of the day’s sun during the evening hours, keeping the garden Mediterranean.

Some herbs, like dill (Anethum graveolens), do quadruple duty. Its seeds are spices, its leaves herbs, and, as a carminative, it helps settle the stomach. Indeed, the name dill comes from the Norse dylle, meaning to soothe. The seeds are more strongly flavored than the leaves, both having a sweet, grassy, tea-life aroma and flavor. Finally, the whole of it is a graceful addition to both a flower and vegetable garden, towering elegantly and delicately above the garden. When glistening with dew after an evening’s rain, it makes for an epiphanous moment. Reaching a height of three feet, it gives the feeling of a leggy colt, and, as such, should be planted to the rear of a rock garden or scattered randomly throughout a garden.

A big plus for dill is that it’s easy to grow, and year after year dill, as a volunteer, will keep popping up all over the garden. Since it’s willowy, it should be planted in small clusters, each one helping the others to stand up, or with stakes.

Dill should not be grown near fennel because dill and fennel like each other and tend to hybridize.

Used with fish and shellfish, cottage and cream cheese, and tomato juice beverages, dill weed, that is the leaves, is a favorite in the cuisine of the Middle East where it is used to season meats and vegetables, such as lamb and spinach. Germans use dill in potato soup, and the Greeks season grape leaves with dill weed. Dill is also used in rice pilaf. Needless to say, the seeds are used in dill pickles.

Dill seeds have been found in the tomb of Amenhotep II. The ancient Hebrews used it for tithing. During the Middle Ages, dill was used to ward off witches, and nowadays a sprig worn on the label could well be used while listening to politicians, television commercials, and corporate pitchmen in the employ of oil, insurance, and drug companies.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) as distinct from dill is a perennial. A bush-like, woody evergreen shrub with a piney-woody flavor, it prefers it dry and suffers with too much watering. It does very well amongst rocks and on borders and likes a warm environment with shade, but not under the trees. Happily, sage can survive Flagstaff’s winters.

A good companion for many plants, including rosemary, cabbages and carrots, it is said to repel insects and could well be planted throughout a garden although it doesn’t like growing near basil, cucumbers, and squash.
As a perennial, it is best replaced every few years. While it can be grown from seed, it is more useful to buy a sage plant from a nursery. For those who strive for horticultural authenticity, sage can be propagated from cuttings.

When picking the leaves, it is best to take only a few at a time. As with many human beings, sage leaves become “more so” with a stronger flavor as they age while the younger are less sure of themselves with a less committed, lighter taste.
The culinary and medical uses of sage are manifold from stuffing to gargle. It reduces perspiration, soothes sore throats, and flavors sausage, poultry, and fish. Its essence is even used in perfumes. While dill is a quadruple threat, sage is quintuple, seasoning, medicinal, aroma, attractiveness, and insect repellant. No wonder Martin Luther said, “Why should a man die while sage grows in his garden?” Indeed, its Latin name Salvia officinalis is the root of our word salvation.

It’s a good thing to have a friend growing amongst the rocks, on the borders, and throughout the garden. Like a good friend, it can survive a little neglect, pretty much take care of itself, make life a lot more pleasurable and dinners memorable. In short, sage is reliable.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

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