In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
July, 2009
Regional Report

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Cuban oregano and lemon grass -- among the unusual herbs reflecting our diverse cultural tastes.

Mingling Herbs and Cultures

"Who here enjoys a Mojito?" A blond woman in the group waves her hand. I pass the 4-inch nursery pot of dark green "mojito mint" in her direction. Mojito mint (Mentha x villosa), which hails from Cuba, is the herbal component of the popular cocktail mojito -- made with rum, sugar, and lime juice.

Anyone use lemon grass? A dark-haired woman explains how she adds the finely sliced blades to coconut milk (with chicken and more) to serve over rice -- a recipe she learned in St. John, Virgin Islands. Examining the long-leafed plant, another woman reminds us to use its white bulb bruised and its blades minced for a soothing tea. Lemon grass, a tender perennial from India, is a mainstay in Thai and Vietnamese cooking that we can overwinter in a pot indoors.

What about epazote (eh-pa-zo-tay)? The bushy, green leafy herb drew a blank, even from this ethnically diverse group of gardeners and neighbors at the Hansberry Garden and Nature Center on Wayne Ave. in Philadelphia, PA. They'd gathered for a flea market and a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society City Garden series presentation -- "Herbs in the Garden."

I read my notes and the label. From Central America and the Aztecs, epazote (aka Mexican tea, wormseed) is a favorite culinary and medicinal herb in Mexico and Guatemala. Cooks use the young leaves of this strongly scented, slightly bitter herb to flavor beans, corn, and fish, and to stop gastric discomfort after eating beans. Ahhh -- "Beano," "Be-Sure" said several folks, nodding their heads.

Bringing The World Into Our Kitchens
As we Americans connect deeper within our communities, travel more, and make friends from various cultures, our culinary tastes are likewise expanding. We still enjoy traditional Mediterranean herbs -- basil, rosemary, oregano, and Italian and curly parsley. Who can resist growing basil in abundance for pesto and for tomato-mozzarella salad? French tarragon and garlic chives are popular continental garnishes for chicken and fish. These kitchen garden favorites are also great container plants, available fresh to anyone with a foot or two of a day's sun on the deck, patio, fire escape.

We're also experimenting with Indian, Mexican, French, Spanish, and Central and South American favorites -- cilantro, lemon grass, aloe vera, pepino, Vietnamese coriander.

Herb selections are getting deeper and wider. Though I'm satisfied with fragrant 'Sweet Genovese' basil, not so other gardeners and cooks. The basil house at Russell's Wholesale Gardens in Richboro, PA holds at least 30 types of culinary and ornamental basil. Lemon, Minette, Green Pepper, Miniature Purple, Spicy Globe, Purple Ruffles, Red Lettuce, Amethyst Improved, Purple, Holy (Sacred), African Blue, variegated Pesto Perpetuoso, Thai, Clove, Cinnamon, Cuban, Aussie Sweetie, Mammouth.

Whoa. With only so much room in the car, we stopped at 20 basil cultivars to bring for "Show and Tell." With three more herb houses to browse, we narrowed our "Take-Aways" to about 100 plants including succulent Cuban oregano 'Cerveza 'n Lime,' an ornamental plectranthus masquerading as an oregano.

Newbees and novelties we couldn't resist. Oregano -- Crispy Golden, Hot & Spicy, Kent Beauty, Mexican. Thyme -- Golden Lemon, Oregano, Silver, Lemon Mist, Pinewood, Nutmeg, Spicy Orange. Sage -- Dwarf Garden, Purple, Tricolor, All Gold, Berggarten, Mexican Bush, Golden Pineapple. Rosemary -- Barbeque (for grilling skewers), Logee's, Arp, Santa Barbara, Gorizia. YUM!


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