Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Herbs: symbols rich with tradition

HERBS have been steeped in magic and mystery since ancient times. Their lure continues as more and more gardeners are squeezing an herb or two into the odd spot in the garden. As interest grows, gardeners are expanding their inventory from the culinary essentials - such as basil, oregano, and mint - to more exotic but equally useful plants.

There are hundreds of known herbs to choose from - ranging from familiar ones, such as parsley and thyme, to exotics with evocative names, such as lady's bedstraw.

Whether the herb is a common garden variety or an unusual exotic one, almost all are rich with lore and tradition.

Rosemary is an herb that comes up frequently in Shakespeare's plays. In ``Hamlet,'' Ophelia refers to the language of flowers when she says, ``There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts.''

In ``The Winter's Tale,'' Perdita greets the disguised king, offering him a bouquet of herbs saying, ``Rosemary and rue; these keep seeming and savour all winter long; grace and remembrance to you both.''

Sir Thomas More, who had an affection for rosemary, is quoted as saying, ``As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language.''

A member of the mint family, rosemary is one of the oldest herbs known to man.

Legend has it that the Virgin Mary laid her blue cloak on a rosemary plant to let it dry, thus transmitting the lovely blue color to the flowers. She is also said to have hid behind a rosemary bush when she fled with baby Jesus into Egypt.

According to an old English custom, if the bride gives her groom a sprig of rosemary on their wedding morning, they will be assured of love, loyalty, and wisdom.

Although legend claims that rosemary will grow only in the gardens of the righteous, it is, in fact, a versatile, adaptable plant. Once established, it becomes quite drought- and heat-tolerant.

Choose a sunny location with a low-acid and well-drained soil. Rosemary will grow well in containers and can be moved indoors if the winter temperatures drop below zero degrees F.

Inside it should get lots of light and humidity. Dry heat will cause the little spiny leaves to drop. Depending on the variety, the plants can be grown as ground covers, hedges, or bushes.

Thyme is a delicious flavoring for meat, fish, omelets, and clam chowder. Mixed with marjoram, parsley, and bay leaf in appropriate proportions, it becomes bouquet garni.

The Greeks believed thyme imparted strength and fortitude. Their word for courage, thymon, may be the origin of the English name for the herb. As a carry-over of the Greeks' idea, medieval women across Europe embroidered scarfs with scenes of bees hovering over branches of thyme. They presented their handiwork to their favorite knights as a token of bravery.

Thyme, a member of the mint family, is slow to germinate from seed. But started plants are available at most nurseries.

Plant them in a sunny spot in well-drained soil and feed with bone meal, superphosphate, or any fertilizer low in nitrogen. In areas where the winters freeze, mulch plants or grow indoors.

There are many varieties of thyme. Some grow tall and upright. Others are low to the ground and make excellent cover. The low-growing types such as lemon, caraway, or golden thyme are extremely durable, to the point of being able to withstand foot traffic.

Geraniums aren't generally thought of as herbs, but the sweet-scented varieties are, and they do have culinary uses.

In her book ``Summer Cooking,'' Elizabeth David extols their virtues in cooking. She says that ``the leaf of the sweet-scented geranium gives a lovely scent to a lemon water ice and an incomparable flavor when cooked with blackberries for jelly.''

For blackberry jelly she recommends adding one or two geranium leaves while the blackberries are stewing. If you are making blackberry ice, add a couple of leaves in the boiling sugar water.

Even if you don't plan to cook with blackberries, the sweet-scented geraniums are an asset to the garden. They come in a variety of plant forms with different leaf color and structure and different flowers.

Some such as peppermint, apple-scented, and coconut-scented have a trailing form, making them useful for hanging baskets or ground covers. Rose geranium and lime-scented have upright growth habits that make them suitable for window boxes or in flower borders.

According to some lists, there area about 50 types of scented geraniums. Each has a fragrance suggested by its name.

Propagate the plants from stem cuttings or find started plants in a well-stocked herb nursery. They are not particular about soil as long as it is well drained. Choose a sunny location if the climate is cool, with partial shade in hot areas. Pinch the plants back to encourage bushiness.

Sage was a favorite herb of Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from AD 161 to 180. In medieval times it was reputed to be able to impart wisdom and improve the memory.

The word ``sage'' in the sense of a wise man is derived from that belief. According to the medieval language of flowers, sage means domestic virtue. The superstition flourished that a sage plant will be healthy when all is well, and will wilt when things go badly.

The potent flavor of sage blends well with meat, poultry, corn, biscuits, and baked onions. The leaves of clary sage (Salvia sclarea) are delicious fried like fritters. Pineapple sage is good in jams and jellies.

There are many kinds of sage - from dwarf varieties to ones that grow as big as four feet high and wide. The most common variety grown in herb gardens is known by the name Salvia officinalis.

Start the plants from seeds or cuttings in full sun and poor, but well-drained soil. The plants will die if they are overwatered, so be sure they are well drained - and err on the side of underwatering. For a bushier appearance, you can trim the plants annually.

Sorrel means affection in the language of flowers. Certainly those familiar with the plant and its culinary possibilities hold a very strong affection for it.

In Evelyn Waugh's famous novel ``Brideshead Revisited,'' Charles Ryder describes a memorable meal in Paris: ``The soup (oseille or sorrel soup) was delicious ... hot, thin, bitter, frothy.''

In her classic cookbook ``Mastering the Art of French Cooking,'' Julia Child describes her sorrel soup recipe: ``A lovely soup, and a perfect one for an important dinner.'' Besides its usefulness as a soup ingredient, sorrel adds a tangy, citrus flavor to salads and is useful as a garnish.

The spinachlike plants grow vigorously as long as they get ample water and a rich soil. Although preferring full sun, they will also grow in shade. Either sow seeds in spring or divide existing plants.

Sorrel plants are best cultivated in smallish containers, because they can become a pest in the garden. Divide the plants every three to four years to keep them in good shape and remove any forming flowers to promote good leaf growth.

Dill is an essential ingredient for dill pickles. It is lovely with eggs, fish, and tomatoes, or in salads; with cream cheese or sour cream as a dip; and with carrots. The seeds give a new dimension to vinegar.

As with most herbs, dill is nicer fresh than dried or frozen. Since its tall form (up to three feet) and lacy foliage make it a pretty background plant in the garden, most people who fancy the idea of fresh dill on demand should be able to find a suitable spot for it somewhere in their garden.

Sow the seeds in spring directly into rich, well-drained soil in a spot that gets full sun. Keep the seedlings moist, and thin them to 18 inches apart.

For a constant supply, succession-plant the dill seeds several weeks apart. If their large, umbrellalike flowers are allowed to go to seed, plants will self-sow.

Dill has its fullest flavor just as the flowers are opening. To harvest the seeds, either pick them before they are completely ripe or cover the flower heads in bags so the ripe seeds are not lost in the soil. Store seeds in an airtight container.

There are many good reference books on growing herbs. One very good one is HP Books' ``Herbs: How to Select, Grow, and Enjoy.'' The alphabetical listing of herbs, with at least one color photograph of almost every herb mentioned, is invaluable for researching the herbs you would like to grow.

An excellent book is ``The Pleasure of Herbs,'' by Phyllis Shaudys, published by Garden Way. In addition to being a useful encyclopedia, the book features a month-by-month guide to growing and using herbs. In addition, there are recipes, a list of herb suppliers, and harvesting and preserving tips.

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