Culinary Herbs for the Houston Area
BASIL Ocimum basilicum Lamiaceae* Annual
Flourishes in our hot summer sun, but keep the flowers pinched back or it will set seed and die before the growing season is over. Let the flowers bloom and set seed in the fall and you will have many new plants the next spring. If you have several varieties they will cross pollinate and you will not get the true plant the next year. There are several varieties including Lemon, Cinnamon, Anise, Purple Ruffles and Lettuce Leaf Basil. Plants seeds in the early spring (March).
BAY Laurus nobilis Lauraceae Tree
Buy a Bay tree and transplant to your garden because this is difficult to propagate. It can take up to 6 months for a cutting to root, and it is very slow-growing at first. Bay is usually winter hardy in Houston, but can be damaged in a very hard freeze. Plant it on the south side of the house if possible, for winter protection. It usually will come back from the root after freeze damage. Caution - Bay leaf does not break down during cooking, so always remove it from a dish before serving. It can cause internal damage by perforation.
CHERVIL Anthriscus cerefolium Apiaceae* Annual
This a cool weather annual, meaning that in the Houston area the seeds must be planted in the fall (October - December). The herb will bolt, flower and go to seed at the first sign of warm weather. Plant it in partial shade and enjoy fresh chervil all winter. It will readily reseed itself.
CHIVES, ONION Allium schoenoprasum Amaryllidaceae Perennial
CHIVES, GARLIC Allium tuberosum
Onion chives have tubular leaves and lovely lavender flowers, and garlic chives have flat leaves and white flowers which bloom all summer. The onion chives should be harvested often to encourage new growth. The will die back in a hard freeze, but should come back from the bulb in the spring. The garlic chives are stronger in flavor, so should be used in moderation. They will die back in a hard freeze, but new growth will appear as soon as the freezing weather is over. The garlic chives are very invasive. Both varieties can be grown from seed, division of clumps, or nursery plants.
CORIANDER/CILANTRO Coriandrum sativum Apiaceae* Annual
The seed of this plant is the spice, coriander, and the leaf is the herb, cilantro. This is a cool weather annual, so plant the seeds in the fall (October - December). The seeds will germinate early, during the winter, but the plant will tolerate a light freeze. If you let is go to seed in the garden, you will have cilantro everywhere the next year.
DILL Anethum graveolens Apiaceae* Annual
Another cool weather annual which should be planted in the fall (October - December). Dill is also another plant which is grown both for the seed and the leaf, and recipes will specify dill seed when calling for the seed or dill weed or dill when calling for the leaf.
FENNEL Foeniculum vulgare Apiaceae* Perennial
Plant seed in either spring or fall or transplant a nursery grown plant to the garden, because this is a perennial and will not die after setting seed. This is another plant grown for both the leaf and the seed; after collecting the seed, cut the plant down to the ground and new growth will follow. There are several varieties, including an annual (F. vulgare var. azoricum) which is grown for the bulbous base, and cooked as a vegetable. This fennel is often called Finnochio in the grocery stores.
GINGER Zingiber officinalis Zingiberaceae Perennial
Ginger is propagated by transplanting the rhizomes which are available in nurseries, or shared by friends. It needs a rich soil and partial shade, and must be watered and fertilized regularly. The "hands" from the grocery store will grow and supply ginger for you, but the plant is not very pretty.
LEMON BALM Melissa officinalis Lamiaceae* Perennial
This herb needs a shady location, and is grown from seed, cutting, or nursery plant. It is winter hardy; if damaged in a freeze, cut the plant back to the ground and it will put out new growth again.
LEMON VERBENA Aloysia triphylla Verbenaceae Tender Perennial
The sweetest of all the lemon herbs, this is the favorite of herb gardeners. It grows as a bush but no amount of pruning can keep it looking will groomed; the branches sprawl and droop to the ground. The leaves drop off with the onset of winter and the plant looks dead in early spring. Do not prune back until bud-break in late spring, because even the dead looking branches can bud out. Prune above the buds.
LEMONGRASS Cymbopogon citratus Gramineae Tender Perennial
Be careful handling the sharp edged leaves which can cause cuts much like a paper cut. Plant in full sun or partial shade using nursery plant or a divided clump for winter survival. Unless we have a freeze below 10°F, there will be new growth in the spring. The green leaves are used for tea or potpourri, and the white bottom part of the shoot is used in oriental cooking. Clumps should be divided every 2 or 3 years.
MEXICAN MINT MARIGOLD Tagetes lucida Asteraceae* Perennial
Grown from seed, cutting, or nursery plant, this is a favorite of Houston gardeners because is substitutes for French Tarragon which will not tolerate our hot, humid summers. (Also called Texas Tarragon or Yerba Anise.) This herb will bloom with a mass of golden flowers from late October until the first freeze. In the spring, cut the dead growth to the ground, and new growth will start.
MEXICAN OREGANO Poliomintha longiflora Lamiaceae* Perennial
This is a very pretty garden plant, with hot peppery leaves and beautiful tubular lavender flowers which bloom all summer and attract hummingbirds. This herb also likes dry, sandy soil in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade and is evergreen.
MINTS Mentha species Lamiaceae* Perennial
There are many varieties of mint, but Spearmint is the most often used; it is the mint used for the famous mint julep and the mint jelly for lamb. Peppermint, Red-stemmed Applemint and Orange Mint are also very popular. All of the mints are invasive and they cross easily, so don't plant different varieties near each other. They can be grown from seed, cutting, or root division. Seeds are risky though because many varieties do not come true from seed. Plants require regular watering. Plant them in sun or shade.
OREGANO Origanum vulgare Lamiaceae* Perennial
There are many species of oregano, causing much confusion, but it is best to find one whose flavor appeals to you; a local favorite is O. majoricum which looks like Sweet Marjoram but has the oregano flavor. It is safer to grow oregano from cutting or nursery plant because the seed does not always breed true. It is winter hardy in Houston, but do not prune too hard in the fall. Grow it in full sun or partial shade. Other good varieties for this area are O. onites and O. heracleoticum. Watch out for O. vulgare - it can be very invasive.
PARSLEY Petroselinium crispum Apiaceae* Biennial
Curly parsley is readily available in grocery stores, so most herb gardeners grow the more flavorful Italian Flat Leaf variety (P. crispum var. 'Neapolitanum'). Being a biennial, it flowers the second and dies, but if you keep the flower stalk cut back, you might keep it for another year. It is best to plant a new plant each fall for a constant supply. To plant from seed, either soak seeds in warm water for several hours or freeze them in ice cube tray and plant the cube.
ROSEMARY Rosmarinus officinalis Lamiaceae* Perennial
There are types of rosemary, upright and prostrate, and ,any varieties of each. The flowers are light to dark blue, but there is also a white and a pink blooming variety. Rosemary is winter hardy to about 20°F, but needs some protection from freezing winds; plant on the south side of the house or fence. It grows very well from cuttings, in fact, if you allow a branch to lay on the ground, it will root. The prostrate rosemary is less hardy than the upright, but it does will in hanging baskets, looms almost continually, and drops seeds which germinate even in cracks in the patio.
SAGE Salvia officinalis Lamiaceae* Perennial
Perhaps sage should not be included in this list because it is difficult to grow in our humidity. It can be looking beautiful one day, and die the next day. A hybrid variety called Salvia Newe Ya'Ar (Salvia officinalis x fruticosa) is resistant to our harsh summers, but may be difficult to find in most nurseries. If it does make it through the summer for you, you will be delighted with fresh sage for the holidays, and beautiful blue flowers in early spring. It will take the hardest freeze that we get. There is also a Pineapple sage (S. elegans) that has beautiful red flowers which attract bees and hummingbirds.
SALAD BURNET Poterium sanguisorba Rosaceae Perennial
This herb is evergreen in the garden and has mild cucumber flavor. It grows easily from seed or nursery plant, and because it grows in a rosette form, it makes a pretty hanging basket. Salad burnet makes a wonderful cucumber flavored vinegar, and will look beautiful right after a freeze (even with snow on it) - two great reasons to grown this plant.
SCENTED GERANIUMS Pelargonium species Geraniaceae Perennial
The scented geraniums mimic almost every flavor found in nature, but the most popular is the Old Fashioned Rose Geranium. All of these plants are tender perennials, needing winter protection. Grow from cutting or nursery plant, in full sun, and prune regularly because they tend to be leggy.
SORREL Rumex acetosa Polygonaceae Perennial
Grows easily from seed when sown in autumn. May freeze back after a hard freeze, but is root fardy. Cut plant to ground and new growth will emerge in early spring. Bolts in hot weather and leaves may disappear, to reappear in cool weather. Should be removed from garden, and new plants started in a new spot every four years. Because of its high nutritional content, it tends to rob the soil of needed nutrients.
SWEET MARJORAM Origanum majorana Lamiaceae* Tender Perennial
The sweetest, and many think the best, of the origanums. This herb is worth the effort. It is a tender perennial, surviving only the mildest of winters. Sometimes it doesn't make it through our hot humid summers. Plan to grow this as an annual, and consider yourself lucky if it makes it through the winter. Obviously, you don't have time to grow it from seed if you want to harvest any for cooking, so buy a nursery plant.
THYME Thymus vulgaris Lamiaceae* Perennial
There are hundreds of varieties of thyme due to its propensity to cross pollinate, They are easy to propagate from seed, cutting or layering, and many varieties are available in the nurseries. Plant in a sunny location, and keep it pruned on a regular basis. The upright varieties do better here than the creeping types, and most will be winter hardy. One favorite of gardeners in Houston is Lemon Thyme which is very hardy.
NOTE: A good rule of thumb is to plant annuals from seed and perennials from nursery plants if you are planning to harvest for the kitchen. Annuals grow very quickly, so will have plenty of herb material the first year. The perennials are slow growing and it will usually be a year before you have enough plant for any serious harvesting.
* Lamiaceae formerly known as Labiatae, Apiaceae formerly known as Umbelliferae, Asteraceae formerly known as Compositae