Leah A. Zeldes
CHICAGO, Illinois–We’re at the height of the herbal harvest
season. While individual herbs come into their peak at different
periods, late summer is when most of my herbs are at their best for
long-term preservation. As herbs begin to flower, the essential
oils providing their scent and flavor reach their highest potency.
Thus it’s the best time to harvest herbs for later use. Although I
prolong the peak period by pinching off flower heads or cutting
back plants, I also begin my serious harvesting and preserving
Washed herbs take longer to dry, and their flavor is diluted in
freezing or cooking, but sometimes washing is necessary to remove
insects or soil. If you must wash them, rinse quickly in cool
water, being careful not to bruise the herbs. Shake off any water
and then spread the plants on towels for an hour to dry
Freezing is one of the easiest preservation methods for culinary
herbs, and compared to other preservation methods, frozen herbs
taste the most like fresh herbs.
Herbs that freeze well include chervil, chives, coriander,
garlic chives, mint, nasturtium, rosemary, sage, sorrel and
tarragon. Frozen fresh herbs keep for two to four months.
To freeze herbs, remove the stems, chop any large leaves and
spread the herbs on a jelly-roll pan lined with waxed paper or
foil. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze.
When the herbs are frozen, place them in heavy-duty plastic
freezer bags, pressing out air, or small glass or plastic jars, and
return to the freezer. Label them carefully, including the date the
herbs were frozen — plastic sandwich bags full of frozen green
things are very difficult to tell apart!
To use frozen herbs, use the same amount as you would fresh. The
herbs get soggy when thawed and will be easiest to incorporate into
dishes while they’re still frozen.
For convenience, puree herbs such as dill, parsley and chervil
in the food processor with a little water, and freeze them in
ice-cube trays. Then store them in plastic bags until needed for
sauces and soups.
Other herbs, such as basil and tarragon, preserve better when
pureed with olive oil. Freeze in ice-cube trays or dollop onto a
foil-lined tray; seal the frozen lumps in plastic bags. Then add a
lump or two to any dish as it cooks for a burst of herbal
Drying is the traditional method of herb preservation, but it
does change the flavor of most herbs. I like the fresher flavor of
frozen herbs, but dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor than
fresh ones; use one quarter to one third as much of a dried herb as
you would the fresh herb. Many herbs dry well, but parsley and
chervil are fairly tasteless when dried.
The simplest, most effective method of drying herbs is to gather
them into small bunches with string, twist-ties or rubber bands.
Hang in an arid, well-ventilated room until thoroughly dry.
Temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees are best. Most herbs take a
week or two to dry.
When the herbs are dry, place the whole bunches in airtight jars
or tins. Keep them as whole as possible to retain the most flavor
If you must store dried herbs in plastic bags, use only
heavy-duty, non-porous freezer bags to keep essential oils from
evaporating. Hard-sided containers are best. Make sure to label the
Dehydrators dry herbs quickly, but unless you have a huge one,
it only will do a small quantity at a time. I find that dehydrated
herbs retain more color, but the air-dried ones taste better.
Herbs that freeze well include chives, coriander, mint,
sorrel and tarragon.
Aspasia S. Bissas
TORONTO, Ontario–I recently became embroiled in a minor debate
in an online herbal community about what makes a plant an
“heirloom.” A fellow community member took umbrage at my inclusion
of such common herbs as mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and wild
chicory (Cichorium intybus). It was her fervent assertion that only
plants whose seeds have been saved and passed down from generation
to generation can be considered heirloom plants. She presented, as
an example, the herb known as pokeroot (Phytolacca americana).
Pokeroot grows wild in her particular area, which according to her,
automatically excludes it from heirloom status. She claimed,
however, that if she were to collect the seeds, then 15 years later
give them to someone else who would, in turn, use the seeds to grow
more pokeroot and save more seeds to be passed down, then and only
then could this herb be considered an heirloom.
I countered with another example — that of dandelion. Disdained
as a common weed nowadays, dandelion seeds were once carefully
saved and brought to the New World by immigrants who couldn’t do
without this indispensable plant. Yet it would be a very rare
instance indeed for someone today to save dandelion seed. So,
should dandelion be considered an heirloom plant? Perhaps a lapsed
heirloom? Personally, I would consider both the pokeroot and the
dandelion to be heirlooms, without any special effort at saving
seeds. As far as I’m concerned, they’re Mother Nature’s heirlooms,
passed down through the ages.
In truth, my fellow community member and I both are correct in
our differing views of what constitutes an heirloom. After
conducting further research, I discovered the term “heirloom” is
interchangeable with antique, old-fashioned, heritage and historic.
If the nomenclature is a tad confusing, then the definition of what
makes a plant an heirloom is even more so; basically, there is no
definition. A quick online search soon makes that much more clear,
though various groups choose sets of guidelines to suit their
purposes. Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) takes the same
view as my opponent, choosing the narrow definition of a plant
whose seeds are saved and passed down through generations, much
like a family’s prized set of silverware. Others have a broader
view of what constitutes an heirloom.
It generally can be said that heirlooms are plants that are
non-hybrids, open-pollinated and can be reproduced true-to-type
from seed. These plants can be annuals, perennials or biennials,
unchanged from their ancestors or, in the case of cultivars, in
existence for more than 50 years. Roses have their own special
guidelines. According to the American Rose Society (www.ars.org),
any rose in existence before 1867 is considered an heirloom.
Perhaps what makes an heirloom is not an official definition,
but what it means to an individual. To me, wild herbs can be just
as valuable as the oldest Bourbon rose or rarest purple tomato.
They are ancient plants, unaltered by human whim. Their attributes
are their own, naturally occurring.
Even if chicory can be found on every roadside, or if melilot
grows wild with abandon, to me they always will be heirlooms.
NEW GARDEN REALITIES
PORT TOWNSEND, Washington — Moving from the Rocky Mountains to
Pacific Northwest has been an interesting and wonderful
experience. I left Wyoming on a freezing winter morning in March
with plans to start planting my new garden the first warm day of
spring. I arrived in Port Townsend to discover spring had arrived
ahead of me! There were daffodils, primroses and crocus, plus a
large assortment of plants I didn’t recognize, in glorious bloom.
The slugs I had anticipated were a minor problem when compared to
the five resident deer that munch their way through our
neighborhood every morning, noon and evening.
I decided I needed to slow down and educate myself before
planting. I had been fantasizing about growing a grand assortment
of new plants, but I had no plan on how or where I wanted to plant
them. I read a stack of books by Northwest gardeners and walked the
neighborhoods to familiarize myself with what was growing
successfully. If I discovered an interesting yard, I introduced
myself to the gardener and asked questions about their plants and
gardening habits. I took a class on gardening in the Northwest for
newcomers. Because I had to have a garden, I planted a multitude of
pots for the deck and porch. Every new lavender I encountered ended
up in a pot. A strawberry pot was stuffed with a dozen different
herbs, and I experimented with pots of herb and flower
My most important decision was to wait and amend the soil before
doing any yard planting. Because my yard is small, I didn’t want to
waste space growing grass. The “grass” around the house was mostly
weeds, so there was no angst in the decision to kill it off. My
husband and I laid down a layer of the packing paper used in the
move over the grass. We had a mix of weed-free compost and manure
delivered and spread an 8-inch layer of it over the paper. We only
water if it becomes very dry, and plan to begin planting this fall.
In theory, the grass will be dead and planting will be easier. I
will remulch after planting.
This summer I made a sketch of our space and have taken time to
learn not only the sunny and shady spots, but where the water
puddles after rains and places that always seem dry. I hope to
group plants according to their drought tolerance or need for
While impatiently waiting to be able to plant, we are installing
our paths and walkways. Because of my no-bare-earth planting
policy, I am planting creeping thymes and veronicas between the
Finally, I will be ready to plant a multitude of herbs,
perennials and bulbs. Because of time and money considerations, we
will plant in stages. I am hoping by taking time to plan, the
garden I have planted in my head will be a beautiful reality in
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