Herb to Know: Savory

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Photo by Rick Wetherbee

Satureja hortensis
• Hardy to Zones 5-10

Savory (Satureja hortensis) is an old-fashioned, mild culinary herb that cooks have used for centuries. Savory is used medicinally to treat digestive problems. Savory has a rich taste but contains very little sodium, so it is useful as a flavoring for those trying to lose weight or adhere to a low-sodium diet. It aids digestion, replaces salt, pepper and spices for seasoning vegetables, and enhances salads.

Sixteenth-century herbalist Gerard believed savories made people thin and prevented flatulence, so cooks boiled it and served it with beans, peas and other legumes. To ancient Egyptians, the herb was an aphrodisiac. The Romans were quick to pick up on the love connection and named the plant satureia, dedicating the herb to the satyr (the half-man, half-goat deity that roamed the woodlands of mythology). The Romans brought savory with them to England, where they mixed the herb with beeswax and used it as a women’s massage salve. The French, meanwhile, sipped a potion of savory mixed with wine. Savory’s romantic reputation came to a halt when colonists brought savory from England to North America and used the herb in a tea to cure diarrhea. Herbalists recommend drinking 1 cup of tea per day, made from 2 teaspoons fresh savory steeped in 1 cup boiling water, covered, for four minutes.

Both winter and summer savory offer the same medicinal properties and treat bronchial infections, congestion and gastric complaints. In Germany, summer savory is known as the “bean herb” and cooks use the delicious herb to flavor vegetable juices, soups and stews, omelets, soft cheese dips, stuffings, meat pies and sausages, and add it to salads.

Both varieties need six hours of full sun in the garden. Peat, sand, compost and potting or garden soil are required. A slender, branching plant, summer savory produces white to pink flowers that protrude from sharply pointed green sepals, while winter savory blooms lavender to pink flowers throughout the summer. The foliage turns a purple-bronze in fall, making the drift of tiny blossoms resemble a dusting of powdered sugar on the plants.

Sow summer savory seeds in spring after the ground has warmed. Seeds germinate in about 10 days. The plants can be as close as 4 to 6 inches apart, because most of the branching is at the top. Don’t sow too much summer savory because it grows rapidly and is so strong as a seasoning that little is needed. Sow winter savory in August and propagate by cuttings or layering. Savories work well as an edging for a bed of taller herbs.

Try adding this herb to other dishes along with a handful of fennel seeds to help control appetite and aid digestion.

Anita B. Stone is a certified master gardener, horticultural therapist and partners an herb business in North Carolina. She recently has implemented a horticultural program for healthcare professionals.