Summer Savory in the Herb Garden

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Savory helps protect bean plants from the Mexican bean beetle.
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Fresh savory leaves relieve the stings of wasps and bees.

Lately, more and more people have begun to understand just how limited–in both variety and nutritional value–our “modern” diets have become. This realization has sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs … those plants which–although not well-known today–were, just one short generation ago, honored ”guests” on the dinner tables and in the medicine chests of our grandparents’ homes. In this regular feature, MOTHER EARTH NEWS will examine the availability, cultivation, and benefits of our “forgotten” vegetable foods and remedies . . . and–we hope–help prevent the loss of still another bit of ancestral lore.

The very name of this herb bespeaks flavor, and in fact, summer savory (Satureja hortensis) imparts a delicious taste to almost any dish the gourmet prepares. In medieval times it was added to pies and cakes for a touch of spiciness; today it’s primarily used in soups, stews, and marinades, and with meats and vegetables. Although it’s often referred to as “the bean herb”–being especially good with string beans, limas, navy beans, soybeans, and all types of broad bean–savory goes well with many other vegetables, such as cabbage, tomatoes, green peppers, asparagus, cauliflower, mixed greens, and rice. The versatile herb is also tasty in stuffings, sausages, and pork pie, and with chicken, fish, game meats, beef, lamb, and eggs (try it in scrambled eggs or omelets). Boiled with strong smelling foods like broccoli or sauerkraut, it helps prevent cooking odors. Steeped in vinegar or salad dressing, it lends an aromatic flavor. People on low-sodium diets may even find it an agreeable salt substitute.

Savory’s uses aren’t limited to the kitchen, however. Since the days of the ancient Egyptians–who stirred the powdered herb into their love potions–it has been praised as a remedy for sore throats, dim vision, sciatica, palsy, intestinal disorders of various kinds, and the stings of wasps and bees. Nicholas Culpeper, the famous seventeenth century apothecary and author, valued it as a virtual cure-all and recommended that it always be kept on hand.

There are several species of savory, with slightly different growing habits. Although summer savory has the most delicate flavor and is preferred for culinary use, all have the same general uses in the herb-conscious household. Satureja hortensis is a hardy annual, easily grown from seed, which prefers full sun and rich, well-watered (but also well-drained) soil. Savory is regarded as a companion plant to both onions, whose growth it encourages, and beans, which it reputedly helps protect from the ravages of the Mexican bean beetle. The seeds, which are readily available from outlets supplying herb seeds, can be sown around April and germinate in two to three weeks when exposed to light (plant them shallowly) and outside temperatures. For best growth and development, the young plants should be thinned to about six inches apart. The mature herb is approximately 18 inches tall, with many branches and soft, narrow, dark green leaves that are about one half inch in length. Light pink or lavender flowers appear in July, followed by dark brown or black, nut-shaped seeds. If these are gathered for future planting, they should be used following spring, as they lose their viability after a year.

Summer savory grows fast. Since the leaves curl and turn brown after the plant has flowered, it should be harvested continually once it reaches six inches in height. Young, tender shoot tips are best for use in cooking; later, the entire plant can be cut for drying. Savory is cooperative about being dried (which it does quite rapidly). Simply tie the stems in bunches and hang them in an airy room for a couple of days. When the leaves are lightly crisp, strip them from the stems and store them in an airtight container, just as you would any other herb. The fresh leaves can also be preserved by freezing: Just put clean, small bunches into plastic bags, label them, pop them into the freezer, and–later–enjoy them!