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A Fresh Look at Familiar Herbs

There's hardly an herb that master gardener Paul James hasn't met and liked, but even he sometimes gets dazzled at the choices.

There's hardly an herb that master gardener Paul James hasn't met and liked, but sometimes even he gets dazzled. "I was wondering through the herb section of a local nursery, and I was amazed at how many varieties there were of several different herbs, including some of my favorite culinary herbs."

James added two purple-leaf basils to his collection, 'Dark Opal' and 'Purple Ruffle'. Both varieties have a distinct basil flavor, and they also give dishes a colorful punch. On the more exotic side is Thai basil, used often in Thai cooking. The African basil is as good looking as it is tasty.

He also added lemon basil and cinnamon basil. "I don't really use either of those much for cooking, but they do make great garnishes." Basil is very easy to grow — whether from seeds or transplants, in containers or in the ground. "About all I do routinely is remove the flowers as they appear so that energy is directed back into foliage production, and I routinely pinch the terminal growth to prevent the plants from getting too leggy."

Creeping thyme is similar to English thyme in taste, but as the name suggests, it tends to creep or trail as it grows. Another good creeper is woolly thyme, and its furry, gray-colored foliage is soft. Among variegated forms, you can find golden lemon thyme and silver thyme. Coconut thyme looks a lot like English thyme but with a smaller leaf and it really does taste and smell like coconuts. "It's a strange combination of flavors and scents, I'll admit, but that just makes it all the more interesting."

Topping the list of oreganos is the Greek oregano, which most purists consider to be the true oregano. Italian oregano is a bit milder but nevertheless powerful. Cuban oregano is used in Cuban cuisine. One type grows in an upright fashion, and the variegated version grows as a creeper and would make an excellent annual ground cover.

Marjoram is an oregano relative, one "that I much prefer to use in any recipe that calls for oregano," says James.

Common sage is a fine herb that also makes a good ornamental. Purple sage, tri-colored sage and golden sage all work well as ornamentals and top his list in terms of beauty. The leaves of pineapple sage smell just like pineapple, and the plant also produces beautiful red, tubular flowers that hummingbirds adore. There's also a honeydew sage whose leaves smell just like its namesake fruit. If something different is what you seek, white sage is an unusual selection; it grows between two and three feet tall.

Thyme, oregano and sage are pretty easy to grow in pots or in the ground. "They don't need rich soil; in fact, in my opinion, they'll perform better in less-than-ideal soil," says James. "In my experience, they don't need any fertilizer. Just water them now and then, cut and pinch them back to remove flowers, and encourage bushier growth."

To make photographing these herbs easier, James potted the herbs in really small pots, but now that the segment is over, he's going to pot them up in much bigger pots where they'll be a whole lot happier.

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