Exotic Herbs To Grow

Add some extra spice to your garden with these flavor-packed herbs from around the world.

Chinese Flowering Leek, courtesy of Kitazawa Seed Company

Chinese Flowering Leek, courtesy of Kitazawa Seed Company

Chinese flowering leek is a perennial used for its flower buds, stems and long, flattened leaves. It's used by Asian chefs to add a subtle garlic and onion flavor to foods.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Kitazawa Seed Company

Image courtesy of Kitazawa Seed Company

Chinese flowering leek is a perennial used for its flower buds, stems and long, flattened leaves. It's used by Asian chefs to add a subtle garlic and onion flavor to foods.

Many spices are commonly used in Asian, Eastern European, Thai and Chinese cuisines. Among these are cloves (the unopened buds of myrtle trees), cinnamon (made from the bark of cinnamon trees), and turmeric (made from rhizomes of plants in the ginger family). 

Herbs flavor many exotic dishes, too, and some are easy to grow in American gardens. The key to success is doing a little research. Make sure the herbs you want to grow will be happy with the conditions in your garden. Consider whether you have sun or shade; moist or dry soil; and whether you’re in a very hot or cold region. 

Chinese flowering leeks, for example, need low winter temperatures and long summer days to form their edible flower buds. If your climate isn’t suitable, look for an alternative herb or plant with a similar flavor. You can find growing details on seed packets, on seed sellers’ websites and in gardening catalogs. 

Many exotics thrive in full sun and hot climates. If you don’t have the perfect garden spot, try giving them a microclimate in a raised bed.  Place the bed near your house or another structure, so the walls will help reflect light and heat. You can also grow exotics in containers and move them around as needed. 

Exotic herbs to grow in your garden:

Lemongrass – This herb, popular in Thailand, Indonesia and other countries, is easy to grow in a sunny bed or indoors in a bright window. Plant the seeds in early spring, or root fresh lemon grass stems, bulbous ends down, in a glass of water. When the young plants have developed sturdy roots, transplant them into pots or the garden. Water and fertilize regularly. 

To use your lemongrass, grind or blend the bulbs for marinades (but cut off and toss the hard knob at the bulb’s base) or add the stems and leaves to curries, soups, and fish recipes. Bruising the leaves brings out their fragrance. In China, lemongrass is used to help with high cholesterol, fevers and other health problems. Lemongrass tastes like a combination of ginger and lemon. 

Fennel – This herb, introduced to Asia from European gardens, has an anise-like flavor. Toss the fronds in salads, sauces and soups, or use the seeds in sweet or savory dishes. Note: many sources caution pregnant women to talk to their doctors before eating fennel seeds or products made with fennel seeds.  

‘Zefa Fino' Florence is a popular variety grown for its slightly elongated, flattened bulbs. Grill the bulbs with olive oil, slice them up for salads and sandwiches, or eat them raw, like stalks of celery. 

Sow easy-to-grow fennel seeds in the garden after the last spring frost, or start them indoors a month before the last frost. Keep fennel away from other plants, not only because tall varieties may overshadow shorter ones, but also because fennel inhibits the growth of some plants. 

Coriander is also known as Chinese parsley or cilantro. If you live in a warm climate, choose a variety like ‘Slow Bolt Winner’ since the plants are quick to form seeds when the temperatures rise. 

Start the seeds in a sunny garden spot after your last frost. When they ripen, shake the seed heads over a sheet or piece of paper to collect them. They can be ground or used fresh to flavor curries and other dishes. The fresh leaves are used in chutneys, salads and Mexican, Thai, Indian, Asian and Chinese dishes—although some people dislike them, complaining of a soapy, unpleasant taste. 

Oriental basil – Many Oriental basil varieties have a strong, clove-like flavor. Basil leaves are used in Vietnamese and Chinese soups and other dishes. Thai Holy basil 'Red Leaf’ is a popular variety with handsome reddish leaves; it’s used in Thai recipes and is sometimes grown as an ornamental. ‘Hoary Basil,’ which has a minty aroma, is popular in Indonesia, Thailand and many Arabic lands. This tropical variety needs full sun.

Perilla, or Shiso, comes from Japan and other Asian countries. There are many different species of this plant, which belongs to the mint family. ‘Red Leaf’ is a good variety for pickling, and the crinkled leaves make nice bedding plants in the garden. Perilla leaves are said to taste grassy, with a hint of anise or licorice flavoring.

Stir fry perilla leaves; batter them for tempura; marinate them in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, sesame oil and chili powder; or use them as wrappers for cooked rice, fish and meats. 

Perilla seeds need light to germinate, so scatter them over the soil, but do not cover them, or cover them only lightly. Gently press them down to make good contact with the ground and keep them moist. Note: these seeds can unexpectedly go dormant any time after they’re harvested, and may stay dormant for up to two years, so germination is far from guaranteed. Some gardeners buy aged seeds that have emerged from dormancy. Ask your seed seller for more information before you buy.

Less exotic—but still flavorful—Eastern European herbs to grow:

Bay leaves, marjoram, mint, parsley

Other exotic herbs to grow:

Chinese chives, dill, fish mint (Houttuynia cordata), pennywort, Rice Patty herb, sorrel, Vietnamese balm

Sources for exotic herb seeds:

  • Lockhart Seeds; no website, but call 209-466-4401 for a catalog

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