A Cook's Garden

Aesthetically pleasing herbs

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 3:27 PM

Herbs may look dainty, but they are powerful plants. Because of their strong concentrations of essential oils, we've assigned them many tasks during their long history of cultivation. They've seasoned our food, dyed our clothing, dosed our ailments, perfumed our drawers.

Increasingly, we insist that they look beautiful as well. Not that they were ever homely. Plant gray-green sage and lavender next to curly parsley and glossy bay, and already you have a pretty picture. Watch their blooms unfold: the blue and purples of the basil-hyssop-mint gang mingling with the yellow and white umbels of the dill-fennel-chervil tribe. But the ante has been upped.

Where did it start? With purple basil or with golden sage? Herbs rarely used in cooking, such as borage, are routinely planted for their flower colors. Can a handful of intense true-blue petals justify a painfully prickly, terminally floppy plant? Apparently yes. And as for purple perilla , do many people actually cook with it? I don't, but you could let it self-sow among that sprawling borage to great effect, and even mainstream catalogues such as Park Seed ( www.parkseed.com ) now supply it.

Some additions to my herb repertoire have entered through the perennial garden. It was there that I discovered the blue-flowered anise hyssop. Perhaps the new dressed-up varieties such as the showy Blue Fortune, or the yellow-leaved Golden Jubilee have a bit less flavor than the basic Agastache foeniculum. But they're gorgeous. So are the fancy oreganos such as Herrenhausen and the more recent Zorba Red, both great for bouquets. So are bronze fennel and the blue-green Vierling dill.

The most inclusive source for glamorous herbs is Richters ( www.richters.com), a Canadian company that sells both plants and seeds. That's where you'll find mauve garlic chives Pink Candypops (with flowers "like pink lollypops") and pennyroyal Purple Snowcones ("flowering branches that look like skewered purple scoops of snow"). All the Asian basils seem to have lovely pink or purple blossoms, but those of Richters's Oriental Breeze look clustered and spectacular.

Years ago I grew a plant called Purple Angelica, with seeds I got from a wonderful little nursery called the Fragrant Path in Fort Calhoun, Neb. Its culinary use was not obvious to me, and its medicinal powers, though legendary, were a bit out of my sphere. But it towered magnificently in the rear of my flower border. It must have been around eight feet tall, its huge, meaty, deep-purple umbels almost cauliflower-like. For some years it persisted in a spreading clump, then vanished. The Fragrant Path sent little leaflets my way, with this plant absent. But they are online at www.fragrantpathseeds.com. And sure enough, there's Purple Angelica. Not a dainty herb, but I will find a place of honor for it this year.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."

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