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Exotic Garden Herbs

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Last month you wrote about unusual herbs for the garden that can grow in our Utah climate. I really like spicy, Asian fare. Is it possible to grow more exotic herbs that come from tropical climates like lemon grass?

Definitely! Though northern Utah has climates of zone 5 and 6, herbs that grow in the hottest zone 10 can be grown successfully. Keep in mind the conditions that the plant grows in naturally, and do what you can to reproduce that. Many plants that grow in the tropics live among a lush variety of other plants and are used to very high humidity. Our intense, high altitude, mid summer sun will quickly scorch them because the generally wider leaves cannot keep up with the transfer of fluids and nourishment fast enough. Therefore, you may have to find a spot for these herbs that is in partial or dappled shade and be prepared to spritz them with water. In general, what is a perennial in zone 10 will be an annual here unless you can maintain the plant indoors during the cold winter months.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a native to Southern India and is a common ingredient in Southeast Asian food. Its flavor enhances milder dishes like chicken or fish stock soups and adding coconut milk makes for a very pleasing recipe. When the unchewable, fibrous stalks are pounded or sliced, they emit the most refreshing, lemon, citrus, fragrance that enhances foods, beverages and perfumes. I have grown it in the garden with success by starting out with a little immature clump of it that I got from a catalogue. By fall it was ready to harvest. I have also heard that you can take the stalks you buy in the grocery store and put them in some soil and they will grow and multiply. Because it is so sensitive to cooler temperatures it is best planted in a pot where it grows in a 2-3 foot high tuft. You can cut the stalks you need and more will grow and you can maintain it inside in winter. Stalks can be frozen for future use.

Another herb to use in similar recipes is the leaf of the Kafir lime tree (Citrus hystrix) which has become naturalized in Southeast Asia. This is a very pretty plant with dark green, notched, shiny leaves that can be compared to our bay tree in the way it is used. Pick a few leaves and add them to the soups for additional citrus-like flavor. The fruit is added to curry mixes. It should be planted in a clay pot with porous soil for fast drainage and kept out of direct sunlight.

Galangal ginger (Alpinia galangal) is another herb that is usually called for in these recipes. Its shape and flavor is similar to the spicy ginger (Zingiber officinale) we usually find in the grocery store which can be used if the galangal variety is not available. I have learned that the best way to grow these beautiful plants that blossom with white flowers is to place the fresh rhizomes on top of the potting soil in a pot where it will gradually multiply. If you bury it, it will rot.

Hibiscus or Roselle, (Hibiscus sabdariffa), is what makes Red Zinger tea red and gives it the refreshing, tangy, astringent quality that cools us on a hot day. In the markets of Mexico, people buy dried hibiscus by the pound to take home. I often add it to loose leaf teas of all sorts. The longer it steeps, the redder it gets. The blooms are actually yellow, and the useful part is the calyx which is the outer covering of the fruit. The shrub needs a long growing season so it is best to begin indoors. Flowers appear when the amount of daylight is less than eleven hours a day in the early fall.

Lastly, I would also like to recommend growing passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) if for no other reason than to behold the amazing, unusual flowers. Passion flower grows as a vine with tendrils that curl around almost anything so it's a pretty climber. There used to be one that overwintered in the garden at Red Butte Garden and made a great show as it draped over a low stone wall every summer. It is a very useful medicinal plant that I use a lot of in rest formulas because it is a muscle relaxant, nervine and anti-spasmotic.

These herbs will be a joy to grow, see and use will add authenticity to your recipes.

Merry Harrison is a clinical herbalist, teacher, author and wildcrafter.
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Reprinted with permission: Catalyst Magazine

Other articles for the garden...

Grow Your Own Herbs  •   Growing herbs From Seed  •   Acquiring Medicinal/Culinary Herbs  •   The Garden You Didn't Plant
Unusual Culinary Herbs  •   Harvesting Your Herbs  •   Mint  •   Repelling Pests  •   Fall Gardening Tips  •   Harvest Season

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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