Gardening: Hot on herb trail

By Meg Liptrot

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Take thyme out in summer to see the best of Central Otago, writes Meg Liptrot.

Meg Liptrot would stop pedalling to pick herbs on the Otago Rail Trail. Photo / Supplied
Meg Liptrot would stop pedalling to pick herbs on the Otago Rail Trail. Photo / Supplied

A few years ago, in the heat of February, my partner and I cycled the Otago Rail Trail, although we did the cheat's version, starting halfway at Wedderburn and spending three days cycling mainly downhill to Clyde.

It was just as well, too, as the heat radiating off the rocks in the granite canyon winding down to Lauder was intense. I recall someone mentioning 40C. It is in this extreme climate that thyme flourishes, and the pungent aroma of this Mediterranean wild herb filled the air as we made our way downhill.

Thyme was introduced to Otago by Chinese miners during the 19th century gold rush. The hardy herb flourishes among schist outcrops in the ranges above Alexandra.

On our journey, I would stop to pick interesting seedheads and herbs to add to a romantic bouquet and brought the bunch home with me as a fragrant reminder of our trip. We also bought several jars of clear thyme honey, so pungent that it is almost overpowering.

In Arrowtown, I was impressed by true English lavender growing by stone walls in the pretty historic town. I wished I could do the same in our damp clay and humid climate in Auckland. I have attempted to grow Lavender angustifolia at our place, but it is very much suited to limestone-based soils, which are free-draining so, unfortunately, it's a bit of a hopeless case where we are.

If you make the effort to build a raised free-draining bed in full sun and modify your soil to be more suitable you'll probably have better luck. This lavender has less of a camphor component, so it can be used for culinary purposes - lavender and honey icecream makes a delicate treat.

Early spring is a good time to divide herbs and cut back woody perennials to ensure strong lush growth over spring and summer. Thyme will naturally layer itself and it is easy to get stems that have produced roots. Cuttings can be made from woody perennials such as rosemary, sage and lavender. The more herbaceous (fleshy) herbs, like mint and sorrel, can cope with being chopped by a sharp spade and divided up to plant around the garden or be potted as gifts.

We are fortunate to have the women from the Glen Eden Herb Society adopt the unkempt herb bed at the Sustainable Living Centre, and add their experience and skills to the garden. They vigorously tackled the woody but deliciously scented pineapple sage and have moved it to make room for culinary herbs.

Sage and sorrel are chugging along quite happily, unaffected by the winter.

Being a raised garden has helped with drainage and the bed has been mulched with straw to keep the soil aerated and to prevent the surface forming a hard crust. I asked the women for tips when growing herbs. They said not to plant herbs in the wet.

Most need hot dry conditions, except for the mints. A sunny well-drained garden bed is ideal. They also said the more you pick your herbs - even if it's just nipping the flowers off - the better form you'll get, and to try to pick from all over the plant to get a good compact shape.

Herbal highlights

* Herb teas were known as tissanes and popular in Victorian times as a cure-all.

* Lemon verbena, lemon balm and camomile teas can be used for aiding sleep.

* French tarragon gets its name from "little dragon" (Artemisia dracunulus) as folklore said it should be used after bites from "snakes and serpents".

* Dried calendula petals were used as a saffron substitute in the Middle Ages. Calendula is also a soothing addition in skincare lotions.

* Leaves of the daisy-like feverfew can be eaten in a sandwich to help prevent

* The Latin for sage is salvere, "to save''. As well as being delicious in stuffing, it has antiseptic properties and helps calm the nerves. Use as a rinse to offset grey hair. Burning dry sage is done to purify or bless a room.

* Before experimenting with herbs you are not familiar with, ensure they are safe, particularly if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Some herbs, such as Saint John's Wort, can interact with prescribed drugs.

* Meg Liptrot studied sustainable horticulture and is a garden designer specialising in organic edibles and natives.

- Herald on Sunday

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