Herbs Are Essence of Richters’ Catalog Business

By Lindsay Bond Totten

Some seed catalogs strive to be your one-and-only garden supplier, from vegetable and flower seeds to onion sets and sweet potato slips. They usually include a page or two of herbs: basil, parsley, thyme – the regulars.

Richters Herb Catalogue will never be that supplier, unless your taste runs exclusively to herbs.

But if herbs delight and fascinate you, for any of the countless reasons we gardeners grow them, Richters could easily become your one-and-only herb supplier.

The spelling of "catalogue" is not an uppity attempt by the Richters to capitalize on some gardeners’ obsession with things British. The family is German, the company Canadian, growing in Ontario.

I was leery at first that Richters’ home base might limit availability of some of their products to gardeners in the United States. Plant importation laws are very restrictive, with good reason.

But Richters has worked out a unique distribution system, trucking their plants to Buffalo, N.Y., for packing and shipping to their U.S. customers, who account for about 25% of sales. Plants undergo rigorous inspection, allowing them to clear U.S. customs quickly. Seeds are mailed from the nursery.

It must be efficient, because Richters has received kudos from gardeners nationwide for the quality of its stock.

The only items not available from Richters are root crops (garlic, shallots, Egyptian onions, Jerusalem artichokes). The Department of Agriculture refuses entry to all roots and tubers, which may harbor disease.

For cooks, Richters’ catalog reads like a who’s who of spices. Listings for basil take 3-1/2 pages: sweet basil (18 varieties), spicy basil (6 varieties) and several lovely purple-leafed types.

Exotic-sounding varieties such as African blue basil, camphor basil and sacred basil are all carefully described, many with pictures, to help with selection and use.

Lemongrass, the popular flavoring used in Asian cuisine, is available in plant form, ready for planting; as seeds’ or dried, by the gram, for cooks who don’t have the time or space to grow their own. Lemongrass is one of the 100 herb varieties available in "plug trays", 130 tiny starter plants.

Plus trays will appeal to commercial growers and to gardeners with a lot of ground to cover. Purple bush basil, catnip, angelica, anise-hyssop (Agastache), Hidcote and Lady lavenders, lamb’s ears and silver licorice (Helichrysum) are some of the others offered.

Richters’ catalog has an educational component as well as a commercial one. You can discover, for instance, where capons come from – caper bush. Capparis spinosa inermis, a low scraggly shrub native to North Africa. And, yes, it offers seeds but admits the plant is not for beginners. Capers are the unopened flower buds of the caper bush, pickled in salty vinegar. Good luck.

Gardeners who grow herbs for medicinal purposes and for brewing teas will find a plant for practically every ailment. Chamomile is prominently represented, as are the mints (28 flavors). Fully half of the listings are for herbs with reported medicinal properties, some of the very obscure - the herbs, that is, not the ailments.

A word of caution here. Richters may sell the seeds, but the company abrogates all responsibility for the healing powers of its herbs. Wise, indeed, when you consider herbs such as leadwort (Plumbago zeylanica), said to reduce tumors and induce abortion. Leadwort is known to be poisonous.

For drying and potpourri, gardeners will find a host of herbs suitable for arrangements, wreaths and fragrance. A section of "everlastings" (flowers that dry readily while retaining natural color and form) will steer the novice in the right direction. Richters even offers oakmoss, a type of lichen used as a fixative for potpourri.

Although I occasionally harvest leaves for cooking, I’m one of those gardeners who grows herbs primarily for their ornamental value. Ina raised perennial bed that dries out too quickly in summer, herbs have been a godsend for their drought tolerance.

I struggled for several years trying to keep the bed watered during dry spells before finding the perfect solution: germander, allium, thyme, sage, catmint, soapwort and lavender, all herbs that actually prefer dry conditions. The bed is much easier to maintain now.

As a bonus, the herbs in the raised bed are also deer resistant, put to the test almost nightly.

Being a big fan of sages (Salvia), I was disappointed to discover that Richters doesn’t stock one of the most beautiful and garden-worthy of all ornamental sages, Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha). In a call to the company, a representative enthusiastically accepted my suggestion, confirming what I suspected: They’re always looking for new varieties. The 1998 catalog carries more than 30 plant varieties not previously offered. Hopefully, Mexican sage will show up in a future issue.

Catalog prices are reasonable. Most plants are $3; plus trays run from $50 to $100 for 120 small plants. Shipping rates are fairly standard 10%.

You can write for a free catalog (Richters, Goodwood, Ontario, Canada L0C 1A0) or request one by e-mail at: orderdesk@richters.com.

Originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, Sunday, February 8, 1998.
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